Farms are expensive. Very expensive. In fact, anyone buying a sizable farm will likely not pay for that farm in their lifetime.
There will always be repairs to be made, tractors to upgrade, new bulls to be purchased, and seed to be bought. But when you’re just looking at start-up costs, you can easily spend half a million dollars on a small 100 acre farm.
Farmers don’t have this kind of money. I’m not talking about huge corporate farms–I’m talking about a family who just wants to grow good, honest, healthy food for folks.
So when your dream is just to grow food, and you aren’t loaded going into your journey, where do you start?
You have two options.
First, you can try to get a loan for everything all at once and get right to work hoping every last crop yields, animals don’t die and equipment never breaks. And likely, you will work your entire life making huge payments, taking out an operating loan every year to get you by til the harvest, at which time you pay your operating loan back for that year and then start to make payments on all the loans you have.
Or second, you can you can work really hard, live humbly and build it up bit by bit–without debt. This is the path the Farmer and I chose.
Born into a family that was homesteaded their land, our “family” farm (owned by his mother) is 1000 acres. As each child moves out, he/she gets roughly 5 acres to start their life. Although the Farmer works on the “family” farm, if we wanted our own, we had to earn it–and that’s what we are continually working toward.
When a farm of 1000 acres supports multiple families, each family can live off less than $1000 a month. Take $600 of that out for health insurance, and it’s not unusual for families to live off $400 a month. Those are real numbers folks. Family farmers aren’t rich unless they are living off borrowed money.
So let me just tell you that if your dream is to become a farmer but you don’t have unlimited finances, we understand where you are–and it can still be done.
The first step is to save money. Live as absolutely self-sufficiently as possible and save every penny you possibly can. Hopefully you are working a farm job to get money. If you are, you aren’t making much money–and you’ll need a second job. If working two jobs to save money to start your farm sounds too hard, then you aren’t cut out to be a farmer. Farmers get up while the world sleeps, work all day, don’t get days off, and don’t get home until the rest of the world is slowing down to go to bed.
If you aren’t willing to work hard and live a frugal, self-sufficient life, then stop reading right now. Nothing we can tell you will help you. But if you are willing to work hard and save your pennies, then your next step is to pick a plan while you save.
Starting A Farm: Buy Land First
Once you have enough money to buy your first piece of land–which may only be 5 or 10 acres–then you get your land first. Farm land can be as low as a few hundred dollars an acre for pastureland without water access that can’t be planted or as much as $10,000+ an acre for fertile, irrigated land with long growing seasons.
Make Money Off Your Land
It may seem counter intuitive to purchase land when you don’t have animals to put on it yet, or the equipment to farm it. However, your land could still be working for you. The idea here is to buy your land and then use it to make money for your next purchase. You should still be living the same frugal, penny-saving life you were before, only now your land will also serve as an income for you. How?
- Lease your land to another farmer who wants to grow crops there
- This can be done for a pre-set price
- This can be done with share-crop where you agree to take a percentage of the crop as your payment
- Lease your land to a rancher who is looking for pasture land
- Even ranchers who have land will want to intermittently move their animals around.
- On some of our fields where we grow grain and alfalfa, we lease them as pasture after our harvest in September up until the time we start doing our spring field work in May. The gentleman pays a monthly fee, plus replaces one mile of fence each year. It’s a win-win for both of us. He has a place to winter his cows closer to his home, and we receive payment, new fence, and fertilizer for our soil all during a season we can’t grow on it.
- Hire someone to plant/harvest for you
- If you have the funds to purchase seed, pay the water bill and a bit to boot, it may be worth it to hire someone with a drill to come in and plant for you. Then when it’s time for the harvest, hire someone to come in and do that for you. Know your crop. Not all crops will have an income that covers the price of paying someone to do the work for you.
- Should you decide to do this, perhaps consider a hay crop that needs only to be planted once every few years. If you are able to do this, then you would be paying someone to come harvest (cut, rake, bale), and receive a payment. Depending on your area, you may get multiple crops a year. As long as you are able to sell your hay each time, this would be a great way to put a little bit of money away while you wait for your next step.
You Will Still Have To Pay Out
There are still some finances you will have to be responsible for once you own your land.
- Land taxes
- Water rights
Owning land, responsibly paying all the bills, and even making all the right decisions may not be enough to make a profit on your land all years. There will always be other things that will come up and thwart your plans.
- Fencing will need to be replaced. Even the best of fences will break down and need replaced. Repairing and replacing fence takes time and oftentimes money.
- Other people’s animals may get onto your land. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times someone’s cows, or even the local deer, moose, elk, etc. have got into our crops and eaten their fair share. You’ll have to keep watch on your land if you’re growing on it.
- Fire and other acts of nature are an unfortunate and sometimes unavoidable part of farming. If you’re able to have insurance, you should.
- Market dips: crop and livestock prices cycle. You could plant your hay on a good year (and not get a crop that first year), and then prices could spiral down by the time you start to get your crop.
Tips When You’re Looking For Land
When possible, purchase land next to CSA/BLM land. We have a small piece of land that we bought to put our cows on. The adjoining land is BLM. We were given the option to pay $16/ a year for access to that 40 acres of government land. You can’t beat that. There are stipulations to it of course, and you can’t do with it whatever you want, but we are able certain months out of the year to let some of our cows graze on it.
Try to get land with water access. We have land with a river running through it. Since we live in the high dessert, this could be a life saver under unfavorable circumstances. Whether your land will be used to grow crops, or run livestock, you will need water.
Know the soil before you buy it. Some land just won’t grow crops without a lot of time and soil investment. It’s just a sad fact that some people don’t nurture soil and instead use it for everything they can before leaving it and trying to sell it to you. Ask what has been grown there previously. Go walk around. Talk to the neighbors and ask them how many people have owned it recently, what they have grown, what they have not been able to grow, and how it worked for them in general.
Alternative Plans To Start Your Farm Without Debt
Perhaps starting with land makes you nervous, or perhaps the right piece of land just isn’t coming available. That’s okay. There are two other possibilities for starting your farm without debt. Read Buying Equipment First, and Begin With Animals.