So, You Want to Be a Farmer
A veteran shares the challenges of beginning a farm.
Before making the decision to become a “farmer,” “agricultural producer,” or “grower,” there are many things that should be considered. This is a decision that cannot be taken lightly, because like many vocations, farming is more than a job or career; it’s a way of life. If that way of life isn’t cherished, you won’t be successful, because the lifestyle tradeoffs are too numerous and will result in conflict. For me, after a military career in which the US Army was at war for nearly 25 of my 27 years in service, I needed a more peaceful life.
My journey began four decades ago growing up in Onondaga County. During this period, I developed a deep love for all things outdoors. My very first job was as a fruit picker; I had just completed fifth grade and learned from a very young age about farm labor. In high school, I briefly worked on a farm and liked it, further solidifying my love for the outdoors. However, I had a dilemma to work through. My father, three uncles, and most of the other male members of my family were veterans. Their sacrifices and positive impact on our country (a pharmacist, doctor, chef, and business owners) weighed heavily on me, so I ultimately decided I had a debt to pay to our country.
For my wife, who grew up as an Army brat, the closest she ever got to a farm was the grocery store. When I graduated from The Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in 1987 with a BS in Agricultural Science, I became a commissioned Army officer. From PSU I went straight into the Army, putting my dreams of being a landowner on hold for an undetermined period of time. Then, as a senior officer the decision to leave the service boiled down to:
1.Our children were paying the bill for my career. Upon retiring and moving to NY, our then 4 and 8, and 13 year old had been in 3 schools in 3 states.
2.In the Army, we continued to put on hold any personal lifestyle dreams and goals,
3.I wanted to run for US Congress in my local district (NY 24). The military had given me considerable leadership and business experience that I thought could benefit NY state and our community.
After my wife and I decided to buy a farm, it took two years of dedicated searching to actually find one. This is the first major challenge to anyone considering farming. Simple land access is a major impediment. Although some may be lucky and receive land through the estate or gifting processes, most do not. We experienced land acquisition through the school of hard knocks. Although I can only speak of our experiences, I have heard others say the same thing: that this is perhaps the single greatest challenge to farming. After applying the criteria which met our needs, most properties wouldn’t work, which further challenged us.
Moreover, buying a farm is not like buying a home; we’ve bought and sold several homes and it is comparatively easy. Everything you thought you knew doesn’t apply. This became our most difficult challenge. We cycled through four agents before finding one that had rural and agricultural land experience. They’ll all tell you they do, but it’s not easy to find those who really know their stuff. However, once you do, it is time well spent. In fact, the saving grace to our whole experience was our real estate agent. We would have never been able to navigate the process without her knowledge. We are farmers thanks to her. Bottom line, looking for and purchasing a farm is significantly more stressful for first time buyers than “fee simple” residential real estate.
Once we found the farm we wanted, we were introduced to the next major, yet unknown obstacle; financing. In fact, we almost lost it because of the arduous finance process. After several dozen phone calls to banks and equivalent lending institutions, we found one that was willing to help us realize our dream; only to find in the eleventh hour that they were reversing their decision because we had no farming experience. This chicken and egg situation is something we’ve found replaying itself time and again especially with attempts to secure cost share grant funding.
Somewhere along the way, we were introduced to Farm Credit East (FCE), which saved the day for us. They were prepared to deal with and accept the exact criteria and situations that sent the other traditional banks running. I knew nothing of FCE prior to our farm acquisition, but am a huge fan. Without them, we would be in a cul-de-sac somewhere. Their business model, product mix and most importantly, flexibility, is unique.
After Occupation Surprises
In our eighteenth month on our farm, we are realizing that there are many more unanticipated challenges. One of the greatest, in spite of the generally favorable economic conditions in NYS for agriculture, is the tax burden. After forming an LLC in our first few months, buying our livestock, starting to turn fallow ground back into production, and replacing broken, missing, or otherwise unacceptable fencing, we still can’t get an agricultural tax assessment reduction because we didn’t meet the income threshold of $10K. So, when you need extra cash the most, in the beginning phase of a start up in order to grow the business, you are instead taxed until you can generate $10K per year for two consecutive years.
The money we’ve paid in extra tax burden could have been used to buy equipment (we have none and have been renting), pay an employee or two (our business is run by sweat equity), and develop a website and marketing materials. Bottom line, access to capital and tax policy are significant barriers to entering agriculture. We, like many others, had to make a hard yes/no decision and accept the realization that if we wanted to farm, we would have to first acquire land and deal with everything else, over time, as we could.
I can’t say enough how important having funding to fuel your start up farm operation is. Although there are many grant and funding opportunities advertised, I would have been essentially better off by not spending the time to apply for them and instead simply using the time for more general labor. The documentation burden is so immense that we simply can’t allocate 4-5 days of labor consolidating every tax return and financial statement of our lives up to this point on the “whim” of maybe getting a few thousand in funding. So, if you want to farm and are starting from scratch, be prepared for an uphill battle. Without external jobs, we could not finance an agricultural business startup.
Additionally, simple business risk is a huge potential impediment for new agricultural operations. Recent legislation attempting to require farmers to pay overtime to farm workers, house them in homes with exorbitant standards (unsure if the home we live in would qualify) in addition to significant wage increase requirements have solidified our decision to grow more slowly and not hire anyone until we absolutely cannot handle the workload anymore. Although this legislation was defeated, I am sure it will be back and if passed, will result in significantly higher food prices; thus exacerbating entry barriers.
Legislative attempts to regulate farming like manufacturing will never work. Livestock, crops and other agricultural endeavors require what they need, when they need it, as determined by the weather, seasons and market forces, not an eight hour industrial time clock. Therefore, with respect to farming, it is critical to be “plugged in” so that you know what is going on politically. We accomplished this by becoming NY Farm Bureau members.
Next, I enrolled in a Cornell Farm Risk Mitigation course, which was invaluable. As a result, I was able to immediately identify and fix several risk factors which we had not recognized as such. Although at the time I went to the course, I didn’t realize it, in a few short months, the knowledge gained would become critical.
As with any agricultural endeavor, weather itself is a significant risk factor, which we experienced first-hand in Dec 2014 after losing a barn to snow load. In the wake of the epic storm, we received just under 36” of heavy wet snow in about 24 hours. This paralyzed everything, and we were the first of many in our area to lose infrastructure… welcome to farming! However, thanks to the Cornell course, we had two degree and tertiary emergency action plans that we had developed and implemented. This was unpleasant; however, the preparation made it tolerable.
Often overlooked are the fringe benefits of living on a farm. Things as simple as fresh air, limited noise, few if any “neighbor” problems and issues to contend with and the freedom of space. Additionally, the simple pleasure of knowing your feeding other people, growing your own food to the extent you desire, and having a happy dog that has space to run are all aspects that can be forgotten amidst the pressure of harvest and maintenance cycles; but shouldn’t be! We make it a point to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live were we do and to be responsible caretakers of land in our local community.
Moreover, as we look back and think from a lessons learned perspective about what we did that really enabled us to get underway quickly, it boils down to:
- Get involved in every professional training and educational aspect of your farm’s products. For me, that meant attending many Cornell Small Farm lectures and symposium’s, attending the Howard Wyman Sheep Industry Leadership School (Sponsored by the National Lamb Feeder Association), attending an American Sheep Industry Association professional wool classing school and finding people and opportunities where you could work in your intended field to gain fast, relevant experience in order to decrease “learning curve” trial and error. For my family, we spent almost a week on a commercial ranch in Montana where we worked under supervision to learn necessary husbandry skills;
- Establish networking opportunities by joining the pertinent organizations in your area related to your operation (like the Farm Bureau). We did this as a means to meet people, who then helped us reduce our learning curve challenges.
- Be flexible. You’ll experience many, many “gray area” decision points where you’ll have to make critical decisions with out all the information. As a veteran, I am comfortable in that realm because I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life operating in that space.
- For other veteran families like ours, I think doing all of the above over a period of 3 years prior to retirement or separation would significantly decrease start up time. In our case, we had to wait because we weren’t exactly sure where we were going to live; however, the sooner you can start connecting to the people and organizations that you’ll be working with for the rest of your lives, the better!
Although it takes time and money to start an agricultural operation, it is well worth it. From our perspective as a family it has been great, despite the challenges and in light of the macroeconomic issues facing NYS. Nonetheless, agriculture in NY is a great industry and probably has its brightest days ahead thanks to proactive policies from the governor. We experienced several major obstacles that would have undoubtedly caused many people to quit, but with understanding and preparation have made us more resilient. In the end, the last and perhaps most important point I want to make is that in all things worth pursuing, there will be obstacles which in order to be successful, must be dealt with. In order to deal with setbacks, you have to be persistent. Persistence in and of itself is probably the most discriminating attribute for success in any agricultural endeavor.