Living off the land is something most people can only dream about, but for millions of Americans who own small family farms, it’s a reality. Today in the United States, 90 percent of all farms fall into the small farm category, which according to the USDA, has up to 179 acres or generates a gross income of under $50,000.00 annually.
Most small family farms are a lot smaller and don’t make that much money. But these days, more and more are proving to be profitable, and people are earning a good living from their land.
Running a successful farm isn’t easy; it takes a lot of hard work, passion, respect for the environment, and a good business plan. While you don’t need a degree in business management or agriculture to succeed, you should know the most profitable crops, which are easy to grow on your land, and whether there’s a market for the product.
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The Best Cash Crops For Small Farms
If you’re ready to get started making extra income from your land and want some profitable small farm ideas, here’s a look at some of the best cash crops.
Even though U.S. farmers produce over 400 million pounds of garlic every year, this country remains the world’s largest importer. Not only is there a healthy market for garlic, but it’s also one of the easiest and most profitable crops for small family farmers to grow.
To get the best return on your investment, select one of the more popular gourmet varieties like Romanian Red, Carpathian, or Music. Before choosing a type, ask a local market or restaurant what they sell or use most.
It takes six to eight months for a full bulb of garlic to grow from a single clove, depending on your climate zone. If you live in Alaska, you should plant in early September. If your land is in zone nine or ten, you can plant anytime between late October into December. If you’re growing in a cold zone, you need to mulch with a 2-3 inch layer of protection, so your bulbs don’t freeze during the winter.
Garlic grows best in soil that is rich in organic matter and gets good drainage, and they need watering when the weather is dry. Garlic is naturally pest and disease resistant, but don’t stress the plants by overwatering or underwatering them. Bulbs are ready to harvest when most of the stem leaves have turned brown. After pulling them, let them dry in the sun or open air before storing them, so they have a longer shelf life.
Good quality bulbs of gourmet garlic are easy to sell either by the piece, pound, or braid. You can sell to local markets and grocery stores, restaurants, or at farmer’s markets. Prices vary across the country, but the national average price for gourmet garlic is $16.00 per pound. That means even on a small scale, you could make up to $10.00 per square foot from high-quality gourmet garlic.
One of the biggest summertime sellers at outdoor markets, grocery stores, and local restaurants, heirloom tomatoes are great specialty crops for farmers and homesteaders looking for profitability from small parcels of land. Heirloom varieties are high in demand and can sell at a better price than hybrid tomatoes due to superior flavor and quality.
Tomatoes love warm, sunny weather and are perfect crops for temperate zones, but if your farm is in a cooler zone, you can still grow a profitable crop of heirloom tomatoes in two to three months.
It’s easy to start your own plants from seed in late winter if you have a heated greenhouse or a warm spot inside. You can plant your seedlings outside when they are 4 to 5 inches tall, your soil is around 60°F, and nighttime temperatures are at least 50°F. Plant your tomatoes in a sunny spot because they’ll need between six and eight hours of full sunlight daily.
The best soil for heirloom tomatoes is a loamy soil full of organic nutrients. You should leave about 18-24 inches between plants and add a good quality mulch around each plant base. Staking or trellising your plants is necessary to give branches support and to avoid contact with soil and possible disease spores. The healthier your tomato plants are, the lower your risk of losing crops to disease and stress.
If you have a good growing season, you could produce up to one ton of heirloom tomatoes in as little as 600 square feet of land. While market prices vary depending on where you sell them, the national average price is between $4.00 and $5.00 per pound. If you skip the middle-man and sell them yourself, you could gross between $8,000.00 and $10,000.00 in a season.
Another one of the most profitable crops for small farm owners and homesteaders are mushrooms. Gourmet mushroom varieties like oyster or shiitake don’t need dedicated garden space – you can grow them wherever you have room or even inside, so your climate zone doesn’t restrict you.
To grow a cash crop of shiitake mushrooms, you need bolts or pieces of hardwood logs about four feet long and five inches across. Drill holes in staggered rows about three inches apart and fill each hole with a plug of shiitake inoculum, which you get through online suppliers. You should inoculate your bolts in warm months for a successful mushroom crop. Once you get your plugs in, cover each one with melted wax. Store your inoculated bolts in a dry, shady spot for six to twelve months while the mushroom spawn grows through the log.
When the growing period is over, you submerge each log in water for 24 hours to get the mushrooms growing. If everything goes well, you’ll be picking shiitakes in seven to ten days. If you don’t see growth, try soaking the logs again.
Specialty crops like shiitake mushrooms are easy to sell at farmer’s markets, to local grocers, restaurants, and your friends. Depending on where you sell them, you can get between $10.00 and $12.00 per pound. If you plant 100 square feet of shiitakes, it is possible to harvest over 2200 pounds per year if you grow one mushroom harvest every eight weeks.
The profitability of a cash crop like strawberries depends on many factors like plant type, climate, and current markets. Still, farmers and homesteaders can make lucrative earnings on strawberries, even on a small piece of land.
Specialty crops like strawberries are a good choice because they are always in demand, and they grow well in almost any climate and in a wide range of soil types. The best soil for optimum productivity and plant health is well-draining with a fair amount of organic matter. You’ll reduce your risk of loss and get a better crop if you plant a type of strawberry adapted to your climate region, keep weeds under control, and give plants one inch of water per week during your growing season.
Fresh, ripe strawberries aren’t difficult to sell at farmer’s markets, local grocery stores, or to restaurants. But if you don’t want to spend the time and labor picking, packing, and transporting them, you can allow customers to come and pick their own berries and pay by the container or pound.
Your total annual yield of berries depends on several components, but an average plant can give you around one quart, or two pounds, of berries in a season. If you plant five to six plants per square foot, you can fit around 6,500 to 7,000 plants in one acre, and in the best conditions, end up with close to 14,000 pounds of strawberries.
Prices of strawberries vary widely, but national averages show that farmers can get around $1.60 per pound at market and between $1.25 and $3.00 per pound from a U-pick set up.
How To Make A Plan And Select Your Best Cash Crop
If you decide to grow crops for profit, it’s important that you don’t lose money. To project the profitability of a crop, you have to do your homework and planning. Figure out your approximate starting costs. How much will seed, bulbs, or plant starts cost? How much will soil preparation cost? Do you need to spend money on machinery or plumbing? How much will your labor and time cost? What is your time investment before harvest?
Next, find out what markets are paying farmers for similar products. Does the payout seem reasonable? Finally, take the best and worst possible profit scenarios and subtract your costs to see if this venture is worthwhile.
Find The Easiest Crops To Grow
The easiest crops to grow are those that you enjoy growing that are suited to your climate and soil, and that sell well in your area. If these factors don’t add up and you lose money, the crop won’t be easy to grow, no matter what it is.
Final Points To Consider Before Choosing Your Cash Crop
Before you run out and spend a large chunk of your savings, make sure the entire family is in agreement. Running a small family farm isn’t easy, and if you don’t have willing helpers, you might not succeed.
You don’t have to go all-in right away. Start on a small scale and see if the crop you choose is worth putting more money and effort into later.
Before making your final decision about which crop to plant, do thorough research, ask others for advice, and in the end, choose a crop that you can grow easily on your land.
If you are a small farm owner or have extra land on your homestead, raising cash crops to boost your income is a great idea. You probably won’t get rich, but you won’t lose out if you plan carefully, research thoroughly, are realistic about profit expectations and choose the best crops for your land.