As increasing numbers of new and established farmers take up organic farming, so the popularity of organic produce continues to rise. If you’re interested in learning how to start an organic farm you’re in the right place. We will look at how to get started, profitability, and where to get help.
What You'll Learn Today
- How Do I Start My Own Organic Farm?
- How Much Does it Cost to Start an Organic Farm?
- Is Organic Farming Profitable?
- How to Learn Organic Farming
How Do I Start My Own Organic Farm?
The vital profession of farming became tainted over the past 50 years. As more was demanded of agriculture, so increasingly questionable practices were used to increase output.
Animal cruelty, the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers all affected how people saw farming, and many, especially those from the younger generation, did not like it.
Today change is happening as people learn the benefits of eating healthier, nutrient-rich, organic vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and grass-fed meat, and dairy.
Due to its increasing popularity, the demand for locally produced organic food has enjoyed a steep rise. This trend is likely to continue with the ever-increasing requirement for food.
For anyone interested in starting an organic farm or transitioning an already established farm to an organic one, there are some things about which you need to be aware.
Organic farming needs careful planning, management, marketing, and skills. Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know.
In this short video, you’ll find some tips and tricks from someone running a small organic enterprise.
1. Get Educated in Organic Farming
Taking your idea and turning it into a reality requires some careful planning. You need to learn as much as you can about organic farming before you go any further.
First, it’s a good idea to talk to farmers who already practice organic farming, and learn all you can about the pros and cons. If you already have some experience, you may want to try offering your services for a while, to learn more about the differences.
Gaining the knowledge of another farmer who’s already been through the process of starting up or converting to organic farming can be hugely advantageous.
Go on some hands-on training courses set up especially for organic farming, and meet with like-minded people.
Learn all you can by reading as much as possible in books and on the internet.
2. Wise Choices Require Research
Once you’re confident that you have the basics down, it will be time to start thinking about what type of organic farming you want to get into. There are lots of possibilities, here are just a few examples:
- Livestock – Cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry.
- Cereals – Wheat, oats, barley, sorghum, soybeans, corn, rice, rye, millet.
- Vegetables – Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, swedes, turnips, sweet potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, onions, lettuce, cucumbers.
- Fruits – Apples, pears, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, melons, peaches, nectarines, apricots.
- Nuts – Almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts, chestnuts, macadamia nuts
- Herbs – Thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, cilantro, mint, basil, chives, parsley, chamomile.
- Specialty crops – Saffron, ginseng, ginger, turmeric, goji berries, bamboo, truffles.
3. Location, Location, Location
The location you choose for your organic farm plays one of the most crucial roles in its success or failure. You must take into account:
- Purpose. What crops or animals will you be raising?
- Accessibility to your market. Too far and you’ll lose money in transportation costs.
- Water quality. Do you have easy access to pure, clean water?
If you don’t have the advantage of choosing your land, then ensure you pick the best product for the soil type and resources you have available.
It might be best to pick a crop that grows wild in the nearby landscape. Or choose an animal to raise that can tolerate the climatic conditions without having to provide too much by way of additional feed or shelter.
Be prepared to think outside of the box. Could you perhaps do something different such as container farming, vertical gardening, or intercropping to make it more viable?
4. Understanding your Market
What market are you catering for? Is there a significant demand for this in your area? If not, it might be better to try something that is in greater need.
Find out what sells well in your location and check that the market isn’t already saturated. Growing or raising your product is one thing; marketing and selling it is something else, but equally as important.
5. Get Networking and Find a Suitable Mentor
Even if you’ve done all the courses you can, talked to other farmers, and even worked on an organic farm. You still need to establish a solid network to keep in touch with, and preferably a good mentor too.
These kinds of relationships come into their own when things don’t go according to plan, or you need a bit of friendly, knowledgeable advice fast.
Network with other sellers too. They can help you get into farmer’s markets and other retail locations you might otherwise miss.
6. Good Preparation will Provide a Bountiful Harvest
Once you have your farm or are ready to convert to organic practices, you’ll need to get organic certification from the USDA. This requires you to follow a strict set of rules and meet the specified criteria.
The first task is to sort out the soil. Without good soil, you won’t get good produce. This is true for both planted crops and animals, as most animals will eat the grass or other things you grow for them.
To improve the soil, you’ll need to get it tested, then add what components are necessary to make it well balanced and more fertile. This could mean putting on an annual dressing of green manure, compost, poultry litter, or cow dung.
You should also plan crop rotation carefully and practice mixed cropping. Planting legumes will help add nitrogen and growing cover crops protects the soil, increases organic matter, and helps reduce weeds.
Making your own compost is also very beneficial and can help save money.
7. Care of Your Crops
Because you can’t use traditional herbicides, you have to work more with nature and often use other methods to remove or prevent weeds from taking over your crops.
- Frequent crop rotation
- Growing a thick crop stand
- Using cover crops
- Selecting the best crop variety for your land
- Only planting clean seed
- Keeping the soil healthy and pH balanced
- Maintaining a good soil structure
- Thoroughly tilling the ground in spring
- Delaying planting until the soil is warmer in late May, early June
- Tilling the ground a few days after seeding for certain crops
- Using special tools after crops emerge to remove weeds. These include weeders, rotary hoes, cutaway discs, spinners, shields, flamers, and so on
- Weeding regularly by hand and preventing weeds from going to seed
- Mulching, which can also help keep weeds under control
- Using organic-based herbicides such as vinegar
Pest control is another area that needs handling differently with an organic crop. Prevention requires keeping the soil healthy and supporting biodiversity and habitats for beneficial organisms to inhabit and thrive.
Preventative methods include the physical removal of pests and, as a last resort, the use of pesticides approved for organic farming use.
Good irrigation is essential, as, without sufficient water, plants will quite simply wither and die. Depending on the plant, climate, and soil type, they normally need watering one to three times each day.
Watering in the early morning and late evening is best as it won’t be quickly evaporated by the sun. This gives the plants more opportunity to absorb the moisture through their roots.
Organic farming takes a lot of hard work and patience. Things won’t always go right, and sometimes the results will be poor. Over time you’ll discover what works for you and the land you have, and all the effort will start paying off.
How Much Does it Cost to Start an Organic Farm?
The cost of starting an organic farm depends entirely on what sort of farm you want to operate. The vast majority of organic farms are relatively small, averaging around 333 acres.
Scale can vary wildly. Cattle or sheep farming require large acreages, while poultry farming requires a much smaller piece of land. The same is true when growing crops. Cereals take a lot of space, while saffron or truffles need far less.
Besides purchasing the property itself, you’d also need to consider the equipment necessary to manage it successfully.
Some organic farms may require more heavy machinery to manage weeds than are necessary on a typical non-organic farm.
The location you choose will also have a bearing on cost, as some areas will be far less expensive than others.
The good news is that there are many grants available to those interested in organic farming, and more information can be discovered by searching online.
Places to look for help include:
- The Organic Farming Research Foundation – Give grants for livestock production, monetary issues, solution finding projects, and strategies for controlling organic seed purity.
- The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program – Can help by paying organic certification fees. A reimbursement of 75% or up to $750 per year.
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program – This is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is designed to encourage young farmers to set up farms. It is open to organic and non-organic farming practices.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program – Is also run by the USDA and offers grants for farmers who want to work using conservation practices or have limited resources. It also helps established farmers transition to organic production.
Is Organic Farming Profitable?
Organic farming can be profitable, providing that you choose what to farm carefully. The sale price of organic produce is usually considerably higher than for non-organic.
Demand for organic produce has grown enormously since the 1990s. With the ever-increasing range of organic products now available in most regular grocery stores, this trend is set to continue.
Although organic goods only represent a tiny portion of the market in the U.S., the amount of land certified as organic has continued to rise, particularly for vegetables, fruits, poultry, and dairy.
More data on the costs and returns of organic produce can be found on the USDA website.
How to Learn Organic Farming
Many training courses exist to educate about the practices of organic farming. The USDA is aiming to ensure organic certification is possible for anyone wishing to attain it.
For established farmers who want to change to organic farming, the National Organic Program from the Agricultural Marketing Service can help you meet the USDA requirements.
- Organic Educational Toolkit – Training modules, guides, brochures, and posters for organic farmers.
- The National Organic Program Handbook – gives guides, templates, and explanations.
- The Organic Farming Handbook – has descriptions about organic systems and key resources.
- The Road to Organic Certification – is an interactive video, showing two farmers considering organic certification.
- Organic Certification Bite by Bite – Videos showing farmers talk about their experiences of getting organic certification.
- The Organic Value Proposition, what is it? – A video and brochure series that helps to identify what the benefits are of getting organic certification.
- Self-Assessment Tools – for producers wanting to transition to organic – Videos by showing how producers changed to organic practices.
A vast amount of additional information about training and transitioning is available on the USDA website.
The options within organic farming are broad and allow for enterprises of all sizes from micro-farms right through to large cattle ranches.
There is plenty of help available, although it may be challenging to pinpoint exactly what you actually need and where to get it from. Advice can be sought by contacting the USDA.
If you found this article on how to start an organic farm useful, we hope you’ll also enjoy reading other posts on our site. We cover animals, crops, equipment, and farming.