What Does It Take to Be a Successful Farmer?

“More and more,” says Secretary of Agriculture Wickard, “agriculture is becoming an exact science. It is a never-ending science, with many angles that open up avenues leading in all directions. The successful farmer still needs to have a love of the land, and practical experience, and plenty of courage and determination; but in addition he now needs a thorough grounding in the science of his calling. In the future this will be even more true.”

To be successful, a farmer must know a great deal about his land and the products he plans to raise.

Every plant and animal is a complicated organism. He who wishes to succeed in the culture of wheat, rye, corn, tobacco, or cotton, for example, must be thoroughly familiar with the characteristics of the plant, its germination and growth, the diseases and blights to which it is susceptible, and the methods of controlling them.

The dairy farmer and rancher must be acquainted with the characteristics of his cattle; their feed requirements, their breeding habits, and their common illnesses. Likewise, fruit farming requires expert knowledge of tree growth as well as grafting, pruning, spraying, and fertilizing.

In addition to knowing things like these, a farmer should have a sense of business, be able to sell his product where and when it is most profitable, keep adequate records (so as to know where he stands financially), and, above all, plan his production to take advantage of the most favorable markets.

How do you select a farm?

After carefully weighing the pros and cons of farming versus other occupations and deciding in favor of the former, you are ready to consider the questions: Shall I buy or rent a farm? Where shall I farm? What kind of farming shall I undertake?

A wise choice takes many factors into account. To begin with, you should not buy or rent a farm unless you have had real experience in farming. You are almost certainly doomed to disappointment and failure if you undertake so complex a business without some experience on a good farm, under the guidance of a man who is a successful farmer. If you have had no experience, you should start a farming career as a hired man. After that you may be in a position to manage your own farm.

Mary experienced farmers stress the desirability of starting in as a tenant rather than purchaser. It is unwise to plunge into farming as an owner-operator until you have tried yourself out and know whether you like farming as a business, whether you can make a success of it, and whether you have chosen the kind of farming and location you want.

The region selected should be familiar, if possible. It is also helpful to settle where your family is known.

The region should be one that has been developed for many years, or, if new land, is close to good farming areas. The kind of agriculture that pays best in the vicinity should be a guide in determining the kind of farming selected. For example, Wisconsin is a renowned dairy state, and a dairy farmer probably has a much better chance of success there than in an area where such farming is comparatively rare. Similarly, if you prefer poultry farming, a region known for successful commercial poultry farming should be chosen.

Do not select a type of farming that is unfamiliar to the region. The chances are that the soil or climate is unfavorable and that the odds are against success.

In selecting a farm don’t be guided solely by interested parties, such as a real-estate broker seeking a fee or a seller anxious to get rid of his property. One should inquire fully into the past record of the farm, its yields, operating expenses, profits, and so on. Advice can usually be freely obtained from such well-informed and disinterested sources as county agricultural agents. State extension services, agricultural colleges, or experimental stations, and the various farm organizations can help on broader questions.

What are some general questions to consider?

Climate is a key factor in determining the kinds of crops that can be grown, crop yields, and the type of livestock that will thrive in the region. Some of the climatic factors to be considered are the amount and distribution of rainfall during the year, length of the growing season, severity of the winters, and the possibility of such natural hazards as drought, flood, hailstorms, windstorms, and the like.

Good soil is perhaps the most essential element in farming since it determines not only what can be grown but whether yields will be high or low.

The size of the farm is naturally a major consideration. Half the nation’s 6 million farms produce very little for sale—in fact, only about 10 per cent of the total commercial produce. Before the war, many of the small farms, especially in such areas as the southern Appalachians, had more manpower than was needed.

The size of farm which a family can handle is constantly increasing as more machinery comes into use. For example, a farmer using one horse can plant an average of 5.5 acres of row crops, such as potatoes or corn, in a ten-hour day; with two horses he can plant 11.5 acres; but with a two-row planter and a tractor, 17 acres; and with a four-row tractor outfit, 33 acres. With the help of a horse mower, a farmer can mow about 8.5 acres in a ten-hour clay; with a tractor he can mow about 20 acres a day.

There are other factors to consider in choosing a farm, such as, are good roads available to haul the produce to market? A farm on a dirt road may be snowbound in winter or inaccessible during wet weather, and the farmer will be unable to get his milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and other products to market before they spoil.

Finally, the community advantages should be considered. A farm is a home as well as a business. A neighborhood with good schools, active churches, and social organizations such as lodges and farmer’s clubs is likely to be a place where farmers are fairly successful. A region with poor schools and backward community organizations is apt to have poor and struggling farmers.

What does it cost to get started?

Farm ownership, in view of economic conditions, may be a speculative undertaking after the war.

For those who plan to buy, it is well to remember the general rule of business that the more money invested the larger is the income, and vice versa.

The price paid for land, buildings, and equipment, if buying a developed farm, is perhaps the key in determining whether the venture. will be a success. If bought at inflated prices, the carrying charges plus taxes might lead to failure in the end even if crop yields were high for a number of years. A sharp decline in prices from wartime levels would make it difficult to meet mortgage payments and loans, bringing a loss of the entire investment. Such was the unhappy fate of many farmers after the last war.

The amount of capital required to get started as a farm operator depends on the kind of farming. Broadly speaking, there are seven types of farming particularly suitable for family operation: truck, poultry, dairy, stock, cotton, wheat, and diversified farming.

Truck or vegetable farming does not take much land, but the relatively few acres must be rich. Usually they cost as much as a general farm several times as large. A truck farm may be most desirable near a town or city where the crops can be sold as soon as they are ready. Such a farm is a highly specialized business, but often quite profitable.

Poultry farming is one of the most common and successful types of farming near the urban centers of the United States. If you plan to sell eggs, wholesale, it will take from 1,500 to 2,000 hens to keep a family fully employed; if, re tail, only 1,000 to 1,500 hens will be necessary. It may take just as much labor, however, to manage the smaller as the larger flock.

Since the poultryman usually buys all or most of his feed, only enough land—perhaps 10 acres or more—is necessary to provide range for the birds. Investment in buildings and equipment—brooder houses, laying pens, perhaps an incubator—is rather high. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that a poultry farm with 2,000 hens needs $2,500 to $3,000 for stock and an additional $1,000 to $1,500 for equipment. Feed and miscellaneous supplies alone will require $1,500 or more annually—an investment all told of $5,000 or more, exclusive of land and dwelling.

Dairying is one of the most dependable types of farming. A satisfactory setup for a family farm is fifteen to twenty cows and a minimum of 80 to 120 acres of good land for the production of pasture, hay, and other feed for the stock. The starting capital required in the North, outside of land and buildings, is from $4,500 to $6,000, plus about $650 to $1,300 annually for seed, feed, fertilizer, and so on.

Stock farming (not grazing) is found most extensively in parts of the Middle West. The typical farm of this kind in the years 1938—42 had 170 acres, sold 56 cattle and 77 hogs each year, and kept about 100 laying hens. Of the 170 acres, 70 were in pasture, 34 in corn, 29 in small grain, 22 in hay, 5 in soybeans, and 10 in rotation pasture and miscellaneous crops. Such a farm had 5 milch cows. About 80 per cent of its gross income came from the sale of livestock and livestock products. This kind of enterprise means a considerable investment in land, stock, and equipment. Operating expenses are also comparatively high.

Cotton farming usually offers less income and requires less capital. Apart from the land, an investment of $800 to $1,000, plus operating capital of $400 to $500 a year for fertilizer, seed, and the like, may be sufficient. A typical upland cotton farm for family operation has, as a minimum, from 80 to 120 acres. Of these 15 to 20 are in cotton; 20 to 25 in corn (to feed mules, cows, hogs, and chickens); 8 to 10 in soybeans, cowpeas, or lespedeza for hay; and the rest in pasture and woodland.

Cotton farming in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California is usually on a much larger scale.

Since the price of cotton, unless pegged, moves up and down rapidly, it is desirable to grow other cash crops, such as peanuts, for additional income, besides producing on the farm as much as possible of the feed for animals and food for the family.

Wheat farming takes a good deal of land. Many of the wheat farms of Kansas, the Dakotas, and eastern Montana run to 640 acres or more. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that it takes $3,000 to $4,000 for tools and equipment to get started in wheat farming, plus $1,000 to $2,000 for stock to provide additional income and keep manpower occupied during the months the wheat crop is not growing.

Diversified farming usually involves a mixture of cash crops and livestock. Its chief advantages are: (1) the risk is reduced by not banking mainly on one money crop and (2) it spreads the working time of the family. There are many possible combinations in this type of farming, such as growing cotton, peanuts, tobacco, and other crops in the South or dairying, hog raising, and poultry farming in the North. The main consideration is to plant crops which the operator can take care of and sell. The required investment in diversified farming varies with the region and the size of the business.

Part-time farming. Many men who are not interested in full-time farming may wish to engage in subsistence or part-time farming. Of the 6 million farmers in the United States in 1940, about 800,000 were part-timers, spending a hundred days or more a year in other occupations. Such farmers may have only a garden or they may cultivate several acres, keep a few hogs, a cow or two, and several score chickens. The crops and livestock may supply the bulk of the family’s food and a small cash income besides, anywhere from $10 to several hundred a year.