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So, You Want to Be a Farmer…

Q. Mike: I'd like to start a small organic farm. I have seventeen acres that have been in pasture for 50 years. I've done nothing but mow and have never used any pesticides or fertilizers. But I know little to nothing about farming - I'm a 'salary man'; an office worker. I have an old Ford tractor, a pickup truck, a 2000 square-foot barn, some mechanical aptitude, a lot of desire and a perfect spot for a vegetable stand; right on Route 202, where a lot of folks drive by every day. How do I do this right? This may be a little outside the focus of your show, but I'm hoping to catch your interest. Thanks,

    ---Lee Wagner in Chadds Ford, PA
A. Not at all, Lee! This was a dream of many readers back when I was the Editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine; and emails show it to be a current dream of lots of your fellow YBYG listeners. And I knew just who to call; my old friend George DeVault. The newly installed president of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa was an organic farmer for many years in Vera Cruz, PA; as well as editor of The New Farm, a magazine devoted to helping small organic farmers. A function of the non-profit Rodale Institute, it's now available on the web at

"Start slow; start small," was George's first bit of advice. "Take the best land closest to the house and barn and transform no more than an acre of it into the beginning of your new enterprise. One of the rules established in the classic 1867 book "Gardening for Profit" by Peter Henderson was that one person could handle one acre. That rule still applies to small farmers today," stresses George. "More than that and you'll need a lot of hired help, which I don't advise you invest in until your feet are long wet."

Equally important, says George, is selling your crop before you plant it. "I'm not a fan of roadside stands," he explains. "To do them right, someone needs to be there all day taking care of the produce and collecting money. Otherwise the stuff on display will wilt and rapidly become unsellable. And if the weather is awful and no one stops, you'll lose that harvest and get no income." And I'll chip in with an added observation that I personally know Route 202 to be a HUGELY busy highway, most sections of which are more 'whiz by' than stop-friendly.

George has found the best three ways to sell are the CSA model, direct to restaurants and at a dedicated Farmer's Market that operates for a couple of hours a day on the weekends.

CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are subscription farms. Families pay you for a share at the beginning of the season and get a box or bag full of in-season food fresh from the farm once a week, ideally by them coming to you to pick it up. It's a very popular concept, and you can offer a reduced price to people willing to spend some time helping you harvest and weed. Here's a link to a great USDA website filled with resources for people looking to start one or join one.

Direct sales to restaurants are also ideal, notes George. Luckily, you happen to live in an area that has a good number of fine, upscale restaurants whose chefs would love a local source of fresh organic produce. Hopeful farmers without such restaurants nearby should follow a different plan.

The Farmer's Market that George was part of in Emmaus, PA was a Sunday-morning 'producer only' affair, meaning that you had to grow or make what you sold to have a stand there. Many sellers at large Farmer's Markets buy everything at a distribution center and then dress like a farmer for the rest of the day, visually pretending that they grew some of it. You'll get the best price at a 'real' Farmer's Market, stresses George, who says to be sure you have good, clear signage indicating that your stuff is organic and locally grown.

"Research what similar produce is selling for in your area and add a premium for the fresh and local angle," he instructs, adding that to succeed in this setting, you must be a 'people person', have a clean bright stand, be able to be on your feet smiling for many hours, and have lots of coolers to keep the food fresh, crisp and attractive looking.

We can't stress enough how important these seemingly 'non-farm' aspects are. "More people can grow food successfully than can market it successfully," says George. "The marketing is what makes or breaks these kinds of small businesses."

That's not to say the farm part is easy. The planting and growing often are, but weeding is not—and the actual picking is VERY labor intensive. "And then you have to wash it clean, pack it up and keep it cool," adds George, who invested in a giant industrial salad spinner and walk-in cooler for his farm. "Lettuce and other perishables have to be kept chilled to stay attractive," he stresses. "Otherwise they become unsaleable within an hour in the heat of summer."

George's final piece of advice is "don't quit your day job! Many small-scale farmers are forced by financial reality to work at a regular job during the day and do most of the farm work on nights and weekends. Like any small business, it will take time—the basic rule is five years—before you turn a profit, no matter how talented a grower you are."

And by keeping that job, you can take your produce into the office and sell it directly to your fellow workers; that's how George started out! "Friday is the best day," he notes; "especially if that's when everyone gets paid."

Other resources:

Among the most respected and knowledgeable small-scale farmers in America, Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch really stand out, growing full-time for market 12 months of the year in chilly New England.

Our listener is especially lucky that PA has a very strong resource organization for small-scale organic farmers. But most of the information available at the PASA (PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture) website is applicable across the country, as is the info at the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) website; both the overall 'interstate' council site we've linked up to and the individual state organizations: NOFA-NJ, NOFA-PA, etc.

And finally, there's the hugely informative and nation-wide National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) website.

Good luck!

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