Starting a Farm? Read 5 tips on the business scene

Read 5 tips from a farmer who’s been in the family farm business since 1947.

I talked with DJ Jodikinis, owner of Jodikinis Farm in Clinton, PA, while I was visiting his stand at the West Homestead Farmer Market.  I told him that I have absolutely no background in farming and wanted to know what to do and how to start.

  1. Family farm is everything when it comes to permits

Well first off — Clinton, PA, is a farming community.  So when it came to acquiring the permits it was simple.  Since they are “grandfathered in” the system of all of these farm permits by the Department of Agriculture. “Grandfathered in” means that the family had the business for generations.  Without being grandfathered in, they would have spend thousands of dollars on permits to have the land permitted to them for commercial use.

The downside however is he doesn’t have the license to run a commercial kitchen. That means, all the fruits he grows, he can’t make delicious pies or jams and sell them for a profit.  Commercial kitchen licenses costs about $10,000.

Since I’m not lucky to have been born and raised in a farm community, I’m left with two options: lease or buy a farm.  He told me right away to buy. You don’t have to deal with the control of the owner and any changes that he or she may do in the time that could leave you empty handed.

2. Find the right farm techniques

At Jodikinis Farm, there are 3 irrigation ponds, hoop houses, and black plastic mulch with trickle irrigation.  He said trickle irrigation is used so there is less watering by hand. The water goes straight to the plant, using a tube as a source for the water transportation.

They also use a transplanter (it’s a type of tractor) which punches holes into the plastic covering and then a farmer can fill in the baby plants right when the holes are punched.

DJ’s son told me that in this vocational tech training at school, the teacher said it’s best to plow or disc in the fall time and then rototill in the spring to plant.  A rototiller and a disc are tools that help break the soil apart.

Another piece of equipment that’s needed is a cooler to store fruits and vegetables. He stocks unsold fruits and veggies in the cooler for the next day.

3. Treat soil like a king 

Each year you farm, the pH level goes down.  One trick is to grow corn or have hay because it stabilizes the pH level.  This is essential for healthy plants to grow strong.  Soil is everything.  He also said to avoid pesticides on fruits.  He has to use pesticide on corn to stop worms from spreading but that’s about it. Rely on the nature to do its job for everything else.

4. Farmer Markets can get expensive and return is questionable 

I was hanging out at the farmer market around 3pm when it opened and only 2 or 3 people were buying produce at this stand. I came back around 6 for another 40 minutes and there were only 3 or 4 customers at maximum, and only buying just small handfuls.  I asked him how this feels and he said that there should be better marketing techniques by the volunteers.  I agreed… I didn’t even see a sign to point people where to park across the lot.

Communication is lacking here too. There is no social media marketing at all and flyers to hand out to people visiting.  There was a guide in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette listing the farmer markets in the region but no details or websites beyond that for visitors.  Some farmers feel uncomfortable using Facebook or Twitter because of privacy concerns.

Lack of advertising and communications are both problems. A bigger problem is that farmers are losing money each hour that goes by.  Take for example the tents. Each tent rents at $100.00 for the season. If you have 7 tents like DJ has – that’s $700.00.  The West Homestead Borough is not doing a good enough job at helping the farmers recoup the costs of spending on the rent here.

So for farmers, they have to observe most of the time to understand which markets do better and where.  For example, Swissvale is on Saturdays which helps customers because it’s not  a work day. It’s also close to a church so that attracts people who may be going to Mass.

5. Watch out for health inspectors…

The big topic now for Pennsylvania farmers is the type of water source they are using for their plants.  Produce that grows close to the ground needs washed. The Dept of Agriculture has recently been concerned of farmers not using good quality water. There is now a grant aimed at solving agricultural water issues in PA led by Penn State.

Urban runoff, chemical laden toxins from nearby mines, and pesticide practices has ruined the water supply for many farmers.  DJ said he uses well water and hasn’t had an issue from the inspectors using a well.

…and Animal Activists

Deers, groundhogs, and raccoons are all a nightmare nuisance for DJ and his family farm.  He spent $3,000 to rent property for 15 acres and the deer are eating everything. He can’t do anything about it because the owner doesn’t want him to shoot deer. There is pressure from animal activists in the area so they have to be cautious how they approach the problem.

His best advice?  Talk to your local agricultural agents for advice.  You can find your extension office will give the business tools and location considerations for starting a farm.  The link is found here. 

Author: Kimberly Kweder

33 years old, career woman, Pittsburgh native, and loves projects that involve communications, social media, and international development.

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