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Corn: To grow or not?

(Wednesday, July 9, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- George DeVault, Lancaster Farming, 05/17/03: Never mind that he is based in Des Moines, Iowa, the heart of the western Corn Belt. Never mind that 90 percent of the 440,000 people who read his magazine grow at least some corn or that the best Midwestern growers can net $95 to $175 an acre on corn, plus $30 an acre from the federal government. When it comes to getting started in farming today, Successful Farming Business Editor Dan Looker has this advice: Don't grow corn!

"That net income of roughly $200 an acre pales in comparison to what an acre of established raspberries might produce in Pennsylvania," Looker told a crowd of about 200 at the Ninth Annual New & Beginning Farmer Workshop in Grantville, Pa.

"Why you don't need to grow corn to get started in farming" was the title of Looker's keynote address at the popular conference sponsored by Pennsylvania Farm Link. By a show of hands, about 95 percent of the people in the audience said they wanted to become farmers.

"The title of my talk today was inspired by my experience at The New Farm," said Looker, who worked at the magazine in the early 1980s. (Although New Farm folded as a magazine in 1995, it was just revived as a webzine by the Rodale Institute at www.newfarm.org).

"One of the people on the Rodale Press staff owned a small raspberry farm that was profitable. It provided some part-time income that supplemented his salary at Rodale. But what he really wanted to do was to someday have enough land and the machinery to grow a crop of corn. Even in those days, it didn't seem like you were a real farmer unless you could grow corn."

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Looker and all the other workshop speakers. Growing corn does not a farmer make. In fact, with low commodity prices and rising production costs, corn can easily break a farm.

"According to Dick Funt, a small fruit specialist at Ohio State University, established raspberries can return $1,000 an acre or more over costs. His numbers make you wonder why anyone would want to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery to grow corn that might net you $200 in one of those rare years when you have a good crop and most of the world doesn't. According to Funt, raspberry farms have the potential to return about 12 percent on your investment. That's a lot more than the three to five percent that investors in Midwest corn ground might expect these days," Looker said.

Of course, raspberries are not an instant key to success. It takes a few years and maybe $6,000 to establish an acre of raspberries with trickle irrigation. So, raspberries may not be for everyone, but there are plenty of other profitable crops you can produce.

"If you can rent a small plot of land, you may be able to sell vegetables in the summer and pumpkins on the fall," Looker said. "If that goes well and if you have long-term access to land, then Dick Funt suggests moving into pick-your-own strawberries, which reach full production in three years. And, eventually, raspberries or blueberries may fit in."

Looker knows a lot about beginning farmers. After moving from The Des Moines Register to Successful Farming magazine, he wrote an entire book about people getting started in farming. It's called "Farmers for the Future." Even though the book was published in 1996, Looker said most of the farmers he featured are still in farming today, although maybe not exactly in the way they thought they would be in the beginning.

That, Looker and the other speakers said, is because getting started in farming today requires flexibility and a diverse mix of high-value crops that may include:

  • Pastured poultry, for both meat and eggs.
  • Controlled grazing of any kind of livestock to help keep capital investment and production costs low.
  • Organic production.
  • Vegetables.
  • Dairy goats.
  • Farmstead cheese.
  • Agritourism, or entertainment farming, as some call it. That can include everything from corn mazes and hayrides through you-pick pumpkin patches to fee fishing and hunting and even running a bed and breakfast on your farm.

"We need to look at living and working on farms in the broadest possible ways. Land can be used for more than producing food. Pennsylvania is blessed with a lot of beautiful farms that would appeal to city folks," Looker observed. Having a good website for your farm is essential to success in any kind of agritourism, since so many city people plan their vacations with the help of the world wide web. Two-thirds of Americans now have web access. They spend an average of 10 hours a week on line, and only two hours a week reading the newspaper.

While crop and enterprise mix can and will vary greatly from farm to farm and region to region, all of the speakers said there are timeless "guiding principles" that can help any beginning farmer. Here is a sampling:

* Start small and go slow.

Today, Charles Conklin produces 300,000 pounds of trout and largemouth bass a year at his Pocono Mountain Fish and Seafood Company. He started the business 31 years ago -- with just 100 fish.

"By starting slowly, I mean doing your homework before you ever put a seed in the ground. Chip Planck, a college professor who became a vegetable farmer outside of Washington, D.C., has put how you should do this in the right order," Looker said, quoting Planck from "Farmers for the Future:"

"The best ag school of all is your own farm. The next best, working at another farm for money. The next, working at another farm for no money. The worst, an ag school where you must pay them."

* Make sure your first customers are satisfied. There is no better advertising than word-of-mouth.

* Don't try to do everything.

"A lot of these agritourism businesses are very time consuming, just as is a lot of direct marketing," Looker cautioned. "I've visited some CSA farms that raise and market 40 or 50 different vegetables. That variety is part of the appeal over the blandness of supermarkets. But I can't imagine doing that and then having to cook breakfast and wash bedding for tourists every day on top of that.

"Agriculture is becoming more specialized but also a lot more diverse these days. Our system of food production includes Joel Salatin's system of pasture poultry production and Tyson Foods. No facet of this is simple. Some of it, including pasture farrowing and organic vegetable production, is far from simple. There are good reasons why many farmers would never try either one."

* Sell everything directly to consumers. Eliminate middlemen and put the whole food dollar in your pocket.

* Find a mentor.

* Know thy enemy, even if it means working a summer at a confinement hog operation. You'll learn what they're doing wrong -- and what you can do better.

* Join a trade group like the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association ( http://www.nafdma.com ) to meet people in the same type of farming and exchange ideas.

* Don't rush out and buy land.

"Buying land these days would be economic suicide for many young farmers," Looker said. "Land prices have hit all-time highs in many areas. It's probably best to start out renting. This is where the linking programs may be able to help you."

Instead of buying land, Charles Marshall from the federal Farm Services Agency advised beginning farmers to "put your money into income-producing things. You have to reduce the amount of money you need. Do not buy land at the outset."

* Use credit sparingly -- and wisely.

* Save your money.

"Don't go out to eat, buy new cars or a lot of new clothes," advised Brian Moyer, a Berks County pastured poultry producer. "Go to the store very little. Make do with what you have."

* Add value to what you produce.

"Value-added is where farmers here in Pennsylvania and the rest of the Northeast can beat the socks off of those of us in the Midwest who raise corn," said Looker. "We may have some of the best soils and flattest fields on earth, but you've got millions of potential customers."

Holley Moyer, Brian's helpmate, said she does that by turning her goat milk into several different kinds of "pot cheese," which is exempt from food processing laws. Just one gallon of milk produces one pound of cheese that retails for $14, which is more than most dairy producers receive for milk by hundredweight.

The Moyers first bought goats to reclaim overgrown land.

* Buy crop insurance, advised John Berry, Extension marketing specialist for southeastern Pennsylvania. It is a good risk management tool, comparable to homeowners, health and auto insurance.

* Explore the financial, land, housing and other resources of your extended family before turning to lenders and real estate agents. Federal farm programs, the speakers said, won't do much for beginners since they mostly help larger, established farms that are getting bigger and pushing land prices higher. That's especially true of commodity programs.

Hog production, once a traditional "mortgage burner," is also risky for beginners, unless they specialize in pastured or organic production and direct marketing, usually to some niche market.

Successfully getting started in farming today all comes down to learning to be a successful entrepreneur, not just an agronomist or tractor driver, concluded Marion Bowlan, executive director of Pennsylvania Farm Link.

Key personality traits include passion and persistence, good health and lots of energy, creativity and innovation, independence and self-reliance, good intuition, self-confidence, market awareness, lack of need for status, acceptance of challenge and a strong work ethic. As what she called a "calculated risk-taker," you'll no doubt figure out pretty quickly on your own that corn is definitely not the place to start.

George DeVault raises ceretified organic vegetables in Lehigh County. He is a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a program of the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in partnership with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.