Jennifer and David Fudge manage Fudge Farms in Lapeer, Michigan. This season marks their third year of farming—hopefully the first year their profits outpace their expenses. If their timeline follows the average business startup, they will meet that goal and surpass a hurdle many believe is unsurmountable without financial aid.
Although they lived in the suburbs for eight years prior to their move to the country, the couple always had a large backyard garden. Their garden produced in such abundance that they would offer vegetables to neighbors throughout the growing season.
“We got really good at gardening and decided we wanted to scale up,” Jennifer said.
They sold their home in the suburbs at the height of the market, bought 10 acres of rural land, and immediately started farming it.
Like many small farmers getting their start , the Fudges had to overcome significant obstacles when they made the decision to expand their operations—including acquiring enough money to afford the equipment they would need.
An inquiry into Facebook Groups organized around homesteading and small farming will elicit different startup stories in this field.
Jessica Roberts belongs to the 150,000-member “Small Farm, Sustainability, and Homestead Living” Facebook Group. She and her husband bought 6.5 acres with cash they saved up and lived in a camper for two years. This enabled them to begin building out infrastructure such as a driveway and storage building, and also purchase animals—goats, rabbits, and most recently, chickens.
“It’s just a matter of saving and getting stuff a little at a time,” she commented.
Emilee Hunter Rogers and her husband took a similar approach, as well as employing what she describes as “the trade method.”
“We traded my husband’s older truck for our first 3 cows,” she explained. “It’s worked well for us.”
Barriers to Small Farming
As individuals and families have recognized the benefits of getting into small farming—a simpler lifestyle, an independent income, and food security to name a few—small farms have been popping up all over rural, suburban, and even urban America.
Small farming has always been a crucial part of the national and global economy. While family farms contribute 80% of the world’s food, they comprised just 19% of the United State’s value of all agricultural products in 2017.
According to data from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture—the most recent report available—growth in the small farming industry is happening at the highest rates in the 35 and under and 65 and over age groups.
The last National Young Farmers Coalition survey in 2017 claimed that land access was the biggest challenge facing young farmers.
There is no doubt that land is a significant expense and the most necessary one to start a small farm, but it’s hardly unattainable.
Acretrader estimates that the average cost per acre in the United States is $4,442. The online farmland investment company has analyzed the price of farmland over the past 20 years and discovered that the cost rises 4.5% each year—mostly keeping up with inflation rates, which are projected to hit 2.26% by 2021.
So what else is keeping young farmers from getting into the business? The National Young Farmers Coalition says their survey found that student loan debt, labor, and health insurance were the reasons people stopped pursuing small farming after land access.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll see that 26% of respondents selected “Other” as an answer to the question “Why did you stop farming?” In their report, they explain these responses away with little exploration into the core issue:
“Other respondents selecting “other” referenced a lack of farm profitability.” That’s where the report ends the discussion of farm profitability, which can be impacted by a number of factors including the cost of equipment to make farm operations more efficient and productive.
Equipment Sources for Small Farmers
Jonathan Dysinger is the owner and chief inventor at Farmer’s Friend, an equipment manufacturer specializing in tools for small farmers. He says his family has been profitably small farming since 1998—always on less than 5 acres, but primarily on a little more than one acre.
“When we started in ‘98, there were very few people doing that [running small farms],” Dysinger said. “Now there's a number of farms within just a few miles of here [the Farmers Friend facility in Williamsport, Tennessee]. And there's dozens and dozens of farmers around the middle Tennessee area.”
His company started with the invention of the Quick-Cut Greens Harvester—a machine that automates baby green harvesting and saves a ton of time for farmers who would otherwise be kneeling on the ground and hovering over their garden beds with a knife or scissors.
A review of the tool by Allison Rooney of Cloud Nine Farm revealed its ability to help small farmers increase their efficiency so they have time for other income-producing tasks and increase their capacity to sell more products. Rooney was spending 5 minutes manually harvesting one pound of baby greens before the Quick-Cut Greens Harvester. Now she spends just 30 seconds on the same task.
Equipment costs can make or break a small farm. Between combines, utility tractors, no-till planters, and skid loaders, small farms can spend up to half a million dollars or more to perform daily activities.
In the U.S. farmers spend $11.9 million on tractors and self-propelled machinery, plus an additional $5.1 million on other types of farm equipment.
Of course, many of these tools aren’t needed to farm 1 to 9 acres of land, which is the definition of a small farm according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. But the average family farm is at least 231 acres—a size that would warrant bigger machinery depending on the type of crops grown on the land.
Managing a small farm in a profitable way, however, requires equipment that can automate processes ranging from weeding and irrigation to harvesting and processing as well as extending growing seasons with caterpillar tunnels, shade cloths, and agriculture frost-protection covers—all of which Farmers Friend provides on their website.
Jonathan and Abby Dysinger are the co-owners of Farmers Friend. | Farmers Friend Facebook
Farmers Friends goal—as it appears in their business name and mission statement—is to design products “to equip, educate, and inspire growers to change the world through regenerative agriculture.”
When their team begins to design another product, they don’t try to complicate a product another company is already offering.
“We try to focus on things that either nobody else is doing, or somebody else is doing, but it's just way too expensive and we feel like we could do it at a much better price,” he said. “Or something that somebody else is doing, but they're just doing it really, really poorly—the availability is not good or the product quality is not good.”
The growth in small farming has treated Dysinger’s business kindly, especially over the past year as COVID-19 set many individuals and families on a new path.
“We were already seeing an increase in sales at the beginning of that year ,” Dysinger said.
The company invested in their marketing efforts and saw 60% more sales come through.
“And then March rolled around and the pandemic hit. And we started it [marketing] and it increased even more to the point that we had 110% growth in 2020, over 2019,” he added.
This fall, the company and its 58 employees will be moving into a new 35,000-square-foot production facility in Centerville, Tennessee—another sign that small farming is not a dying industry and that equipment to do the job does not have to be a barrier to burgeoning small farmers.
Are loans the only option?
As more young small farmers tap into this industry, which contributes $2.4 trillion to the global economy, the government and banks have eagerly increased their investment in these farmers and rural small business owners by offering a variety of loans and grants.
In fact, the USDA increased their grant funding for their Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program within the first couple of months of 2021. From December 2020 when the program was announced to May 4th when the period for submitting applications ended, the funding available for applicants increased from $33 million to $76 million and could be used for processing costs, marketing and advertising expenses, and some inventory and salary expenses.
Many grants require a cost share match from the applicant, which dissuades farmers like Jennifer and David Fudge.
“We did look into loans, but at the end of the day I did not want anyone telling me what I had to grow or how I had to grow it in order to get the loan or grant,” Jennifer said. “Plus most grants were a you put up the money yourself in the beginning and if you meet these certain requirements they may reimburse you some. I just didn't see the point.”
Instead, the Fudges worked a two-pronged approach. Firstly, her husband has an off-farm job as the owner of an I.T. company. This is a tactic that 65% of young farmers and 58% of all farmers use to fund their farming operations.
Second, they slowly add elements to their farm as they are able to financially--and as they are physically able to maintain it, Jennifer says.
As an equipment provider for small farmers, Dysinger has an interesting perspective on loans and grants.
“I don't think that they're necessary,” he said. “I think they're valuable resources.”
For example, Tim West of the YouTube channel “A Season of Tomatoes” has used grants to purchase equipment for their farms. After receiving a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, West bought a high tunnel from Farmers Friend.
“I didn't think I could find a high tunnel that would fit my $4,000 budget,” he commented on a video from the company’s Centerville groundbreaking.
Farming in Oklahoma, West needed a high tunnel that could withstand high winds.
“With input from customer service we decided that if we used the lift kit, the Pro Quonset hut tent and cemented in every other base pole, it should work,” West said. “Since then it has endured 80 mph winds more than once, with not a bit of trouble.”
“Farmers Friend has enabled a very inexperienced tomato grower to become a top grower in my area, well within my $4,000 budget,” he added.
Still, Dysinger has witnessed first-hand the creative financing options small farmers can find when they are averse to restrictive loans and grants. Through his company’s production of the popular YouTube series, “The Good Life,” Dysinger said he has met farmers--especially in city environments—who have leased lots from people willing to let them garden their yards.
He also shared an option which he used to fund Farmers Friend when he was just a twenty-something year old tinkering with the idea of an automatic greens harvester in his friend’s garage.
His family had been selling strawberries and a small array of vegetables to customers in Nashville for years. After Dysinger calculated how much money he would need to get the business up and running, his family sent an email to their customer base asking for financial backing of their son’s project, and miraculously they received it.
There are many ways to get the funding you need to start your small farm and even expand operations. Sometimes your greatest ally isn’t an organization that relies on debt and taxpayer money; sometimes your greatest ally is your neighbor, a customer, or a friend.