It seems that more and more people share the dream of starting a sustainable family farm. It’s a sentiment that I understand very well, since back in 2006, my wife, Liz, and I opted out of the corporate world to start our own sustainable livestock farm.
Starting and running that farm, which grew into an award-winning artisan cheese business, is my fondest business memory. Serving the local food community and reconnecting heritage breed animals to neglected farmland was, and is a worthy pursuit, and it’s one that a growing number of people are drawn to.
If you’re one of those people, I “get it”, and encourage you to follow your dream. But before you jump ship to do that let me offer some guidelines that may help you create a family farm that succeeds in every important way.
Now, these guidelines, which I’ll call 10 Business Rules for Starting a Successful Farm, are based on my experience. Others may have their own rules, and as the title suggests, these are business rules. Not rules about growing or animal husbandry.
Still, through my farm marketing academy and my podcast, I speak with lots of family farmers who seem to be struggling. And when I look at their situations it’s understandable, as they’ve ignored several of these rules.
If you’re going to farm you should plan to succeed.
With that goal in mind here are my 10 rules for starting a successful farm business.
Rule #1 — Your Farm is a Business, Not a Hobby
There are a number of ways that people get into farming. Some folks are fortunate enough to inherit the land and a family farming tradition. For those folks, farming is in their DNA and they know it’s a farming business, not a weekend hobby.
Others get into farming by making a conscious choice to leave a career and start or acquire a farm. I’ve seen both sides of that fence, having left the world of B2B marketing to start a livestock farm. I also saw the acquisition side when I sold that farm business to a professional couple who wanted into that world.
But many people, if not most, get into small-scale farming more slowly. They start modestly…a chicken or two here, a raised bed or two there, and produce a bit more food than they can consume.
So they figure, why not sell it? First to neighbors, then to a local market. You know…it’s the, “if you build it they will come mentality.”
Before they know it they’re farming, without ever having created a business strategy to succeed with a farm business. A few years go by and they expand their flock of chickens. Their days are busy pulling chicken tractors, cleaning eggs, seeding, planting, and harvesting crops. Then they rush to a Saturday market to sell what they can, bring home what they can’t, and keep doing the same thing.
And they learn a hard truth — if you build it, they WON’T come.
Instead, you MUST attract them. That’s called marketing.
I know a lot of people like this. Many I consider friends. They never stop and assess if what they’re doing is the right business model because they never created a business plan in the first place. They just started with a hobby and keep doing the same thing.
That’s a mistake, so don’t do it.
If you want a hobby, that’s fine. That’s called a homestead, if anything, and you can look elsewhere for whatever income you want.
But here’s the thing. If you want the farm to produce your income, it’s a business. So you must treat it as such, which leads me to rule #2.
Rule #2 — Nail Down Your Competitive Advantage Before You Start
One of the reasons that so many people, at least on the livestock side, start with chickens is because they view it as low risk. After all, a few hens don’t cost much so it’s easy to start producing eggs for others. And chicken tractors aren’t expensive to build so it’s not that big a deal to get into the pastured poultry meat business, though you do have to figure out the butchering and processing side.
But here’s the thing. If the business is easy to get into for you it’s easy for someone else to do the same. That means the barriers to entry are low. Generally speaking, that’s not good.
So how will you achieve a competitive advantage?
Now don’t get me wrong…you can get an advantage in that business. But, if the barriers to entry are low, your advantage has to come from either:
- proximity to markets,
- being a low-cost producer or,
- because you’ve achieved great brand recognition. Or a combination of those factors.
There are a number of ways you can gain an advantage regardless of what specific farming strategy you choose, but the point I’m making is this: nail down what your competitive advantage will be before you start. Then, have a strategic reason for every farm enterprise you operate and every farm decision you make.
In other words, don’t just ramp up your meat chicken production next year because you sold out this year. If your motive is profit (and it should be because this is a business, right?) then you have to assess what the most profitable farm enterprise is for you and your market.
For example, years ago we raised heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. We’d raise a few hundred per year and sell them to customers in and around Atlanta. We always sold out at $7.50 /lb, and that was in 2009–2010. But, although we sold out, it wasn’t the easiest sale since grocery stores pretty much give away turkeys at Thanksgiving.
And here’s the thing — -even at that price, it wasn’t a profitable business. A fact compounded by the downside of only getting paid once a year after many months of fronting cash for feed, labor, and utilities.
Sure, it was a complementary enterprise to our other meat products, but the point is that raising heritage turkeys did nothing positive for our bottom line, and removing the enterprise didn’t risk our customers in other areas.
So why not focus our efforts elsewhere?
We did just that, and that’s what led us to start a Grade-A raw milk dairy and farmstead cheese business. That business was not only much more lucrative it was far easier to differentiate ourselves and have competitive uniqueness. After all, the barriers to entry in that business are substantial, since it requires land, livestock, infrastructure, and, well…you gotta know how to make good cheese.
But there are other ways to stand out as well, whether it’s offering charcuterie and sausages instead of half hogs, or offering glamorous farm stays instead of simple farm tours.
Just make sure you can answer this simple question:
my farm’s defensible competitive advantage is ____________________
Once you know what that’s going to be, it’s time to think about the market, so here’s farm rule # 3.
Rule #3 — Select the Best “Go to Market” Strategy Before You Start
If you have a farm product to sell there are a lot of ways to sell it, right? Particularly in this age of e-commerce and drone shipments.
But the fundamental questions you have to CLEARLY answer are, who are you going to sell to and how are you going to reach them? In other words, you have to define your go-to-market plan.
With direct-market farming, there are several ways to go to market, including:
- farmers markets,
- farm stands or on-farm sales,
- CSA or community-supported agriculture,
- metropolitan buying clubs (MBC’s), or delivering to groups of farm customers,
- selling to restaurants,
- selling to retailers, and
- wholesale selling to distributors.
Of course, you can mix and match these, or evolve over time. In fact, I’ve sold farm products using each of these 7 go-to-market approaches.
But the strategy that’s best for me may be different than what’s best for you because each of these strategies has its own pros and cons.
As members of the Small Farm Nation Academy know I don’t believe in the notion of an “ideal” customer, because I don’t know of a single successful farmer who has started that way. So I don’t recommend trying to figure out who your mythical ideal customer is.
What you will have to determine is how will you find and reach target customer groups who will buy YOUR farm products.
If your chosen competitive advantage is dependent on the buyers having a relationship with you, that requires direct marketing to your customers, meaning you’ll be selling either at markets, on-farm, or via CSA or MBC deliveries.
And make no mistake—marketing will eat up half of your time in running your farm business, as you create and manage your website, build your brand, build your email list and do email marketing, manage orders and payments and deal with customer service issues.
Conversely, those marketing tasks are greatly minimized when selling through distributors, meaning that may be an easier path for you. But, you also get all the full retail price when selling directly, and only a fraction of that when relying on distributors.
So, create your one-page strategic plan, choose your competitive advantage and then decide the best way to go to market to achieve that advantage.
Rule #4 — Avoid Debt at (Almost) All Costs
So, I say “almost”, because debt can be used intelligently to gain leverage. But that doesn’t mean most people use debt intelligently.
Look—your farm is a business, and businesses have balance sheets. So let’s start with that.
Balance sheets are divided into assets and liabilities. Assets-good, liabilities-bad, right? Because liabilities are something you owe…they are debts you have to settle. So you better be sure you have the ability to settle it, or the creditor will come after your other assets. Like your land and house, if you don’t set your farm up correctly.
In fact, one of the members of the Small Farm Nation Academy recently posted in the forum how that exact scenario happened to them. But, if your business has the income to support the debt, then some debt may make sense.
For instance, I used to have a $3million line of credit with a bank to fund payroll and working capital until I received payments from customers, with the customer receivables being used as collateral. So, it made sense in that case.
But would I use debt to buy a tractor to make my small farm life easier? No way! Because I can’t quantify the income I’ll generate as a result of that purchase to service that debt. So no way. I’ll get that tractor when I can afford to buy it. With cash.
There are many ways you can fund your farm business, from grants to savings and family help, to upfront payments via CSA programs. Just remember…debt ruins far more farms than drought, and there’s enough to worry about in farming.
Design your farm business to run without debt so you don’t add that level of stress.
Rule #5 — Bridge the Gap Between What the Land Needs and What the Market Needs
This is both a business and an ecological rule. And it’s important because we often get caught up in our ideology, or our fantasies of what we want to do on the farm. That’s fine—if you have a hobby farm. But the minute you depend on it for income, it’s a business, and you gotta let go of those fantasies.
That doesn’t mean you can’t match your primary business objective—to earn attractive profits—with your ecological values and land resources.
For instance, I never set out to be a pig farmer. But my first piece of rural property was comprised of about 80 acres of pasture land and over 30 acres of hardwood forest. Sure, I put cows on pasture for beef and milk to use the grass. In fact, I raised sheep, turkeys, and tons of chickens out on pasture with the cows, stacking multiple enterprises on that resource. But what could I do to make the woodlot productive?
The answer was pigs, and it wasn’t long before I had over 100 Ossabaw Island pigs scampering through the forests. We sold them early on as retail cuts, but later on as half pigs, selling about 6 per month to our customers who wanted that very rare and very special pork.
So that’s an example of matching the land’s resources to the market’s demand. Demand, of course, that we had to create. I mean, no one actually ever came to us and said, hey, will you raise me an Ossabaw pig.
But that’s what marketing is all about, creating demand.
Beyond pigs in the woods and multiple species on pasture, we recognized another opportunity to bridge the gap between what the land offered and the market needed. And that was agritourism. So we offered lots of events over the years, ranging from our monthly farm tours, where up to 100 people would visit, to farm dinners with James Beard award-winning chefs, to classes on charcuterie, hog, and chicken butchering and even cheese making. And I led many farm business classes, including farm schools and classes on starting an artisan cheese business.
Speaking of artisan cheese, I certainly never intended to become a cheesemaker. But that happened because the land we purchased had an old milking parlor. It was run down and gutted…but the walls were there. So we invested in fixing it up, began milking cows, and learned how to make cheese pretty well. Well enough to win awards at the United States Cheese Championship and at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition anyway.
So there are lots of ways to match the land resources to the market opportunities. Just think about the best way to do that without using debt, and you’ll be on your way.
Now, let’s move on to rule #6.
Rule #6 — Balance Profit With Passion
Okay, so we’re talking about a business, right? Not a hobby. So we must measure EVERYTHING that impacts profitability. Everything.
It’s not about what animals are cute or what garden tasks you like to do. It’s about earning money. Unashamedly! And making enough money, both in terms of profit margin and in terms of steady cash flow.
Often I see or hear people ask this silly question. “What should I charge for my beef/beets/chicken/soap”…you name it. Silly because that’s not a question business owners ask others. Do you think Apple is asking Samsung what to charge for the new iPhone?
The answer of what to charge is simple, and is derived from three data points:
- what is your cost of production,
- what is your required profit margin, and
- what will the market bear.
Only you will know those data points. Sure, others might have an opinion of what the market will bear, but their answer is meaningless.
For one reason, you can create a market for anything. Do you think we were all sitting around a few years ago thinking we’d be paying Apple $1,000 for a cell phone? Of course not, and who knows where we found the money to do so. But Apple created the market for it just as you can for your farm products. Just as we did for Ossabaw pork on my farm and as other farmers have for their own unique products.
Also, others won’t know what profit margins you require. For instance, if you have debt to service your margins must accommodate that.
And others certainly don’t know your cost of production. Nor do they know your specific target market and its demographics.
The point is, measure everything that affects profit. Because you absolutely need to know your cost of production, down to the nickel. What it costs you, ALL IN, to produce that chicken, carrot, or cheese curd.
Rule #7 — Know the Difference Between Profit Margins and Cash Flow
If running a business is new to you, this next statement may sound strange. But there are lots of ways a business with decent profit margins can go out of business. Or file for bankruptcy. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true.
There have been plenty of businesses that had attractive profit margins but poor cash flow management. They went bankrupt because they couldn’t come up with the cash to service the debt.
And, there have been even more companies that grew too fast, so they went under.
Sounds crazy, right?
But think of it this way. Let’s say you start a pastured poultry business with a few hundred heritage breed chicks. You grow ’em out, butcher and sell them and get rave reviews.
Then, a local retailer catches wind and wants to carry your birds. And they want you to grow 150 per week for them. The heritage breeds take 12 weeks to grow out and need 3 weeks in the brooder. So, you use your carpentry skills to expand the brooder, but you still need to order the chicks. Since it takes 12 weeks to grow out, you’ll have ordered 1,800 chicks before the first chick is processed. If the birds cost you $2 each, all in, that’s $3,600 you’re out, just for the birds. And that’s on the low side, believe me.
Then there’s the organic feed for the chicks on top of that, not to mention the additional chicken tractors, feeders, and waterers you’ll need to build or buy, which, no matter how handy you are, will cost you more.
Next, you have to pay to process your first batch of birds. Even if you do it on farm, you had to buy the scalder, plucker, knives, tables, chill tank, and bags. And all the while you’re providing the labor as well.
So you’re no doubt out well over $5,000…more likely $10,000 before you deliver that first order of 150 chicks. When you do, the retailer is thrilled, and you are too. Until you find out their payment terms are net-45. So you have to wait another 45 days to get paid.
By then you’re well over ten grand in the hole and sinking fast.
This simple example is how businesses, big and small, get crushed.
Believe me, I know. My first business started with just me working at home. Five years later I had 450 employees in six countries, so I know what that kind of growth is like. Exhiliarating? Yes. Scary and dangerous? You bet.
And there are all kinds of other events that can kill your farm business, such as uninsured loss.
On my farm, we had three 28’ walk-in freezers for meat, cheese, and eggs. What if they failed and we had no ability to store the meat? What about our refrigerated cheese caves that housed well over $100,000 worth of cheese? If those fail and you’re not insured, you’re done for.
Same thing with livestock that’s stolen or destroyed, flood or fire damage, and so on. In all these cases, one old saying has stood the test of time for a very good reason. And that saying is this: CASH IS KING
Yet another way you can be profitable and go out of business is that you run into legal problems, perhaps from a lawsuit. And that’s a perfect segue into rule #8.
Rule #8 — Protect Your Assets
I’ve said this a bunch now, so I’ll say it again. This is a business, right? So, does any real business NOT operate as a corporation? Of course not. So form an LLC at a minimum to provide some separation of business and personal assets.
Now I’m not a CPA or lawyer so I’m not giving legal advice. See your own experts for that. But, in any business, you gotta protect your personal assets, especially in our litigious society where a person can sue (and win millions) just for having hot coffee spilled on them.
Beyond legal structure, be sure to get sufficient insurance to protect you. That means a farm policy to insure against loss of equipment, infrastructure, and livestock.
But more important, it means a product liability policy. That’s super important if you’re producing food like, say, cheese.
Keep in mind that product liability insurance likely won’t save you if you’re negligent. I mean, you gotta make the cheese the right way following good manufacturing processes, and so on. Ditto with processing chickens, raw milk, or any other farm product.
So protect your assets by forming the legal structure recommended by your advisors, and by getting insurance. Now, onto, I’m sure, my most controversial rule on this list.
Rule #9 — Quit Your Day Job
Yep, there it is. I said it. Close the door behind you, burn the bridge, and quit your day job. If you want to have a successful farm business—or any business—get rid of your crutches. Go out and do it!
I know there are many readers who will think, “No! That’s crazy! Don’t take the leap until you know it’s working!”
Okay, that’s fine if that’s what you wanna do. But I’m willing to bet that if you think that way you’ll always be stuck in your day job.
Now, I am NOT telling you to quit your job and go start a farm because I don’t know you or your situation. What I am saying is if you are determined to have a farm business, then—yes—go out and build one. You want to build a great farm business and it will take your full-time energy, passion, and commitment to achieve that.
Holding on to a separate job creates two problems for you.
First, that income (and yes, health care) from the job will always be tugging you as a safety net, saying things like, “Hey man, you can always come back to the rat race. It’s clean in here and you get a paycheck. Stop doing that dirty farm work.”
The second problem is that it takes away a lot of your attention, what with the commute, the stress, and the actual day job you’ll have to do. That’s consuming energy that could go into your building your farm business.
And, believe me, this isn’t a case of me not practicing what I preach.
I jumped ship as president of a division of a Fortune 500 company at the height of my career to start my own business. Suddenly I found myself without a job and used 15 credit cards to run up $120K in debt to finance the launch of my first business. So, yeah—I broke that debt rule I mentioned earlier. I did it because I believed I’d sell clients quickly and service the debt, which I did, so I paid off the debt the first year.
But one reason I succeeded was that I burned the bridges behind me. So with no place to run back to I only had one direction to run—forward. I’ve been running that way ever since.
Bottom line? You’re much more likely to build a successful farm business if you HAVE TO.
And now, here we are, the final rule.
Rule #10 — Start Marketing Before You Start Farming
So, if the last rule seems crazy, this one may as well. I mean, how can you start marketing before you start farming? Well, you can, and that’s exactly what we did, as we started blogging and marketing over a year before we had our first product.
Now, does that make you nervous? As in, you’re afraid to market and don’t know where or how to begin? Are you thinking, ”Hey, I don’t even have a farm yet. No products, no nothing. So I have nothing to share!”
Well, that’s not true, is it? Because you have a story to share, even if you’re just taking your first steps. And the reason you’re taking..or contemplating those steps is a very important part of your story. That’s the part that people will care about and connect with!
So you have an opportunity right now to be open — to be vulnerable, and connect with people on a very emotional level.
By sharing the truth. Your dreams about the life you want to create. Your vision for the change you represent, which could be for the animals, the environment, your community or even personal health reasons. Or all of them.
And be honest about your fears, because we all have fears. If you’re worried that you don’t know how to farm, or how to run a business, then say so. And that’s all very powerful stuff that connects on an emotional level with an audience in a way that big brands simply can’t match.
So, you don’t have to worry about pushing product, or spouting features and benefits of what you have. You simply get to share your story and build relationships. And that is at the core of effective farm marketing.
Now, here are five Benefits of marketing your farm business before you start farming.
- You’ll build a loyal tribe of supporters because you’re allowing others to live vicariously through you.
- If you do it correctly, you’ll get a head start on building your most important marketing asset: your email list.
- By creating one blog post per week, for example, you’ll get a huge head start on search engine optimization (SEO) by marketing early.
- You’ll gain the potential for media exposure by sharing your plans.
- You’ll have access to free and valuable market research and find out what folks seem to be interested in, and what they’re not.
Here’s a podcast episode that more fully explains each of these benefits and how to start marketing your farm early.
Okay, so let’s recap my 10 business rules for starting a successful farm business
- Your Farm is a Business, Not a Hobby
- Nail Your Competitive Advantage Before You Start
- Select the Best “Go to Market” Strategy Before You Start
- Avoid Debt at (Almost) All Costs
- Bridge the Gap Between What the Land Needs and What the Market Needs
- Balance Passion with Profit
- Know the Difference Between Profit Margins and Cash Flow
- Protect Your Assets
- Quit Your Day Job
- Start Marketing Before You Start Farming
While farming may not be the most financially rewarding career, I can think of few careers that rival its rewards in other areas. The ability to work with your hands. The freedom to work on your land and close to nature. The chance to work alongside children and other family members, and the opportunity to help reconnect consumers with the origins of their food.
And, of course, you’ll eat more nutritiously yourself, with grass-fed meats, fresh organic vegetables and, perhaps, creamy raw milk gracing your table.
So, yes, farm life is appealing on many levels, but if you plan on a farm supporting you financially, you must plan for that financial success. Adhering to these business rules will get you started down the right path.