Starting your own farm can daunting and also at times feel impossible if you are looking on Realtor.ca. Seeing the price tag of a farm can definitely make it feel like an overwhelming hurdle. If you have read several other posts here at The Farming Frontiers, you might know that I suggest considering starting a farming operation before you purchase farm property to help you build a farm financial profile.
I have gathered here a number of farm start-up ideas that meet the following criteria:
- Can be relocated with minimal cost
- Adaptable to most of the infrastructure you may able to lease from an existing farm operation
- Require less than $50,000 of cash investment
- Possible to manage while working full-time
These ideas will not all work in every region of Canada. Their profitability will vary depending on market access and demand as well as the cost of production. However, they have the opportunity for reasonable profit margins with the appropriate market research and budgeting. These are merely ideas and the starting point for a business plan. Some of the ideas might need to be done in combination for the sales requirement.
One option is to raise veal calves. These are typically the bull calves from dairy farms, most commonly Holstein bull calves. They are either purchased directly from the dairy farm within a few days of birth or from the local sales barn. Veal is sold as either milk-fed which is up to 225kg (500lb) or grain-fed which is typically maxed out at 318kg (700lb). A basic factsheet can be found here. With an average market age of 7 months, you would need to sell approximately 10 calves for $725 ($1.30 per pound for 560lbs) to meet the agricultural sales criteria.
Raising veal calves requires access to either a barn or a yard in which to house hutches with pens. It used to be a row of hutches was a good starting point, however, effective December 31, 2020, veal calves must be housed in groups as young as possible and not later than eight weeks of age and calves are prohibited from being tethered. For all of the housing and care requirements, check out the Veal Cattle Code of Practice.
Veal can be a decent start-up option as the initial investment is in the calves, buckets for feeding and penning. All of these can be moved if your barn lease falls through. The main variables to profitability are the cost of milk replacer, the purchase price of the calves and the market price for shipping. Veal farming is going to be best suited in regions of Canada where there are multiple dairy farms around to help you source healthy calves. Veal is also partially supply managed in Quebec.
Meat rabbits are a viable farming option if researched correctly. They require access to a barn to house the cages but the space requirement is a lot smaller compared to more common livestock like cattle or sheep. The Rabbit Code of Practice states that a doe with kits needs roughly 5 square feet of space. Some rabbit housing systems are two-story which allows for more rabbits under the same roof.
The market for rabbits is highly variable depending on the region. In Quebec, rabbits fall under supply management. The greatest hurdle for rabbits would be the marketing of the meat. However, they require less extensive investment than some other types of farming and the housing systems can be relocated.
Information on rabbit production is limited, however, multiple sources state that 9 fryers (ready to market rabbits) per doe per year is a reasonable production expectation. Average price per fryer appears to be around $20 each, so you would need to sell 350 fryers from 40 does to meet the sales requirement.
Sheep have a lot of different production options. To raise sheep, you could breed ewes and raise lambs. You can also buy and finish feeding lambs. There is also the option of grazing management projects like those that work to control leafy spurge or keep solar farms grazed. In addition to meat, depending on your marketing skills and goals, fibre and milk are also options. For meat production, assuming revenue of $180 per lamb and 1.5 lambs per ewe, you would need approximately 26 ewes to qualify as a farm business.
Sheep do not necessarily require a full barn, as long they have some kind of shelter meeting the Code of Practice for the care and raising of sheep. Sheep do have a wide range of marketing options with the most commonly discussed being direct to consumer (farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture shares “CSA”) and live auction sales. The most important consideration when buying sheep is to source them from a healthy flock using the production methods you want to use. There are multiple posts about raising sheep throughout the blog including Marketing Sheep through Auctions, and Purchasing Sheep.
As long as you like working with sheep, they are worth considering when starting your farm because the costs to entry are reasonable and marketing options are generally available in most regions. Some provinces do have sheep financing options which could be helpful when you are trying to expand the flock.
Much like sheep, beef cattle have a number of production options ranging from cow-calf to feedlots. Beef is one of the main agriculture sectors so information on raising beef is widespread and fairly easy to access as are the marketing options. The beef industry also has more supported financing options including feeder finance co-operatives and breeder finance co-operatives. Different routes can also include grazing leases, and producing purebred breeding stock.
The main drawbacks to starting with beef is going to be the market price volatility and saturated demand. Beef is an exporter industry in Canada, meaning we produce more beef than we consume as a nation. This means there are many more global factors on price than for example sheep, which is still much more regional. The revenue requirement can easily be met with a few cows, making it easy to start small.
Feeding beef cattle can be an advantage when mixed with other livestock as beef tend to have lower requirements than goats and sheep so you can reduce waste by having the cattle clean up. For care and housing, it is important to follow the Beef Code of Practice. Cattle do not necessarily need barns but they do need windbreaks or some other kind of shelter from the elements. Renting land that can not be cropped would be one way to graze cattle.
Artisan Poultry & Fowl
Chickens are a very common first step in the homesteading community. Here in Canada, the biggest hindrance to starting a farm operation with chickens is the limitations of each province’s supply management system. The production of eggs, chickens and turkeys is governed by supply management in every province. It is very important to research what the limits are for raising chickens or turkeys without quota. Some provinces have artisan permits to allow you to raise 2,000-3,000 birds without quota.
An excellent starter option is meat chickens. These can be raised in one summer on as small of a space as an acre. The marketing is going to vary by your location but pre-orders and CSAs are common. With the popularity of chickens, there is a wealth of information out there on how to raise and market poultry.
Besides chickens and turkeys, there are also the options of raising game birds like quail as well as ducks and geese. These have no supply management concerns but like rabbits, it is going to depend on marketing to make this venture work. Duck eggs are popular in some regions, which could make your farming operation stand out. Researching what local consumers want is going to be most key in making ducks and geese a successful farming venture.
Much like sheep, meat goats have a range of options and possibilities. They do take longer to raise than a sheep and have different feeding needs but the marketing is very similar. For meat goats, at the moment there are two main routes, raising your own or raising the bucklings from dairy goat farms. The latter is only an opportunity in Ontario and Quebec where the majority of dairy goat farms are concentrated.
In general, the same housing and care requirements apply to goats as they do for sheep. There is a Code of Practice currently under revision. Goats do tend to be harder on their infrastructure so if you are renting a barn, it is important to keep up the maintenance. They will chew on anything and everything.
Marketing goats vary regionally and is still quite dependent on the major ethnic holidays. Marketing direct is definitely an option as is selling through the sales barn. It is very important that the goats come from a healthy herd to optimize your meat production. The most common meat breed in Canada will be Boer, however, Spanish Meat and Kiko are also excellent choices. Similar to sheep, starting with 25 does or so would likely meet the revenue requirement.
For cropping, there are limited options as the cash crop sector generally requires high capital investments. High-value specialty crops like pumpkins and sweet corn are a few of the options that would be suited for a smaller rented field. Pick your own corn and pumpkins can work well closer to urban centers and can help you build a customer base if direct marketing is in your future.
Another option, especially if you are wanting livestock in the future, is hay. The equipment for hay is not as costly and seed drills can often be rented when forage crops need to be planted. Depending on the region, you could even market cutting hay as a property beautification service.
The reason why I did not include market gardens is the time commitment. Market gardens are definitely a start-up farm option as long as you take the time to plan out the labour. It is definitely more of a challenge to fit a market garden around a normal off-farm job.
When you dream of owning a farm, I believe investing in a farm business is a better option than buying a house. While a house may allow you to build equity (no guarantee), it is going to limit your options to use geo-arbitrage to find the ideal farm for you. Starting a farm in today’s world requires creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
Part of the reason that I included the sales requirement wherever possible is that in some situations where you are leasing land, the landowner may want you to be able to qualify as a farm business for some tax advantages. I hope these ideas give you something to think about and research further!