What is Small Scale Farming?

Small-scale farming is hard work, but it is also very rewarding. Learn more about the challenges and benefits of running a small farm and how to be successful. 

If you own between one and nine acres of arable land, you may have been dreaming about using it for your own small-scale farming project. If that’s true, you aren’t alone. 

Today in the United States, over 270,000 families with small acreage plots grow crops and raise livestock to feed themselves and sell to local markets for a profit.

For thousands of farm families, the work is hard, done mostly by hand, but rewarding. Growing a variety of fruit and vegetables and raising animals in a symbiotic manner works in harmony with the environment and local needs – not in opposition, as is the case with many large-scale industrial farms.

Not all small farm owners quit their day jobs to live off the land, but the opportunities do exist. If small-scale agriculture is your dream, why not go for it? There are plenty of advantages of small-scale farming, and this article can help you discover them.

How Does Small-Scale Farming Work?

Most people imagine that large-scale, industrial agriculture is what provides the bulk of food that feeds the people of the world. But you might be surprised to learn that it’s small farms of 25 acres or less that produce over 70 percent of what the world eats.

While that seems impossible, it’s true because small farmers generally use sustainable agriculture measures and grow a greater diversity of crops on their land. 

By farming this way, they produce food that they can sell in local markets, grow plants and raise animals that are healthier, heartier, and more productive, and save money while helping the environment by not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

farmers outstretch arms holding freshly picked vegetables

Micro farms mainly rely on manual labor and don’t use advanced machinery and technology. Owners of small farms don’t depend on a single cash crop and its market price, nor do they depend on government subsidies for income. 

But small farms need to be sustainable, and that means they need to be profitable. Running a small-scale farm probably won’t make you rich, but you shouldn’t be pouring all your money into it either.

A successful small farm takes a lot of organization, management, and lots of willing hands to help. It also takes passion. If you don’t love working outside from morning to night in the dirt, you might not get what you need out of it.

What Types Of Agricultural Products Are Good For Small-Scale Farming?

What you raise on your land depends on your climate and your soil first and foremost. Don’t try to grow exotics in the cold or heartier crops in the steamy south. 

Secondly, if you want to make a profit selling your produce locally, don’t grow what everybody else is. If all the farmers at the outdoor market have zucchini sitting on their benches, chances are there isn’t a market for it. 

Before you start, do your homework. Check out the local markets, ask restaurant owners what they buy locally, and survey your neighbors, friends, and relatives to find out what they like to eat.

Most small-scale farmers raise crops and livestock that they enjoy growing, are somewhat easy to manage, and are profitable. While the possibilities are endless, here’s a small list of crops and livestock that do well on small, sustainable farms:

Produce

  • All varieties of baby vegetables
  • Cole crops like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.
  • Heirloom varieties of all vegetables are great sellers
  • Herbs and microgreens
  • Leeks, onions, garlic
  • Lettuces and other salad greens
  • Peppers of all varieties, hot and sweet
  • Tomatoes – especially cherry tomatoes and heirloom varieties
  • Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.
  • Raspberries and blackberries
  • Fruit trees
  • Flowers

Livestock

Make sure you check out your local regulations before adding livestock to your farm.

  • Chickens and other types of poultry provide fresh eggs, meat, and natural fertilizer.
  • Bees pollinate your crops, and you can sell the honey.
  • Goats or sheep for milk and meat production.
  • Pigs demand a dedicated space, but the meat you can get from them is valuable for your home freezer or to sell.
girl in striped shirt feeding a sheep in the field of her family farm

Are Small Farms Profitable?

If you plan on turning your small farm adventure into a profitable venture, you need to get the best value possible from your small acreage. Here are some ways to make that happen.

Use Your Land Well

You can maximize your growing season by planting some fast-growing crops like baby spinach, arugula, different varieties of lettuce, herbs, and radishes, so you can harvest and replant several times during the season. Baby spinach and arugula go from seed to harvest in three to four weeks.

In addition to your other cash crops, plant some that don’t need a lot of space or can thrive in less fertile soil or along the borders of your more prolific fields. Onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, beets, bushes of rosemary, and oregano are good examples.

Find Your Niche

For a higher profit yield, take advantage of – or create your own – niche market. Here are some pointers on how to develop a niche market:

  • Find places to sell your products in your area. You don’t need to make commitments yet; just find out who’s willing to buy from local producers.
  • Discover what special needs exist in your selling range. Ask local grocers what customers are looking for and can’t find.
  • Ask large suppliers what they can’t supply, what’s too small for them.
  • Organize the information you’ve gathered and decide whether you can fill the need. If so, prepare the ground for your business. Make proposals, position yourself to fill the market’s needs.
  • Look for interesting methods to make your product stand out. Emphasize the way it’s grown, what you do with it, how you package and market it.

Value-Added Products and Opportunities

Together with your fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat products, take advantage of selling value-added products like these:

  • Cheese and yogurt
  • Soap
  • Lard
  • Sausages
  • Honey and beeswax
  • Wool
  • Jams and jellies
  • Dried herbs, vegetables, and fruit
  • Hot pepper sauce
  • Holiday wreaths

Value-added opportunities are also money-makers. Offering tours like hayrides, animal petting experiences, or giving educational workshops on how to make soap or bee-keeping will help your bottom line and advertise your products.

farmer walking outdoors next to red barn holding plants and watering can

What Are The Benefits and Challenges of Small-scale Farming?

As with everything we do in life, there are benefits and challenges, and running a small farm is no exception.

Benefits

Supporting the Local Economy

Getting outside and digging in the dirt is probably the best thing about farming. But small farms are very important to local economies too. When farmers buy what they need from local vendors and sell their products to people in the community, this strengthens local economies and helps them develop and grow.

Organic Farming Supports the Surrounding Ecosystem

Sustainable farming is also essential for a healthy environment. Most small farm owners avoid using chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy the soil and bee populations. Not to mention the damage to people’s health. Also, local farms sell locally, avoiding the middleman and shipping costs.

Challenges

Working on a farm is labor-intensive. Most owners don’t have money for expensive equipment and end up doing hard work by hand.

Weather and climate changes can also create problems for farmers and can sometimes be catastrophic. If a farm owner can’t afford crop insurance, bad weather could become expensive.

And finally, to make money, micro-farms need a good market to sell products. If people aren’t buying, they can’t sell.

Support Your Local Small Farms!

Even though there are some negatives, the truth is that small-scale farming is a bright light for the future of the planet. That they consume fewer natural resources, provide healthy, nutritious food to local communities, and help thousands of families become self-sufficient is a win-win situation.