Farming is a complex and capital-intensive business to enter, especially for people who didn’t grow up on the land.
Getting started can be even more challenging for farmers who want to farm organically, given the extra rules they must follow.
Don Cimato, a farmer-to-farmer mentor with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, presented the advice he gives to new farmers in a May 25 webinar.
Cimato is the head grower at Homecoming Farm in Amityville, New York. Because he farms on populous Long Island, Cimato well knows one of the biggest practical challenges of starting a farm — farmland is scarce and at a premium.
“Ideally, you own it or could buy it,” Cimato said. “If you’re not in that position, you could lease it from an existing farmer or a land trust.”
Cimato’s farm solved this problem by finding land that a religious group has kept in farming for almost 150 years. The Dominican Sisters donate the use of 7 acres to Homecoming Farm.
With so little space to turn a profit, a farmer could be tempted to cram as many rows into the farm as possible. But Cimato said growers need to be realistic.
“Have enough room to get your machinery cleanly through,” he said. “You don’t want to have areas that are too close to buildings.”
While reduced tillage and no-till are popular management methods, Cimato said he does not recommend them for beginning organic farmers.
Conventional tillage is easier, and he said some studies have not found a yield benefit from no-till.
Growers may also want to consider raised beds, he said.
Whatever the production system, growers will need access to water. In urbanized areas this could be from a municipal source, but it could also come from a well, ponds or rainwater.
Cimato also keeps bees to improve pollination.
Cimato encouraged growers to consider soil testing, whether through a local Extension office or a lab.
“Then you’ll be able to address any issues,” he said. “They’ll give you recommendations.”
Knowing the Local Market
Farmers must also think about where they will sell their goods: wholesale or retail? Direct sale to restaurants, grocery stores or processors? CSA, farm stand, home delivery service or farmers market?
“Some people do a combination of those,” Cimato said. “It may affect what you’ll be growing, when you’ll be starting and when you’ll be ending.”
The farm where Cimato works sells all of its produce through CSA shares. Members receive 10 to 15 pounds of organic vegetables, plus herbs and bouquets of flowers.
The farm specializes in heirloom varieties.
“I do a lot of seed saving,” Cimato said. “I’m interested in things from Asia and Siberia.”
Indeed, the demographics of an area can influence what a farmer grows.
“Look at ethnic groups in your community you’ll be appealing to,” he said. “We have a large Eastern European population, a large Hispanic population and a Caribbean population. What can we grow that these folks can’t buy in a local grocery store?”
The Right Tools for the Job
Farmers must also consider their equipment. They will need basic tools like hammers and screwdrivers, hand tools if they will be doing small-scale cultivating, and machinery.
“If you get to a larger scale, you’ll need more,” Cimato said.
Farms that build greenhouses will need additional equipment to outfit them, like heat mats and grow lights.
Many new farmers may overlook cleaning supplies and equipment for washing, sorting and selling their produce, but this equipment is important.
“You want to have the stuff you’re bringing to market clean without tons of dirt,” he said.
Farmers with small plots should consider companion planting. This year Cimato increased the size of his CSA by interplanting items such as lettuce with beets and leeks with kale.
“Make sure you don’t plant things together that don’t get along,” he added. “I once had cucumbers and sunflowers. Sunflowers send out chemicals into the soil that made the cucumbers not do well.”
Cimato recommended “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte as a guide for companion cropping. The book was first published in the 1970s but remains widely available.
Weed suppression can be a major challenge in organic farming.
Cimato has used mulch in the past, but has found that except for plastic mulch, most of it blows away on his wind-prone farm. Plastic mulch still allows weeds through and can be time consuming to remove, but he thinks it’s worthwhile considering the weeding time it saves.