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Incubator Farming

Growing New Farmers to Create Local Sustainable Food

Farming doesn't require a degree. Many times, farms are handed down through a family through multiple generations. For someone trying to break into the business, there are few options. Starting a sustainable farm is a gamble full of uncertainties. What to grow? Where to grow? Where to sell? These questions can be hard to answer. Incubator farms allow a new farmer to experiment with small farming enterprises while learning how to run a full scale operation. In time an incubator farmer will be able to purchase their own land and begin a farming career.

College is the gateway to many career paths. From teachers to broadcasters, musicians to accountants, and just about every other professional career requires a degree. A person decides a major before or during college, pursues that degree for about four years, and when they graduate they are prepared to find an entry level occupation in that field. But what about someone who wants to pursue farming as a career?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency Agricultural Center, there are over two million farms in the United States today. Of these farms, 3% are owned by corporations, 6% are owned by partnership agreements, and a whopping 91% of all U.S. farms are family owned and run. Many farms have been in families for generations, passed on from one generation to the next.

For those people who won't inherit a family farm, there is the good old college try. Many colleges offer degrees in Agricultural Science or Agribusiness. Although these degrees teach students how to run and maintain a farm, they don't teach students how to start a farm.

Farming is a gamble. Farming as an occupation is even more of a gamble. Can you buy fertile land? What is the market like for specific crops, especially in your area? Will it be possible to network with distributors? Incubator farms teach an up and coming farmer the answers to all these questions. Incubator farms create a community of farmers that can begin to test the local market and build a network of buyers and distributors.
Incubator farms are like college for those trying to break into farming. A new farmer rents a small plot of land (about an acre) for 3-5 years. Meanwhile they learn how to purchase land, how to farm, what to grow, and how to sell. After 3-5 years of running a small scale farm, farmers now have the knowledge to buy land and run a full scale farm.

Purchasing Land

Farming 101: The Basics

Making Money

Popularity of Organic Foods

Benefits of Buying Local

Growing New Farmers

Purchasing Land

Farm land isn't cheap, especially in today's economy. Since 2005, the national average price for land has consistently risen 3.2%, which is the biggest increase since the 1970's. In the past year in some states such as Nebraska and Iowa, land prices have risen 22% and 25% respectively. When adjusted for inflation, the average price of land in the United States is $2,250 per acre. Before spending thousands of dollars buying farmland, what are some factors to consider?


High overhead costs require a high crop yield to make a profit. In this way, plans for farming will dictate the amount of land bought. Just because you buy farmland, doesn't mean all of the land is suitable for farming. This can be due to factors such as water drainage, slope, or rockiness.

Water Availability

Too much or too little water will ruin a harvest. Suitable farmland shouldn't have a history of flooding. If the area is not often exposed to rain, an irrigation system may need to be developed and installed using available water sources such as a lake or aquifer. Without water, farmland has no value.


Farming is a business. Just like any other business, the old adage "Location, location, location" depends on whether a business is successful or not. Highways and major roads offer benefits when trying to distribute crops because they offer easy access. In addition, take advantage of what an area or region is known for. No one goes to Nebraska to eat an orange.


Surrounding wildlife must always be considered. Livestock must always be fenced in to prevent predators from attacking. Farms near forests or wooded areas will naturally attract deer, rabbits, and other forest dwelling animals that can ruin crops.

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Farming 101: The Basics


What kind of soil you have depends on what can be planted. Before planting, soil must be evaluated. If the area doesn't receive much rain, soil will be shallow and dry. If the area receives moisture, how much does it receive? If the land was farmed before, what kind of crops were planted and harvested. Crops deplete the soil of certain nutrients so planting other types of crops or crop rotation is a must. In extreme cases, before anything is planted, the land may need soil reclamation to improve growing conditions.


Frost will affect crop yields. Low-lying land causes moisture and pollutants to pool, thus causing frost on cool mornings. In this way, air can actually be cooler in low areas than higher elevations. If lower elevation is protected by mountains such as a valley, mountains can provide protection from wind. Ultimately, one of the biggest factors affecting harvests is frost. Autumn frosts can cause lower crop yields or damage crops. Many times frost damage isn't noticed until harvest, when it's too late.


So after thousands of dollars have been spent on land, it's time to spend more money on farm equipment. The size and type of equipment will all depend on what is planted. But remember - the greater the crop yield, the greater the profit.

The most common piece of farming equipment is the tractor. Tractor prices vary by size, but generally farming tractors start at $50,000 and easily can go to $500,000. Tractors are a versatile piece of machinery because they consolidate many different machines into one vehicle. Tractors use a wide array of configurations that each provides its own use.

Tractor attachments will depend on what is planted. Generally, all soil must be prepared before anything is planted. This will require some sort of tiller or plow attachment. Plowing and tilling aerates and loosens compacted soil to allow greater erosion.

After plowing the soil, clumps must be loosened to get an even and consistent grade across an entire field. This requires a disk harrow. Disk harrows are a series of concaved metal disks arranged to form an offset X. The concavity of the disks allows them to further loosen and cut soil. Disk harrows also help to clear a field after harvesting. It can be used to chop old crops such as cornstalks or soybeans. This makes land easier to plow because it will eliminate clogging during the plowing process.

After soil is prepared, seeding may begin. To do this, another plow attachment is needed. Seed spreaders use gravity and the motion of wheels to distribute seed. A large hopper is filled with seed and using the forward motion of the wheels causes seed to be dispersed. Larger operations may require bigger spreaders called commercial broadcast seeders; these are capable of spreading or "broadcasting" seed further distances. Commercial broadcast seeders use a power take-off (PTO) to cover more ground when broadcasting seed. Seed spreaders are also multi-task tools as the hopper can also be filled with granulated fertilizer.

If farmland is located near a water source such as a lake, well, or aquifer – a method of irrigation may be needed. Although there are multiple ways to tap the water source, one way to consider is a PTO driven fire pump. These pumps can connect directly to the tractor and pump water into irrigation lines or pipes. Fire pumps come in all sizes from as small as 150 to as big as 2,000+ gallons per minute.

What to Grow

Location dictates crops. The Midwest grows corn; Georgia grows peaches; and Florida grows oranges. No one travels all the way to Idaho to eat a carrot. Certain areas, be they regionally or even locally are sometimes known for growing certain crops. This can be due to a variety of reasons such as soil, weather, topography, or even popularity. Research should be done as to what crops grow better in a particular area. Ultimately, farmland will dictate what types of crops a farmer will grow.

Local Economy

Lancaster County is known as "America's Garden Spot." Its nutrient rich soil makes any kind of crop flourish. Aside from the usual produce staples such as corn, cabbage, and peas – Lancaster County is also notable for its tobacco production. The topography of the land and the geologic make up of the soil make conditions ripe for growing. The broad flat land allows the sun to cure tobacco leaves and the soil naturally supports any crop. In fact the statewide harvests of tobacco more than doubled from 2001 to 2002, and has steadily risen ever since.

Lancaster County isn't just known for produce. The County's farmers generate over $800 million dollars and account for a fifth of Pennsylvania's agricultural output. Of this $800 million dollars, $710 million dollars is generated through livestock raising.

Just next to Lancaster County lies the small town of Kennett Square in Chester County. Kennet Square is known as the "Mushroom Capital of the World" and the cornerstone for Pennsylvania's number one cash crop – mushrooms. Pennsylvania accounts for 63% of the nation's mushroom industry. Kaolin Farms, Chester County's largest mushroom farm and the 4th largest in the nation sells over 1 million pounds of mushrooms every week.


The Midwest has the largest agricultural output in the United States, accounting for 30.8%. In the years following World War II, Americans migrated towards the Pacific Coast. This shift in population is reflected in the region's agricultural output as it doubled between 1949 and 2006. It now produces 16.3% of the nation's agricultural output. Agricultural output also reflects the number and size of farms. An area like the Midwest, with a large output, will have more farms than say the Northeast who produces 5.7% of the nation's agriculture. In addition, areas with more farms may also have larger farming operations. Farm land may be more readily available in these areas because of their shear output.

What Will Grow Best?

This is where everything comes together – location, wildlife, water availability, soil, and frost. Everything has led up to this point. Location will dictate what will be grown. Take full advantage of your location to make bountiful harvests. If farmland is located in a subtropical climate like California or Florida – citrus fruits will grow best. If farmland is located in cooler climates like Maine – berries will flourish. Produce staples such as corn, cabbage, potatoes, etc. can grow in many different areas, provided they receive adequate sun and water.

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Making Money

Now that crops have been harvested, hard work will begin to pay off… Literally. To make any sort of profit, farmers need to create distribution networks of where to sell their crops. Smaller farms may sell their crops to local restaurants or supermarkets. If a farm has access to a major highway or heavily used road, roadside stands can be a great way for locals to easily buy produce they know is fresh from the field. Farmer's markets are another great way to sell produce and can be a great way to get recognized. But before one seed is planted, a market should be established. Why plant something if it has no buyer? By analyzing the market, an operation can be relatively assured of profits and also helps to find out how to market and distribute.


Affordable labor is a problem many chefs face, from small diners to high end restaurants. Any chef would be glad to buy produce in a prepared state such as pre-chopped lettuce for salads, pre-peeled potatoes, or produce sorted according to size. Time is money. The less time a chef takes to produce a meal, the better.

Processed Produce

Depending on market fluctuations, what was worth dollars per pound one year may be worth cents per pound the next due to supply and demand. Fruit for example that may be worth only cents per pound may be worth dollars per pound in a pie or jam. By processing produce, additional products are created from unwanted or less than perfect harvests. Processed produce will also create merchandise for the off season establishing year round profits.

Niche Marketing

Any farm can grow produce. Why should someone buy your produce over that of another farm that might be cheaper? Creating a brand name will create better dividends. The market is overcrowded with nameless produce so if customers can identify or recognize a product, they are more likely to pay a little more for it. Develop a logo or special packaging for a product to differentiate from other generic products. If you believe in your product – sell the sizzle and people will return for the steak.

Even though hard work and money might be spent on packaging, the best way to gain new customers and have repeat customers is through word of mouth advertising. Word of mouth advertising may create a brand name before one is even developed. The best way to get word of mouth advertising is by putting a logo and location on bags or packaging so people know where to go. Word of mouth may also be gained through community involvement. Donating produce to soup kitchens or giving a tour to an elementary school will go a long way in prospective customer's minds.


Roadside stands are another great way to gain word of mouth advertising because they peak people's curiosity, especially if there is a crowd. Roadside stands are also a great way to sell produce that was previously unsold or unwanted from other distributing sources.

Farmer's markets offer their own built in market because products are brought to the people. Farmer's markets are also a great way to compare products. People will realize which stand or farm has superior produce and become repeat customers. Farmer's markets can also be useful to network with other farmers in an area or region. Although the farming business is competitive, farmers want to see each other succeed because they know the work that was painstakingly put into a harvest. Some farmers may share tips on harvesting or which distributors to use.

These types of markets also cut out the middleman, meaning there is less time between harvest and selling. Cutting out a middleman can also mean a higher net return because people won't be buying in bulk the way distributors would. These work well for seasonal items or processed produce because people know exactly where their produce is coming from.


Why should customers avoid buying produce at the supermarket when it's cheaper and more convenient? Why should customers travel out of their way to a rural roadside stand? Well, why should they? To attract customers, they need a reason. Create something for a family to do together. This could be as simple as setting up a few picnic tables or making recreational activities for people to spend the day.

This is where unsuitable farmland can come in handy. Land that is unfit for farming can be used as nature trails, corn mazes, or hay rides. These are all easy ways to allure people using what a farming operation would already have. Offering a pick-your-own operation is also an easy and inexpensive because farmers don't necessarily need to harvest or pick these areas; people actually pay to do it! People will come from hours away if there is enough to keep them busy.

Ultimately agritourism is like running a political campaign. A politician needs to motivate voters to vote them. A farmer needs to motivate customers to come to their farm and buy their products. Quality and freshness are great ways to attract customers, but will there be enough customers? Relying solely on selling produce at farmer's markets and roadside stands may not be enough. Attract people by giving them things to do. Take advantage of other tourist attractions in the area. Provide a list of things to and places to go for customers after they visit. Customers might make it routine to stop at a roadside stand on the way to somewhere else.

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Popularity of Organic Foods

In recent years, organic food has greatly increased in popularity. In fact, what once was a niche operation is experiencing double digit growth. Over the last decade, organic food sales have risen by at least 20% each consecutive year. The popularity of organic food is part of a larger trend in consumer spending habits to buy healthier food choices such as those promoting overall health, preventing diseases, and help to cure illnesses.

More than 8 out of 10 consumers report buying organic food for its nutritional value, other majorities cite freshness (77%), and the promotion of long term health (67%). Adding to the growing popularity are federal guidelines that denote which foods may be labeled as organic. Before the federal government definitions, organic food laws varied from region to region and state to state. This led to consumer confusion when trying to decide what the term organic actually meant. Consumers can now easily identify organic foods through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) seal labeling foods as organic.

As organic food increases in popularity and profits, so does organic farming. The most recent data from the Nutrition Business Journal says organic farmland increased from 2.35 million acres in 2001 to 2.8 million acres in 2003. Studies also show that organic farming can actually be more profitable than farming that uses chemicals. This is due to the higher price of organic food, increased harvests in drier areas or times, and lower overhead costs.
For foods to be labeled organic, they must be farmed organically. They must be grown and harvested using farming methods that use renewable resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without the use of artificial pesticides, biogenes, oil based fertilizers, and sewage based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and receive no antibiotics or hormones.

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Benefits of Buying Local

The greater trend involving organic food is buying healthier. Consumers want to know where their food comes from. Buying local also benefits the environment as well as the local economy.

Produce sold in supermarkets can travel thousands of miles across land and ocean before it reaches a store. The average grocery store's produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it actually gets to the store. This transportation means thousands of dollars spent on gas and unnecessary CO2 emissions. Not only travel costs, but the refrigeration required to keep produce chilled also uses unnecessary amounts of fossil fuels and releases more CO2 into the environment.

Buying local means buying food as with as little travel time as possible. When food is bought directly from its source, the elimination of middle men means that all profits go directly back to the source. This is also true with buying local. When buying food directly from its source, 90% of the money spent is given back to the farm. This in turn helps to keep the farm and the local economy sustainable. Today about $600 billion is spent on food. Of this $600 billion, only 7% is actually returned to the community through buying local. If the option to buy local isn't available, try to look for products grown in the United States. In some cases, this might mean bananas from California rather than South America.

Although local farmers can't compete with the prices most supermarkets offer produce at, buying local will mean price savings in the long run. Since produce is shipped an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches the store, that means it may be a few days to a week since it was picked. Add this to the amount of time a particular product has sat in a store and it can easily be over a week since harvest. When food is bought local, the amount of time it will last is much longer. Food bought at a local farmer's market will last longer than store bought food which also means less waste. In some cases, where local produce is readily available, the popularity of buying local food has also hit supermarkets themselves. Many stores proudly display signs that say "Locally Grown." This advertising brings in customers who prefer locally grown food and also helps stimulate the local economy through supporting local farmers.

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Growing New Farmers

Incubator farming programs exist not to provide avid gardeners with better resources, but rather to grow and cultivate interested farmers with the knowledge they need to start their own farming operation. Farming is a trade. Like all trades, it is a skill only a few people know and use. Like most trades, farming can be passed down through a family. Unlike other trades, farming doesn't have vocational or technical schools for people to learn. Even if farming was offered as an option – one can't learn everything there is to know about farming through books or even through demonstration. It is a craft that requires learning through the act of doing.

The USDA states that half of all current farmers plan to retire in the next decade. For the first time in 2008, the United States government passed a bill appropriately named the "Farm Bill." This bill devoted substantial resources to new and beginning farmers and developed the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. This program uses grants, low interest loans, and education programs to help beginning farmers establish themselves in the industry. Education focused on five main topics including:

- Production and management tactics to help land stewardship;
- Business management and decision support strategies to enhance profits of startup farms and new farmers;
- Marketing strategies to help gain awareness for new farmers;
- Legal strategies that help new farmers with acquiring farmland and transfer; and
- Other topics which would enhance competitiveness and sustainability of new farmers for the future.

The bill also created the Office of Outreach and Advocacy as a sub-group of the USDA. The Office of Outreach and Advocacy was charged with the task of gaining recognition for the USDA's efforts in helping new farmers, especially those in isolated rural communities.

Farming is an occupation that demands no days off. It requires long hours and complete devotion. However with all the sweat and hard work that go into a harvest, it is also one of the most rewarding careers. Whether just a small backyard garden or a farm hundreds of acres large, all farmers take pride in their product.

The hours that go into harvesting something as simple as one tomato are filled with work. First the right tomato seeds must be chosen, then the land must be prepared for planting, then the seeds are planted, then the ground must be continually monitored and watered, once the plants start to produce fruit, the tomato must be picked. Forget the time it takes for produce to reach a supermarket, it takes months of work for a single tomato to finally be picked.

While technology has made farming more efficient, it hasn't really made it easier. Computers help fertilizers to spray more efficiently by controlling the amount of product used and how much overlap is done, however computers can't fertilize. Ultimately it is up to the farmer to actually do the fertilizing himself. Machines control milking on cows. Machines however don't take away the work of feeding the cows the proper hay or the early mornings required to wake up to do the task.

With the amount of care, precision, and pride every farmer puts into a harvest, farming in its own way is less of a trade and more of an art form. Try produce from a local farmer's market. A farmer knows exactly how it was planted, when and how it was harvested, and exactly how it tastes. Farmers put as much purpose into every bit of produce as an artist uses a certain color. The money spent at a farmer's market is funding a career, a family, and a local economy.

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This site was created by Robert Bechtel at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

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