How to become a small-scale farmer

Nathan Wiebe

Have you ever wondered how a person becomes a small-scale farmer?

There are no college courses you can take on how to start a farm business (Emily went to school for four years at a prestigious agriculture school and no such course was available). There are no trade schools. There is no certification you can acquire. There aren't any legitimate apprenticeship programs that are credentialed by a third-party organization. There aren’t even free community lands in which an aspiring farmer can hone their skills and build a career.

A career in small-scale farming is so neglected in our culture that essentially all small-scale farmers are self-taught. We take jobs on farms where we learn a lot about how to weed and harvest, but that’s about it. Most of our knowledge comes from books, podcasts and failures.

If we want to practice our farming skills we have to seek out and lease underutilized land from someone who owns, which puts us at the mercy of the land owners. Starting a farm also requires a significant investment. Banks won’t give you a loan so you end up maxing out your credit cards. You can’t afford all the tools that you need to be efficient so you settle for working harder instead of smarter. Your whole business is basically held together with bubble gum and shoe strings. What other valued career is set up this way?

Imagine if other public servant careers such as fire fighter, doctor and police officer were set up this way. Small-scale farmers are public servants who aren't given the same access to resources or respect as these other professions.

No amount of firefighters can prevent wildfires from getting worse as our climate warms - but enough small-scale farms could. No amount of police officers can create the community that we desire - but enough small-scale farms could. No amount of doctors could give us the health that we desire - but enough small-scale farms could. No amount of economic policies could give us a thriving local economy filled with meaningful jobs that we desire - but enough small-scale farms could. So why aren’t we giving them the resources they need to start their careers?

We all feel a sense of pride when someone from our community decides they want to become a community-based farmer. The sad truth however, is that most young farmers don't make it. They get overworked, they’re underpaid, and eventually they burn out and quit. The path to becoming a small-scale farmer is incredibly arduous under our current circumstances. And yet, the services they provide are essential if we ever hope to change our destructive, industrialized food system.