2021’s Best and Worst States to Start a Farm or Ranch

Family standing out in a farm field with sunset (or sunrise) on the horizon.

Farming and ranching aren’t the most glamorous professions — you’re up before sunrise to till the soil and milk the cows — but they are among the most rewarding and essential jobs.

Besides feeding the world, the U.S. agriculture industry forms a big part of our economic backbone. All the rapid innovation over recent decades, too, means modern farmers and ranchers have far greater opportunities to expand in their field.

But which states are better if you want to start a Green Acres life or be At Home on the Range where the cattle and horses roam?

LawnStarter compared the 50 states across 44 key metrics to rank the Best States to Start a Farm or Ranch. We looked at the infrastructure, prevalence, environmental factors, cost, and potential returns of farming and ranching in each state.

Scroll down for our ranking and some highlights and lowlights, along with notable advice from the experts. And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty planting in the soil or cleaning the pig pens. 

Table of Contents

  1. State Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Ask the Experts
  4. Methodology

State Rankings

See how each state fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKStateOverall ScoreInfrastructure RankPrevalence RankClimate and Environment RankCost RankReturn on Investment Rank
1Kentucky53.14133141520
2Oklahoma52.5510135531
3North Dakota52.52333302114
4Texas52.4581235186
5Montana51.6464727812
6Arkansas51.42172513144
7Idaho50.78143024223
8Iowa50.50218103918
9Kansas50.4243662425
10Nebraska49.65131174115
11Wyoming49.59114629217
12Tennessee49.5723531934
13Missouri49.45158191735
14South Dakota49.0353893227
15Colorado48.89164120139
16Oregon48.03252328235
17New Mexico47.9733442311
18Minnesota47.89726323121
19Washington47.62213934292
20Mississippi47.492235361210
21Wisconsin46.96191373537
22Georgia46.892428231913
23South Carolina46.80302121633
24Louisiana46.4436404177
25California46.1612433501
26Virginia45.423211111639
27Indiana45.31207432836
28Alabama45.30294226423
29North Carolina45.07312282030
30Ohio44.75382473326
31Maryland44.13279333428
32Arizona44.01184815378
33Florida43.91343272519
34Illinois42.71937444022
35West Virginia42.29431545150
36New York42.034217252732
37Utah41.762845481124
38Pennsylvania41.51504383029
39Michigan41.323520462638
40Nevada41.032650391040
41Delaware40.733716493616
42Vermont39.43406164349
43New Hampshire37.153914404245
44Massachusetts37.064427123846
45New Jersey36.214110424443
46Hawaii34.51453414542
47Rhode Island32.594629184847
48Connecticut32.374719224941
49Maine32.15492444748
50Alaska25.314849504644
Infographic showing best and worst states for starting a farm, based on metrics including cost of an acre of land, property taxes, average farm size acreage

Highlights and Lowlights

Home on the Range

Nine of the top 10 states are fully or partially within the central Great Plains. It’s easy to see why this broad, sweeping landscape dominates the top of our ranking.

States such as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas boast cheap land, an excellent growing climate, and a highly developed infrastructure for farmers and rural residents. Move to the Great Plains, and you’ll be chasing cattle in no time.

Sweet Kentucky Bourbon

The No. 1 state on our list is a bit unexpected: Kentucky. Yes, it’s a largely rural state with plenty of fertile land, but why is it the best?

The Bluegrass State, while ranking high in categories such as farms per state area and the share of family-owned farms, wins with a more well-rounded approach, ranking in at least the top 20 in every metric category. For this reason, Kentucky — much like its bourbon — sits right in that middle sweet spot as the best state for new farmers and ranchers.

Leaving the West Behind

California performs surprisingly poorly in our study. While the No. 1 agricultural state when it comes to return on investment, the Golden State also ranks as the worst state for cost metrics, having the highest average per-farm production expenses of any state.

It may also prove more difficult to establish a new small ranch or farm in an already crowded corporate field: California ties with a few other states for the lowest share of family-owned farms.

Bottom line: California may be an excellent place to grow food, but it’s far from the best state for your growing agribusiness.

Down and Out in the South

While the Deep South is known as an agricultural destination, many states, such as Louisiana and Alabama, rank middle to low on our list. Both states fare well in cost and return-on-investment categories, as do other southern states like Mississippi.

But the South’s Achilles’ heel appears to be both infrastructure and prevalence. Louisiana ranked lower than any other state in the number of new farms in the last year, showing a marked decrease. All three mentioned states rank in the bottom five on Community Supported Agriculture, as well.

The key takeaway: The Deep South has many charming qualities, but new farm-friendliness is not among them.

Ask The Experts

Starting a farm or ranch is a challenge and a big life decision at any time, but especially during a pandemic. To help you navigate today’s uncertain agricultural landscape, we reached out to a panel of experts for answers. See what they had to say below.

  • What are the top three reasons to start a farm or ranch today?
  • What type of person is best suited to a career in agriculture?
  • What will be the three biggest challenges to new farmers and ranchers over the next 3-5 years?
  • Farmers have seen a spike in demand from consumers who prefer to shop locally during the pandemic. Where do you see this trend going post-COVID?
  • Over the long-term, do you see more opportunity in direct-to-consumer farming or industrial supply-chain farming, which has not fared as well during the pandemic? Please explain.
  • What’s your single most important tip for someone who wants to start a farm or ranch?
Chengyan Yue
Professor, Department of Applied Economics
Paul Mitchell
Professor, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Dava Hayden, M.S.
Horticulturist and Instructor
Chengyan Yue
Professor, Department of Applied Economics
University of Minnesota

What are the top three reasons to start a farm or ranch today?

There is an ever-increasing demand for locally-grown produce.

In 2019, about 82% of the total population in the United States lived in cities and urban areas and it is predicted this percentage will keep increasing. Urbanization leads to a declining ratio of farmers to food consumers, which means there is a need for more farmers or to have existing farmers increase their production to meet the increasing demand.

One-third of US farmers are close to retirement age, and there is a need for farmers from the younger generation.

What type of person is best suited to a career in agriculture?

A person who likes to be close to nature, stay outside, get their hands dirty, and wants to be an entrepreneur,

What will be the three biggest challenges for new farmers and ranchers over the next 3-5 years?

Finding a customer base: It’s always challenging to find customers and target markets when starting a new business.

Competition from large retailers: The competition is intense because large-scale food suppliers have many advantages in terms of competitive pricing and efficient distribution.

Understanding consumers’ needs: consumers’ needs and wants are changing due to many uncertainties and the changing population structure, so it is challenging but very important to understand the consumers’ needs.

Farmers have seen a spike in demand from consumers who prefer to shop locally during the pandemic. Where do you see this trend going post-COVID?

It will last for a while, but might not stay forever. Some farmers might be able to keep the satisfied consumers who came to them during the pandemic. But as people’s fear of coronavirus contamination fades, non-local food will become more acceptable.

Over the long-term, do you see more opportunity in direct-to-consumer farming or industrial supply-chain farming, which has not fared as well during the pandemic? Please explain.

I would say both will have opportunities because consumers are not the same. Some consumers are price sensitive, whereas others pay more attention to product origin, local, organic, etc. Both direct-to-consumer farming and industrial supply-chain farming will find their segment of consumers.

What’s your single most important tip for someone who wants to start a farm or ranch?

Love farming. Loving what you do will go a long way.

Paul Mitchell
Professor, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Madison

What are the top three reasons to start a farm or ranch today?

Because you have the passion for it, it’s not something you kind of just do, even if it’s only part-time, you need passion for it.

What type of person is best suited to a career in agriculture?

Hard worker, responsible, the person who goes the extra mile and does not need the spotlight for doing good, hard work.

What will be the three biggest challenges for new farmers and ranchers over the next 3-5 years?

Price and market variability as we move into the post-covid economy.  We are all still uncertain about how much consumer food demand has changed as a result of the pandemic.

Farmers have seen a spike in demand from consumers who prefer to shop locally during the pandemic. Where do you see this trend going post-COVID?

In Wisconsin, the demand for local products was growing and this only accelerated with the pandemic.  Some of it is diminishing now as we move into the post-pandemic economy. 

We also have serious workforce problems that keep small businesses from expanding – there are simply no skilled workers for the small meat processors, cheese plants, or even vegetable processors/farms to hire, even if they want to expand. 

Same for dairies.  Workforce issues are a problem for many industries here in the upper Midwest and create a barrier for the expansion of local foods. I see the demand for local foods there, but the market will struggle to deliver it due to workforce issues, at least here in the upper Midwest.

Over the long-term, do you see more opportunity in direct-to-consumer farming or industrial supply-chain farming, which has not fared as well during the pandemic? Please explain.

Yes, food has moved into delivery just like much of retail, with more online shopping, home delivery, or curbside pick up.  Small local foods have followed this trend and I expect consumers to stick with the buying channel even after the pandemic ends. The shopping and online technology is there. 

The costly part is the shipping/delivery, the last mile.  Transportation and logistics are all about efficiency, but that is where the small farmers and processors (meat, cheese processors) at the local level will struggle – driving around in your own van is costly compared to a large semi-trailer shipping food from CA to WI. 

What’s your single most important tip for someone who wants to start a farm or ranch?

Try not to be too emotional about decision making, but go with what works and keeps your costs down.  Yes, a new hay mower will look great and make you feel great, but a used one is likely a much better deal. 

Keep your costs down and make rational decisions – most of farming is not about how things look or even how they work, but how much they cost to get the job done. Never underestimate the capacity of agriculture to oversupply any market and drive down prices –you will need to be able to survive low price years to make money in high price years.

Dava Hayden, M.S.
Horticulturist and Instructor
Murray State University

What are the top three reasons to start a farm or ranch today?

Consumer demand is pushing for locally grown agricultural commodities. 

Global awareness is encouraging everyone to reduce carbon emissions; buy local and ship local. 

Mega-greenhouse structures are helping meet the need to grow more on less ground while being very environmentally friendly

What type of person is best suited to a career in agriculture?

Entrepreneurs willing to accept challenges and problem-solving thinkers are best suited for the greenhouse and green industry.

What will be the three biggest challenges for new farmers and ranchers over the next 3-5 years?

The greatest challenge growers are going to have is labor; finding quality laborers and being able to afford them while keeping the cost of production down.  

I suspect government regulations will soon be more challenging for growers. 

Finally, I suspect the cost of materials for products containing petroleum will increase significantly.  We have seen prices increase and occasionally drop over the years, but it trends with the costs of petroleum. 

Farmers have seen a spike in demand from consumers who prefer to shop locally during the pandemic. Where do you see this trend going post-COVID?

I think buying local and growing your own will stick around for a while, 10 years or so.  People are learning the importance of knowing where their food is grown and how it is grown. 

Over the long-term, do you see more opportunity in direct-to-consumer farming or industrial supply-chain farming, which has not fared as well during the pandemic? Please explain.

I see community supported agriculture growing in popularity. Contract growing is great for farmers. They are guaranteed sales that usually require a deposit and that allows growers to manage cash flow a little easier.  

What’s your single most important tip for someone who wants to start a farm or ranch?

Try to get start-up money with forgivable loans.  Do your homework ahead of time to determine where your product will be sold.  Prepare a firm business plan.  Build a business, do not start an empire overnight.  

Methodology

We ranked the 50 U.S. states in descending order based on their individual score totals. The state that scored the highest ranked No. 1, or “best.”

MetricWeightingMin. ValueMax. Value
Area of Farmland per State Area20.23%91.32%
Increase in Farmland Area in the Last Year2-500200
Average Farm Size2552417
Land Used for Rural Transportation111.09 1,791.79
Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers per 100,000 Residents20.3112.87
Farm Workers per 100,000 Residents23.78603.48
Total Cropland Area225.17 29,215.22
Total Grassland Pasture Area27.19 104,603.14
Population Density in Rural Areas10.40154.00
Road Quality11579
Water Quality210 3,433
Air Quality11347
Phone Coverage14.30%100.00%
Share of Farms with Internet Access14294
Number of Rural Health Clinics per 1,000 sq. miles10.086.88
Number of Critical Access Hospitals1387
Infrastructure Category Total24
Number of Farms per State Area30.0021.904
Increase in Number of Farms in the Last Year2-900500.0
Share of Family-Owned Farms29398
CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) per 100,000 Residents20.032.40
Number of USDA-Approved Slaughter and Rendering Establishments21103
Prevalence Category Total11
Average Percentage of Possible Sunshine339.3382.00
Yearly Average Number of Very Hot Days (90 Degrees F or Higher)23.50103.17
Yearly Average Number of Very Cold Days (32 Degrees F or Lower)10204.50
Average Monthly Temperature132.7975.00
Average Monthly Precipitation (in Inches)28.1468.74
Toxic Chemicals Release (per Sq. Mile) 139.49 3,590.56
Risk-Screening Environmental Indicator Score1316.95 353,924,162.76
Natural Hazards Index19.2115.78
Potential for Solar Power10.671.19
Potential for Wind Power1192.36 1,347,992.10
Share of Electricity from Renewable Sources12.29%99.92%
Climate and Environment Category Total15
Average Per-Acre Cost of Farmland30 13,800
Yearly Average Rise in Per-Acre Price of Farmland1-120435
Per-Acre Farmland Rental Rate234439
Yearly Average Rise in Per-Acre Farmland Rental Rate1-740.50
Property Taxes30.0030.0221
Average Per-Farm Production Expenses3 28,420 535,669
Cost of Living286.10192.90
Cost Category Total15
Farmland Returns30.04%8.80%
Average Per-Farm Income2 7,905 66,671
Average Per-Farm Net Cash Income1 2,519 277,316
Average Per-Farm Receipts from Federal Programs2 4,609 38,624
Total Market Value of Agricultural Products Sold2 57,998,000 45,154,359,000
Return on Investment Category Total10
Overall Total75

Sources: AcreTrader, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Transportation Research Nonprofit (TRIP), Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy, Rural Health Information Hub, Tax Foundation, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, WhistleOut and World Population Review

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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