11 Things You Need to Know before Starting a Farm
Cars crawl bumper to bumper across the Verrazano Bridge. Drivers, grumbling over ridiculous $15 tolls, finally shudder free from Manhattan’s shackles. Windows come down as Staten Island suburbs blend into iridescent farmland. If only.
Weekend sojourns out of town paint a tranquil picture of a simpler life. One where tables are filled with homemade cheese, white linen, and edible flowers. Desk cramps, RSIs, and vitamin D deficiency are just things city people whine about.
Turns are missed. Radios blast. iPhones reroute through downtown Cowtown, Woodstown, and Elmer. The sun glances off glasses, trucks pass on the highway. Eventually a sign reads: Vineland, New Jersey. Only two hours late. But it doesn’t matter — life is slower in the country, right?
Wrong. Muzarelli Farm is an organized chaos. Workers zip around in tractors, boxes of kale are stacked, sweet potatoes bedded, and cilantro harvested with small machete-like knives. Visitors stream through the market, buying honey, vegetables, and fresh breaded eggplant. It’s something like an ants nest, but with less ants and 300 acres more nest. And fourth-generation farmers, Charlie and Rose Muzzarelli, are at the center of it all.
Turns out starting a farm takes more than a plaid shirt and a good attitude. Here’s everything you need to know before taking the plunge.
“We thought she was nuts, but now it’s probably the best thing we do on the farm.”
01. Farming is Expensive
Your land is always going to be your major cost when starting out (and your most important). “And then people don’t even realize the insurance you’ve got to buy on top of all that,” Charlie says. Next comes equipment, which the Muzzarellis have built up over time, making do with tractors almost twice Charlie’s age. “It took us years to get where we’re at. When I was little, we only had maybe four tractors. Now we have twelve or fourteen.” Time and good relationships with local businesses is key when growing a farm business. “We had tough years when we couldn’t pay for stuff and our banks really worked with us, and helped us through,” Charlie says.
02. You Might Have to Lease Land
There’s no doubt buying land is the preferred option when starting a farm. “Because you always have it and you’re never going to lose it,” Charlie says. But for those who aren’t in a place to fork out a huge down payment, leasing is a good way to get into the game. “Know where you’re going to base your farm, house, and packing sheds, and try to own that,” he says. “And then, any more land you need can be leased — maybe the owner will give you the option to buy it. That’s how we’ve built up our land over time.”
03. You Need to Think Outside to Box
It’s not enough to just plant a ton of kale and hope for the best. “Being diversified has played a major role in our success,” Charlie says. Muzzarelli Farms grow 16 crops throughout the year, for direct and wholesale accounts. Charlie’s mom, Rita, and his wife, Rose, are both responsible for running a thriving produce market located right on the farm. “It was my mom’s idea, and she did all that marketing herself,” Charlie says. “We thought she was nuts, but now it’s probably the best thing we do on the farm.”
“I would definitely say work for somebody first just to see what’s involved, how crucial it is to do certain things at certain times, and how volatile it can be, before making the decision to get into commercial farming as a career.”
04. Going It Alone is Almost Impossible
A supportive family and community means everything. “If you don’t have that behind you, you might as well pack it up and leave,” Charlie says. With so many ups and downs, especially if you’re young and have a family, having someone to turn to is key. “My dad is wise and has been through a lot of things, and having him here — when you doubt something — you can always ask. Maybe I don’t get the answer that I want to hear, but he does have the answer.”
05. First, You Need to Actually Farm
Learning how to farm comes down to watching, doing things, and having your own unique experiences. “I would definitely say work for somebody first just to see what’s involved, how crucial it is to do certain things at certain times, and how volatile it can be, before making the decision to get into commercial farming as a career.” Learning on the job is definitely the fastest way to figure it out, and Charlie says most farmers are receptive to teaching and training. “Personally, if I knew somebody was really passionate about it and they wanted to learn and they came to me, I would definitely want to give them the opportunity.”
06. The Weather Can be a Total Bummer
You do all the right things — you plant at the right time, you get the crop to water at the right time, and you use the right amount of fertilizer. “But I’ll be honest with you,” Charlie says. “You have no control over Mother Nature.” The best you can do is mitigate risk wherever you can, and know the forecast like the back of your hand. “You take into account what you did the year before — you’ve survived this long by doing certain things — and every year you try and adjust to make them better,” Charlie says.
“You have to love it. If you don’t have that when you first start out, you’re not going to have it ten years in.”
07. Trying New Things is Important
Farming is about continuous learning and iteration. Everything’s always changing in the food industry, and successful farmers need to stay ahead of the curve. “Don’t ever be afraid to try something — a new market, or a new variety,” Charlie says. “It could be a great thing, it could be a bad thing, but just be sure to start on a small scale and build from there.”
08. Farming is Dangerous
With all of the machinery, heavy lifting, and chance for human error, there’s no surprise accidents happen all the time. “When we were younger, we had an accident on the farm with me and my sister and my grandfather. We were on a forklift and the radiator cap blew off. My sister was burned probably on 60% of her body, and my grandfather was burned on his side, and I had a bad burn on my leg,” Charlie says. “Freak accidents can happen. To minimize the risk, you always have to err on the side of caution. Always know what’s going on, always know your surroundings, and don’t put yourself in a bad position.”
09. It’s Going to Test You
Fluctuating market prices, unknown variables, and labor shortages provide a constant source of stress and anxiety for any farmer. “I would say finding good labor is one of our biggest challenges right now — to know if I have the help here to harvest the crop, and how much to plant. You don’t want to plant too much of it, because you’re not going to have the help to harvest it, you don’t want to plant not enough so that you don’t survive, so finding that happy balance is a big challenge in our business.”
10. Yup, Instagram Matters
As the farm-to-table movement grows, people are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, and how it’s grow. Savvy websites, Instagram handles, and Facebook pages are as much part of the job as weeding and harvesting. “Farmers are becoming more responsible for selling their own products,” Charlie says. “Which means you can cut out the middleman a bit more, and also communicate directly about your produce.”
11. Farming is a Lifestyle, Not a Job
If you want to be a successful farmer, you have to live and breathe it. “You don’t have weekends or holidays during the harvest season,” Charlie says. “And you need to be aware of all that going into farming.” Work life balance is not a phrase you’ll find outside of cities. “You can’t just take a Sunday off, because the plants don’t stop growing, the weeds don’t stop growing, and everything still needs water.” There’s going to be times you question your entire being. “You have to love it,” Charlie says. “If you don’t have that when you first start out, you’re not going to have it ten years in.”
Dig Inn is proud to serve Muzzarelli Farms kale and sweet potatoes. Originally published on dirt.online.