What Successful Small Farmers Say

Just the other day I remembered a Cornell research report, “What Successful Small Farmers Say, the results of a survey of successful small farm operators.”  I had been visiting on Tuesday with a young couple who was interested in starting a farm on some just-purchased land.  And on Wednesday, with an older couple who had married a couple of years ago- she had land that had been a farm, and he used to own and operate a farm.  The couples had much different backgrounds, skills and balance sheets.  But they had a common goal- wanting to start a farm.

In this study, farmers who operated successful small farms (less than $250,000 of gross sales- a USDA definition) were identified and they answered a number of questions.  There were 79 NY farmers in the study.  Even though the study was published in 2002, I think that the results are still important today.  Here are a number of the highlights that caught my attention from the study. 

Most of the operators had grown up on a farm and had some college education.  (Most but not all.)

Most rated their farm as being successful because it provided both financial and family/lifestyle benefits.

Many operators had a specific desire to keep the farm small.

Just about half of the operators and half of the spouses had off-farm work experience.

Those with off-farm work experience said it helped improve their skills with

    • Record-keeping and planning
    • Reducing expenses 
    • Management

Small dairies usually had higher than average milk production, or were using practices to control costs or were meeting a particular market demand.

Many of the small dairies were using rotational grazing, buying a TMR, or having a custom operator harvest their feed.

Small farms with livestock usually had a specialty market.

Small farms with crops used good basic practices including:

    • Crop rotation and weed control
    • Good fertilization program using soil tests, and a plan for using manure
    • Horticultural farms used variety trials, IPM, and irrigation

Controlling machinery and equipment costs is a big challenge on small farms; they

    • Bought good used machinery
    • Shared machinery and used custom hire
    • Did their own repairs

Labor management ideas included:

    • Avoiding hired labor with labor saving equipment and structures
    • Charging lower prices to customers who help weed and harvest

Successful small farms often had lower costs than similar nearby farms.  Reasons included:

    • Less hired labor
    • A focus on cost control
    • Rotational grazing
    • Doing own repairs
    • Pay less for inputs by shopping around, bulk buying, group buying
    • Cost control often more attention to a lot of little details and a focus on quality

Half of the farms considered non-farm income important.

A quarter believed non-farm income was very significant for their family.

Most farms prepared financial statements, using them mainly for credit.

Farmers considered these things to be hindrances to success:  prices, weather, lack of equity.

Farmers considered these things to be most important for success:

    • Personal factors- family support, and enjoy farming
    • Do the job right, attention to detail, tasks done right and on time
    • Controlling costs- if you can’t control price you have to control costs

Good basic management- farmers listed these things as management

    • Analyze each investment before you make it
    • Select the right enterprises
    • Sound, progressive, active management
    • Good labor management and communication
    • Good records

You can find the entire 90 page report at this website   http://dyson.cornell.edu/research/researchpdf/rb/2002/Cornell_Dyson_rb0201.pdf

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About Dennis Kauppila

I work with farmers on finances. I started with UVM Extension in 1983, and have worked with hundreds of farmers on issues ranging from starting a farm, how to get a loan, leasing a farm, understanding farm finances, to retiring from farming. I teach 1 or 2 courses for farmers each winter. I am working with several farmers now on business plans, and I continue to work with many farmers on balance sheets and budgeting.
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