The January Field School session was all about how to farm financially and getting started on the right foot. Starting to farm can be difficult. The future can seem gloomy when taking a look at start-up costs, loan and financial assistance applications, and figuring out record keeping and budgeting software. Luckily, there are some great support programs and services that can assist. We had the opportunity to hear from University of TN Extension, TN Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency and Rural Development. They spoke on the numerous services offered by their agencies to help beginning farmers with financial planning, micro-loans, grants, and cost-share programs.

Our first speaker, Adam Hopkins, a UT Extension Area Specialist, reminded us that everyone has their own goal for their farm. He serves the counties of northeast TN to help farmers of all stripes get a grasp on their finances.  Adam explained that it is important to be SMART when planning. “SMART goals are Specific, measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound goals.” We want to make sure that they are achievable and not too broad.  When starting out, new farmers should write down their short (6 months), medium (1-2 years), and long-term goals (3+ years) and break them down into concrete, actionable steps.

Once your goals are established, but before you fire up the tractor, you need to sit down and figure out your budget.  Where are your start-up costs going to come from: cash, a loan, a partnership with a rich financier?  What kind of equipment do you really need and are there things you want but can do without for a few years? You also need to write budgets for all of the things you want to produce.  It can seem overwhelming to try and figure out what a cow or head of broccoli costs to raise and what it’s worth when sold.  However, the USDA has a lot of resources on common livestock and plant crops, including customizable budget spreadsheets.  Your local County Extension Agent should be able to provide you with this information.

Adam recommended an app to help with budgeting and record keeping if you need a little more organization that can be found at UT Extension is very passionate about educating individuals, and communities that have limited resources. There are a variety of conferences and farmers market boot camps that can be attended across the state. Visit their calendar of events to see if anything is of interest to you.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture is another helpful resource for beginning farmers. They believe that diversity in agriculture is very important and want to find ways to get people to work together. They have an abundance of information on the TDA website. It is a great place to start searching for assistance and ideas. If you scroll down to the bottom there are links to programs, related sites, and topics of interest. A great example is Pick Tennessee Products, which tells where the local restaurants and farmers markets are located.  If you are producing anything on your farm, sign up for Pick TN and access the free online marketing!  They also have a conference coming up on Feb 16-18 in Franklin, TN that will offer a variety of tracks on organic growing, agritourism, viticulture, livestock and more.

The TDA also offers financial assistance to farmers. Check out their website for a list of grants and loans that you may qualify for. The major source of assistance comes through the Tennessee Agriculture Enhancement Program (TAEP).  Louis Buck, from TDA, spoke to us about TAEP where “participation allows producers to maximize farm profits, adapt to changing market situations, improve operation safety, increase farm efficiency and make a positive economic impact in their communities (TAEP).” TAEP offers farmers 30-50% cost-share on a variety of infrastructure for livestock and produce.  To qualify for the higher cost-share, you usually must attend an educational workshop or two on a subject related to the program you are applying for.

Next up, we had Matthew Christian, a Farm Service Agency Loan Officer, who spoke about the various low-interest loan programs offered by the FSA.  Matthew said that the FSA is a loan agency of “last resort,” meaning you must prove that you cannot get financing from a traditional bank before you can apply to FSA.  In 2016, the FSA started a micro-loan program for up to $50,000 for beginning farmers with limited experience.  This loan can be used to purchase land, equipment or infrastructure.  The FSA also offers other loans, up to $300K for more experienced farmers and loans for youth up to $5,000.  The loan programs are not indefinite, however, and Matthew emphasized that farmers are expected to eventually build up enough experience and credit worthiness to access loans from traditional banks.

Last but not least, Allen Hawk, an Area Specialist with USDA Rural Development, spoke about two grant programs available to farmers.  The first is Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which helps rural farmers install energy efficiency and renewable energy generators (i.e. solar panels and wind turbines) on their property.  Rural Development also offers a Value Added Producer Grant, which is a great opportunity for farmers to conduct a feasibility study on a new product.  The ARC&D recently helped a new farmer get a VAP grant to do a feasibility study on producing hard cider from his family’s orchard.  With the new Mountain Harvest Kitchen opening soon in Unicoi, TN, there will be plenty of opportunities for farmers to turn their fruits and vegetables into all kinds of value added products and this grant could be an invaluable boost for getting started.

When you’re getting started with a new farm venture, finances, budgeting and record keeping can be huge hurdles to overcome.  As we learned in the Field School, however, there are lots of local, state and federal support services that can help you get up and running.