Starting a Regenerative Farm From Scratch

Aug 31, 2023

Running a farm is not just a job. It’s an all encompassing lifestyle, requiring constant attention, focus, and perseverance. Farming in a way that is adequately profitable to support a family is an even more precarious proposition. The viability of small farms across America has plummeted and bankruptcy rates are rising rapidly. Starting a farm from scratch goes a step further,  requiring the initial capital expense coupled with uncertainty, necessary mistakes, and sacrifice of building up a working farm, without the land, equipment, and generational knowledge embedded in an inherited farm. Operating a farm in ways that are ecologically regenerative is a novel concept rebelling against an entire industry of ecologically degenerative agriculture. Whew – starting a regenerative farm from scratch is no joke!

Six years ago Maureen and I were living in Madison Wisconsin. Neither of us were from farming families. I was a Ph.D. student at the University, and accessing land and starting a farm was a nebulous idea that arose out of my research. My dissertation built a conception model for a farm that integrated tree crops with multi-species rotational grazing to provide a profitable pathway towards the restoration of functional native oak savanna ecosystems. I realized that actually building and running a regenerative farm modeled on the savanna would be the only real way to prove the concept. With some help from family we were able to access land and on a shoestring budget with few hard skills, we built a cabin from the land’s trees, built up a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, and a mess of hogs and chickens, built fences, ran water lines, built up a market for our grass-fed and pastured meats, cleared acres of overgrown woodlands, took 40 acres out of conventional cropland, planted native prairies and perennial pastures, and planted thousands of fruit, nut, and pine trees. We’re now selling an abundance of food and relishing the opportunity to enjoy clean water, work outside, and eat the very best home grown foods, every day.

But it’s clearly not easy. It’s the hardest thing we can imagine doing. Every day brings a new set of unexpected challenges. Living off-grid and off the land, Nature is constantly reminding us of our shortcomings, skill gaps, and lack of understanding. But we’re still here and we’re getting better every day. We live in a rural community outside of Viroqua, Wisconsin, where many other formerly urban folks have sought refuge, built a house and started a farm. Some of these attempts have not succeeded, but many have. In the next few years, hundreds of million acres of farm land will change hands as the last generation of farmers retires without kids willing to take over. North America will need millions of new farmers in the coming decade if there’s to be any hope of making available high quality, healthy, regeneratively grown food to folks living in cities. That means we need millions of folks starting their own regenerative farms from scratch. After observing what’s worked and what hasn’t in our own experience and what we’ve observed from our community, we’ve put together a list of the top principles and best practices helpful when trying to start a regenerative farm from scratch.

1. Define your context and create your future

A critical and often overlooked element of success in any major life endeavor, is to define exactly what it is that you want to achieve. What gives your life meaning? What makes you excited to get up and work hard through difficult challenges in order to create something of your own effort and determination? What are some concrete steps you can take to get from where you are now to where you’d like to be in five years? There are powerful forces in this world more than happy to steer the futures of more passive people in directions likely not in their best interests. Defining your situation and explicitly outlining your short and long term goals and life objectives are the first steps towards actualizing them and creating the future on your terms. Allan Savory calls this process determining your holistic context (we highly recommend his book Holistic Management). It’s the first step that should be taken when developing a farm plan and it’s the first step we go through at our Permaculture Design Courses. It’s important to remember that no matter how precisely you define your context, you and the world continue evolving. It may be necessary to revisit and update your holistic context as the times, people, and our world  changes.

2. Get skills and prove yourselfIMG_2308.JPG


I was in graduate school for nearly a decade. I had zero hard skills. I had to learn animal husbandry, general construction, carpentry, forestry, web design, fencing, marketing, mechanics, and accounting all at once on the fly. When we first started and we were talking to family and friends, trying to build up our support network and customer base, it was hard for folks to take us seriously. We rented pasture at another farm while looking for land and started building a herd and getting experience raising animals. When we finished our first batch of grass-fed beefs, and were able to cook delicious roasts for family and friends, it was a tangible manifestation of our skills and commitment. People took us a lot more seriously at that point. Going to courses and reading books are all excellent modes of learning about various aspects of farming. But nothing can replace actual experience. Even if its just weeding a veggie bed or schlepping five-gallon buckets as an intern or volunteer. The only way to know that you really want to farm is to get on a farm and see what it’s like, day to day. Some folks think they want to start a farm until they get experience of the day to day life on a farm, at which point they realize their city jobs and paycheck aren’t that bad. That’s OK. Farming isn’t for everyone. But the only way to know for sure is to get some experience, preferably, before you decide to start a farm.

3. You Don’t Need to Own Land

Land is expensive. Often more expensive than what can be paid off from farm income. Most folks in younger generations that want to start farming, don’t have much money, so land access is a huge issue. That last bastion of wealth among average Americans lies in the hands of the now-retiring baby boomer generation. They live in cities. They own their homes. They have retirement accounts and have investments in the stock market. Much of this wealth has been acquired at the expense of wealth in the countryside. Baby boomer have benefited their whole lives from cheap food, whose true costs were externalized in the form of polluted ground water, lost topsoil, poisoned rivers and lakes, the extinction of birds and pollinators, and poor health outcomes. It is imperative that some of this wealth be returned to the land if there’s to be any chance of its regeneration. Partnering with family and/or friends in older generations with some extra wealth is a highly effective way of accessing resources in order to purchase land.

There are several ways to work with other people towards purchasing land. One is a conventional loan, where the aspiring farmer borrows money at a low interest rate in order to purchase land. This option can work, but making those payments, depending on the amount of money, will be difficult solely on a farmer’s income, especially if that income also has to support a family and build up a farm from scratch. Another option is to form some sort of partnership where land ownership is shared. Forming an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), an LP (Limited Partnership), or LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) can be an excellent way to organize a land-owning entity if there are multiple investors involved. These provide the opportunity to separate ownership from management, protecting the investment from liability. If the investors are explicitly not involved in the management of the property, then their investment can be protected, and the farmer, as land manager, does not necessarily need to own a share in the company and the land. In many ways, this can be an ideal arrangement. An investor gets to invest some of their wealth in a very secure and appreciating asset, and an aspiring farmer can secure land tenure. The only way it really works in the long term is if all parties agree on the long term mission of the operation and all have and maintain full trust in each other. That can be quite tricky for many families to accomplish. There are other options such as land-owning cooperatives, community land trusts, and long-term leases that can allow for land access with  out requiring the upfront purchase of land.

4. Stay Flexible



When you’re starting a farm from scratch, you have to simultaneously build up infrastructure, equipment, tools, animals, and a market all at once, usually on a very limited budget. This is made even more difficult by real uncertainties due to ignorance and inexperience. It’s okay to be ignorant and inexperienced, it just requires appropriate humility and strategy when setting things up. You’ll probably change your mind many times on many different aspects of your operation. Where should cattle be overwintered? Where should we set up a handling facility to sort, separate, and load cattle, sheep, and hogs? How should we protect all these baby trees from deer and sheep? Do we need a tractor? If so, what kind? What implements do we need?

It is helpful in these scenarios to remain as flexible as possible for as long as possible. We are just now starting to put in some permanent fencing and infrastructure. For fencing, electric netting fence is incredibly valuable. First, it works for all classes of livestock which makes it useful everywhere. It’s also easy to move around. Before we installed any permanent fencing, we first set up electric netting fence in the location where we thought we wanted it for an entire year. If, by the end of that year, we still we want the fence there, then we’ll build a permanent fence. Most of the time, there were things we weren’t considering that made that location suboptimal, and we wouldn’t have figured it out unless we’d set up a temporary fence there for a year. So we ended up moving the temporary fence till we found the perfect place for a permanent hard fence.

Tools and equipment are expensive. It is wise to not make any purchases until you are sure you will need it for a long time and that it is worth the cost. In the meantime, it makes a lot of sense to rent and borrow as much as possible for as long as possible until you’re sure it makes sense to purchase. When you are ready to purchase, it’s helpful to start with what can be used in multiple ways and for multiple purposes, so you can stack functions. Our first major purchase was a tractor with a front end loader. We use it on the farm to make hay, move hay bales around, move water around, and mow. Just these functions, however, were not alone worth the cost of the tractor. Economically, it would have made more sense to buy more hay, move bales with our pickup truck, and get a much cheaper mower without a front end loader. However, in addition to using the tractor on the farm, it was also indispensable in allowing us to log and mill some of our pine trees, and construct a timber-frame cabin and house by ourselves without having to pay for labor. Having a tractor with a front end loader and a cheap used bandsaw mill, allowed me to turn trees that need to be thinned anyways, into valuable lumber and building materials without a team of horses or a team of people. With that additional function and added value, financing the tractor made excellent economic sense. We were able to build a house for just the cost of the metal roof, insulation, a hammer, and nails.

5. Live Small



In most circumstances, starting a farm from scratch requires taking a sometimes substantial cut in income from an alternative job in the city. Many are able to maintain an off-farm job in order to subsidize the farm start-up. If that’s a viable option within your self-determined context, then it makes a ton of sense and can be massively helpful to jump start the operation. For our context, we wanted to live on the land, build a non-toxic home, raise a family, grow our own food, and feed as many people in the cities with our meat as possible.  With those goals, there was no time for either of us to get a job. For us the value of freedom, clean air, clean home, and clean food was worth the financial trade-off. The only way to make it work in that situation was for us to get used to lower living expenses. We don’t go out to eat, we don’t have a television, we don’t have grid-powered electricity or even internet in our home. We don’t go to movies or on vacations. We carry water up to our house from the spring and chop firewood by hand. Sometimes we joke that we’re on a permanent backpacking trip. Good thing we both loved backpacking before we embarked on this journey. We also made the decision to access as much land as possible, so that meant we purchased a larger parcel with no house instead of a smaller parcel with a house and buildings. So the first month we lived in a tent while we built a yurt which we lived in while we built a cabin which we’re living in now while we build a house. For us, it is definitely worth the sacrifice of modern conveniences in order to achieve our goals.

In this lifestyle, we’ve found it incredibly important to constantly search for happiness in the mundane. The day to day life of running a farm, raising a family, and building a house and a barn, is full of long, somewhat boring tasks that must be done, every day. Weeding the garden, feeding the pigs, peeling bark from a log, pulling nails from an old board, chopping firewood, hauling water, untangling baling twine from the blades of the mower – necessary tasks that aren’t always fun. It is easy to feel a sense of resentment and boredom with these tasks. We’re highly educated people that grew up experiencing privilege in a modern world where we never had to experience the mundane tasks of basic living that our ancestors had to experience throughout our species’ entire evolution, and many in the third world still experience today. Chop wood and carry water. We made the conscious decision to leverage our privilege in a way that required us to have to experience the mundane. After a few years, when the romanticism fades, it’s not easy to keep it up. But in it, we have been able to find incredible contentment, happiness, and purpose. And because of that experience, we’ll be able to afford to build a house with running water and a larger off-grid energy system that will make our next stage in life a bit easier. And we’ll appreciate those benefits have achieved them on our terms, within our own self-determined context.

6. Make Mistakes



The only way to really learn is to be constantly making mistakes, becoming aware of them, and improving upon them. Although in some respects, regenerating land through the cultivation of human food is an ancient indigenous practice, to the majority of modern humans, it’s as foreign a concept as communal nut cracking, stripping bark for medicine, or sacrificing the fattest lamb at the alter. There’s no template for us to follow. No instruction manual to copy. In addition to building a farm from scratch, in order to build a regenerative farm, it must be done in an entirely new way. We have to build up this knowledge ourselves. And because in some sense, every single parcel of land has its own unique qualities just as every individual attempting to start a  farm has their own unique personality, there are as many ways of regenerating land as there are people. In order to build up this knowledge we have to get out there and try our best at something, honestly observe the results, and humbly accept feedback. We absolutely will make mistakes. The only problem with making mistakes is not learning from them. Humbly accepting the feedback that nature daily provides is the only way of learning, growing, and building up a lifetime of knowledge about the intimate details of the land and the farm, which we can then be passed down to future generations, just as it was done for thousands of years before being severed by civilization.

7. Look for Partnership Opportunities

Be on the constant lookout for partnership opportunities. Especially for those whose prospects for land ownership seem bleak. There are lots of landowners around the world who underutilize their land holdings and would love to help someone get started providing land access. We own 100 acres and manage it as fully as we can, but there are a seemingly infinite number of land-based enterprises that our land could support, but that we will never have time to develop. We have abundant wood available for growing mushrooms, perfect soil and local genetics for starting a tree nursery, abundant trees available for lumber. Our pastures contain a diverse mix of medicinal herbs that could be harvested, dried, assembled into teas, and sold. We could add a pastured egg laying flock, a duck or goose flock, or a pastured rabbit enterprise. Opportunities like these are not only available at our farm, but at most any farm. Part of permaculture is continual diversification of supporting and symbiotic elements. In a farming context, these elements become supporting and symbiotic profitable enterprises. Many landowners would be more than happy to provide land access for a budding enterprise if it is symbiotic and regenerative within their existing operation and resource base. Often the biggest barrier from preventing these types of arrangements is simply ignorance of the possibility. Joel Salatin, Greg Judy, and Cody Holmes are all examples of landowners who are branching out and developing relationships and partnerships at multiple levels with young agricultural entrepreneurs. This is just the beginning. The future is very bright for these types of arrangements, but they have to be intentionally cultivated.

8. A Farm is an Ecosystem



It’s not just starting a farm from scratch, but also integrating into and reconfiguring an ecosystem in a place. Being a farmer means becoming keystone species of a specific ecosystem in a specific place. It’s a big responsibility. With the abysmal state of ecological education in our modern world, it is a big learning curve for many aspiring permaculture farmers. You need to know your trees, shrubs, herbs, clovers, grasses, and wildlife. You need to see patterns on the landscape and begin to discover what’s behind those patterns. Where are the wild fruit trees located in your region? On north-facing hills more than south-facing? On clay soils more than sandy? What kinds of grasses are the sheep eating in the spring vs. the fall? Are they the same as the cows? Same as the pigs? Should the sheep and cows be in a paddock together, or moved in sequence? How does clover respond to being rooted up by a pig verses grass? Where do the coyotes hang out? What time of year are they likely to come close? Learning about your plants, animals, and ecosystem will help to build a lasting farm. Making sure that all elements and processes of an ecosystem are in place and working together, from the herbivores to the predators. We have 4 dogs that each have a specific role to play on the farm. Sheep guardian, homestead guardian, chicken guardian, and rodent control. Because we sell meat, and because our animals are all processed on-farm, we constantly have an abundance of extra bones, offal, skin, hooves, and meat that the dogs happily consume, returning important trace minerals to our soils, everyday. It is important to tailor your farm  enterprises to what is appropriate to your local ecosystem. If you have steep hills and thin soils, you probably don’t want pigs rooting around causing erosion. If you are reclaiming an abandoned field full of goldenrod, cows aren’t going to have much to eat there, you’ll need to get some sheep or goats.

9. Sacrifice

Achieving a lofty goal of any kind requires all kinds of sacrifice. Whether its giving up your personal comfort in order to access land, giving up the money you could be making at a job in order to have the freedom of being your own boss, or setting aside your own agenda in order to bring another generation into the world, sacrifice is necessary. When starting a regenerative farm from scratch, you’re not just building something for yourself, but, hopefully, something that can be passed on in perpetuity, whether its between generations, or from the original owners to an invested apprentice, working regenerative farms should not be temporary blips on our landscape, but semi-permanent installations. If my children grow up and want to farm, I don’t want them to also have to figure out how to finance their own land and get started from scratch. I want them to benefit from what I’ve accomplished and have the opportunity to take it to the next  level. I see many older-generation farmers today with the mindset that if they had to work hard to pay off the farm, then so should their kids. If the kids want to farm, they have to go get jobs in the city, save up money for decades, and then purchase the land back from the parents (at it’s appreciated value no doubt). Most of the time, the kids can’t figure out a way to afford it, and the farm ends up getting sold on the market, often to the big grain farmer in the area who keeps getting bigger. Although the banks are perfectly happy with this arrangement, it’s a bit insane to pay twice for the same piece of land, especially within the same family. With a strong sense of entitlement gripping most of our culture, these can be difficult issues to resolve. It’s important to remember that some kind of sacrifice is necessary to start a farm from scratch.

10. Get Started Today 

If you want to start a farm someday, get started today! There are lots of things you can do to get started, no matter where you’re at in your path. The first thing is to start growing and selling stuff. Even if that’s just tomatoes from potted plants in an apartment window. Starting a farm is starting a business. It’s an entrepreneurial enterprise. The faster you can get experience selling things, making transactions, and building a brand, the better. As soon as you start selling food, you can incorporate a business and start filing taxes as a farm. Once you’ve started filing a “Schedule F” tax return as a farm, you’ll start being eligible for farm loans, grants, and cost sharing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available. These can be super helpful when starting from scratch. Another thing you can do right away is start collecting and starting seeds. Maybe there’s a cool honey locust tree in your neighborhood that produces massive pods every year. Collect some and start growing those seeds out in pots. You can plant the baby trees on land when you get it, or sell the trees and build up some farm business. There are incredible and neglected genetic resources in public places all over the place. Fruit and nut trees and shrubs are abundantly available for public harvest and eating, or even better, for seed harvest, planting, and regenerating.

Starting a farm is not for everyone. Only those with the right personality, context, and lifestyle goals will be successful. But the only way to get started is to just get out there and do it. Read books, take courses (like ours), and attend conferences, but most importantly, get outside and get started growing food. Make mistakes, get dirty and exhausted and see what you’re made of. Start building up the knowledge of how to grow food in a place, regeneratively. It may just be the only way to preserve a dignified future for ourselves on this beautiful planet.

Originally posted on 1/29/2020 on

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Cras sed sapien quam. Sed dapibus est id enim facilisis, at posuere turpis adipiscing. Quisque sit amet dui dui.


Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.