Report from the Field: The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming


What kinds of pathways can an aspiring farmer take to get up and running? And what new tools can be found in a Northeast-based beginning farmer’s toolkit? This past January, Melissa Madden of The Good Life Farm teamed up with other farmers and resource providers to present “The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming” at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. Here, she reflects on the presentation and shares some tips for those just starting out.

By Melissa Madden with input from Erica Frenay and Maryrose Livingston

As a beginning farmer, I am typically hungry for resources to help my planning and skill development. Before I reached my current stage in the process of Farming as a Career, I was able to bounce around through apprenticeships, manager positions and an incubator farm opportunity. These resources were essential to my personal development as both a farmer and a citizen, and when working with “aspiring” beginning farmers, I often emphasize this path. What is clear to me now is that over the past 5-10 years, resources to support the beginning farmer population have blossomed into a well-rounded set of tools designed for multiple learning styles. While both my partner and I took a very hands-on approach that landed us at our new farm (The Good Life Farm, Interlaken, NY), we barely tapped the current plethora of resources which range from non-profits, like our dear Groundswell’s programs and affiliates (Ithaca Crop Mob, Finger Lakes CRAFT), to increased offerings in sustainable agriculture at universities and colleges (see the Beginning Farmer Project, for one), to more focused apprenticeships and management positions offered through farming associations (see NOFA-NY’s new apprentice matching tool and the BioDynamic Association for examples).

From my perspective as both a farmer and Cornell’s former staff member assigned to the Dilmun Hill Student Farm, public and private resources are providing new farmers– young and old–with everything from land acquisition advice to accounting to farm safety training and essential technical skills. Trying to encapsulate the variety of things a new farmer needs to know in any one session or resource can be daunting, and that is exactly what a group of Groundswell and Cornell- affiliated farmers and educators did this past January at NOFA-NY’s 2011 Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. Led by Erica Frenay, Cornell Small Farms Program’s Beginning Farmer Project Coordinator, we guided workshop participants through a day-long session focused on de-mystifying the farm start-up process. The “Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming” topic was in its second year at the 2011 conference, and presenters Erica Frenay and Jamie Edelstein (Wylie Fox Farm, Cato, NY) brought in extra muscle (literally) with Donn Hewes and Maryrose Livingston (Northland Sheep Dairy, Marathon, NY) and the beginning farmer perspective via my partner Garrett Miller and me. Our focus sweepingly included advising participants about goal setting, getting access to good land, start-up financing and business planning, assessing resources and skills, and marketing and profitability. The way it turned out, we might have addressed many more topics than those specifically, but these were the framework for our day.

An important part of the session was getting a handle on who exactly our beginners were. This sort of assessment is something that Groundswell in particular finds itself doing more and more as programs supporting beginning farmers grow. I was personally surprised and impressed by the diversity, especially in age, in our beginners’ session. Erica sent out a survey to those signed up for the full day session several weeks before the conference, and while we intended to tailor the session to the survey results, we ended up finding that they were broad and hit on every topic we intended to cover anyway. We stuck to our original set of topics, and allowed each farm to facilitate one or more. Garrett and I facilitated the start-up financing and business planning focus and very much enjoyed putting all of our financial and production information into presentable format. We spent a good part of the preceding
weeks detailing how certain crops and animals in our perennial polycultures fit with our general values, our short- and long-term goals for the farm and our short- and long-term income cycle. Each topic was presented in a different style- some free-form with a discussion format and others, like ours, with detailed spreadsheets and PowerPoint backup. We also created several activities designed to let the audience assess some of their own resources and skills. Many of these resources are available online through the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.

One topic that we all struggled to address was how to gain access to land as a beginning farmer. Each farmer at the workshop had a different path to land acquisition: some bought cheap land without outside financing, some farmers bought existing farms financed through older, retiring farmers, and others used a plethora of funding options to obtain productive, well situated land. The land access issue became an ongoing point of discussion throughout the entire conference. NOFA-NY had done so much work to attract young and beginning farmers to the “farm movement,” yet those start-up farmers are still struggling to find and finance land. This is a subject that we all hope to address further in the future.

The majority of our participants seemed pleased and felt well-informed after our Friday-long session. As a team, we left feeling that we’d brought useful resources to an eager group, and helped them on their way to a certain degree. Upon writing this, I find myself reflecting on what exactly led Garrett and I to decide we were ready for our particular (and peculiar?) farm start-up. At sessions like these, someone will inevitably ask “How do I know when I’m a farmer?” On the way to the winter  conference, our carload joked that “you can tell you’re a farmer when you don’t have a social life and all you can do is talk about farming.” I’d amend that with “when most of your dreams revolve around your farming activities.”

Resources from the conference:
Northeast Beginning Farmer Project
• Production Plan worksheets
• The Alphabet Soup of Agencies and Organizations Serving Beginning Farmers and a Beginning Farmer Service Providers Map
• Beginning Farm Start-Up Template
• Beginning Farmer Skills checklist
• Guide to Farming in NY, updated for 2011

Melissa Madden and her partner Garrett Miller run The Good Life Farm in Interlaken, New York, a farm guided by permaculture, season extension, and animal-power principles. She is also one of the mentor farmers of the Finger Lakes CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance in Farmer Training) She can be reached at