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
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