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Ask a Master Gardener: Hobby Farming: A Way of Life

By Jacob Kelley, Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System

As a regional extension agent, I get calls about all kinds of farm-related questions. “How do I grow blueberries?” “My plants are dying!” “Why won’t my avocado produce fruit?” “Can I pee in my compost?” “What type of fertilizer is best?” One question that has been on the rise since 2020 has been, “How do I start a hobby farm?”

Hobby farming has been on the up and up across the country and Alabama is no exception. I don’t know why anyone would want to start a hobby farm. Sometimes, it baffles me. It is so hard to make a living on a farm these days and it is only getting harder. Prices for inputs have soared but consumers still want the lowest price for food.

It’s a cyclical issue for growers across the country. The price of fertilizer goes up 100% but the price you get for your commodity only goes up 20%. Every year is a gamble with the market. Farming is a constant gamble with Mother Nature as well. With one bad weather event, a farmer can lose everything for that season or longer. It just doesn’t seem reasonable for someone to want to go through that just for a hobby.

Most Americans are out of touch with farming in a big way. When you ask kids where their food comes from, they reply, “The grocery store.” It’s truly cringeworthy that people don’t know where the food they eat comes from. Americans’ romanticized vision of life on the farm is not realistic and does damage to how our society views agriculture. Life on the farm is not for the faint of heart, you’ve all seen the commercial. Farming is not a hobby but a way of life. You’d have to be a lunatic to want to farm for fun.

I am among that crowd, the farming lunatics. I am in the crowd because I enjoy a challenge, I enjoy hard work, and I enjoy the outdoors. I love to plant a seed and watch it grow. I love to help that duck with bumble foot as it continues to shoot liquid projectiles at me from its hind end. The heat, the bugs, the sweat, the tears, the feeling of being so tired you can’t move anymore and still mustering up the energy to watch the sunset while finishing up the last bit of chores. I love it.

So, for those of you who are crazy enough to want to change your lifestyle to farm, I have some tips to get you off on the right foot.

If you want to be a hobby farmer, you must have the capital to develop your farming dream. The land is very expensive in our area and doesn’t seem to want to go down any time soon. If you have land, you have a leg up. Infrastructure will be the next big expense. Double that infrastructure cost if you want animals. Buildings, roads, irrigation, fencing, equipment, insurance, and other inputs don’t grow on trees, and it seems that they get more expensive with every season. Buy used if you can, this will help reduce costs. Folks in agriculture for money have old and outdated equipment to get rid of all the time. Seek them out for better prices.

Believe it or not, water is a requirement for farming. You will need irrigation for plants and water for animals. Plan for this before you ever buy the first plant or animal. I like to draw out the farm on paper and make a map of my plan. I do this in stages to help me create small, attainable goals and to keep me on task. Have a one-year map, a five-year map, and a ten-year map. This will help guide you on your journey and hold yourself accountable. These maps are best written in pencil so that changes can be made as we grow into the role.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your farm won’t be either. Start small with one commodity on a manageable amount of land. Patience is a requirement. Work steadily, getting good at it, expanding that commodity over time, and then adding another commodity a few years later. Before you know it, you will have quite a diversified homestead developing and no time wasted on unfruitful ventures.

Failure is an option. Go into this hobby knowing you are going to fail sometimes. It’s a part of life, it humbles us, and it makes us better. Reduce your failure by educating yourself on the subject from reliable sources like your local county extension office, university publications (.edu), and other outlets that provide research-based information. In a world of information at your fingertips, it pays to get the source right.

Lastly, make friends with other farmers in your area. You never know when they can give you the advice or help you didn’t know you needed. They know where to buy this or that, they know how to fix tractors, they have equipment that they may loan out to friends in need, they have experience, and they know whom to call for help. Support them, and they will help support you.

Jacob Kelley and his 2023 Tomatoes just after planting

Jacob Kelly about to catch a swarm of bees on a pecan tree

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