Starting a small farm in Alabama today is no easy task. With the encroachment of corporate farms, the lack of cheap, available land, and an ever-increasing list of regulations and requirements for small farmers, you may be over your head before you even start to worry about your ability to grow crops.
Contact the Small Business Administration and request incorporation papers for the sort of farm you'd like to start. If you want to declare your farm as a sole proprietorship, you don't need a small business license. However, many farmers launch their farms as partnerships or limited-liability corporations for tax and liability purposes. To decide which method to use to incorporate your farm, consider what kinds of products you're attempting to produce and how many people you plan to have work on your farm. If you're keeping things on a very small scale, a sole proprietorship may make the most sense for you. You'll likely want to speak to an agricultural lawyer to determine what makes the most legal sense for your particular situation.
Contact the appropriate licensing departments to gain appropriate certifications. If you want to be an organic farm, you'll have to contact an organic certifying agency to apply for certification. You can find a list of OCAs on the USDA's National Organic Program website. From Alabama, the two closest OCAs are in Athens, GA and Gainesville, FL (as of September 2010). If you're using pesticides, you'll need to contact the USDA and request information on how to stay in compliance with the Federal Water Quality Act of 1987, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1988, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976. You'll also have to comply with the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act, the Alabama Air Pollution Control Act, the Alabama Pesticide Act of 1971, and the Alabama Solid Wastes Disposal Act, and you'll have to inquire with your local county about any additional local restrictions on pesticide and land use in your area.
Obtain appropriate licenses from the USDA for all items you intend to sell. If you're only selling raw vegetables and fruit, no license is required. However, if you're selling cut vegetables or fruit, you must possess a retail food establishment license. If you intend to sell your cut vegetables or fruit at a farmer's market, you'll need to clearly label your products. If you're selling poultry from fewer than 1,000 birds per year, you may do so without a license. However, you must include a label reading "Not Inspected" with the sale, and you must abide by all USDA food safety protocols. If you sell meat from more than 1,000 birds per year, you must obtain a license from the USDA and fully label your meat. For dairy production, you must obtain a dairy license and provide labels for all dairy products, including manufacture and expiration dates.
Consider enlisting the Alabama Farm Analysis Program for help if you worry you might get lost in complying with all necessary legal standards. You might also join an agricultural organization such as the Alabama Farmers Federation for additional assistance.