In my last column, I talked about how to scale up your garden to grow more food. Now I’m going to talk about scaling up even further. Just like with scaling up your garden, starting a small farm provides not only some food security for you and your family, but also for your neighbors and community members. It might add a few jobs and infuse money into the local economy.
While I’ll be the first to point out that as a small farmer it’s very hard to turn a profit, let alone make a livelihood, our current situation might make small farms more competitive with large farms. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices increased nationwide by 1.1 percent from a year ago, and current restrictions might work in favor of small farms with a short supply chain that minimizes handling and transportation needs. Also, COVID-19 brings into focus what’s essential and important in life — like food and having something productive and helpful to do.
This thesis, “Assessing Food Security in Fairbanks, Alaska” is dated, but still provides insight into the demand for and challenges of farming in Interior Alaska. You can see it at bit.ly/thesis3dsOyqL, and this market analysis also provides important information for Interior Alaska on the demand for local produce (bit.ly/2W9kP0q).
Another interesting way to gauge interest in whatever product you would like to grow or raise is by starting a GoFundMe campaign. You can even guarantee a certain amount of product at the end, much like a CSA, although with perhaps a bigger lag in when the consumers receive their product. Goosefoot Farm in Fairbanks did this as well as a crowd-funding campaign when they started their farm a few years ago.
The Alaska Food Policy Council commissioned a report looking at specific ways to improve food security across the state, which is available on its website. A more recent, but non-Alaskan- specific report entitled, “Small Farms, Big Potential” (bit.ly/3aOEVB5) details the many nonremunerative benefits and rewards of small farms, like open space, potential for climate mitigation, health and much more.
One of the first steps you’ll need to take as a farmer is to find land to farm. The Alaska Farmland Trust started a farm link program to connect folks who want to farm with those who have farm land available, at www.akfarmland.com/farmlink. No land, no problem — try Curtis Stone’s Urban farming model at theurbanfarmer.co, but COVID-19 could make this a tiny bit more challenging.
Be sure to check out USDA’s beginning farmer website at newfarmers.usda.gov. There are so many grants and programs available for farmers, in particular, beginning farmers, and there are also specific programs geared toward women and minorities.
Of course a little know-how doesn’t hurt either. That’s where your local Cooperative Extension Service comes in at www.uaf.edu/ces. It can help you with all kinds of information, workshops, and knowledgeable expertise. Another obvious step is to work for or intern at the type of farm or ranch that you are hoping to start.
If current restrictions continue, among other things, you’ll have to be creative in how you market and sell your produce. Here is some more important information on COVID-19 restrictions and regulations as they relate to farming at bit.ly/2zkFXrq. With many consumers being advised to order online when possible, this might be the perfect time to start a farm based on a subscription/delivery model or a farm hub.
Before you jump in with both feet, I’d recommend reading “Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and our Future,” edited by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. It gives some great perspectives on the tremendous challenges and joys of farming on a small-scale.
Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at 907-474-6620 or email@example.com.