What do all successful small farms have in common?

By Ned Birkey, Spartan Agricultural Consulting

Successful small farms are not defined by the size of the tractor, barn or pickup truck.  Small usually refers to the acreage but could be the income derived from what is raised on the farm; whether livestock or grain.  People who have 2, 5, 10, or even 40 or more acres usually want to put at least some of this land into a productive use sooner or later.

Periodically, including this year, I get phone calls, emails or office visits from persons wanting to start farming.  Growing your own fruits, vegetables or selling brown eggs or wool may seem glamorous and profitable.  But agriculture is not a 9am to 5pm, five days a week, sit at a nice desk inside a comfortable office, type of job.  Dairy cows need to be milked every day, including weekends.

One thing nice about living in Michigan are the four seasons and the various recreational opportunities.  One thing challenging about farming in Michigan are the four seasons and the varying weather of freezing cold, excessive rain, drought, heat, etc.  Already this year we have had a killing freeze that will affect the apple crop.  And La Niña suggests a hot and dry summer.

First, and most important to an entrepreneurial farmer, is deciding what they are interested in doing.  Some people would not want to raise large animals such as beef cows, Beefalo or llamas regardless of the potential dollar signs in their eyes.  Livestock involves daily chores, feed, fences, bedding, watering, housing, manure, and the risk of injury in handling.  Pick-Your-Own Raspberries may not be appealing because of the initial cost, equipment, and unpredictability of the yield, diseases, insects, weeds, chemicals, dealing with the public, insurance, parking, restrooms, etc.

A second factor is what you have time for.  Do you want to work year around?  Christmas trees might seem fun and festive unless your family always takes a Thanksgiving holiday to Florida!

Next may be to check with local, state or other officials about zoning, permits, licensing, taxes, registrations, etc.  Planning to sell organic carrots?  Since the 2002 Farm Bill, there has been a legal definition for using the word organic.  USDA is now working on a definition of the word “natural.”  What about processing, packaging, food safety and labeling rules?  The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 has the FDA just now getting the produce rules finalized for 2017.  And we haven’t even started on the GMO labeling issue now being debated in Washington.

Fourth is to consider the market potential for your product.  Why would you raise Scotch pine Christmas trees if consumers have long demanded newer and better species?  U-pick is an interesting idea if you have a good location, advertise, have a reputation for quality, a plan for parking, bathrooms, containers, playgrounds for children, liability insurance, etc.  Monroe County and southeast Michigan have several outstanding and varied u-pick and retail farm markets.

Only ranking fifth in my judgment is the income/ expense situation for this enterprise.  Michigan State, Ohio State and sources have budgets for various enterprises to help with this part of the planning. And then are things as soil testing, securing a line of credit, and a “million” other details.  Farming can provide a good income and lifestyle, but it isn’t for everyone!  Spend time thinking, using the computer and pushing a pencil before spending any money or starting a tractor!