Stepping into Regenerative Agriculture
So, you think you are ready to get on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon? You are not alone. Farmers, food think tanks, , environmental groups, indigenous communities, and even the New York Times are taking interest in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative production models are recognized as a way to restore the environment, combat climate change, improve human nutrition, and keep farms profitable. What’s not to love about that? A recent NBC news report notes that even food giants like General Mills are moving towards regenerative practices.
Our own interests in regenerative agriculture were evident at least a decade ago. At that time, I had seen the potential of microbial communities to make agriculture sustainable while mitigating climate change and improving human nutrition. These insights inspired the founding of End-O-Fite Enterprises LLC and a longer term goal of building a regenerative demonstration farm. However, several stars had to align before we were ready to move forward with these plans. Combining our own experience with that of outside references, I’ve highlighted a few points worth considering before you put a down payment on your new regenerative farm.
Build Alliances and Get Your Family on Your Side
You may want to start building your new farm right away. Particularly now, when the economy is in upheaval. However, farming of any kind is risky business, and despite illusions of rugged independence, successful farmers are usually supported by strong family and community networks. Personal vision aside, if your team is not aligned with your mission, you won’t move forward.
In my own situation, several compromises had to be made. My kids had to finish school. My husband had to retire. Existing property had to be sold. I had to strengthen my connections to the agricultural community, and sacrifice some ties to my former profession. But slowly, my vision of a regenerative demonstration farm became more palatable to those around me. By the time my husband announced his retirement last summer, he was as committed to the vision as I was. We had a community of interested parties willing to lend support. Suddenly, the farm seemed reasonably do-able. Rather than a vision that promised to alienate me from my family, it became the mission that would unite us.
It is no big secret that farming is risky business. Set aside your vision of lush fields, soft downy chicks and wooly little lambs. Hail storms, drought, pests, market fluctuations, ever-changing government regulations and labor shortages are only a few variables that you will have to deal with. Idealists who advise to go big or go home need to execute due diligence before acting. If you get in too big too fast, you may find out quickly why many farmers today suffer incredible stress.
What portion of your farm can you finance alone? Is leasing land an option? Farming debt-free will eliminate a major source of stress.
If you earn nothing for a few years, how will this affect you? Do you have other income streams that will carry you through the ups and downs of learning to farm? Regenerative farming is an art. The blend of strategies that keep you productive will be influenced by your location, your soil type, the kind of crops you are growing, and more. No doubt, you will make mistakes. By starting small, self-financing, and building off your profits, you can minimize the risk of foreclosure.
A Note On Federal Programs for Beginning Farmers
Any Google search will bring up links to numerous governement programs designed to help new farmers. While these programs may be helpful to a few, it is worth noting that these are largely subsidies designed for low income farmers who don’t qualify for conventional loans. As with any government program, farm assistance programs may require extensive paperwork, reporting, and documentation of your efforts. This money is also volatile. Odds of obtaining funds change with every congressional season. Bottom line, there is no such thing as free money. Make sure you understand all that the program entails before you apply.
Location, Location, Location
A farm is both a business and a piece of real estate. Treat it as such. New farmers buying land need to find a balance between the high priced real estate available near urban centers and the low priced farmland that is far from local markets and the conveniences of town.
Recent interest in urban farms is offering unprecedented opportunities to build farms in abandoned lots and on roof tops. No doubt, such locations lend themselves to easy marketing at local food eateries or farm to school buying groups. Urban farms also meet important needs to educate the public and build support for regenerative agriculture. But urban centers can be subject to regulations and fees that rural competition can ignore. Opportunities to expand may also be limited in pricey urban areas.
As you leave the city, land prices fall, distance to markets grow, and access to services declines. In the end, your budget, your marketing plan, local regulations, and the crops you wish to grow will all need to be considered when determining the right place to farm.
Verify Access to Natural Resources
Living soil and good, clean water are the life blood of your farm. When you begin looking for a place to build your farm, be sure to verify water rights. Just because you are located by an irrigation ditch, doesn’t mean you can water any time you want. Learn the local rules that govern water use, study long term precipitation data, and understand how much water your crop will require.
Once you are certain you have access to ample quality water, you need to look at your soil quality. Ask the seller to let you draw soil samples. You can analyze soil biology using methods outlined in our Microbial Analysis for Growers course. However, before investing, you will want to combine this analysis with a thorough testing of the macronutrients, micronutrients, organic matter, pH, and CEC associated with your soil. You may also want to visit with local NRCS agents. They can offer additional insights about soil quality and conservation practices that will be meaningful in your area.
Plan on Growing Diversified Crops That you can Market
If your plan is to build a regenerative farm, we don’t need to discuss the importance of diversifying your crops. Diversity is key to managing the nutrient cycles that maintain healthy, regenerative soils. However, diversity also provides multiple income streams. At the same time, you need to make sure that the crop types and genetics you choose are adapted to your area. Growing apples in South Florida, or papaya in Maine is going to require costly environmental controls. These costs are usually prohibitive.
Before you buy, or even lease a single acre of land, make sure you have a viable understanding of what you will grow and who you will market it to. Today there is growing demand for healthy food grown in healthy soil. Consumers want fewer pesticides and chemicals on their food. But wanting something and paying for it are two different things. Many health conscious shoppers will whine about the price tag on fresh, organic produce, only to buy a $5 hot dog at the fast food stand on their way out of the market. How will you go about marketing your crops? Who will you sell to? Can you get purchasing agreements in place before you start planting?
Commit to Life-Long Learning
Once you start your farm, every day will present new challenges. Don’t assume that last year’s plans will work this time around. Rather, commit yourself to constant monitoring and continuous learning. Study your fields daily. Learn to identify pests. Recognize signs of water stress or nutrient deficiency. Engage with your community to build and maintain warm markets. Understand basic principles that keep crops healthy. Become knowledgeable so that you can select tools and technologies that are compatible with regenerative principles.
There is no way a 1200 word blog article can cover every point you need to become a successful farmer. But if you read often, network with other growers, and most of all, study your own farm constantly, you will gain expertise that guides your success.
As a regenerative farmer, you are improving the health of your community, your environment, and quite possibly, your soul . Be greatful for the vision that brought you hear. You’ve chosen a path that addresses needs the world appreciates. You might not hear crowds applauding. But inside, you know that you are following a call. Embrace that call with joy, rather than with fear. Every aspect of your vision, from shopping for the farm to selling your first crop will be as fun as you choose to make it.