Start-Up Requirements for a Small Farm

By Bob and Bonnie Gregson

About $11,000 will buy everything necessary to start the farm business.


If you have comfortably passed through the ten-point screen you are over the major hurdle. So what is needed to get a profitable small farm going? That’s easy: farmers, land, some equipment and supplies.

Farmers

We’ve already talked about some of the characteristics of people who can make this work.

Sunflower

There are few actual requirements. New farmers have to be hard-working, observant, focused, idea seekers, and learners. At least one of the group on your farm should have good “people skills,” since much about a successful small farm operation involves friendly, positive customer relations.

We often say that we were a bit too old (45 and 42) when we started farming. But age is circumstantial. A couple could probably take over a well-established operation in mid-life or beyond if they were fit, there wasn’t much development work to do, and they were otherwise prepared. Scott and Helen Nearing are fine examples of those vigorously active in later years; their books are exceedingly inspiring. They allegedly started the current back-to-the-land movement while well past mid-life, over 40 years ago.

At the other end of the age spectrum (20-30) danger may lurk in taking on something of this intense nature prior to having a wide array of life experiences — not being ready to leave the hurly-burly and really settle in. What seems like a refuge to many of us can seem a prison to others!

Land

There are so many variables about selecting land that we’ll not add any more than noted in the earlier discussion about farm size.

Equipment

We started our dream fairly well capitalized. After a major house renovation . . . and hasty purchase of the wrong tractor . . . and wrong truck . . . and wrong irrigation system . . . we were much wiser and much less capitalized.

Farm equipment is one of those areas where many of us, particularly males, have built-in assumptions. We see ourselves on a large tractor doing “farmwork.” The tractor probably is a serious looking older Ford or John Deere that we have miraculously purchased in mint condition, and intuitively know how to operate and maintain. Some may fantasize that they bought the tractor for a song, and rebuilt it in their spare time, using the new knowledge conferred on males when they achieve a rural route mail address.

Beware of that Tractor Syndrome

Tractors, of themselves, are nothing but a (very attractive) power source: the attachments are what do the work. Those attachments come in all sizes, shapes and functions. The farmer must be very knowledgeable to pick the right attachments for his/her operation. Those choices in turn more or less dictate the choice of tractor.

But you probably don’t even need a tractor in the beginning.

Frankly, even many experienced farmers fall into the trap of buying unnecessary or too much equipment. One can usually rent machines or hire someone with specialized equipment when needed, saving a great deal of money in the long run.

It’s really pretty simple. Don’t buy anything until you know exactly why you need it, what it will do for you, and why something — or someone — else much less costly can’t do the job.

Farm Trucks

Let’s also counter tradition right away by stating that a truck or van is great, but you can get by with a sturdy car, especially a mini-van, in the early years. Our 1987 mini-van has handled everything from fifteen tall buckets of flowers to six adult sheep.

We recommend the flowers versus the sheep. The sheep had gone for a little outing after breaking through a fence, and were ultimately captured too far away to herd back home. A very bad afternoon. It almost raises a sweat five years later. “Lawnmower sheep” cost us far more than they were worth in the long run.

Can There be Farm Life without a Pickup?

Despite the universal belief that a pickup is required, we have had several kinds and ultimately decided there is more value to this farm from a van.

A van best protects produce, animal feed, straw, and so on, from rain, wind, sun and dust. Those items are the things most often carried, and the latter are the elements most dangerous to them. What a van cannot easily haul — the bulk items — we have delivered or make on site.

One can put a canopy on a pickup to provide that same protection, it is true, but then you just have a van with less headroom and overall useful space. Also: good, tight-fitting canopies do not easily go on and off a truckbed.

Other Primary Necessities in the Maritime Northwest

There is a core of equipment requirements on a small produce farm, one which varies somewhat by region and by specialty. Make sure you have solid evidence and/or experience before you buy additional appealing items — and many temptations will surely present themselves.

Start-Up Costs

In our area, after you’ve arranged home, land and a vehicle, it currently (1995) requires about $11,000 to purchase all essential farming start-up items. To some that may sound like a lot; in farming terms it is unbelievably small change. Those items and rough cost include:

small-farm-costs
*Prices are subject to change.

Yearly Expenses

Following are some of the items you will consider in your yearly operating budget: chicken feed, straw, replacement chicks, water, seeds, soil amendments, insurance, fuel, electricity, vehicle costs, maintenance, depreciation, property taxes, dues, publications and professional education.

Source: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm