I visited with a small farmer a while back that 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 and beginning farmers, family members often 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 want to make it productive once again.
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 fulfills 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.
The first step in starting a small farm should be to evaluate your physical 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 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 takes 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 input 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 there is help available from several sources and we are all located in the same building. Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Clinton County Soil & Water Conservation District, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are available to provide assistance to farms of all sizes. Our offices can assist new and beginning farmers evaluate their resources, navigate the rules and regulations, learn about marketing farm products and provide information about different areas of crop and livestock production.
For more information or technical assistance with planning your small farm, call the Clinton County Soil & Water Conservation District at 561-4616, Ext. 3, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Hagar, Clinton County Soil & Water Conservation District, 6064 Route 22, Plattsburgh.