So, you want to become a farmer?
If you’re just getting into the farming life, whether as a career choice or a career change, you’re in good company. A recent survey revealed a surge in new farmers, many of them under 35.
This trend is exciting for the ag industry, where analysts have long worried about the erosion of small family farms and the graying of the workforce. This fresh infusion of youth is helping allay concern about a demographic crunch on the horizon when the older generation retires and will need to be replaced.
It’s also exciting for hundreds of thousands of young farmers, who are embarking on a new life in a time-honored profession.
One of the first things neophytes learn is that farmers aren’t born, they’re made. If you didn’t inherit a family farm, you’re going to encounter obstacles getting up and going. There are new systems to learn. Problems arise. Decisions have to be made. You’ll learn quickly to sink or swim.
You’re not the first to struggle with farming. Along the way, farmers have accrued a lot of wisdom. That information just might be vital to you as you start up your farm.
Here are three major challenges new producers face, and some hacks to help you navigate them successfully.
Getting access to land.
The biggest issues confronting new farmers are the simplest. Farmers need land to operate their business, and it’s here that the problems can start.
About 2 of every 3 respondents (61%) to a National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) survey rated access to land as their biggest challenge. The reasons for this obstacle may range from lack of available land to inadequate income to purchase it.
Exacerbating this situation is the mismatch between the soaring price of land and relatively stagnant crop prices. That means even successful farmers can have trouble acquiring land.
How to hack it: Most new farmers who don’t inherit family farms end up leasing land. Navigating these arrangements can be tricky. It’s best to get everything in writing. Set the lease for a longer term to protect yourself from the caprices of owners who may not respect your farming acumen or commitment.
You may consider treating this land lease as an apprenticeship, renting a land share from seasoned farming veterans. You’ll learn a lot along the way. It’s a great networking opportunity. You might even gain an inside track on purchasing that farmer’s land if he eventually decides to sell.
Managing debt burdens.
The new generation of farmers is more highly educated than their older peers. In 1964, only 4% of farmers had earned a college degree. By 2011, the number of college-educated farmers had risen to 25%.
That’s great news for the ag workforce, but it can present barriers to those applying for loans to start their farm. The average student loan debt of farmers stands at $35,000. About half of those surveyed by the NYFC survey reported difficulty making payments; another 30% decided to shelve their farming plans for the moment while they repaid loans.
How to hack it: This is a tough one. There is generous assistance available through the USDA for new farmers making their first land purchases, and it’s a good idea to be familiar with the terms and qualifications prospective borrowers must meet. Because eligibility hinges on a favorable debt-to-income ratio, you may not be immediately able to borrow using these programs.
If your student loans disqualify you from taking advantage of these opportunities, consider organizing a meeting with Farm Credit and FSA representatives to develop a plan together so you will be able to pay down debt and use these means later.
Planning for success.
New farmers have enthusiasm for farming, but they may lack concrete knowledge of how to farm, how to run a business, or both. These are challenging times to be in the ag business, and the learning curve is sharp. Those without a solid business plan and the acumen to execute it quickly experience hardship.
How to hack it: Networking with experienced farmers, organizations, and officials can provide lots of support as you start your farm. Many members of your farming community will be happy to help you get underway.
Be sure to check out the USDA’s helpful how-to guide, Make a Farm Business Plan to help you start to put together the nuts and bolts of running a successful farm.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your farm will take strategy, dedication, and hard work. But with smart effort, you can create a business that will last a lifetime.