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How to start a farm
12 min read

How to start a farm

Many of us, at one point or another, have probably romanticised about living in the countryside and running a farm business. Fresh eggs and milk for breakfast, ponies popping their heads in through the window to say good morning, warming your feet by the fire after a hard day’s work – all very Darling Buds of May. But, what is the reality of starting a farm business and what do you need to know to get started?

What is the reality of starting a farming business?

It only takes a read of the news and a watch of Clarkson’s Farm to understand how brutally tough the UK farming industry can be. In his hugely popular Amazon Prime series, Jeremy Clarkson ploughs straight across the romantic notions of starting a farm, and shines a spotlight on the many hurdles farmers face on a daily basis. As he attempts to run a farm with no previous farming experience, Clarkson’s show has gained a reputation for not sugarcoating how tough the reality of farming is.

For many in the industry, it’s hard work, long hours – and for almost no profit, as Clarkson discovered after his 1,000-acre Diddly Squat farm made just £144 profit in its first year. Hardly enough to last someone through a week, let alone a year. Post-Brexit uncertainty, rising energy, and fuel costs, supply chain problems, a shortage of seasonal agricultural labour, a recession on the horizon… let alone the potential costly mistakes of learning on-the-go, it’s likely that many tempted first-time farmers are probably asking themselves, is this the right time to be chasing my agricultural dream?

Crunching the numbers with land agent, Charlie Ireland, at the end of the first season, Clarkson was left to wonder aloud what farmers ‘who don’t have Amazon film crews following them around’ were going to do when the subsidies were reduced. Charlie simply predicted there would be ’30 percent less farmers, probably’, and if a new farm backed by celebrity endorsement and an Amazon film crew can only make £144 profit in year one, it’s not likely to entice new startups.

According to The Observer, the average British farmer saw their subsidies cut by 22% on average last year, and this year they’re expected to drop by another 36%. Some farms have said their subsidies dropped by a total of 45%.

With the industry in its current status, this article is intended to provide information on how to start a farm – but it’s recommended to approach this career move cautiously, being as informed as possible. It’s an extremely tough life (in fact, it’s a lifestyle choice), which can be at the mercy of so many factors outside your control (and let’s not get started on the impact of climate change…).

If you’re determined to start a farming business, it’s important to plan carefully, understand the upfront and ongoing costs, and know exactly what you’re getting into.

How to start a farm in the UK

Several steps and considerations are involved when starting your own farm, which can vary depending on the type of farm business you’re looking to grow. Here is some general guidance:

  • 1. Develop a business plan

    A good business plan will help you to identify your target market, set realistic goals, and plan your financial and operational strategies. If you need help writing yours, access our free guide and business plan template

  • 2. Identify the type of farm you want to start.

    You should decide what type of farm you want to start based on your interests, skills, and market demand. The common types of farms in the UK are livestock, arable, mixed, and horticulture.

  • 3. Identify suitable land

    Choosing the right land is crucial to the success of your farm. Factors to consider include soil type, topography, climate, water availability, accessibility and zoning regulations. You should also consider the location of your land in relation to markets, transportation, and labour.

    It’s essential to consider the environmental factors that affect your farm. For instance, the soil type and climate can impact what crops or livestock you can produce. You can check your farm’s soil type by using the Soilscapes website, which provides detailed maps of soil types in the UK.

    When selecting land, you should also consider the size of the property and whether it can accommodate the type of farming operation you plan to establish. You should also consider the cost of the land and any associated expenses, such as property taxes and insurance.

    You can search for available farmland on the UK Land and Farms website or contact local estate agents and landowners. You can buy or lease land depending on your financial capacity. It is advisable to get advice from a land agent, who can help you find land in your preferred location and within your budget.

  • 4. Obtain necessary permits and licences

    Starting a farm involves many legal requirements that vary depending on the location and type of farming operation you plan to establish. To ensure that you operate within the law and avoid penalties, you need to obtain the necessary licences and permits.

    Before you start farming, you should research the regulations and requirements for your area, including any permits or licences required for farming, land use, water usage, and animal care. In the UK, for example, you need to register with the Rural Payments Agency and obtain a unique business identifier number. You may also need to apply for a CPH number, which identifies your land and enables you to move livestock.

    In addition to the above, you may need to obtain permits for building structures on your land, installing irrigation systems, or using pesticides. You should also familiarise yourself with the relevant health and safety regulations, including those related to food safety and handling.

    You need to obtain planning permission from the local council before starting any farming activity. The planning permission process ensures that the proposed use of the land is suitable and complies with environmental regulations. Depending on the type of farming you plan to do, you may need to obtain permits and licences from local and national authorities. For example, if you plan to raise livestock, you may need an animal welfare licence from the local council.

    The UK government’s business support website has a directory of permits and licences required for different types of farming activities.

  • 5. Secure funding

    Starting a farm can be an expensive venture, so you may need to look at ways to fund your farm, such as investors, lenders, crowdfunding, government grants and subsidies. It is important to carefully consider your funding options and develop a realistic budget for your farm business.

    According to a survey conducted by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, access to capital is the most significant challenge for young farmers. It’s important to have a solid financial plan and to explore all funding options available to you.

  • 6. Register your farm business

    You’ll need to register your farm business with Companies House and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for tax purposes, as well as relevant authorities including the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Registration allows you to access financial support and other benefits. You may also want to consider joining a trade association, such as the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU), to access support and advice from other farmers.

    If you’re keeping cattle, you also need to register with the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS), which is responsible for maintaining a database of all cattle movements in the UK.

  • 7. Choose your farming methods

    You need to decide on the farming methods you want to use, such as organic or conventional farming. Organic farming requires certification, so you should contact the The Soil Association for advice.

  • 8. Acquire equipment and supplies

    You’ll need to invest in equipment and supplies to run your farm, such as tractors, livestock housing, and feed. You can find suppliers of farm equipment and materials on the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) website

  • 9. Get advice

    Finally, you should seek advice from experts, such as agronomists, veterinarians, financial, legal and business advisers. They can help you with farm management, animal health, crop production, business planning, as well as financial and legal compliance.

How to run a successful market garden

Let’s take a closer look at a specific type of farm startup, and the steps involved in making it a success…

A market garden is the relatively small-scale production of fruits, vegetables, and flowers as cash crops, frequently sold directly to consumers and restaurants. A market garden can offer first-time farmers the opportunity to get started in the industry, without taking on too much, too soon (especially when experience is limited). Market gardens also make great side businesses for those with a passion for gardening, and are looking to make some extra money on the side without having to invest in lots of expensive equipment, acres of land, or possess a formal education.

According to @TheDutchFarmer, Moreno de Meijere (rootsreconnected.com), there are seven steps to starting a small farm from scratch, even if you already have a 9-5 job, limited resources, and limited experience (not just the production side, but the business side, too). Moreno explains that these steps helped him and his wife earn a ‘comfortable living’, and are worth taking note of as a useful framework in getting started in your own farming journey.

Step 1: Do your research

This is the most crucial thing you can do to give your farm business the best chance of success. You need to identify who your ideal customers are, find out what they want, how much they want, and what they’re willing to pay for it. Will you sell your crops at local farmers markets, to local chefs, to grocery stores?

Too many people start their farm business in the opposite way, following the incorrect advice of growing ‘what you like to eat yourself’. This is a big no-no for a farm business. You need to be strategic about it, which starts with going out into your local areas and talking to potential customers. Visit your local farmer’s market…

  • What are other farmers growing?
  • What sells best?
  • How do they price their produce?
  • How do they present it?
  • Is the produce imported, or strictly farm-grown?
  • What’s their customer service like?
  • What are their customers like?
  • Is demand higher than the supply?
  • Or is your local area saturated with a particular type of produce?
  • Can you see a gap in the market?

By understanding the supply and demand in your area, you’re able to plan your approach strategically, for example, is there enough room for another vendor at the farmers’ market? Or is there a local audience that isn’t being catered for?

Take a look at the local restaurant scene. Talk to chefs and see if they’d be interested in working with local growers. What types of crops are they looking for, and when? Where do they currently get their produce from? What are they willing to pay for it? How often would they need deliveries?

By acquiring a basic understanding of the demand in your area, you can grow your crops towards that estimated demand, rather than the other way around. You definitely don’t want to have an abundance of a crop when there’s no demand for it.

Once you have the rough estimations of demand for each individual crop,  you can estimate how profitable each would be based on yields and the input required to go from seed to finished product. You can then decide which crops would be most profitable to grow, in line with both the demand and your own financial goals.

You must verify the demand before you start growing. Then, see what grows and sells best – and keep doing more of what works!

Step 2: Design your farm

The design of your farm needs to be well organised and optimised for efficiency, practicality and profitability.

Modern agriculture professionals are striving to use modern technology to increase their profits, lower operational costs, reduce the need for manual labour and make their farms easier to manage overall. Farm mapping is how this all comes together, as it allows farmers to create detailed maps of their property, showing where land boundaries are, location of buildings, fences, getaways, water pipes, etc. Farmers can also record crops that have been planted in different sections, and the types of operations carried out in their fields.

Farm mapping is crucial when designing your farm, as it will help you decide on the best areas to plant certain crops, graze certain animals, etc. Some of the technology tools available to help with this are:

  • Farm mapping software. E.g FieldBee, Pear Technology
  • Agriculture drones (handy to remotely assess the condition of your land and drops in your fields)
  • Satellite imagery (just like drones, this provides accurate information regarding the condition of your crops and can help you monitor how your crops change in response to fertilisers, herbicides, pesticide application, and change in irrigation
  • Remote moisture sensors, connected to a farm mapping app, can automatically show which sections of fields need an increase or decrease in irrigation
  • Soil analysis devices. Different parts of a field can have completely different soil. Farmers can analyse different parameters of the soil in various sections of their fields and then record those parameters on field maps, making it easy to take those differences into account during future agriculture procedures.

Once you have the data you need, you can plan your farm accordingly. For example, you might add a windbreak in an area you know receives strong winds to protect your crops, or you might not graze animals in an area you know can get easily flooded in the winter months. You might position your greenhouse east-to-west or north-to-south depending on whether you’re growing for summer or winter production.

These design decisions will have a large impact on the functionality of your farm.

Step 3. Create a basic crop plan (if you’re going down the produce-growing route)

Now your basic design is ready and you know how many growing beds you’ll have, you can start establishing your crop plan, which will ensure a continuous supply of crops during the growing season. Ensure you’re clear on your financial goals, so you know how many crops you need to grow to reach them. Start with your financial target, then break your crop plan down into a production system that acknowledges this goal alongside local demand.

Take a look at what you’re looking to grow and the quantities you need to produce. Then review timings – how long will it take from being sown, to the harvesting stage? Include this information in a data sheet, which will contain all the information you need per crop, to help you plan. This data will also help you plan the exact placements each crop needs to grow well, as well as basic crop rotation practices.

Step 4. Prepare your land for production

When you first start out, the chances are that one of the immediate areas to address is to tackle weeds and the existing vegetation on your land to convert it into a production area. Take a look at the farming techniques that can help you do this, from tilling and ploughing with a tractor or walk behind tractor, using a silage tarp to kill off existing vegetation through a process called occlusion, to the ‘no dig’ non-cultivation method where you lay a thick layer of compost on the surface without integrating it, to deprive the vegetation of sunlight.

The next stage is to balance your soil. Most soil offers crops the nutrients necessary for good vegetable growth, but usually the missing link is soil organic matter and soil life. You can quickly correct this with compost to start feeding the food web, which in turn will start taking care of your crops.

Once your soil is prepared and balanced, it’s a matter of keeping your soil fertility maintained by introducing organic matter each year.

Step 5. Grow your crops

Based on your market research, you’ll already have a good idea of what produce is likely to be popular and sell well in your area. The crops you decide to grow will determine key factors such as row spacing, and whether they’re crops that fare better in a dedicated nursery first, before being transplanted into fields later.

A production schedule will help you plan when various items will be ready for sale. As a market gardener, there will be a number of people and places depending on you to be their supplier, so you need to provide high quality produce on time, week after week.

Succession planting will be required to ensure new crops are ripening constantly every week. By estimating how much you think you’ll sell at any given date, you can work backwards to figure out how much you need to plant to hit that goal.

Don’t forget to keep on top of things such as weed management, pest control and irrigation.

Step 6. Market and sell your crops

Your initial market research should make the selling part much easier! Branding is important when it comes to marketing, as a number of customers will be looking to connect with your brand story and values e.g. organic, local, family-run, eco-friendly packaging, etc. If you find your ideology isn’t quite hitting the mark in your area, it might be a case of selling what’s in demand, while educating your customers from there.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on your competition. What are they up to? How are they marketing themselves? Are there ways you could differentiate yourself from them, and spotlight this in your marketing? 

Step 7. Measure, analyse, adjust, repeat

Moreno recommends analysing the performance of your farm by looking at various aspects of your operation, such as crop yields, costs and revenues. Keep track of your expenses, including any labour costs, and compare them to your income. This will help you to identify areas where you can potentially reduce costs and increase your profits.

Don’t be intimidated by data – to farm successfully, you need to embrace data – from crop rotation to sales – to ensure what you’re doing is worth it. For example, are the numbers telling you that you need to be planting your crops more densely? Are you not meeting the demand of a particular crop? Could you factor this into your succession planning? You need to dedicate time to the data of your business to tell you which step to take next, and even preempt any issues that could be on the horizon.

What support do I receive as a UK farmer?

With EU subsidies gone,  the UK government provides various forms of support to its farmers to promote sustainable and profitable agriculture. But is it enough?

The government is replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which paid subsidies to farmers to keep them in business, with “payments for public goods”, meaning land managers get paid for improving nature.

Launched in 2022, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) pays farmers to carry out actions that support both a sustainable farm business and a healthy natural environment (for example, looking after their soil). However, farms risk “going out of business” as new figures reveal only a tiny fraction of this new scheme – designed to replace lost subsidies – went to agriculture businesses in 2022. (See the full story here.)

New schemes aside, how else are UK farmers receiving support?

  • Direct Payments. Farmers in the UK receive direct payments from the government through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). The BPS provides financial support to farmers based on the area of land they farm and the environmental measures they implement.
  • The Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) is a voluntary scheme that provides financial incentives to farmers, foresters, and land managers to look after and improve the environment. For example, running projects that increase biodiversity, improve water and air quality, and improve habitats.
  • Farming Advice Service. The Farming Advice Service (FAS) provides free advice to farmers on a range of issues, including animal health, crop management, and business planning.
  • Research and innovation. The government invests in research and innovation in agriculture to improve productivity, reduce environmental impact, and develop new technologies. This includes funding for research institutions such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
  • Trade agreements. The government negotiates trade agreements to open up new markets for UK farmers and support export growth.

As you can see, starting a farm business involves several steps and can vary based on the type of farm business you’re looking to run, and where. It can be a complex and challenging process that can be at the mercy of a number of factors outside your control.

While the above isn’t an exhaustive list, the steps outlined can help direct you around some common pitfalls to avoid you making diddly squat (pardon the pun). If you decide to don your wellies and follow your farming dream, remember it’s just as important to dig into your data as it is your soil.

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