April 15, 2012

Starting a small farm takes planning

PETER HAGAR, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — I visited with a small farmer last week who had a whole menagerie of livestock on his place; cows, goats, chickens and who knows what else.

He had accumulated his livestock over time as his family's interests had evolved and he enjoyed the variety. As is often the case with small farms, family members play a large part in determining the mix of agricultural activities.

Caring for small livestock is a great way to teach young children responsibility and start educating them about animal science and the facts of life. I also encounter many folks who move to the country to reconnect with nature and live a simpler life.

Many often have a family farm that has remained in the family and would like to make it productive once again. Because many of these folks have been away from farming for most of their lives, they are often interested in learning how to improve their chances of success.

Small farming is by and large an endeavor that is started to improve a family's quality of life; not necessarily to produce income, but to live a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle.

Often someone buys a home in a rural area that includes some acreage and raising some livestock and vegetables fulfils an idealistic dream of becoming a farmer. However, some thought on how to make good decisions and choices is important. Farming is hard work whether it is small or large scale, and like any endeavor, should be given a great deal of thought prior to jumping right in.

While enthusiastic optimism is a good quality to have, there is no substitute for planning on your path to success.

The first step in starting a small farm should be to evaluate your resources. The environment, the land and your existing facilities will have a large impact on your ability to produce crops or livestock. Many times, if the land that has been abandoned as farmland or is being sold for housing, it has been done so for reasons that may limit its agricultural value.

A farm's soil quality, drainage and pH all have an effect on productivity. Old farmland that has been abandoned for some time often has poorly drained soils, stony soils and low fertility.

Rehabilitation of such farmland, while not impossible, will take a lot of effort and investment to regain its productivity. Older barns and sheds, while picturesque, are often in need of expensive repairs and have a multitude of safety issues.

Livestock need good water and pastures; pastures need good fences. Repairing fences and renovating pastures take a lot of labor. Determining ahead of time what kind of enterprise is appropriate for the resources available will prevent surprises and disappointment later.

Another important resource is your time. Different farming activities require different levels of labor and investment. Growing vegetables requires more inputs and labor than growing Christmas trees; just as dairy farming requires more investment and labor than raising beef cattle.

Since most small farmers start out part-time, choosing an enterprise with excessive time requirements may not work out well. Livestock such as goats and sheep are often a good choice for new farmers.

Small, friendly and easy to handle, small ruminants have moderate labor and investment requirements. With appropriate shelter and pasture, sheep and goats can help to renovate abandoned pastures and fields by grazing and browsing brush and weeds that cattle will often refuse to eat.

With a variety of breeds, sheep and goats can both produce milk, fiber and meat for a small homestead. Larger livestock such as dairy or beef cows require more feed, more pasture and bigger facilities as well as more labor.

With such a wide range of options, it is sometimes hard for the new farmer to decide what direction to take. The desire to farm often leads to hasty decisions and potential disaster.

What you might not realize is that Cornell Cooperative Extension is here to help. Since 1912, Cooperative Extension of Clinton County has been bringing the research-based knowledge of Cornell University's College of Agriculture to the general public.

The Cornell Small Farms Program is designed to help new and beginning farmers evaluate their resources, navigate the rules and regulations, learn about marketing farm products and get a little more information about different areas of crop and livestock production.

To learn more, visit or contact your local office of Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator and Energy $mart Communities collaborator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh 12901 Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email