Success of a farmer, measured in small plots

Jan. 12, 2013 @ 07:16 PM


There are plenty of examples of farmers who make a living on just a few acres. I doubt very many of them drive fancy German automobiles or have second homes on the Colorado ski slopes. But the ones I’ve met seem to live comfortable lives doing what they love. Although I’ve not done a scientific study on the subject, here are my observations of the keys to their success.

First, many of them started at a fairly young age. Getting started in farming involves a bit of risk. The earlier you start, the longer to bounce back and rebuild from an early failure. I’ve also noticed that the younger crowd is often more tolerant of giving up necessities (e.g. satellite TV and beach vacations) during the lean startup years.

Furthermore, it takes lots of strength and energy to put the infrastructure in place for a farming operation. There are sheds to build, fields to clear and fence posts to install. Although I’m fairly active for my mid-forties, I’d just as soon watch someone else use a post-hole digger as use it myself.

I’ve also observed that successful small farmers tend to receive premium prices for their crops. I remember very little of Economics 101, but I do know that the price charged has to more than cover the costs. Of course, that requires finding customers who will pay that premium price.

Farmers in this area sometimes have to battle a mentality that farm fresh produce should be tastier and cheaper. But it’s a mistake, I think, for the farmer to give in. If you can’t charge a price that provides a good living, it may be time to try a different business.

Of course, you can’t charge a premium price unless you offer a premium or rare product. This is clearly a reason that Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world. The small-scale apple farmer has to apply the same principles. The successful small farmer has to bring something to market of exceptional quality, or a product that no one else is offering.

Another strategy used by many small farmers is to offer a variety of products. This is an excellent risk management technique. If it turns out to be a bad year for raising tomatoes, perhaps the blueberry crop will have a bumper year.

That being said, I’ve known others that specialized in a single product. That approach can simplify management, as the schedule of chores will not vary much from year to year.

I suspect there is a minimum size for a successful small, perhaps five acres. However, starting out with five acres of vegetables or apple trees is overwhelming to imagine. An acre or two might be a good starting point to learn the ropes.

Some small farmers I’ve met started out on one path and ended up in a completely different one. This requires the ability to adapt as situations change and new opportunities arise.

I occasionally get calls from folks seeking “grants to get started in farming.” While there are occasional opportunities for limited assistance, most of the successful farmers I’ve known built their enterprise through hard work, persistence and sacrifice.

No one better exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit than the American farmer. For anyone who wants to give it a serious go, you have all the educational resources of Cooperative Extension at your disposal, and my admiration to boot!