Becoming an organic farmer? Should you?
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We are increasingly approached by folks who are interested in the idea of having or running their own organic farm and want to learn how they can achieve this - ASAP of course :-)
We're also sometimes approached by people who would like to invest into the agricultural "sector" - because of the future potential that they anticipate. They're usually wary because they know that it's easy to get burnt.
“You may be able to access knowledge on growing certain things from other farmers that are good at it - but deciding what to grow and managing your farm is something that you need to do yourself.”
With the goal of providing both useful and sensible advice, this is what we think:
1) Anyone can grow food BUT farming isn't for everyone
While this may seem self-evident, a lot of people from urban backgrounds seek a simpler life and harbour overly-romantic illusions about themselves as gentle-men/woman farmers. While we love the idea (the more the merrier), the reality is that a large number who try will end up with failure and disappointment.
We believe that this is largely because they...
underestimate how much they will need to learn/change and how complex it is
outsource ownership of goals to a professional and achieve success quick
have a lack of patience and persistence (both) as they are accustomed to a faster pace
don't view this as a profession demanding complete attention, but as a hobby to indulge in
don't realise that it requires several years to set up a good farming operation
Our Advice: You may be better off with a small-to-medium kitchen garden for a few years before you decide whether it's really right for you to take the leap. This isn't something that you can do well unless you're really in love with it (or don't have a choice).
2) People want to hire a farm expert, not become an expert (doesn't work)
Our experience is that hiring a typical farm manager as an alternative to your involvement is likely to end in failure - because the most skillful farmers aren't looking beyond their own farms. Hence the quality of guidance you can expect is limited. Most new farm owners also don't appreciate the difference between a growing specialist and a farm manager - and how few people are actually good at both. The supply-demand mismatch in the agricultural sector means that to get someone who is really good at both will cost much more than you can imagine/afford.
Agricultural graduates and agriculture consultants rarely make practical sense - because their understanding of the market is non-existent and of growing is usually limited to certain things. Often we find that their fixed-mindset and oversimplified/industrial approach makes them a liability instead of an asset.
Our advice: You may be able to access knowledge on growing certain things from other farmers that are good at it - but deciding what to grow and managing your farm is something that you need to do yourself. Experience is the most reliable tutor you can find, though its best to apprentice or get a coach when you are learning the basics of growing.
3) Don't fund capital expenses like a prince and operational expenses like a pauper
Most inexperienced new farmer will take great pride in investments especially in farm infrastructure which are quickly visible - and not in the places where it pays off in the long term. Most farms do a poor job of managing labour, with hires that are based on a sense of security instead of farming competence.
Our advice: Its much better to focus on the seemingly intangible farming investments that really pay off - fencing, systematic soil improvement, planting for mulch and shade, earthworks, water management and distribution, adding livestock and composting.
4) It's probably best to "try before you buy"?
Economic prosperity has created a surfeit of people who have the means to buy farmland, and the desire for the idyllic existence that they imagine farming to be. As a result they usually begin by buying land - despite not having any idea about what they plan to grow, which type of land their intended crop requires and where their market is likely to be.
No sensible project should proceed without this understanding and without some time taken to immerse yourself in an environment that allows you to understand the factors that go into becoming a successful farmer - both at growing and at achieving profits.
Our advice: Find a successful farm of the kind that you aspire to have (ideally in the same climatic zone) and spend several weeks experiencing what it takes and learning what skills you need to acquire. Especially important is to understand the business model of the farm, and a few farms have apprenticeships or workshops that are really worth the time and money spent.
5) Keep in mind that Food is the New agricultural "cash crop"
Too many farmers buy into the idea of cash crops being the only way for farming to be profitable - which is a compelling idea until it fails spectacularly. Cash crops that become successes (and not all do), immediately attract everyone seeking a "surefire formula for success".
Unfortunately, in a supply-demand driven market, one season's cash crop becomes the next season's disaster. The solution is to grow things that retain their market value with less volatility - and for the most part food crops (fruits, pulses and vegetables especially) now make great financial sense for farms near cities or towns.
Our advice: Diversify your farm produce to include food crops if you are closer to the city and have access to local customers rather than outstation markets. Else, look to grow things that can be value-added in some way, perhaps processed into food products (jams, jellies etc.), along with some cash crops you may want to try.
6) In today's scenario, going solo is a major struggle
Many of us believe in the myth of self-made success. But in a world where the ecosystem of services and products that support farmers are broken, collaboration with other farmers has become critical.
Working together can bring economies of scale to various aspects of farming - access to farm machinery, purchase/exchange of manure, sharing of seeds, combining produce, sharing labour, gaining access to city markets and increasing efficiency of logistics.
Our advice: Try and find locations where other farmers are serious about growing, or work hard to create some synergy with neighbouring farmers. Without this, the process of farming can pretty lonely, cost inefficient and frustrating.
7) Don't do it to save the world, at best you might save yourself
While we are strong believers in the idea that as citizens we have a responsibility to our environment and to our community, we do not believe that just an altruistic approach towards farming can be sustained. Its best to look at the personal benefits - both real and psychic - that one can gain from this route to a simpler, healthier and slower pace of life.
Our advice: Before you attempt to save the world through organic farming, please establish without a doubt that its something that can actually help you "save yourself". Putting the cart before the horse rarely works out well.
8) Chasing farm subsidies is like playing "saanp-seedhee" (snakes and ladders)
MANY people who approach us want to begin with an understanding of the subsidies that can help them reduce their costs. From what we have seen, only a handful of the schemes actually provide farmers what they need (especially if you are an organic farmer). Most of them involve getting you into a higher investment model or out-dated business model of farming which actually increases risks.
Remember that something that saves costs doesn't always result in better business results. The mechanisation of farming is an example - experience shows us that many tractors/tillers given out are under-utilised and poorly maintained.
Our advice: Your farm business model needs to be built to work without any subsidies at all. Any relief that comes from a subsidy schemes should be incidental and treated like a bonus. Regular fencing schemes (not electric) and those addressing construction of wells and irrigation systems may be the only exception we recommend.