Today, more people want to grow their own food than in decades past. The desire to grow their own food for their families and their communities calls hundreds to garden or farm. The rising demand for local food, a more stable food system, and sustainability also gives new farmers plenty of motivation.
However, growing food isn’t always easy. It can get complicated by a variety of climates or a lack of knowledge (the dreaded brown thumb). Of those wishing to foray into commercial farming, many find that the project’s sheer size is impeding. Land and space are expensive, relocation is a strong demotivator, and funding is not easy to come by. For aspiring growers facing these obstacles, a new start-up model is required.
No matter if the goal is a commercial system or a modern victory garden to feed a family, one promising option that some new growers have used is to start small with a “microfarm.” It only requires a small budget and a bit of patience, and new farmers can always scale up their operations as money from the microfarm’s sales trickles into the bank.
Strengths of the Microfarmer
Starting small and growing organically has several benefits. First, a microfarm requires a smaller capital expense than a large system. This means that new farmers don’t have to fundraise or lien as much on the front end. Fundraising and debt can be a burden on a new business, and the freedom of owning a growing operation outright is the preferred method for many people.
Second, a microfarm offers a training ground for new farmers to test out their growing system (or systems). Management, sales, and regulations are also easier to navigate on a revenue level of $5,000 per year than on a $50,000 per year level. This low-stake environment gives farmers a place to make mistakes and get the riskiest parts of the learning curve out of the way while boosting their confidence.
During this trial phase, farmers can get a feel for the farming lifestyle and see if farming is a good fit for their strengths and personality before committing. Scaling up from a microfarm to commercial-sized operation is less stressful and has a lower likelihood of failing.
Finally, starting with a microfarm allows farmers to get a foothold in niche markets before relying on big demand to power their production. After selling to a few clients in niche markets, farmers have built up their brand and reputation in the community, tested products, honed their best growing practices, developed a customer base, and perhaps even built up capital to help with scaling costs. These advantages can give microfarmers a strong head start when it comes to profitability.
As a result, they almost always sell to niche markets. This is why microfarm planning should begin with local market research. The key question is, “Who has a produce need that I can satisfy?”
To find a market, get face time with potential customers and ask questions. Are there holes in a restaurant’s menu that need filling, or dream dishes that only a specialty product can make happen?
Do market surveys reveal interest in any potential crops? Plan a business around any sales opportunities these questions uncover.
Also, look at the experiences of other microfarmers for inspiration. Here are a few options to consider:
Microgreen growers grow crops like kale, cabbage, radish, amaranth, and many more. Unlike other crops, microgreens are harvested before the greens mature (often before the first true leaves appear).
The result is delicate, tender greens with a pop of flavor and color. Microgreens are often used as a special addition to salads, sandwiches, or as a garnish. Restaurants that pride themselves on unique, high-quality ingredients are great prospects for microgreens sales, as well as adventurous farmers, market-goers, and CSA members.
Microgreens make a great fit for microfarms since they are high-margin, fit into niche markets, and can be grown on a very small scale (a few trays per week is a fine starting size). The upfront investment is low—just a few hundred dollars to get started—so a return on investment (ROI) can be seen in a few months.
Those growing for family and friends might choose aquaponics to power their microfarm. If paired with the right crops, an aquaponic system could also serve a small niche market for specialty herbs or any other crop for which the farm has demand.
Also, aquaponics can be tough to operate at a commercial level, so starting with a small-scale system like this is a smart idea. Depending on set-up costs, the ROI on an aquaponic farm could be a bit longer.
If you’re looking for a microfarm that produces food and looks good, a living wall is a great option. (It doubles as a display system for live sales.) It is also a great fit for anyone who wants to grow vertically to save space. These vertical systems come in different sizes and some systems can expand, allowing growers to start small and scale up with the same technology. Most farmers growing for sale choose to raise high-margin greens and herbs.
The Kratky method is a great system for beginners because it is as low-maintenance as they come. While Kratky isn’t recommended for large-scale farms, it can support a single-farmer operation quite nicely. Kratky systems are low-cost to set up and are usually built on a do-it-yourself scale using simple bins or wooden beds with a liner. Kratky systems support small-statured crops the best, with pricing dependent on the system size.
More and more farmers are using the microfarm approach to start growing food for themselves and their communities. Not only does it remove barriers to entry, but microfarms allow farmers to scale up their operations if all goes well.