Limited acreage can generate farm income
It doesn’t take hundreds of acres to start a lucrative small farming business, just some goals and creativity. Small farm entrepreneur and educator Debbie Webster discusses with residents how to start a farm on limited acreage on an American Sheep Industry Let’s Grow program.
“If you want to start a small farm, the first question to ask yourself is why are you doing it. Are you doing it to feed your family, as a project after retirement, or do you just need some sheep to help keep the lawn mowed?”
Webster, who started a sheep and goat business on her small acreage in Seneca, S.C., said for a young family, starting a farm can provide many opportunities for children to learn. She finds the physical activity, brain activity and the ability to learn and figure things out can provide experiences for children that they can use a lifetime. Children also learn where their food comes from, and most have a brighter outlook on life as a result of being around animals, Webster said.
Most people in the U.S. are becoming further removed from farm life and animals, Webster said. “The more you can educate them, the better, even if its just an acre.”
Webster uses her own small farm as an education center for everyone from children through adults. She even uses the lambs and goats as therapy animals for special needs children. She gives farm tours, mentors people who want to start their own small farm, and holds special programs where children can come to the farm and learn how to take care of animals, like fostering a lamb for a week. “We teach them everything they would need to know about how to take care of a lamb,” she said.
MONEY OR MEMORIES
Webster encourages people interested in starting a small farm to literally start small, spend less on upfront costs, but leave room to expand. Even a few head of sheep can be a money-maker if people can think outside the box. If lambs are born at the right time of year, one idea is to hire them out for an Easter photo shoot. Webster said she makes $50 per photo shoot for people to take pictures of their small children holding a baby lamb for Easter portraits. “Some years, I earned more money doing that than when I sold the lambs,” she said.
Before getting sheep and goats, Webster encourages people to think about what they want to harvest, whether its wool, milk, meat or selling breeding stock. It will help them determine which breed best suits their needs. They should also take into account their location, how many neighbors they have and if predators will be a concern. Consider resources like time, money, and mentors. Webster has a sheep and goat dairy, which is more time-consuming. Other considerations are managing an acreage by rotationally grazing it, biosecurity from outside animals and visitors from other farms, and whether or not the farm will grow in the future.
Many people don’t realize how much income can be generated from even a few head of lambs or goats. In her area, Webster says she started milking her goats and sheep because people with allergies can drink it and digest it easier than cow’s milk. A lot of products can also be made from the milk that people really enjoy. Webster makes cheese, yogurt and soap from sheep and goat milk.
The wool also has value. “Some people don’t want to get sheep because they worry about how to shear them. When I had 10 sheep, I learned how to shear them myself. It took longer, but I also was able to teach my children how to shear sheep,” she said.
Webster also has a 4-H club, and purchased a drop spindle so the children could learn how to spin their own yarn from the wool. Women buy wool spun into yarn from Webster for knitting. Wool can also be used to stuff pillows, and sold in small bags for craft projects, like making a beard for Santa. “I have people who will pay $15 a pound for virgin wool. It is all about who you advertise to,” she said.
Wool can also be used as mulch around plants. It will hold the water when it rains, while adding minerals to the soil, Webster said.
Lamb hides can also become quite valuable. Webster said most hunting supply stores will tell folks how to skin and dry hides with salt. If the hide is of good form, with no holes, it can bring a minimum of $50 and upwards of $150 for spotted hides, she said.
Working with a processor, lamb meat is also a valuable commodity at venues like the farmers market or from home to plate. “People are interested in different sizes and ages of lamb, depending upon what holiday they are using for,” she said. “Your local extension educator can be a good resource if you are interested in selling lamb.”
Webster also took a meat fabrication class to help her learn how to process her own lamb. “When you process your own lamb, you learn a lot about the health of your flock. Many times, you don’t know something is wrong until its too late. When we learned how to process lambs, we also learned how to do necropsies. It is interesting to me to look at the lungs, heart, and different parts of the stomach of the animal,” she said.
Webster continues to mentor families to start their own small farms. For more information, see her facebook page Whispering Pines Stables/Upstate Equestrian Ministry. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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