If you did not grow up on a farm and do not already have farming experience, this is a critical aspect to your preparation for start-up. Finding someone who is successfully doing what you want to do and working side-by-side with them is the single best way to learn the skills and unique challenges to producing and marketing the product you have chosen. No matter how much you have read about farming, and no matter how successful you have been in any other profession, it is essential to have some real experience in your chosen enterprise before you invest a lot of capital into it.
How you do this depends on your situation:
1. Try out farming with a short farm workstay. Typically this can be organized through WWOOF (World-Wide Oppportunities on Organic Farms) or GrowFood. These opportunities are available throughout the US and the whole world. The arrangement varies a lot by farm, but will give you some direct farm experience in exchange for room and board. This approach is not likely to give you the kind of intensive skills you need to run your own farm, but if you want to try on a couple different enterprise ideas and/or aren’t able to commit to a full apprenticeship, this is a good farm appetizer.
2. Work full- or part-time on a farm as apprentice or employee. If you have the ability to spend a season or a whole year working on a farm, you can get a solid feel for day-to-day farm life. Some resources where you can find these opportunities:
- Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NY) – listing of internship opportunities
- Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) – listing of internship opportunities in PA and nearby states.
- ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas) – maintains a very active database of farm opportunities.
- Contact your county’s Cooperative Extension office about local farm mentorship opportunities.
2. Visit your local farmers’ market to connect with farmers who may be willing to serve as mentors to you, or may allow you to volunteer or intern part-time on their farm. Always be respectful of a farmer’s time, and consider that they may not be interested in helping you until you have cultivated a relationship with them. It takes a lot of time and effort to mentor a new farmer, or to get a new intern up to speed, and time is often the commodity that farmers have in shortest supply.
3. Attend conferences, farm tours, and workshops
These are generally excellent ways to meet farmers and learn innovative and profitable techniques: Northeast Organic Farming (NOFA) Conference (every January) and Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference (early Feb.) are just two examples. See our events calendar for more, and search our Who Can Help map to get connected with your local support network and find out what’s happening in your area.
4. Get started on a micro-scale
Maybe you can’t get away to work on another farm due to your current work and family obligations. But if you have any outdoor space around your home, you can start with a few raised beds, a small laying flock, a couple pigs, or some mushroom logs, and gain a lot of direct experience in your chosen enterprise. You’ll also learn quickly whether this is something you want to do for self-sufficiency, or whether you want to build it into a business.
Mistakes are so much less painful at this scale! Keep track of your expenses, how much time you spend, and how much you harvest. This will help you get a better sense when you plan the finances of a business. As you learn, and as your confidence increases, you can grow your business.