How to Start an Organic Farm with Nothing but a Dream

barn raising, start an organic farm

barn raising, photo by Rob Spring

A reader recently emailed asking for advice on starting a farm.  She asked:

What advice would you have if starting with nothing but a dream?

First, let me tell you: I love dreams.  I am so good at dreaming of possibilities.  To me, dreaming is the most fun part.  Well, dreaming and actually being at the harvest.  The work in between is harder.  And it’s also necessary.  

But sometimes the hardest part is just getting started.  So, if you’re just at the beginning wondering how to start, here are three important things to do to grow from dream to farm:

Write it down

Writing down your goals automatically increases the likelihood of their fruition.  Ask yourself questions, and write down the answers:

What does your dream look like?  What kind of farm do you want?  Do you want livestock, veggies, flowers, fruit, or a combination?  Where do you want to farm?  

You probably won’t know the answers to each question yet, especially if you’re dream has just sprouted.  But don’t be surprised if a whole picture downloads from your heart to the paper as you write.

As your farm dream comes into vision, ask more detailed questions:

How many people do you want to feed?  How big do you want your farm to be in acreage and sales.  Do you want to farm solo or with others?  Do you want to own or lease land?  Do you want to run a business, or do you want to grow food for yourself and your family?

When you’ve gotten down as many broad strokes and details as possible, ask yourself:

Who do I have to become in order to do this?

This is an essential question.  Take your time here.  Look at everything you’ve just written down.  What new questions arise?

What skills will you need to develop or refine?  What habits will you need to shift?  How will you have to act?

Hoeing in field, our first year starting an organic farm

cultivating during our first season running Good Heart Farmstead

If this is stumping you, that’s okay.  Here’s an example from my life:

I took my first farm crew job the summer I graduated from college.  That summer, I kept up my party habits, staying out late, drinking around campfires, and equally prioritizing my job and my social life.  

As the season went on and I took on more responsibilities, including running the farm when my bosses were gone for a week, my habits changed.  I prioritized sleep so I could wake early and be ready for a full workday.  I started reading books about farming, attending workshops and conferences, and creating relationships with other young farmers.  

In short, I became a more responsible version of myself.  I took care of my body.  And when what I thought would just be a summer job turned into a calling to continue farming, I plunged back into being a student again.

For me, that meant working on all different kinds of farms.  This process took me from Vermont to New Zealand to Alaska and back to Vermont again, working on 5 different farms before finding land of my own.  

And all the while, I kept writing down different versions of my own farm dream.  With each experience, that vision morphed, and even now, 5 years into running a farm of my own, it continues to change.

Which brings us to my next piece of advice:

Be Flexible.

organic market garden, our first year starting an organic farm

Our first crops during the first season of running Good Heart Farmstead

Your goals will shift.  Your vision will grow.  You’ll gain new skills and understanding with each experience.  Out of all the attributes you’ll develop as a farmer—organizing, planning, patience, persistence—flexibility is the most important.  

When you’re working with the weather, livestock, living plants, there’s just so much out of your control.  You’ll have your entire crop map planned out, only to have your transplant dates pushed around due to torrential rain.  You’ll plan a day of cultivation only to have it gobbled up by sheep or goats jumping fence.  You’ll be waiting on a specific variety to ship, only to have the seed company tell you it’s unexpectedly out of stock.  

Flexibility will see you through all this.  

Yes, a solid plan, good organization, and endless persistence will be necessary, but it’s the ability to flex those plans, to reshuffle and respond with humor that will keep you sane.

Take Consistent Action

The number one way to grow your dream into an actual farm is to take consistent action.  Without consistency, growth will stagger.  Consistent is one of those things you’ll need to become in order to farm.

Write down your goals.

Get your hands dirty.

Gain experience on other farms.

Go to farming conferences and meet other farmers.

Take a business course (because running a business requires different skills than growing food)

Whatever action you need to take next, take it.  

With one caveat:

Take time to rest.  You’re not so different from a plant.  We all begin as seeds, be it in the womb or in the soil.  Growth is natural, but so is rest.  Night is here for a reason.  Winter is here is for a reason.  You’ll bloom, you’ll set seeds, and you’ll plant the next iteration of your dream.  

Yes, you’ll need to work harder than you ever thought.  You’ll hit walls of frustration and exhaustion.  You’ll wonder how in the world will you ever be able to figure this all out.  But just remember: consistent action is all you need.  One step in front of the other.  One seed in the soil, and then the next.  

And take time enjoy yourself.  Why grow a dream if you don’t have fun bringing it to fruition?

Edge in Rows of vegetables at Good Heart Farm, our first year starting an organic farm

Edge in the field at Good Heart Farmstead, our first year starting an organic farm. Photo by Delia Gillen

I’ll leave you with this quote about pursuing your calling from The Art of Work, by Jeff Goins:

“‘Say you live in Kansas.  It’s not a bad place to live but you long for the beach.  You dream of the waves and sand and sunsets.  But you never leave home because you’re not quite sure exactly where on the beach you want to go.’

If you aren’t sure how to get started…get out of Kansas.  That’s your first step.  Begin to head toward water, and as you move, you’ll find the beach.  Once you’re there, you can pick whatever spot you like.  You don’t need a specific address to begin.  The path to your dream is more about following a direction than arriving at a destination.

When you start pursuing your calling, you may find it to be more difficult than you thought it would be.  And that’s okay.  It means the journey is bigger than you expected.  What you must do is keep moving.  Don’t stand still.  Don’t squander your time, holding out for someone else to give you permission to start.  It won’t happen that way.  No one is going to give you a map.  You will have to step out into the unknown, listening for direction as you go.  And when you are in doubt, just remember to drive toward water.  You can always change directions once you get in the car.”

—Jeff Goins, The Art of Work


bee pollinating organic echinacea flowersAre you just starting your farming journey?  What’s your dream?  Tell me in a comment below (this will give you a jump-start on writing it down!)

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  1. Our dream is to farm – for it to be a large part of our income. Right now we live off of our handcraft business but since we bought our homestead in Maine two years ago – we are slowly transforming it into what we hope will be a working, living, full time farm. We have 7 acres with a nice area to reclaim. Now we have no equipment and no extra money – so we have been doing it all one shovel full at a time. This summer we are going to have a little farmstand (even though our road isn’t that busy but our neighbors have been watching what we are doing) and we talked to the local general store about selling our produce and flowers and they said yes! So that is our start. We turned the whole front of our house to the road into a garden area as it gets more sun and now we are working on another former field area. We are hoping we can scrape together enough money to build a small greenhouse during this winter. We just keep doing what we can do – like we built a little cabin for an air bnb that we hope to list this summer as well. We are almost done with the outhouse and the visitors will get a farmbox – veggies, eggs, and baked goods. Thanks for sharing – your writing is inspirational.

    • Oh, I know what it is to do it one shovel full at a time! Our first season, we didn’t even have a walk-behind tractor, and Edge made every bed by hand. When we got our BCS, it changed everything. We didn’t get an actual tractor until this year (year 5), and honestly, while it’s very useful, we don’t even use it for growing vegetables…more for managing the rest of our land.

      Keep doing what you can do. It sounds like you’ve got some great places to start selling! And keep me posted! I love hearing how people grow. Everything we do is a result of learning from someone else and trying it out on our own. 🙂

  2. Kate,
    That sounds like the best plan: “…get out of Kansas. That’s your first step. Begin to head toward water, and as you move, you’ll find the beach…” (J. Goins.)
    Get out of your Kansas.
    And as Tonya commented, they’re getting toward their farm, “one shovel full at a time.” All the best with the farm stand, Tonya!
    Thanks for sharing, Kate!

  3. Bought 16 acres in Vermont, 8 acre are cleared but have wild blackberries. Bought a 1945B John deere, need a plow and cultulivator. I bought a tiny greenhouse at ocean state job lot. I hope to clear the brambles out of one acre and start with small vegetable garden, straw flowers and some hemp seed. I hope to clear out at least one acre a year for farming and maybe clear and train some of the blackberries.. I would like to put in a couple Apple trees and more blueberry bushes. I’m want this farm to help sustain us through retirement and perhaps give a small income.

    • Hi Lisbeth! I love your description and vision! Straw flowers are one of my favorites—we have a few bouquets of them dried keeping the kitchen colorful throughout the winter. We want blueberry bushes, too. We’re pretty focused on annuals in the short term, but we add a few fruit trees each year, and hope to add some blueberries, too. Happy growing!

  4. We are struggling with making a transition to farming and seeing our way out of full time non -dream jobs. Add in our youngest graduating high school, a college student and two others with no direction and we can’t even think. I just finished an extension business planning course that stressed writing it down too. Thanks for inspiring me to keep heading towards the dream!

    • Hi, Marcia. You’re so not alone. I think transitions can be the hardest part—when you see where you want to be, but you’re still being supported by something else. I actually have a seasonal job through the winter, and while we’re at the point where Edge can stay full time on the farm even in the winter, most years we’ve had a balance of one or both of us working in the off-season.

      Something that’s helped me is to approach my off-farm job with gratitude: it’s allowing us to continue invest in the farm and it takes financial pressure off the farm as we continue to grow. Personally, financial stress is the worst for me. In the past I’ve had times of feeling like “why isn’t this working yet?!” But then I realize that running any small business is hard, and more often than not it takes many years to get established.

      I recently saw a statistic that people who keep their day job when they’re starting their own businesses are 33% more likely to succeed than those who go all in from the get-go. Another reason to be grateful for the day-job!

      I hope this helps, Marcia. I totally know how you feel—I’ve had so many moments of not being able to think! But I take a deep breath (or more like 10 minutes of deep breaths!) and then I write it all down. Or I go for a walk. Or find one small step to take. Whatever action helps you, keep taking it.

      ❤️ -Kate

  5. Nobody should starve for food. I want to give employment to some
    A day should come “Agriculture” is profitable employment

    • I totally agree. Our farm’s mission is to make local food more accessible, despite income, and we partner with NOFA-VT Farm Share Program to subsidize CSA shares. There are some great organizations and programs in VT that help get good food to low-income Vermonters! If you’re not in VT, but want to learn more about what programs are in your state, check in with your state’s organic farmers/organizations and food shelves. That’s a great starting place to get involved!