Learning How to Farm
If you aim to be profitable, to have your farm provide some or all of your livelihood, you need to have solid production skills. Farmers are in charge of choreographing the intricate variables of all their various products, and need to have intimate knowledge of soil, pests and parasites, plant biology, animal health, weather and climate, equipment, water systems, markets, finances…
There are many ways to learn the production skills necessary to make a living farming. Hands-on is the best way, but there are bundles of other opportunities to arm yourself with knowledge in the evenings and during long winters. Try a mix of the following:
1. Read voraciously
Books – No matter what you’re thinking of producing, there’s been at least one book written about it and probably many more. Acres USA, Chelsea Green Publishing, and Storey Publishing are a few popular places to look for relevant titles. Check out readings that successful farmers have recommended. Once you find titles of interest, you may be able to borrow them from your local library.
Fact Sheets – The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) maintains one of the best websites with incredible amounts of information and fact sheets related to just about any farming enterprise. The Cornell Small Farms Program website has links to enterprise-specific fact sheets, books and articles too.
Magazines – There are dozens of publications about farming. Most are focused on homestead and gardening, but if you have a vegetable business, Growing for Market is one of the most commonly recommended publications. Many livestock and dairy graziers subscribe to Graze! or the Stockman Grass Farmer. Search online for your farm enterprise type + the word “magazine” and you’ll likely find many others.
2. Watch videos and webinars
Videos online - Visit our video gallery to learn about all aspects of farming, including dozens of clips showcasing in-depth production techniques on 6 farms, including two vegetable CSA’s, a sheep dairy, a diversified livestock/veggie/herb farm, and an orchard.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology also offers an online video archive with long videos (>1 hr) on topics like getting started with apple orchards, grass-finished beef production, and sheep & goats. (If the videos keep stopping when you try to watch them, hit “pause” and give them a few minutes to fully load)
Videos to buy or rent - If your internet is too slow to watch anything online, you might try the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s (NOFA’s) incredible collection of DVDs, mostly recorded at their summer conferences in MA. They are available for purchase or rent.
Webinar recordings - Webinars are web-based seminars. Several organizations offer webinars for farmers and then post the recordings for free online. Check out the Practical Farmers of Iowa’s “Farminars”, the University of Vermont’s New Farmer Webinar series, and eOrganic’s Webinar Archive on organic production topics. All are excellent sources of high-quality information on a variety of production and business topics.
3. Take workshops and farm tours
Get connected to your local service providers, like Cooperative Extension and local grassroots non-profits. If you’re on their mailing lists, you’ll learn about the many seasonal workshops and farm tours offered. Most of the organizations listed in our Who Can Help? map offer trainings of some kind – contact them directly to find out.
4. Work on a farm (or several!) for a season or more
This is hands-down the best way to learn to farm. Working on a farm gives you a feel of the daily rhythm, a reality check of the work involved, and direct experience with the systems and skills required to produce food. If you have the freedom and flexibility to do this, you’ll find land listings, apprenticeships, internships, and farm jobs listed at our Farming Opportunities page.
5. Connect with a mentor
OK, depending on your location and schedule restrictions, this might be really difficult. But make it a goal, because mentorship from an experienced farmer will enrich your farming experience and save you a lot of money and heartache. Ideally, a mentor is someone who lives nearby, who can come to visit your farm occasionally. But if this isn’t possible, you may settle for a phone or online relationship with a farmer who is willing to help you along the way. Your local Cooperative Extension or other farm service organization in your area may be able to help connect you with a farmer who has expertise in your particular type of operation – try searching our map to find organizations near you.
6. Try it yourself on a micro-scale
Book and video learning only goes so far. Eventually you just have to get your hands dirty. If you haven’t had the benefit of working on someone else’s farm (or even if you have!), assume you will make lots of mistakes. Start small, so your mistakes don’t put you out of business. Raise 25 chickens rather than 250 on your first try. Take LOTS of notes and keep a careful accounting of costs and revenue, and ideas for improvement the next year. Grow slowly, and only as your confidence and successes grow.