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Many people are drawn to starting a small organic farm out of a desire to do good for the environment, promote healthy eating and lead a simpler life. However, farming is hard work and requires the same skills and commitment to succeed as any small business. Here are some tips to plant you on the road to making a living as the owner of a small organic farm.
The first step to a successful organic farm is finding land with fertile soil, good drainage, and access to sufficient good-quality water for irrigation, says Shane LaBrake, an organic agriculture consultant based in Accokeek, Maryland. If you plan to qualify for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification, then it’s necessary to find land that has been free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years.
Prospective farmers also should consider proximity to buyers, which often means urban centers around which land prices can be more expensive, LaBrake says. “People interested in organics generally are better educated, more affluent and concerned about the environment,” he adds.
Atlanta-based Love Is Love Farm rents, rather than purchases, the land on which it farms. The farm launched at a more rural location in 2008, but moved in-town in 2011 to Gaia Gardens, which is owned by a 67-household homeowners association and is much closer to metro-area markets, says Joe Reynolds, who is co-owner with his wife, Judith Winfrey. Jem Farm, co-owned by John and Elizabeth Malaytar, is located in Rogersville, Tennessee, about a one-hour-and-15-minute drive between its two major markets in Knoxville and Johnson City.
The question of whether to certify comes down to whether you plan to use the term "certified organic" in your marketing, LaBrake says. If your gross annual sales are over $5,000 and you use the term "organic" versus "natural" or other language, your farm must be USDA-certified.
"Now when somebody at a farmer’s market
asks me if a product is organic, I no
longer have to say it’s not certified,
but we do this and we do that," Reynolds
says. "All I have to do is say 'yes.'"
Love is Love was not certified initially, but started being certified in 2011 because it was a requirement of the new landlord. While the record-keeping requirements are substantial, he finds it helps with sales. “Now when somebody at a farmer's market asks me if a product is organic, I no longer have to say it’s not certified, but we do this and we do that,” Reynolds says. "All I have to do is say 'yes.'"
Any good farmer keeps extensive paperwork about fertilization, pesticide use, and other practices, so being organic is not necessarily much harder work in that aspect, Elizabeth Malaytar says. However, organization is key. She recommends a large filing cabinet as one of your first purchases. Farmers in some areas may face additional challenges because some states have fewer USDA-approved inspectors, she adds, noting that Tennessee currently only has one for the entire state.
Most small organic farmers rely on direct marketing rather than selling to wholesalers or grocery store merchandisers. For example, Love Is Love farms a wide range of produce from arugula to sweet potatoes, which it sells at markets, to local restaurants and to members of its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Members subscribe to a CSA and receive a selection of seasonal produce twice a week. In the farm’s first few years when capital was a challenge, the CSA was especially important in guaranteeing the farm had money year-round to pay for seed, supplies and even household expenses, Reynolds says.
Jem Farm also produces a wide revolving variety of produce, as well as eggs, chicken, and pork. It has carved out a special niche by only farming heirloom and regional vegetables and herbs, ingredients for traditional Appalachian herbal medications and some woodland products. Jem makes most sales at markets, a small amount to restaurants, and recently started a CSA, but it also gets additional revenue by selling seeds to an heirloom seed company. "Organic is a draw, but an even higher draw lately has been that we are able to say that we don’t feed our animals any GMO feed," Elizabeth Malaytar says.
Some European countries have government programs to help organic farmers get started, but in the United States, there still are no comprehensive education programs for this growing niche, LaBrake says. One way to learn is to be mentored by an established organic farmer. Before launching Love is Love Farm, Reynolds worked at a certified organic farm, which allowed him not only to learn production techniques but also to observe the farmer’s certification process.
LaBrake also recommends checking online and networking with other local farmers to find programs and trade groups in your area that provide education in both general farming skills and organic agriculture. Some examples include:
(NESFI also offers a limited number of start-up plots on its 500-acre premises to beginning farmers.)
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