Considerations for a Beginning Organic Farmer
Interested in organic farming? Here's what you should be thinking about first.
Organic farming is an interesting career choice and right now, offers opportunity for success. However, organic farming is not a career to take lightly. There are many issues to consider before you jump into the soil.
First get clear on what it is exactly that organic farmers do. There are many types of organic farmers, some certified, some not.
As you research organic farming begin to define some broad goals for yourself. Some key issues to consider include the following:
- How do you define your organic values?
- What are your personal goals related to farming - to learn or fulfill a need?
- Are you going into organic farming due to environmental goals? If so which ones?
- Would you like to run a family farm, a small scale operation or a huge farm?
- What are your economic goals? Do you want to make a lot of profit or just enough to live on?
In general think about what organic farming means to you and why this would be a good (or not so good) career fit. It can help to create an imaginary first year plan. This plan doesn't need to be concrete, it can be just an exercise to give yourself a chance to see what being a farmer might look like in theory.
Are You REALLY Ready to Think Like a Business Owner?
While defining your broad goals, you need to decide if organic farming is a realistic business endeavor or simply something you'd like to do in order to feed your family or help the community. Either choice is fine, but there are gigantic difference between running a farm for business or for pleasure or another personal reason.
If all your reasons for organic farming involve helping others before yourself or if your goal is only to grow enough food for your family, you're likely interested in a hobby farm or small family farming or even simply organic gardening, not business farming. On the flip side, if your goal is to make profits, then you're likely on board with farming as a business.
If you're not sure why you'd like to farm, check out the following article to help you decide: Is Organic Farming a Business or Hobby?
Narrow Your Organic Farm Goals
Once you suss out your major broad organic farm goals, start to narrow your choices down. Usually a good place to start is with what interests you. For example, it would be silly for a vegetarian to start raising livestock for food and it would be nuts for someone who hates alcohol to grow organic grapes for wine.
Consider the following:
- Do you want to grow crops - which kind? Veggies, fruit, row crops?
- Do you want to raise organic livestock?
- Do you enjoy being outdoors or are you thinking about greenhouse growing?
- Are you interested in growing flowers, trees, plant starts, herbs?
- Do you want to grow a lot of crops or a niche crop, such as organic lavender?
- Are your interested in both livestock and crops?
- Do you plan on making a living just from the farm or do you have another career goal?
- Are you interested in processing your crops? For example, making jams or applesauce?
- What sort of markets interest you? On farm sales, Farmers' Markets, wholesale, grocers?
- Do you possess farming skills already or do you need to gain some?
Obviously there are hundreds of questions you could ask yourself. Get a pad of paper and starting narrowing down what you'd like to do as a farmer.
Everyone, new and experienced farmers alike, have strengths and weaknesses. The point is to know which skills you already have, which you need and be willing to expand your knowledge if necessary.
The skills you'll need will depend on what sort of farming you'll be doing, for example knowing how to choose crops, find seeds, growing, harvesting and pest control are skills organic food growers will find useful, while prospective ranchers and dairy farmers need to know the basics of veterinary science and how to raise and care for livestock.
In a general sense though, most organic farmers will benefit from the following attributes:
- A healthy body.
- Critical thinking skills.
- A cool head under pressure.
- Business savvy.
- Organizational skills.
- The drive to learn new things.
- Organic integrity.
- People skills.
- And more...
To learn more about the skills and attributes shown above, check out: Top 10 Skills New Organic Farmers Need.
Figure Out How to Improve & Grow
After figuring out your major strengths and weaknesses, make plans to fill in any crucial knowledge gaps. As a potential farmer, you can't beat hands-on training. Luckily, farm internships and apprenticeships are easy to find.
Other ways to beef up your organic farm knowledge include:
- College classes.
- Classes and workshops through your local Cooperative Extension.
- Organic farming books.
- Organic conferences.
- Farming magazines.
- NOP Handbook.
If your goal is organic farming, it can take a while to get certified, so it's best to start thinking about certification now, not later.
Not all organic farmers are officially certified. Certification has benefits, but not being certified doesn't mean you can't actually be organic. See the following links to determine if organic certification is right for you:
- Should You Go Organic?
- When is an Organic Farm Exempt from USDA Organic Certification?
- Basic Rules for Non-Certified Organic Farms
If you decide that official organic certification is right for you, take the following steps early on:
Consider Other Licensing & Policy Requirements
Organic certification is just one licensing issue. Learning about, and obtaining other necessary permits, licenses and farm insurance policies will be a key part of your journey to farming. You'll need to decide how to operate, either as a sole proprietorship or by forming a S- or C- corporation, or maybe you want a limited liability company (LLC). How you operate will affect your taxes.
Other licensing issues to consider include:
- Land zoning.
- Liability and property insurance.
- Fuel storage.
- Farm labor.
- Writing farm safety and visitor policies.
- Certified kitchen or production facility (if you process).
- Commercial driver's licenses.
- Retail food facility license - for some Farmers' Markets.
Every farmer will have practical considerations. Some of the most basic to start thinking about now include:
Dealing With the F Word - Financing
Almost every consideration above is affected by a single major issue - farm financing. Without money, it's going to be tough to start an organic farm.
Most new farmers will need loans in order to finance the purchase of land, equipment and infrastructure. Look to lenders who are members of Farm Credit System, a government sponsored network. Some financial planning help and certain loan programs can be accessed through your own State Department of Agriculture.
Other funding resources: