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This article is the second installation in our Small Farm series. Here, we begin covering the basics of starting a small, regenerative farm. To assist, we ask for help from small farming expert Chris Miller of Horseshoe Farm in Greenville, SC. (If you haven’t already done so, you can meet Chris in our first article.)
On a recent morning, I went to Horseshoe Farm to talk with Chris about his top recommendations for anyone looking to start a small, regenerative farm. The information below is a summary of our conversation, with expletives removed.
Top 15 tips for starting your small farm using regenerative practices
Tip #1. Get farming experience on multiple farms BEFORE you start a farm.
Many people have romanticized notions of what farming is all about. Those notions don’t necessarily match up with reality. Then when they start their farm, they get overwhelmed because they don’t have the experience needed to be successful.
Chris had 5+ solid years of experience working on farms before he felt ready to go out on his own. He also worked on multiple farms in different climate regions.
“Every farmer and farm is different and you learn something new from each of them,” says Chris. “Farming is equal parts planning ahead and managing chaos (often poorly). This is especially true with the increasing unpredictability of weather caused by ‘global weirding.'”
The frequency and intensity of severe weather events is increasing everywhere. As one small example, Chris’s farm experienced two weeks of unseasonably cool dry conditions in spring followed by a week straight of rain totaling about 20″ with three different nearby tornadic events.
When you work indoors, extreme and mercurial weather isn’t a big deal. When your livelihood depends on the wellbeing of plants and/or animals that live outdoors, you are intimately tuned into the weather in a way that’s hard to explain to other people. Thus, the more experience you have working on or operating a small farm in various weather or climate conditions, the better prepared you’ll be to handle those situations on your own farm.
Here are a few ways you might gain small farming experience:
- through a formal program tract at your school;
- through NCAT/ATTRA;
- by reaching out directly to local farmers about available jobs or internships;
- WWOOFing (usually shorter duration).
Tip #2. Read and learn from the world’s best small farmers.
Experience may be the best teacher, but books, courses, and other educational resources are experience’s best friend. Chris highly recommends the following resources:
- Both The Lean Farmer books by Ben Hartman;
- The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier;
- anything from Neversink Farm.
Tip #3: Have one year of savings and/or a second job when you start your farm.
Starting a small farm is a significant time and financial investment that’s going to cost you a minimum of $5,000 – $10,000. The crops you start today won’t generate income for months.
You can mitigate these risks by having at least one year of savings set aside and/or having a side job. For instance, Chris worked as a bartender at night when he was getting started on his own as a farmer — and he also had savings.
Tip #4. Don’t break ground, cover ground.
Are you looking at an acre of bare land covered in grass, weeds, or shrubs and trying to figure out how to get your farm started? Think you need to bring in a giant tractor and plow everything? Maybe not.
When Chris and I were setting up the farm at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm on a nonexistent budget, we had access to dumpster truck loads of free leaves via our county’s sanitation department. We mowed the field low (leaving the trimmings in place), blanketed the field with 8-12″ of leaves, then put rows of compost directly on top of the leaves. Then we started planting.
The leaves worked as a weed blocker that also inhibited weed seed germination. As the leaves decomposed they boosted soil fertility. Chris has since used this same technique at Horseshoe Farm using wood chips instead of leaves. (The wood chips were provided free by a local tree service company that would have had to pay to dump the chips in a county landfill.)
Any bioavailable soil nitrogen that gets temporarily locked up as these carbon-rich materials are broken down can be ameliorated by quality compost or pelleted chicken manure.
What about clearing saplings and denser brush? To clear a shrubby patch of land filled with small saplings, Chris “borrowed” a small herd of Ossabaw Island pigs from a restaurant friend. The pigs promptly ate every piece of vegetation, including fairly large saplings. The restaurant got fattened, pastured heritage breed pigs and Chris got cleared land with some extra fertility added. Victory!
Bottom line: you don’t have to have a tiller or a tractor to prepare new land for your small farm.
Tip #5. Remember: regenerative farming is a business, not a non-profit.
Yes, you care about people, planet, and place, but you’re also a business. If you’re not profitable, you won’t be in business or making the world better for long. So focus relentlessly on the financial part of the triple bottom line as well.
This is often easier to say than do, and there are going to be times when you have to make tough decisions that require you to think holistically and long-term, not just through the lens of “what’s profitable right now or this quarter.” For instance, you might be inclined to cut costs by paying essential team members less, but if they leave and you have high employee turnover, have you actually saved money?
Or you may cut costs today by not investing in your soil health, but how much will that decision cost you over the course of a growing season or a year?
Also, when you’re profitable, have money tucked away, and are not overcome by financial stress, you’ll be more likely to treat your land and your team better. A lot of bad long-term decisions get made due to financial desperation.
Tip #6. Cultivate personal resilience.
There will be painful setbacks. There will be crop failures. You’re going to work your butt off in rain, snow, and scorching hot temperatures.
Anybody can work hard for a day. You’ll need to work hard and also work smart for years for your small farm to be successful. This is going to require a combination of a great work ethic, physical conditioning, and mental fortitude. So plan to be resilient, like nature.
No matter what farm life throws at you, keep going, growing, learning, and improving.
As Chris says:
“I can’t emphasize personal resilience enough. Specifically, mentally. There is nothing more humbling than growing food for a living. I’m hard on myself, I want things to be further along than they are, I want them to be better than they are. I have to remind myself how far I’ve come and how much work I’ve put into it, and learn to enjoy the process. Also, I’m tough as hell, and can handle the constant physical and mental abuse that comes when you lose thousands of dollars in carrots due to rot or beets due to deer, or 60 days of work straight in 90+ degrees. But I still get discouraged and frustrated. Burnout is a real thing. You may work every day, but find things to enjoy about it. Also take care of your personal life and make sure to get some R&R… some chores you can’t put off, some you can. It’s all about the 3 P’s… perspective, perseverance, and prioritization.”
Tip #7: Grow your buyers before you grow your crops.
If you grow it, will they come? Maybe, but do you really want to invest months of your life and hard-earned money growing crops only to see them rot in bins because you didn’t sell them?
Instead, find committed buyers for your crops BEFORE you grow them. This might be a CSA model (which is the backbone of Horseshoe Farms’ sales). Or it could be a commitment from a local restaurant (like Horseshoe Farms’ partnership with The Anchorage restaurant), non-profit, or other organization.
Chris also utilizes farmers markets even though he likes to take a bit of time off on the weekend. The downside of farmers markets: you never know how much produce you’re going to sell at market even though you’re going to pay to have a stall there.
Chris points out that perhaps the greatest value of a farmers market for him has been the human relationships forged. “People have favorite baseball teams, and they also have favorite farmers. It’s hard to beat face-to-face conversations and handshakes for forming those local relationships.”
Tip #8: The 85/15 Rule
What crops should you plant from season-to-season? Despite always wanting to trial new and unusual crops, Chris tries to be disciplined by following the “85/15 rule.”
85% of the crops in his rows in any given season are devoted to tried-and-true crops that are highly likely to produce a predictable yield, profit, and demand. A maximum of 15% of his rows are devoted to new or unusual crops whose performance, profitability, and demand aren’t predictable.
Also included in the 15%: growing crops out of season in interesting ways. Example: a cattle panel trellised hoop house with tomatoes/cucumbers vining up providing shade for intercropped lettuce.
Tip #9: Don’t go it alone.
You might want to be an island, but an island isn’t a very attractive spot to be during storms. Partner with larger, established organizations in your community to find buyers, amplify your marketing efforts, find good team members, and to ensure that your farm has a beneficial local impact.
For instance, Chris’s partnership with The Anchorage restaurant guarantees a certain amount of sales each week (when restaurants aren’t shut down due to pandemics). Horseshoe Farms’ CSA sells out so quickly partly because it’s done in partnership with The Anchorage, which has a giant list of email contacts.
Examples of other helpful farm partnerships:
- The USDA’s NRCS grants can be an absolute lifesaver when you’re paying for expensive yet essential infrastructure like cold storage or high tunnels. You’ll need to register your site as a farm with FSA (Farm Service Agency) before being eligible.
- Local universities and community colleges. As Chris says, “on any farm, there’s more work than you can afford to pay for.” Rebecca McKinney is the academic program director for *Sustainable Agriculture in the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas at Greenville Technical College. Her students need hands-on farming experience to complete their course requirements. Chris has found these students to be an invaluable resource, and Rebecca’s students have likewise gained invaluable, hands-on experience working with Chris. (*Unfortunately, this program was recently cancelled due to coronavirus-related program cuts.)
Tip #10: Buy land or lease land… Or be creative?
Should you lease or buy land to start your small farm? Or maybe the choice isn’t binary…
When a local environmentally-conscious couple in Traveler’s Rest, SC, heard about what Chris and The Anchorage were up to, they reached out to offer their land. For free.
All they wanted in exchange was a CSA share. They weren’t using the land, loved the idea of helping a local business, and seeing their land put to good use as a beyond-organic regenerative farm.
Thus, Horseshoe Farm isn’t financially burdened by lease or debt payments. Like any smart partnership, all parties involved put their relationship in writing to clarify terms. For instance, if the property owners die or decide to sell, Horseshoe Farm has first right of refusal to buy the property.
Before committing to a land purchase or lease, consider reaching out to everyone in your local network to see if anyone knows a landowner who might be willing to be home to your small regenerative farm.
When searching for a farm site, Chris also recommends the following:
“Be sure to talk to existing farms as well. Three of the farms I’ve worked on all wanted me to take over their operation. That’s an existing operation, often generations of experience, existing sales outlets, and they may be aging out and want to see their legacy carried out but don’t have children or the children don’t want to work on that farm.”
Tip #11. Get your basic tools & infrastructure in order
There are certain tools and infrastructure you simply have to have to run a small farm. The basics:
- crop protection (example: electric fence to keep deer, groundhogs, etc out),
- wash station,
- cold storage (we’ll write more about coolbot walk-in coolers later),
- packing/storage bins,
- power and water,
- seed starting equipment,
- basic cropping tools (seed sower, shovels, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, etc).
Just like you wouldn’t have much luck fishing without fishing poles and line, you won’t have much luck farming without infrastructure and tools.
Tip #12: Reinvest rather than pay ahead.
Yes, you have to pay upfront for your basic tools and infrastructure. But for future costs, invest wisely.
Sometimes, you have to invest in a tool that can easily generate a 100% or higher return on investment in a single growing season, so don’t be too rigid with this rule. However, more often than not it makes sense to wait to buy the next “must-have” tools on your list or expand your farm’s footprint until you’ve booked future profit.
This approach also helps you avoid unnecessary debt. And debt costs more than cash.
Tip #13: Standardize to boost efficiency.
How long are the rows in Chris’s fields? 50 feet.
That way, when he buys or uses row cover, he knows exactly how much he needs. When he’s estimating the quantity of seeds or transplants he needs for a row, he knows exactly what he needs. When he’s doing crop yield estimates, yield comparisons, profit projections, etc, he’s comparing apples to apples (or more accurately turnips to turnips).
Without this type of standardization, Christ would be operationally rudderless.
Tip #14: Diversify through biodiversity.
Every financial investment manager will tell you to “diversify your portfolio.” If your entire life savings are wrapped up in a single stock, that’s extremely risky.
The same is true with crop selection on a resilient farm. If a pest or disease overwhelms your bean crops, the farm that only has 5% of its growing space devoted to beans is going to be more resilient than the farm with a monoculture of beans.
Additional ways to biodiversify your small farm:
a. Perennial hedgerows
Outside the rows of annual crops, Chris is also starting perennial hedgerows with various long-lived plant species like elderberries and blackberries (proudly shared from Tyrant Farms), bronze fennel, figs, and more. These make great homes for overwintering predatory insects (which eat pest insects), block wind, and create more stable microclimates that help with his row crop productivity.
These perennial hedgerows will also be low-maintenance cash crops that produce more and more food each year as they mature.
b. Crop rotation
Never plant the same (or related) crop species in the same row back-to-back. This way, soil pathogens and pests that like a certain type of plant can’t proliferate.
Tip #15: Plan to lose so you can plan to win.
40% crop loss. That’s what Chris financially plans for each season and year. Again, with global weirding, there are seasons where 40% loss is good.
What about crop insurance? Horseshoe self-insures their crops rather than carrying the certain cost of crop insurance. Plus, Chris isn’t certain if his farm would qualify for insurance given how outside the norm his operation is from a size and crop diversity standpoint.
As Chris jokingly says, “farming is basically gambling for a living.” So stack the odds in your favor by planning for worst case scenarios, not best case.
What’s the best case scenario if everything goes right on Chris’s farm for a year? Horseshoe can generate $200-$500 per bed per “flip” (e.g. crop transition). In our moderate climate, you can flip a bed 3-7 times per year, which means that each 50′ row can potentially yield a gross profit of $3,500/year. That’s IF everything goes perfectly all year long — no tornadoes, hail, hurricanes, goblins, pandemics, supernovas, or Martian invasions.
Does Chris plan to gross $3,500/row/year? Nope. He banks on making $2,100/row (40% less than the maximum).
We hope these 15 tips help you successfully start and operate your own small, regenerative farm — or better appreciate where your food comes from! Please subscribe (below) to our email list to get more helpful articles as they’re published.
Read more articles in this series:
- Small farm series intro: what is a small, regenerative farm?
- Small farmer choice: CSA vs farmers market vs wholesale