For more information, check out my article Resources for Small Farmers and Homesteaders.
Can a Small Farmer Make it in Today’s World?
There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. You might think that small farmers are a thing of the past, but many new small farm businesses make a start in today’s world. Some of them succeed, while others struggle.
I recently read a heartbreaking account of a family faced with the decision to sell their small farm and move to the suburbs. The husband needed to go back to a full-time job to support their family because they couldn’t survive on the profit from raising all natural pork and poultry for the market.
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This is not an unusual story, in fact, it takes place all too often. We hear the call to ‘buy local’ and ‘support your farmer’ from all over the media. The good news about new farmers markets starting up with gaggles of shoppers attending has given hope to small producers. Many people would like to return to simple farm life with a fair price paid for the milk, eggs, meat, and produce they can raise in accordance with nature. Good food from small farms, raised by honest, hardworking people…what could go wrong?
What could go wrong? Big agriculture and farm subsidies make it difficult for small farmers to compete. Because a chunk of our tax money goes to fund big agriculture, rather than small farmers, they are able to raise food at a much lower price than the 10-acre farm. In addition, many small farmers are so busy with day to day operations that they don’t have enough time to form detailed plans, do cost analysis calculations, and create solid marketing plans. You need to be part business person and part farmer to make a living in this field.
However, it is possible to make a living with a small farm operation, but it’s not an easy life. There are many things to consider before embarking on this back to the basics lifestyle. If you are considering the possibility of quitting your day job to start a small, independent farm, here are some things to do before you make the jump.
Do Your Research
Before you take out a mortgage for a property, put your life savings into improving your current farm, or quit your day job, you need to research your market, expenses, and the regulations in your area. When you are investing your time and money into any kind of business, it is paramount that you get these details first.
Look into the local and state laws pertaining to your farming venture. Is the sale of raw milk legal? What regulations dictate the storage of farm fresh eggs? Can you sell meat at a farmers’ market? What are the property codes for the land where you intend to farm? Do you need a license or certification to carry out your business? If you intend to allow the public to visit your farm, do you need to have restrooms and handicap accessible facilities? Are there regulations dictating the distance between animal pens and public facilities?
You’d be surprised at some of the laws regulating your farm business, so be sure that you can do what you want to do…before you start doing it. Start by calling your local Health Department for a copy of the rules and regulations for your area. You should also call the Extension Office or Farm Bureau in your area and make an appointment with a staff member knowledgeable in these matters. If they don’t have the answers you need, they will likely be able to point you in the right direction. You should also have a copy of the local property codes on hand and read through them before you get too far into the planning stage of your business.
Make a Plan
Having a note on the refrigerator to remind you of your business goals is a nice start, but you need something more before you take the plunge. Sit down and write a Business Plan, complete with Mission Statement, Short Term Goals, Long Term Goals, Start-Up Costs, and Expected Outcomes. Be realistic as you hash these out. Don’t list arbitrary goals such as “Make $10,000 in my first year.” For each goal you set, work out the steps necessary to reach that goal.
There are resources online to help you determine your business goals. Find the closest Small Business Development Center and make an appointment to discuss your plans with them. They will give you a packet of information to get you started. You can call them to ask follow up questions when needed.
Location and Clientele
Before you buy a new homestead, make sure you’ll have a customer base to buy your products. This seems like common sense, but it’s easy to get caught up in the mentality that ‘If I build it, they will come.’ Look carefully at the local population to determine if the income levels and public interests will support your venture. For example, if your future farm is going to provide organic meat and poultry, but the biggest employer in the area is a ‘Wally World’ store, you will have a serious disconnect between supply and demand.
Like it or not, small farm products will cost more than similar products in the grocery store. You will need customers who are looking for a superior product and are willing to pay the extra. If you don’t have the right customer base within a short commute, you may have to rethink your plan. Can you raise a product that will ship long distances? Can you sell products online? Or is your product perishable? Making a 2-hour drive to a major city will cut into profits considerably.
Some ideas for products you can sell to help supplement your income include:
- Grain and straw
- Handmade products (health & beauty, crafts, baked goods, etc.)
- Services (can you mow lawns, plant flowers, clean house, or otherwise supplement your income?)
Having additional products and services will also help protect you from catastrophic failure due to flood, fire, or drought. Plan for the worst and hope for the best is a good motto to live by when you farm for a living.
They say you have to spend money to make money, but sometimes you should be stashing your cash for a rainy day. The small farmer who watches the outgoing funds, as well as the incoming, will be better prepared for tough times.
Can you raise your own grain, do your own repairs and maintenance, grow and preserve your own food, butcher your own meat, learn some veterinary skills, and scrimp to keep your hard earned dollars in your own pocket? The farmer who buys all the hay, straw, and grain necessary to feed the livestock will have a lower profit margin than those who have the land and equipment to raise their own.
Always keep a cushion in the bank account. If you get down to the bottom of your savings, you may need to go back to an outside income. Keep the option open and watch to see if there are job openings nearby or if you can find a viable option for working online.
Build a Network
You can't always go it alone in this world. Join the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Board. Get to know your neighbors, community, churches, local politicians and leaders. Having friends in a multitude of clubs and organizations could be your ticket to improved sales. If you sell flowers, get to know the folks from your local flower arranging club. Selling beef? Make friends with local chefs.
Brush up on your public speaking skills and give talks to groups that might be interested in what you do. Are there cooking clubs where you can arrange to speak about the benefits of a local food system? Maybe the opportunities will be a bit harder to find, but if you look hard enough you just might find a great new customer base to buy your products.
Promote your business with interviews on radio, TV, newspapers, and local events. Send out press releases when you have a grand opening, or start selling a new product. You can start a website for free or a small fee if you are able to do the work yourself. Set up a mailing list or an email list for newsletters and promotions. Let people know what you are doing and why. And don't forget to give something in return. Have giveaways or parties to celebrate milestones or a great year of sales.
Keep America Strong with Small Farms
Our country was built on small farms and we need them to keep in touch with our roots and our food. Without small farms, we have fewer choices in the products we purchase. Not everyone can produce their own food. But you also need to keep in mind that small farms will have to charge a premium for their products. It is paramount that you determine if your market will support those costs before you start. Otherwise, you will be better off working a regular job and living somewhere that chickens and gardens are allowed. There's something wonderful about growing your own food for the dinner table and maybe that in itself is enough to keep you happy.
This is by no means a complete list of things to consider if you are want to go into the small farm business. But it gives you a starting point. If you have trouble making it through this list, you may want to reconsider the work necessary to be successful as a farmer.
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