What are the essential requirements for starting a small farm? It seems like a simple question but many people don’t ask these questions and end up working a lot harder than they have to. Think of a small farm as an engineering project. Any small farm is an organized set of activities carried out in a specific location and for a specific purpose. Let’s look at this more closely.
Why Are You Creating a Small Farm?
This is the reason you are even thinking about creating a small farm.
- Is it recreational?
- Are you planning on selling what you grow?
- Do you have any financial goals?
- Is the small farm mainly for sustenance?
These questions are important. Although there is a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction to be had by working a small farm, it is arduous work. This is especially true at the beginning and for the first year. Even after the first year, a farm is a never-ending series of challenges. So whatever reason you decide fits you best, you need to own it because it is your operational mission statement. You may want to get closer to nature or just dig in the dirt. That’s fine. But if you want more than that, you need to plan for it.
How Much Space Do You Need For Your Farm?
How much land and other space you need is determined by your goals. Regardless of your goal, almost all experienced successful farmers recommend starting small and growing. A little research on your favorite search engine shows that 1,000 square feet is a common number that experienced farmers recommend as a starting point. But if you go a little deeper, there’s more to it than just raw square footage. It’s best to think it terms of planting beds and how many you can get when you divide up that square footage.
In many cases, a single bed in your back yard may be enough to get your feet wet. A typical bed is four feet wide by either eight or 12 feet long. That means a maximum area of 48 square feet. Why four feet wide? Because it’s easy to reach across and touch anything in the middle of the bed without straining too much. If you take a 4X8 or a 4X12 bed as your basic unit, you can then research how much space you need to meet your goals. Then, you need to plan what you want to grow and how much space is required for that particular crop. Greens like lettuces are often a cost-effective crop that a beginner can start growing to hone their farming system. They grow quickly and you can see the results of how you are doing things faster. If you fail, you fail faster and hopefully learn faster too.
One a side note, one way to use the space you have more efficiently is by planting companion plants. Certain companion plants work with each other to their mutual benefit while using almost the same space. An example would be a tall plant that provides shade for a more delicate, shorter plant. By selecting certain groupings of companion plants, you can quickly increase your yield without needing additional beds. Other benefits of companion can include an improvement in the flavor of your harvest and better pest resistance.
Where Is Your Small Farm?
There’s an old adage in photography. It goes something like:
Q: What’s the best camera?
A: The one you have on you when you need to photograph something.
Similarly, you need a place to carry out your agricultural activities. In the beginning, the land that is the easiest to farm is the best land. It can be your yard or window planters. You’ll adapt your crops to what your available land supports. Later, if you decide to focus on a certain kind of crop, where you farm will become more important for maximizing yields and reducing wasted effort.
What Tools Do You Need To Start?
It is possible to farm with your bare hands but it’s not a very good idea. A basic set of farming tools is very reasonable and can increase your productivity exponentially. If you use any of the soil enrichment/improvement systems like Deep Soil Creation outlined in John Jeavon’s book Grow More Vegetables, you absolutely need one or more shovels and other soil conditioning tools like a digging fork or a broadfork.
For the basic kit, you will want a shovel, a digging fork, a rake, and a regular or stirrup (loop) hoe. You can always expand on these tools but this is your base. With these implements you can easily till more than 1000 square feet of land. These do not need to be the most expensive versions of these tools, just sturdy.
There are different kinds of shovels you can buy but the one that is more general purpose is a spade-type shovel. The kind of handle you have is a matter of personal preference. Both wood and fiberglass work well. Make sure the length of the handle is long enough to get good leverage. Sharpshooter shovels or drain spades are narrow and more suited to digging post holes and draining troughs. The won’t be nearly as efficient working large areas of soil like planting beds.
Your digging fork is essential for loosening soil and preparing beds. You’ll typically use them to break up compacted soil so you don’t resort to tillers. Most sustainable farming advocates avoid power tillers as they disrupt the biology of the soil. A digging fork can break up hardened topsoil and assist in mixing in compost or other soil conditioners. Some people prefer the broadfork. This is a wide version of the digging fork with 6-8 tines and two handles. Although they do a quicker job preparing compacted soil, they have some disadvantages. A broadfork requires more upper body strength so is not a good option for people with a slighter build. Also, they are ill-suited for rocky soil. Lastly, they aren’t as versatile or utilitarian as the digging fork so for a beginner, we recommend the smaller digging fork.
When we talk about rakes, we mean a hardened garden rake, not a leaf rake. You need something with robust tines that can level the top layer of soil in your bed.
Finally, you’re going to need a hoe to help you with weeding and other smaller soil manipulations. A simple garden hoe is good. Or, you get get a stirrup or swivel hoe that allows you to do more or a chopping style for weeding.
What Other Resources Do You Need?
If you’ve never started a hobby farm any other type of farming activity for that matter, you are going to need sources of knowledge. Between books, blogs and videos, there is no shortage of good information. Facebook user groups can be good but can be less consistent in quality. Some are amazing, some not so much.
Perhaps the biggest resource you need to cultivate is the mental side of agriculture. You need to bring gumption to start with. And you need to bring curiosity and desire to learn. To the degree you nourish and train your mind, your farming will flourish. And, there is a certain amount of just “showing up” you need when you begin. Anybody familiar with James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, part of building great habits entails putting in the work. You can refine and improve 1% per day later.
So what’s your next step to getting started?