There are five things to seriously consider when starting up a farm, no matter if you are pursuing an interest in crop farming, raising livestock like cattle or sheep, for instance, or growing fruit:
1) There’s tough, hard work involved
If you want to farm, it’s tough, hard work with little satisfaction in the end. It’s no wonder 90% or more of the young people that come off of farms don’t want to go back to it. No money in it, comprised mostly of blood, sweat and tears, with a little reward in the end. No benefits, no health coverage, no labour unions to say when you should start your day, have your lunch break and end it. That’s all for you to decide. And your hours in your day depend on the weather and how many things you have to have done in a day.
2) Start small (a must!!)
Never go off the deep end if you don’t know how to swim. You could drown in bankruptcy or personal injury if you have no idea what you are getting into. The thing that I have learned over the years and from talking to other veteran farmers is to start small. Especially if you have no prior experience. Unlike those farmer’s sons and daughters that want to continue to farm by taking over their parent’s operation and can go into or continue, a newbie needs to learn first either by working on an existing farm that has been operating for a number of years, or get a mentor, or both.
For example, if I want to get into cow-calf business, I have to do my research and asking questions first before I take the plunge and purchase some cows with calves. I do have previous farming experience which helps significantly, as well as capital to keep the newly founded herd on, so that is not as much of a problem as other folks do who are moving from the big city to the wide countryside.
3) Do your research: Popularity and Fabs aren’t Everything
Don’t give in easily to the fabs and the popular equipment or livestock out there. Often time those popular type of livestock or equipment will not work out for you and your plan of operation. For example, the Angus breed. Angus cattle are not really known for their docility, just the fact that they produce darn good beef off their carcass and are the most popular breed observed in the United States and Canada to date. Yes they are good for range cattle, yes they are good mothers, yes they have great calving ease (depending on selection), yes the A.A.A (American Angus Association) have a great marketing initiative to make them the highest selling breed on the market in competition with the other coloured breeds. But, is that what you want? Not too long ago a genetic disorder has cropped up in the Angus breed called Curly Calf Syndrome, a disorder that results in dead calves at birth from suspected linebreeding of cattle from similar lineages–which is often the case when you have millions of Angus cattle across the continent. Another concern is that the Angus breed is more for those who can handle potentially aggressive mothers and somewhat-nutty bulls, among other things. I could go on.
Another example is rookie producer that has a small farm of 80 acres or less decides on going all out and purchasing large, brand-new machinery that is only suitable for farms with huge tracts of field-land to cover. A farm of only 80 acres maybe only devote half the acreage to the production of barley or corn; the other half would more likely go into living space, garden, and livestock areas. That’s only 40 acres of crop sown, and if that newbie goes out and spends all that money on that kind of machinery that is only going to be used once or twice a year, at the very least, he shouldn’t even be farming: he should be owning an equipment dealership instead. It sounds harsh, sure, but look at it this way: that machinery is probably worth more than the farm is. Depretiation, as well as the long run costs of maintaining this new-fangled equipment just isn’t necessary on a small farm. Either hiring custom outfits to till, sow, spray and harvest the crop for you or purchasing older, and much cheaper machinery from an auction is the best thing to go for. Personally, I’d have it custom done. Or convert it into hay or pasture…
4) Plan, plan, plan!
Planning is a huge deal in today’s world when one is starting a farm right from scratch. A farm is a business, no matter if it involves selling grain and livestock, or fruits and vegetables. A business plan, be it complex or simple, is the best thing to develop and have on hand when planning and implementing those plans to the farm. It also gives the bank an idea of what you want to do if you wish to take out a loan. Back in the old days, you could start farming without needing to form a plan, everything was simple and plain. Now, you have tons of options to choose from and just as much ways to sell your end product. Plan what to do and how to do it: it’s the key to success.
5) Location, location, location.
The most important factor that determines what kind and what size of farm to start up are the varied choices to consider in location, geography and climate. All of these have an influence in your choice to farm in that area and what crops and livestock are best to raise or grow. In the case of livestock, there are at least four factors to contend with that are totally out of your control when raising the critters: topography, climate, vegetation, and soil.
Case in point, look at the differences between that found in Alberta, Canada and in Florida, USA. Alberta has quite the variation in topography, from the rugged Rocky Mountains to the west, to prairie that stretches from the southern border all the way up to Lloydminster and west to the foothills, as well as a significant patch up in Grande Prairie and Peace River areas. We also have boreal forest that extends from south of Athabasca all the way to the northern border and beyond. Florida doesn’t have that much of variation in topography: grasslands and swamps as well as the ocean that surrounds much of its southern, western and eastern borders (note: there are also many swamps found up here in Alta, many of which have no bottom: those are considered “muskeg” or “bog”). Alberta has a drier climate that varies in rainfall: the prairies get less rainfall than the boreal forest. Florida is quite a moist area all around because of the influence of the ocean and its currents. Alberta has four defined seasons, one of which is more wickeder than the other three. Florida’s four seasons are very much less defined, with snow being rare around there.
Alberta has a very wide range of soil type, from rich, organic soil created from the grasses of the prairie, to acidic, sandy soil derived from the spruce and pine of the boreal forest. New soil is also found in various areas; clays are also found to the north, south of the boreal. Florida’s soil (forgive me if I get this wrong) ranges from loamy to sandy with not much between, depending on the topography.
Vegetation comes in wide varieties as well in Alberta, thanks to human intervention. We are able to grow C4 grasses (annuals like corn; other annuals that are not C4’s are most cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats, rye and triticale) in the spring and summer months, only to have them die when the cold snows hit. Most of the native vegetation is adapted to withstand cold winters to regrow in the summer, therefore 98% of the grasses found in pasture and hayland are C3 grasses, grasses that start to grow in early April and last until June or July, already completing their life-cycle long before winter arrives. The trees and shrubs too are adapted to a colder, drier climate: our prime example are evergreens. Florida does not have to worry about extreme cold temperatures, thus the grasses that grow there are more commonly C4 grasses, those grasses that will grow later in the spring/summer and complete their life-cycle come fall. C3 grasses are also found there, but grow only during the “winter” months. The trees and shrubs there as well as adapted to a warm, humid climate and thrive as such. Similar differences are found in forbs grown in Alberta and Florida.
When you get these different climates even with cropping systems, this can limit you to what type of crop plants you can/should plant. Some areas of the USA and Canada can be too cold for one crop and too warm for another, or vice versa. Soil type is also very important, as well as topography. You can’t grow a field of wheat in the chaparral desert of Arizona, even if you tried! The mountainous terrain of the Cumberland hills in the Apalachain mountains, for instance, is not a wise place to plant corn. So topography, climate and soil type is critical in determining where to farm, how to farm and what to farm.
6) When you get down to it, it’s all up to you in the end.
There are more variables, such as personal choices and goals, that should also be taken into account when wanting to establish a farm, and this can be considered a sixth factor in choosing where/how to farm. Are you able to contend with Alberta’s cold winters, where the snow gets deep and feeding livestock can sometimes be a challenge, but the summers are warm however short, with beautiful fall days and summer storms to live with? Or would you rather like a warm humid climate where you are able to graze 365 days a year with hurricanes and swarms of bugs (i.e. chiggers, flies, mosquitoes) to contend with? And do you prefer to tinker with machinery and watch your crop grow, or would you rather be happy with looking after livestock, with fixing fence, looking after sick animals, planning pasture rotations, feed diets, breeding and birthing schedules, etc? Perhaps you may want to do both. And perhaps you may only want to have a few acres as a hobby farmer instead of going whole-hog and have a farm that is at least 100 acres in size?
It’s all up to you.