D.C. “Dump debt!” U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad
(D-N.D.) told farm writers at a press briefing in Washington
a few weeks ago. “Dump debt, and become politically active
to insist that government dump debt as well. This is the worst
possible time to add to debt.”
He was talking about
the big picture in Washington, of course, the soaring federal
budget deficit, the possible impact of President Bush’s
proposed tax cuts and mounting problems paying for Social
Security and Medicare.
As a result, traditional commodity programs are at risk.
Taxpayers are getting sick of farm subsidies. “It’s
clear to me that the pressure on support for agriculture is
going to be intense,” the senator added.
What’s a farmer to do?
“Diversify!” urged Tom Dorr, USDA undersectary
for rural development, at the same farm writers' press briefing.
“The farm of the early 21st century will look nothing
like the farm of the early 20th century,” said Dorr,
who also farms in Iowa. “American agriculture is at
a crucial crossroad. New strategies and new ideas are needed.
It’s time we paint a new American Gothic for the 21st
“I’m not encouraging farmers to take senseless
risks, but I would say that farmers have not used their asset
base -- their land -- to its maximum return.”
Trading in corn for raspberries
Dorr is not alone. “We need to look at living and working
on farms in the broadest possible ways. Land can be used for
more than producing food,” Successful Farming
Business Editor, Dan Looker, said this spring in his keynote
address -- titled “Why you don’t need to grow
corn to get started in farming” -- at a beginning farmer
workshop in Pennsylvania.
Even though corn can net Midwestern producers roughly $200
an acre, that pales in comparison to what an acre of established
raspberries might produce in Pennsylvania, Looker said.
“The title of my talk today was inspired by my experience
at The New Farm,” said Looker, who was managing
editor of the magazine in the early 1980s.
“One of the people on the Rodale Press staff owned
a small raspberry farm that was profitable. It provided some
part-time income that supplemented his salary at Rodale. But
what he really wanted to do was to someday have enough land
and the machinery to grow a crop of corn. Even in those days,
it didn’t seem like you were a real farmer unless you
could grow corn.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“According to Dick Funt, a small fruit specialist at
Ohio State University, established raspberries can return
$1,000 an acre or more over costs. His numbers make you wonder
why anyone would want to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars
in machinery to grow corn that might net you $200 in one of
those rare years when you have a good crop and most of the
world doesn’t. According to Funt, raspberry farms have
the potential to return about 12 percent on your investment.
That’s a lot more than the three to five percent that
investors in Midwest corn ground might expect these days,”
Of course, it takes a few years and maybe $6,000 to establish
an acre of raspberries with trickle irrigation. So, raspberries
may not be for everyone, but there are plenty of other profitable
crops you can produce.
“If you can rent a small plot of land, you may be able
to sell vegetables in the summer and pumpkins on the fall,”
Looker said. “If that goes well and if you have long-term
access to land, then Dick Funt suggests moving into pick-your-own
strawberries, which reach full production in three years.
And, eventually, raspberries or blueberries may fit in.”
Mix and match diversifying options
Today, Looker and other workshop speakers said, getting started
in farming -- and staying in farming -- requires flexibility
and a diverse mix of high-value crops that may include:
- Pastured poultry, for both meat and eggs.
- Controlled grazing of any kind of livestock to help keep
capital investment and production costs low.
- Organic production.
- Dairy goats.
- Farmstead cheese.
- Agritourism. Entertainment farming, some call it. That
can include everything from corn mazes and hayrides through
you-pick pumpkin patches to free fishing and hunting and
even running a bed and breakfast on your farm.
Having a good website for your farm is essential to success
in any kind of agritourism, since so many city people plan
their vacations with the help of the world wide web, Looker
said. Two-thirds of Americans now have web access. They spend
an average of 10 hours a week on line, and only two hours
a week reading the newspaper.
While crop and enterprise mix can and will vary greatly from
farm to farm and region to region, all of the speakers said
there are timeless “guiding principles” that can
help any beginning farmer. Here is a sampling:
Start small and go slow. “By
starting slowly, I mean doing your homework before you ever
put a seed in the ground. Chip Planck, a college professor
who became a vegetable farmer outside of Washington, D.C.,
has put how you should do this in the right order,”
Looker said, quoting Planck from “Farmers for the Future,”
a book Looker wrote on beginning farmers:
“The best ag school of all is your own farm. The next
best, working at another farm for money. The next, working
at another farm for no money. The worst, an ag school where
you must pay them.”
Make sure your first customers
are satisfied. There is no better advertising
Don’t try to do everything.
“A lot of these agritourism businesses are very time
consuming, just as is a lot of direct marketing,” Looker
cautioned. “I’ve visited some CSA farms that raise
and market 40 or 50 different vegetables. That variety is
part of the appeal over the blandness of supermarkets. But
I can’t imagine doing that and then having to cook breakfast
and wash bedding for tourists every day on top of that.
“Agriculture is becoming more specialized but also
a lot more diverse these days. Our system of food production
includes Joel Salatin’s system of pasture poultry production
and Tyson Foods. No facet of this is simple. Some of it, including
pasture farrowing and organic vegetable production, is far
from simple. There are good reasons why many farmers would
never try either one.”
Sell everything directly to
consumers. Eliminate middlemen.
Find a mentor.
Build a high tunnel (also
known as a hoophouse) to extend your growing season in spring,
fall and even winter.
Join a trade group
like the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association
to meet people in the same type of farming and exchange ideas.
Don’t rush out and buy
land. “Buying land these days would
be economic suicide for many young farmers,” Looker
said. “Land prices have hit all-time highs in many areas.
It’s probably best to start out renting.”
Use credit sparingly -- and
Save your money.
Add value to what you produce.
One gallon of goat milk, for example, yields one pound of
goat cheese, which sells for $14. That’s more than most
dairy producers receive for milk by the hundredweight.
“Value-added is where farmers here in Pennsylvania
and the rest of the Northeast can beat the socks off of those
of us in the Midwest who raise corn,” said Looker. “We
may have some of the best soils and flattest fields on earth,
but you’ve got millions of potential customers.”
Buy crop insurance.
Explore the financial, land,
housing and other resources of your extended family
before turning to lenders and real estate agents.
Stop digging your own hole
Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower often
suggests a good place to start: “When you find that
you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to
do is stop digging.”
Whatever you do, advised USDA’s Dorr, don’t be
in a big hurry to build an expensive new barn and fill it
with a few thousand sows. Hog prices are already low enough.
Increasing production is only going to drive prices even lower.
And this isn’t a Sears barn from the turn of the last
century that will remain in service for up to 75 years, added
Dorr. The life span of a new livestock confinement facility,
he said, is five years. What do you do then?
Many farmers around the country are finding a less expensive
options with quicker, higher returns in pastured poultry,
chickens and even ducks for meat.
Yes, once you stop digging that hole and take a good look
around, you’ll quickly discover a lot of new, profitable
possibilities in just about every direction.
Okay, if you have to grow corn...
But if you do decide that you absolutely, positively have
to grow at least a little bit of corn this year to be a real
farmer, try a corn that takes up a lot less land -- and is
Grow baby or miniature corn
“We grew Chires Baby corn from www.seedsofchange.com
in Santa Fe, NM., last season,” writes newfarm.org reader
Ken Hargesheimer from Texas. "It produces 3-5 stalks
with 8-12 ears per stalk and will not get bigger than 3-4
inches long when mature.”
Seeds of Change says “Chires Baby” yields “up
to 30 ears per multi-stalked plant. Harvest five days after
silks appear for fresh stir-fry, or dry for popcorn (75-85
It’s a perfect crop for organic growers. “Ear
worm is not a problem, since you harvest before damage would
be done. For the same reason, smut is rarely a problem,”
advises the “Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook”
from the University of California. “Baby corn can be
grown fairly easily without chemicals. By incorporating residue
soon after you harvest, you can add significant organic matter
that will decay much more quickly than if you were to let
plants get old and dry down.”
Our son, Don, grew eight, 75-foot rows of Chires Baby in
2000. The dozen tiny ears he could hold in one hand were worth
nearly two bushels of shelled corn.
Granted, baby corn is a specialty item best to dress up a
farmers’ market display or a fancy salad bar. With the
corn in tassle and all of that pollen, it’s a pain to
pick. But with such a good return from a little bit of ground,