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Most U.S. farms are small by one definition or another. A 100-acre apple orchard in central Washington can be described as small, and so can a 500-acre corn-and-soybean farm in southern Minnesota.
So can 10 acres of pasture for sheep in western Oregon or 2 acres of vegetables in southwestern Idaho.
Small, as it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.
The old adage goes that your farm is “small” if it’s smaller than the one down the road.
But something else beyond the number of acres needs to be considered. These days, “small farm” often brings with it a connotation, a state of mind. It’s one where farmers go to great lengths to learn to “do it right” — to care for their land and animals in a way that allows the farm to continue for generations to come.
A great many small farms are also relatively new. Nearly every farm started small. A century-old wheat farm that now includes thousands of acres in eastern Washington most likely started much smaller. Over time, economics allowed the family to buy more land. Eventually, the farm reached a “right size” that allowed it achieve economies of scale.
We recently ran a story about several small-scale farmers. Among them were Nate and Janis Newsom, who three years ago moved from southern California to 17 acres outside Stayton, Ore., in the Willamette Valley. They have been successfully growing a variety of crops at their Bear Branch Farms, selling produce through their community supported agriculture program.
Those who are new to farming often find themselves on a steep learning curve. Someone who wants to “farm” will also need to wear many other hats. Soil science, animal husbandry, botany, horticulture, genetics, hydrology, meteorology, economics, marketing, accounting, financial planning, small engine repair, diesel mechanics, plumbing, welding — even a knowledge of water law and local, state and federal regulations quickly become part of the picture.
But there’s help. With thousands of farmers nationwide approaching retirement, the focus at large land-grant universities has broadened to include small farmers and how to help them. Classes, programs, workshops and seminars such as the Oregon Small Farm Conference at Oregon State University on Feb. 24 fling open the doors to small farmers of all types to inform and encourage them and help them form networks and relationships with mentors.
This is an exciting time to be a farmer or rancher. Researchers are developing new and more efficient ways of farming and ranching. Conventional farming continues to be a great way to earn a living and make a lifestyle, and organic farming continues to gain in popularity. Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and food hubs all help small-scale farmers make important connections with customers. Farmers and ranchers are constantly finding new niches to explore and develop.
The future has never been brighter for those who choose to cultivate the land, and make a life from it.
We salute all who take up the challenge.