Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Become a Farmer

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New Yorkers' interest in where their food comes from and how it is raised has led to a robust farmers' market system, a growing interest in communty gardens and backyard enterprises like raising chickens and keeping bees, and a surprising number of urbanites who are ditching their pots of basil on their fire escape to become farmers.

While there’s not what you’d call a mass exodus from New York City, there is a perceptible upward trend in the number of people wanting to learn more about agriculture. With the number of farmers nationwide in decline, support programs are cropping up to help in that transition: Just Food runs Farm School NYC, the Stone Barns Center in Westchester County runs farmer training programs and hosts an annual sold-out Young Farmers Conference, and a growing number of other non-profits help new farmers find everything they need to take root — from land to capital to customers.

Closer to home, Chris Wayne runs FARMroots, the new farmer development program at GrowNYC, the non-profit that manages New York City's Greenmarkets program. In their offices on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, they offer a USDA-funded, 10-week training class that Wayne said begins with a reality check:

“Can you spend 16 hours in 95 degree heat, working your tail off, for very little money? That's the first question.”

The question is intended to knock the stars out of people's eyes and get them to start thinking more realistically about farming. But Wayne said dreaming is still necessary, and is encouraged.

"One of the first things we have [students] do," said Wayne, "is look deep into their own values: Why are they interested in starting a farm business, and what's going to be that core, central piece that they can look back on at Hour 15 on their farm, and say 'This is why I'm doing this, this is why this is important to me.'"

Once you figure the why, Wayne said it's time to consider the what, the produce or product sector that you want to get into.

    What are you interested in growing, or raising? Wayne said people often come to the class already inspired by a vegetable or fruit that they had success with in their community or backyard gardens. What skills do you already have that you could utilize? Wayne explained that farming requires "an incredibly wide range of skills," from welding to marketing plans to graphic design work for that perfect label that's going to sell your pickled green beans. "You may not be coming to agriculture with a production skill, but there's probably a lot of other things that you don't realize, other skills and experiences that you already have, that are going to play into a successful farm business." Is there a niche you can fill with your farm product? Wayne said beginning farmers can do their own market research. "What do you see when you walk through a farmer's market? Are there some products there that are lacking? What's one of the things that you can't seem to find?"

This Farm Beginnings course takes beginning farmers from mission statement to financial plan to marketing plan. But it’s not all Excel spreadsheets. Wayne said it's also important for aspiring farmers to get out of the classroom and into the field. He said farmers in the Northeast are increasingly accepting interns and apprentices who can earn a small stipend and learn on the job. He said he believes that kind of experience, under the tutelage of an experience farmer, is essential in learning the "true art of agriculture."

"I always say, if I decided tomorrow that i wanted to be an electrician, would I walk into a house the next day, after reading a couple books, and try to set up a house with electricity? Of course not. The same is true with agriculture."

Wayne said that at the end of the course, if participants decide they want to keep their office day job after all, he considers that as much of a success as helping to launch a Future Farmer. "We really want folks who are devoted to this to get out into farms," he said.

Check out our Farm School Resources Page for more farming classes, literature about starting a farm and organizations that connect aspiring farmers with internship opportunities.

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