Selecting an Enterprise for Your Farm
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This page will help farmers with anywhere from a single acre up to about 20 acres make preliminary determinations about which enterprises may be feasible on a particular farm.
Feasibility refers to what can be reasonably and practically produced, and deciding what to produce is one of the most important decisions a new farmer can make. However, before an enterprise is chosen an aspiring farmer must set realistic expectations for establishing a productive and profitable farm. There is often a steep learning curve when trying to produce quality agricultural products and farming is a skilled trade that requires extensive knowledge and skill. As with other skilled trades a novice will have to actively seek out opportunities to further develop their own skills. Seasoned producers have dedicated countless hours to their professional development but even established farmers experience setbacks in production or business. Therefore anyone considering farming as a profession should consider the amount of work and the inherent risk that’s involved when getting started in this industry.
Once expectations have been established it’s time to look at enterprise possibilities. Selecting an enterprise is influenced by many factors, including personal preference, land characteristics, quantity and quality of water, market demand, and others. But perhaps the most important criteria is whether a specific enterprise will generate a profit. The fact that a crop or animal can be produced on a particular farm does not guarantee it would be profitable to do so. Profit margins for many enterprises are thin enough that even a small change in a variable such as soil fertility or distance to market can shift things from profit to loss.
Whichever production enterprise is chosen, a new farmer should consider starting on a small scale and grow with increasing demand. This will reduce risk and allow new farmers to be flexible while starting a new venture. Many times products on a farm develop through trial and error and are often different from the original vision of the farmer. Enterprise selection should be evaluated carefully but understand that farms are dynamic, especially in the beginning stages. New farmers often identify strengths and weaknesses in production or markets and adjust accordingly to meet their goals.
Of course, for most farmers the starting point will be to consider enterprises that have a history of production and profitability in North Carolina. It may be tempting to try producing something that is touted as a new opportunity, but bear in mind that these ventures carry substantially greater risk, regardless of what the promoter may tell you.
The following resources are provided to assist farmers in considering specific options:
- Summary table
- A narrative summary of each enterprise category
- A narrative summary of each acreage level
Note that recommended options vary based on acreage level and water availability. The suggestions provided should not be interpreted as definitive, nor as mutually exclusive. In many cases it will be possible, desirable, or even necessary to divide the farm among various enterprises. Also note that a suggested enterprise will not be feasible in all situations due to other variables such as individual skill level, microclimate, soil characteristics, access to capital, market demand, available infrastructure, etc. This resource is best used as a starting point to determine what enterprises deserve further research and evaluation for your situation.
FEASIBILITY SUMMARY TABLE
*KEY TO WATER RATING
NO = No on-site water source is available
LO = On-site water available, but quantity is limited (e.g. small pond or low output well)
HI = Abundant water available on site, such as a municipal source, large pond, high output well, or combination of sources
KEY TO FEASIBILITY RATING
F = Feasible
U = Unfeasible
M = Marginally feasible
P = Feasible for a portion of the acreage
Note that “feasibility” refers only to whether the crop can be reasonably and practically produced, and should not be taken as an indication of profitability.
Farmers producing commodities that are consumed raw (e.g. many fruits, vegetables and herbs) need to place extra emphasis on water quality. In general, water from wells and municipal sources presents a lower risk of product contamination by bacteria, viruses, etc. For additional details, refer to the following resources: Water for Irrigation and Livestock, Food Safety Modernization Act and GAPs Certification.
SUMMARY BY ENTERPRISE TYPE
Vegetables, herbs and cut flowers can be grown on small acreage using intensive techniques such as high tunnels, low tunnels and raised beds. However, they require an abundant water source. Regardless of acreage available, production will be limited by water availability. Also note that production is labor intensive. Raising much more than a couple of acres requires specialized equipment and likely the hiring of additional labor.
Various fruit crops can be grown on small acreages using intensive techniques. Where no water is available, it would be risky but possible to grow blueberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes, figs, pawpaws, chestnuts or pecans. This should be attempted if and only if the farmer is willing to transport water to the site periodically, especially during the first year after planting and during drought. Where water is abundant, also consider strawberries, other grape species, apples, peaches/nectarines, pears and persimmons. With almost any of these crops, raising more than a small area is very labor intensive and requires specialized equipment.
Greenhouse and nursery crops are not feasible without an abundant, high quality source of irrigation. Where such a source is available, even small acreages are feasible. As with vegetable production, raising much more than a couple of acres would likely require the hiring of additional labor to manage the workload.
It is not feasible to raise livestock without a water source. Careful analysis should be conducted to ensure that herd size does not exceed output of the water source. For a one-acre site, only poultry should be considered. Goats and sheep might be feasible where five or more acres of pasture are available. Due to their grazing and water needs, beef cattle would only be suitable where 10 acres or more are available, along with an abundant water supply. Even then, herd size would be limited to possibly no more than one animal per two acres.
On the other hand, forages that will be cut and stored (e.g. silage or hay bales) are often grown on non-irrigated farmland. However, even with 20 acres, it would be difficult to justify the expense of the harvest and processing equipment. Thus, it may be necessary to hire out the harvest, baling, etc. to a nearby farmer.
More information on livestock enterprises can be found in this Decision Making Guide for New Meat Producers.
There is a market for specialty grains such as organic, heirloom and non-GMO wheat, barley, oats, corn and soybeans. There may be demand for these products from small-scale animal producers, breweries/distilleries and specialty bakers, for example. In North Carolina, much of the grain production takes place on non-irrigated cropland. However, the cost of the equipment for a fully mechanized operation would likely reach many tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps smaller acreages could be considered where older equipment in good working order was available, perhaps through family connections, inheritance, etc., or where farmers wanted to employ more labor intensive methods.
NON-TIMBER FOREST PRODUCTS
Woodlots of five acres or more may present opportunities to harvest small amounts of firewood and/or craft materials. Even on smaller woodlots, the associated shade could provide suitable conditions to raise woodland botanicals or log grown mushrooms, although both of these crops need irrigation.
Raising trees to harvest for pulpwood, lumber, or other products bound for the lumber mill does not require irrigation. However, at least five acres of production is needed for this endeavor to become even marginally feasible. At less than 10 acres, many loggers could not even justify the cost of bringing their equipment to the site. In such cases, the landowner may want to stay alert for loggers working in the area or on neighboring tracts. Developing a relationship with a registered consulting forester that works in the area would be beneficial.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Before investing in a new enterprise a farmer should conduct a thorough and independent analysis of production methods, profit potential and resource requirements (time, money, soil, water, infrastructure). For links to detailed production information, visit one of our Extension Topic Portals (click on “topics” near the top of this page).