How to Create an Email List for your Farm

How to Create an Email List for your Farm


Hey there, thanks for joining me again this week. So it’s marketing week here on the Small Farm Nation podcast. And one of the challenges I hear most often expressed from small farmers (really any small business, actually), is how difficult it is to create an email list of potential customers. In fact, when I surveyed farmers they rated “building a customer list” as the number one challenge.

It’s frustrating to them, I know, for not only is farming and owning a small business challenging enough, now they’re thinking that they must become experts in marketing as well. They’re right. But I’d like to offer some encouragement and perhaps a few helpful tips to help them, and you, to automate the process of building your email list. In my experience, there are three components…layers, if you will, to ensure that your list automatically grows over time and becomes populated with people who are genuinely interested in what you’re doing, and what you have to offer.

1) What’s Your Story

Effective marketing, particularly in the niche of sustainable farming, farm to table restaurants and homestead based businesses, starts with a story.

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?
  • Why is it important?
  • Who cares and why should they care?

The last question is important because it relates to the market you’re targeting, and your words need to resonate with what the customer values.

Where do you tell your story? You tell it on your “about” page, for sure, but your story needs to be conveyed in other ways throughout your website. Your use of images will tell the story as well as the words you choose on each page, in every email and in all social media posts.

WARNING: Don’t fall into the trap that I see so many do of copy-catting language. In the world of sustainable farming, it seems that everyone’s about page draws from a limited supply of words that run the risk of being overused. I’m thinking:

  1. sustainable
  2. organic and/or non-gmo (or beyond organic)
  3. grassfed or pastured
  4. humane
  5. back to the land
  6. and so on

These may be true statements behind why you began and how you operate, but, if you’re not careful you’ll look and sound like everyone else. You don’t want that because customers won’t perceive you as special as you really are. So choose your words carefully, but make sure they’re YOUR words, even if you pay someone to write them for you.

2) Create Rich Content

Even today, there are still far too many businesses that create websites to serve as online brochures. The problem with that is, once the visitor reads your about page and your offering, they “get it” and have no reason to come back.

It’s your job to give them a reason to come back frequently! Why? It’s one way they stay connected with you and that you stay top of mind when they think of who their favorite farmer (chef, etc.) is.

So how do you get them to come back? For over a decade now, the answer for many has been via blog posts. That’s still a viable strategy for many reasons, but the truth is that many people read those blog posts through RSS readers, which delivers a feed of your post to them without them actually visiting your site. And if you’re opt-in forms are in the sidebars, RSS readers won’t display them. True, you’re still in their thoughts, but it’s a pretty passive relationship. Not nearly as active as them typing in your URL to visit you.

Think about it from your perspective. What would cause you to go back to a website, other than one like Amazon where you make frequent purchases (we both know you do)?

A great method of driving traffic is through email marketing. Sending an email with links to rich content on your site that they can’t get another way.  Of course, this requires an email list, which is the subject of this post, but you’ll understand how to do that once you digest all of these tactics. For now, your goal is to create keyword-rich content that is true to your story and resonates with what your target audience cares about. What kinds of content?

  • how-to blog posts
  • inspirational images
  • how-to static pages (doesn’t have to be blog posts)
  • recipes
  • stories (case studies, customer stories, etc.)
  • press releases and announcements
  • etc.

The content needs to be “rich” from two perspectives;

  • rich in terms of value to your reader and
  • rich in terms of keywords that will enable web searches to find you. Those keywords should be the things your target customer thinks about and searches on.

For instance, if you’re targeting folks interested in “organic farmers near Lexington, KY” or “raw milk near Woburn, MA”, your blog posts or static pages are a great way to create copy that’s both rich in keywords and content for your target customers. That way, you can craft language on your “about” page that’s less boilerplate and more unique to your story, mission, and values. When you’re a relatively new enterprise, showing up in search results is an important way to “get found,” and one of the best ways to show up is to create a steady stream of content. But when visitors do show up, your job is to get them to convert from visitors to subscribers. Often, you accomplish that with lead magnets.

3) Use Lead Magnets the Right Way

A lead magnet is simply something you offer in exchange for your visitor to sign-up for your list. It needs to be valuable since they’re giving you something valuable in exchange. An example of a lead magnet is the image on the left, which goes to this page. I use it throughout this site where I offer an enticing guide in exchange for opting into my list. This simple lead magnet added 120 subscribers to my email list in the first 3 days. All I did was share it on Facebook, that’s it.

Now, here’s what’s critical about this lead magnet. It directly connects my target audience (owners of farm businesses) to what I want to offer them (membership in the Small Farm Nation Academy). Therefore, the lead magnet works because it’s completely in alignment with my membership site offering.

In your case, it will be whatever you have that’s unique to you and, most important, valuable to your audience. For instance, if you sell raw goat’s milk, perhaps it’ll be a guide on how to make soap or cheese from the milk. If you sell pastured poultry or pork you may create a special subscriber’s section of your website that includes videos for cutting up a whole chicken, making bacon and charcuterie and so on. The point is to think about content that your market values and will be willing to join your list in exchange for receiving the content.

But–here’s where many people go wrong. It needs to be something that, if the person doesn’t download, they will either experience pain of some sort, or they’ll realize a great reward.

In my lead magnet example, if the farmer doesn’t download, they could miss out on knowing the secret sauce…the expert tips that bridge the gap between how their farm is currently performing and how the best farms perform, from a marketing perspective.

At the same time, they get a great reward if they insight that can help propel their farm business. So you’ll have to ask yourself, “will my customer feel pain if they don’t download the bone broth lead magnet, or will they experience a great reward if they do?” I’m thinking not. So, lead magnets can be a great tool in building an email list, but, to get great results, they need to be the right kind of lead magnet. FYI, for you members of the Small Farm Nation Academy, just post your lead magnet question/struggles in the forum and get some expert advice.

Of course, when you create content that connects to a lead magnet, don’t just post it on your website. Repost it on Facebook and other social media platforms, and be sure to use widgets and tools to encourage readers to share it on their pages. This will ultimately drive visitors to your site so that they can opt-in for the valuable content you’re offering.


This is a detailed topic and I could go on for quite a bit, for we haven’t even discussed the technology you use to create your opt-in forms, email marketing providers and so on. For this post, the point is to think about creating content that:

  • tells your story in a unique, compelling way
  • gets folks to visit your site repeatedly
  • has a clear strategy for converting them from visitors to subscribers

In terms of action items for you, think about these:

  • Set a specific goal for building your email list…say, adding 20 or 100 new subscribers a week, or whatever’s appropriate for you.
  • Review your “About” page as objectively as possible to see how will it resonates with new potential customers. Again, if you’re an Academy member, post in the forum if you’d like an expert review.
  • Look at your website to see what lead magnets you’re using. If you’re not using any, see what content you have that could be developed into a lead magnet.
  • Get into a habit of emailing your list on a predictable schedule (every Thursday, every two weeks, once a month, etc.). This not only sets a clear expectation with them but also forces you into a pattern of developing new content on that schedule.

Now, get busy growing your marketing list. It’s the lifeblood of your farm business!

7 Winter Farm Marketing Tips

7 Winter Farm Marketing Tips


In this episode, you’ll learn…

  • Why you should use winter downtime to further your farm marketing education.
  • Why now is the time to plan on building your email list, and the four steps of list-building.
  • How to plan a blog or content marketing calendar for the coming year.
  • Why and how to set-up your email marketing for the next year (and learn how to leet sequences and auto-responders do your farm marketing for you).
  • Why it’s critical that you take a fresh look at the copywriting on your farm website.
  • How to schedule farm events now for the entire year.
  • Why now’s the best time to get customer testimonials and how to promote them.
  • Of course, you can get a head start on all this by joining the Small Farm Nation Academy whenever you’re ready.
CLICK HERE TO READ FULL TRANSCRIPT

Hey there, thanks for joining me again this week.

So it’s marketing week here on the Small Farm Nation podcast. And it’s also December so we’re winding down the farm season and, for most of us, beginning our winter recess. While that means we have fewer chores to do, we still have farm chores, right? Frozen water troughs, hay that’s frozen farm wintergotta be dished out, pigs still need to be fed and so on.

But the chore load is definitely reduced this time of year, and that’s a good thing. Because we need to rejuvenate, celebrate the season and recharge our batteries. No doubt about it. So what can we do on these frigid winter days to drive our farm businesses forward? I suspect many of you are looking at seed and hatchery catalogs, or even working on planting calendars.

jp2mjrdp But we also need to take advantage of this time to focus on one of the most strategically important areas of our business—of any business. And that is marketing.

Now marketing, of course, is not a seasonal or one-time thing. It’s a continual process…a thousand little things. Sure, marketing campaigns can be one-time or seasonal things. But marketing itself is ongoing.

Now, I’d like to think that you’re focused on marketing every week of the year. But I know better. I know that once spring gets here you’re overrun with baby chicks, baby pigs, baby sheep—baby everything.  And the grass starts growing, you’re running fence lines, cutting hay, processing animals, making pickups and deliveries. There just ain’t enough hours in the day.

For most of you, marketing is what suffers. It’s what gets put aside until later—and later often doesn’t come.

But now that winter’s here you have an opportunity to focus on marketing and plan your marketing for the coming year. Having said that, let me give you seven action items you can do right now to help you grow your customer base this coming year.

Winter task number one is to take an online marketing course. Now, full disclosure, this is obviously a biased suggestion because I operate the Small Farm Nation Academy. But, c’mon, you should absolutely join the Academy right now.

The Academy has hundreds of videos and audio lessons on everything you need to know to market your farm business. How to build your brand, how to grow your email list, how to set-up and manage your website, how to write more engaging copy for your site and emails, how to master search engine optimization and so much more.

And there are tons of other resources that will help you. Downloadable templates, images, worksheets, and let’s not forget a community forum of other farmers trying to grow their businesses as well.

And you get one-on-one coaching from me, free, anytime you’d like it.

So tip number one is to invest in your education and become a marketing ninja. You’ve read all the books on farming, probably taken tours and courses. Now it’s time to do the same thing with farm marketing.

And the place to do that is Small Farm Nation Academy
farm marketing course

Winter task number two is to is to optimize your list building efforts.

You’ve heard it many times, but an email list is your most important communication asset. It’s the best way for you to control getting a message directly to your customers. But most farm websites do an awful job of list building. But it’s not rocket science. List building comes down to four simple steps.

The first step of list building is to have a place to capture emails. Of course, that means being on your website. Do you have one? An opt-in form?

If you don’t, that’s a problem. So create one, right away.

But even if you do, does it stand out? Does it have great contrast with the rest of the page? Is it located above the fold and also at the top of the sidebar, if you have one, and at the bottom of blog posts? That’s important, because the three rules of list building are to ask for the email, ask again and then to ask again. Keep asking. So make sure that opt-in box is visible on your website.

But not just on your website. Make sure there’s a “sign-up” button on your Facebook page so people are driven to the opt-in form that way.

The second step of list building is to drive traffic to that place. You have two choices when it comes to driving traffic. Earn it through search engine optimization and organic traffic. Or buy it with advertising, such as with Facebook ads.

But, if you buy ads, you don’t just want to drive traffic to your site. Instead, you want to drive people to a landing page where you have an offer and nothing else. No other content to distract them. Just your offer.

That takes us to the next step.

The third step of list building is to give people a great reason to sign-up. This could be a coupon for something free or a discount on their first order. Or it could be a lead magnet. If you don’t have a lead magnet, I gave over 30 ideas for lead magnets in the list building course in the Small Farm Nation Academy, and I’m available there one-to-one to help you if you want.

But you have to give the visitor a compelling reason to sign up. Don’t make it easy for people to leave your site without subscribing to your email list!

The fourth and final step of list building is to give people a way and a reason to share.

Of course, successful list building is much more detailed than that and requires tools and know how. I cover all this in an advanced 11-video course on list building in the Small Farm Nation Academy.

But what you can do now, this winter, is to review how you’re doing with those four steps.

winter chicken tractorsWinter task number three is to plan your blog post calendar for the year. You do have a blog, right? If not, plan a content calendar for the year. If you’re not sure what to blog about or why you should be creating content, check out my full-length course on content marketing in the Small Farm Nation Academy. It’ll get you going.

When you do plan out your content calendar be sure to start with the end in mind with your content strategy. In other words don’t just wake up and say, “I gotta write a blog post today” or “I gotta send out an email update.”

Have a clear and measurable objective around each piece of content. If your objective is to grow your email list, start with that and create content to accomplish that goal.

If your goal is to rank for a search phrase organically, start with that and work to achieve that goal.

Just start with a goal and work backward to achieve it.

Winter task number four is to plan an email marketing calendar for the year. And the first thing you should plan is your auto-responders and sequences.

Here’s what I mean. Go to smallfarmnation.com/launchpad. Then, just sign up for the free video series. When you do you’ll immediately receive an email with a link to the first video. Then you’ll receive subsequent emails on later days to the additional videos in the Farm Marketing Launchpad.

After you finish watching you’ll be subscribed to a sequence that will invite you to join me in the Small Farm Nation Academy. There are about 15 emails in all. And all of them were written earlier this year, and now they’re on auto-pilot.

And that’s what you need to do now, while you have time. Do you have an auto-sequence for when people subscribe? If not, get on it! And if you do, are you trying to lead them to a specific action? If not, why not? Because that’s the goal, right? Not to get subscribers, but to get customers!

So now is the time to work out your email calendar for the year. Beyond these auto sequences, go ahead and plan out your frequency and topics for the coming year. Use a tool like Trello or Google Sheets—I use both for this purpose—to plan your email calendar.

Winter task number five is to re-copywrite farm website.

Let me be blunt—most of the copy on farm websites is pretty poor. Yours probably is too. And it’s not that way because people can’t write, that’s not it at all. It’s because they aren’t concentrating on writing with purpose.

For instance, most “About Us” pages just spew off a stream-of-consciousness recap of how the farm came to be. Now, contrast that with someone focusing on optimizing that page for search results. Or strategically building in a call-to-action. If they did that they’d write copy that would lead the visitor to take action.

And it’s like that on all pages.

The copy on your website is probably the most important part. I’m all for beautiful images and great designs—I think that’s important too. But people take action based on the words they read. It’s the words more than the images that connect with people.

So take a close, honest look at your copy. I’ve got a thorough course on copywriting in the Small Farm Nation Academy where I break down these sins, step by step, and show you how to correct them on your own.

That’s a really important marketing task you can focus on, right now.

Winter task number six is to schedule farm events for the coming year. This includes farm tours, market dates, and any special events. Farm dinners, classes—that kind of thing.

Be sure to align your events with your brand positioning, and make sure they’re relevant for your audience. If you’re selling premium artisan cheese to foodies then a corn maze probably isn’t the event you want to focus on. Think more along the lines of cheese appreciation dinners paired with local wines, brews, and spirits.

Farm events can be a great offering. Not only can they be real money makers, but, when done well, they create deep, lasting relationships with customers who now have a bond with the farm.

I know what I’m talking about here…I’ve done lots of these farm events. I think it’s a great opportunity for you too, and now’s the time to plan out yours for next year.

Finally, winter task number seven is to gather customer reviews and create a plan to promote them.

Look, getting reviews is easy. Here’s the trick. Ask. Just ask.

Ask on Facebook, Instagram or wherever you hang out. Ask via email, and ask in your farm store.

And make it easy. When someone says they don’t know what to say (and some will) point them to a page where they can see other testimonials. If you’re just starting out, have that page be a private page you create with a few examples.

Good testimonials only need to be a sentence or two. That’s all. If you want to see some examples head over to Small Farm Nation Academy and you’ll see over a dozen testimonials from members of the Academy. It’ll give you a sense of how to structure your own testimonials.

When you have your testimonials don’t just file them away. Promote them! Make them very visible on your website, for sure. But also promote via email and turn them into nice graphics you can share on social media.

Okay, there you have it. Seven important marketing tasks to focus on this winter. Here’s a recap.

  1. Join Small Farm Nation Academy so you can take farm marketing courses.
  2. Optimize your site for email list building.
  3. Create your blog calendar for the upcoming year.
  4. Plan your email marketing for the coming year, especially the auto-responders and sequences.
  5. Re-write the copy on your website, and do so strategically.
  6. Plan farm events for the coming year.
  7. Gather and promote customer reviews.

If you focus on these seven areas now you’ll be in great shape next year, even if you get sidetracked by those pesky farm chores.

To share your thoughts:

To help the show:

Thanks for listening. Until next time!

OTHER WAYS TO ENJOY THIS EPISODE

Download on iTunes

How to Create an Email List

How to Create an Email List


Hey there, thanks for joining me again this week. So it’s marketing week here on the Small Farm Nation podcast. And one of the challenges I hear most often expressed from small farmers (really any small business, actually), is how difficult it is to create an email list of potential customers. In fact, when I created a survey in my farm marketing group on Facebook, members rated “building a customer list” as the number one challenge.

It’s frustrating to them, I know, for not only is farming and owning a small business challenging enough, now they’re thinking that they must become experts in marketing as well. They’re right. But I’d like to offer some encouragement and perhaps a few helpful tips to help them, and you, to automate the process of building your email list. In my experience, there are three components…layers, if you will, to ensure that your list automatically grows over time and becomes populated with people who are genuinely interested in what you’re doing, and what you have to offer.

1) What’s Your Story

Effective marketing, particularly in the niche of sustainable farming, farm to table restaurants and homestead based businesses, starts with a story.

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?
  • Why is it important?
  • Who cares and why should they care?

The last question is important because it relates to the market you’re targeting, and your words need to resonate with what the customer values.

Where do you tell your story? You tell it on your “about” page, for sure, but your story needs to be conveyed in other ways throughout your website. Your use of images will tell the story as well as the words you choose on each page, in every email and in all social media posts.

WARNING: Don’t fall into the trap that I see so many do of copy-catting language. In the world of sustainable farming, it seems that everyone’s about page draws from a limited supply of words that run the risk of being overused. I’m thinking:

  1. sustainable
  2. organic and/or non-gmo (or beyond organic)
  3. grassfed or pastured
  4. humane
  5. back to the land
  6. and so on

These may be true statements behind why you began and how you operate, but, if you’re not careful you’ll look and sound like everyone else. You don’t want that because customers won’t perceive you as special as you really are. So choose your words carefully, but make sure they’re YOUR words, even if you pay someone to write them for you.

2) Create Rich Content

Even today, there are still far too many businesses that create websites to serve as online brochures. The problem with that is, once the visitor reads your about page and your offering, they “get it” and have no reason to come back.

It’s your job to give them a reason to come back frequently! Why? It’s one way they stay connected with you and that you stay top of mind when they think of who their favorite farmer (chef, etc.) is.

So how do you get them to come back? For over a decade now, the answer for many has been via blog posts. That’s still a viable strategy for many reasons, but the truth is that many people read those blog posts through RSS readers, which delivers a feed of your post to them without them actually visiting your site. And if you’re opt-in forms are in the sidebars, RSS readers won’t display them. True, you’re still in their thoughts, but it’s a pretty passive relationship. Not nearly as active as them typing in your URL to visit you.

Think about it from your perspective. What would cause you to go back to a website, other than one like Amazon where you make frequent purchases (we both know you do)?

A great method of driving traffic is through email marketing. Sending an email with links to rich content on your site that they can’t get another way.  Of course, this requires an email list, which is the subject of this post, but you’ll understand how to do that once you digest all of these tactics. For now, your goal is to create keyword-rich content that is true to your story and resonates with what your target audience cares about. What kinds of content?

  • how-to blog posts
  • inspirational images
  • how-to static pages (doesn’t have to be blog posts)
  • recipes
  • stories (case studies, customer stories, etc.)
  • press releases and announcements
  • etc.

The content needs to be “rich” from two perspectives;

  • rich in terms of value to your reader and
  • rich in terms of keywords that will enable web searches to find you. Those keywords should be the things your target customer thinks about and searches on.

For instance, if you’re targeting folks interested in “organic farmers near Lexington, KY” or “raw milk near Woburn, MA”, your blog posts or static pages are a great way to create copy that’s both rich in keywords and content for your target customers. That way, you can craft language on your “about” page that’s less boilerplate and more unique to your story, mission, and values. When you’re a relatively new enterprise, showing up in search results is an important way to “get found,” and one of the best ways to show up is to create a steady stream of content. But when visitors do show up, your job is to get them to convert from visitors to subscribers. Often, you accomplish that with lead magnets.

3) Use Lead Magnets the Right Way

A lead magnet is simply something you offer in exchange for your visitor to sign-up for your list. It needs to be valuable since they’re giving you something valuable in exchange. An example of a lead magnet is the image on the left, which goes to this page. I use it throughout this site where I offer an enticing guide in exchange for opting into my list. This simple lead magnet added 120 subscribers to my email list in the first 3 days. All I did was share it on Facebook, that’s it.

Now, here’s what’s critical about this lead magnet. It directly connects my target audience (owners of farm businesses) to what I want to offer them (membership in the Small Farm Nation Academy). Therefore, the lead magnet works because it’s completely in alignment with my membership site offering.

In your case, it will be whatever you have that’s unique to you and, most important, valuable to your audience. For instance, if you sell raw goat’s milk, perhaps it’ll be a guide on how to make soap or cheese from the milk. If you sell pastured poultry or pork you may create a special subscriber’s section of your website that includes videos for cutting up a whole chicken, making bacon and charcuterie and so on. The point is to think about content that your market values and will be willing to join your list in exchange for receiving the content.

But–here’s where many people go wrong. It needs to be something that, if the person doesn’t download, they will either experience pain of some sort, or they’ll realize a great reward.

In my lead magnet example, if the farmer doesn’t download, they could miss out on knowing the secret sauce…the expert tips that bridge the gap between how their farm is currently performing and how the best farms perform, from a marketing perspective.

At the same time, they get a great reward if they insight that can help propel their farm business. So you’ll have to ask yourself, “will my customer feel pain if they don’t download the bone broth lead magnet, or will they experience a great reward if they do?” I’m thinking not. So, lead magnets can be a great tool in building an email list, but, to get great results, they need to be the right kind of lead magnet. FYI, for you members of the Small Farm Nation Academy, just post your lead magnet question/struggles in the forum and get some expert advice.

Of course, when you create content that connects to a lead magnet, don’t just post it on your website. Repost it on Facebook and other social media platforms, and be sure to use widgets and tools to encourage readers to share it on their pages. This will ultimately drive visitors to your site so that they can opt-in for the valuable content you’re offering.


This is a detailed topic and I could go on for quite a bit, for we haven’t even discussed the technology you use to create your opt-in forms, email marketing providers and so on. For this post, the point is to think about creating content that:

  • tells your story in a unique, compelling way
  • gets folks to visit your site repeatedly
  • has a clear strategy for converting them from visitors to subscribers

In terms of action items for you, think about these:

  • Set a specific goal for building your email list…say, adding 20 or 100 new subscribers a week, or whatever’s appropriate for you.
  • Review your “About” page as objectively as possible to see how will it resonates with new potential customers. Again, if you’re an Academy member, post in the forum if you’d like an expert review.
  • Look at your website to see what lead magnets you’re using. If you’re not using any, see what content you have that could be developed into a lead magnet.
  • Get into a habit of emailing your list on a predictable schedule (every Thursday, every two weeks, once a month, etc.). This not only sets a clear expectation with them but also forces you into a pattern of developing new content on that schedule.

Now, get busy growing your marketing list. It’s the lifeblood of your farm business!

10 Reasons Farms Struggle Selling Product

10 Reasons Farms Struggle Selling Product


Hey there, thanks for joining me again this week.

So it’s marketing week here on the Small Farm Nation podcast. As you know I cover four categories each month, one per week. I do an episode on farm strategy, followed by an episode on branding. Last week’s episode was on online marketing and today is on marketing.

And it’s an important episode, and if you’re a farmer, this is gonna really resonate with you.

I want to talk about why small farms struggle so much to sell their products. If you’re a small, family farmer, you know what I mean.

I gave this issue a lot of thought, both from my own experiences selling farm products as well as from what I hear from so many other farmers.

And when I thought it through, I created this list of ten reasons why small farms struggle to sell their products. Listen in and see what you think.

Now, in this episode I’m going to just go through the list of ten. I’ll tell you what I think the issues are and why they exist.

Then, in the next Marketing episode, which will be in four weeks, we’ll revisit the list and I’ll share my thoughts on what we, as farmers, can do to, not only overcome those issues, but strategically position our farms for success.

Does that sound good?

Let’s get started.

Okay, so Timmy says there are 10 reasons why small farms struggle. Here they are.

Reason number one is that small farms are inconvenient to buy from. This one is obvious.

Here—let’s look at how most people buy food. They walk or drive a short distance and go into a grocery store that’s open 7 days a week and, in some cases, 24 hours a day. Then their senses are bombarded with an endless array of options. Fresh produce, packaged meats, charcuterie, wine, bread, eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit from all corners of the globe and, of course, rows and rows of processed food.

Let’s say it’s the holiday season. They realize they need more root vegetables…or another turkey. What’s easier? Driving five minutes to Kroger to grab what you need? Or doing a Google search for a farm and trying to find their phone number. When you see they don’t have a number on their farm website (most don’t), they have to fill out a contact form and wait for a response. And wait.

See what I mean? Let’s be honest here…it’s flat out far less convenient to buy from a small farm.

Reason number two is that the farm is almost ALWAYS far removed from a good market. And that’s for a good reason. I mean, there’s not a lot of land to farm in downtown Chicago—or Dallas. So the farm is out in the country. Often, it’s far out in the country. In my case we were two hours and 15 minutes (without traffic) to Atlanta.

So farmers often struggle because they’re far away from a good size market—one with a population of at least 50,000, and that’s bare minimum. So they try to sell locally in, usually, economically depressed areas, to the people who are MOST likely to want and need the cheapest chicken from Wal-Mart.

So distance to good markets is reason number two.

Reason number three is that small farms sell inconvenient products. What do I mean by this?

We used to sell all kinds of meat products. But we sold many of them whole. As in a whole chicken? Now, dealing with a whole chicken is nothing for me, and probably not for you. In fact, I’d much rather have a whole chicken so I can make stock and what not.

But I had many consumers ask me what to do with a whole chicken! That’s because they’re used to buying from a grocery store where all the bones have been removed from meat! Go see for yourself…there are almost no bones in a grocery store!

So consumers often don’t know how to cut up a whole chicken. And they certainly don’t have the room to store half a cow or pig, much less understand a “cut sheet” and how to request the meat costs they want.

But another reason small farm products are inconvenient is that we live in, increasingly, a “prepared food” society. You know—these are the “meal-kits” made popular by such firms as Blue Apron.

Now, I believe Blue Apron has a questionable business model itself, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing demand for prepared meals. Heck, even Chick-Fil-A has entered the prepared meals business, featuring recipes and pre-measured ingredients for five chicken entrees—Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Enchiladas, Dijon Chicken, Pan Roasted Chicken and Chicken Flatbread. These kits sell for $15.89, and can be ordered using the Chick-fil-A One app and/or picked up at the restaurant.

And it was only a matter of time, right, but even Amazon entered the prepared-meal game. In late 2017, amazonfresh.com and allrecipes.com announced a partnership that will allow for meal preparation delivery.

Now, the Amazon/All Recipes approach isn’t exactly the same as Blue Apron, but the point is that two things are happening. 1) there is no decline in the consumer’s demand for convenience, and 2) businesses (and venture capital) are aggressively investing to meet that demand.

So, to recap, reason number three is that small farms typically sell inconvenient products, and consumers increasingly want more convenience.

Reason number four is that small farms sell unfamiliar products. Remember, consumers are used to walking the aisles of the modern grocery store. While it appears there is lots of variety there, there isn’t as much as you’d think.

The reason it appears there is variety is because all grocery stores have global inventory. They only carry a couple of fruits you couldn’t possibly grow locally. But you can get mangoes, pomegranates, grapes, bananas and even oranges in January, wherever you are.

And you won’t find any of those things in your local CSA box. Your CSA box may have carrots in the cool season, but even that may be a problem for consumers. That’s because in grocery stores, carrots are orange, and only orange. And most people know—maybe—two types of lettuce. Iceberg and Romaine, perhaps.

And if people want Brussel sprouts, they usually grab them in a frozen food box. They rarely know what vegetables look like out of the ground or how to prepare them.

Supermarket apples are unblemished, and carrots are straight as an arrow. Now, compare that to typical CSA products, where far sweeter and more nutritious carrots may in fact be crooked. Ditto with local apples that were so healthy a worm didn’t mind taking a bite.

Of course, the fact that small farmers grow so many heirloom varieties can be a benefit, but it’s also confusing to many consumers. So much so that farmers create recipes and instructions on what to do with the CSA box contents.

So, reason number four is that small farms sell unfamiliar products.

Reason number five is that small farms are flat out more expensive than most supermarket alternatives. Now, I said most here, because a small farm can definitely beat premium retailers, such as Whole Foods, on price.

I used to make about 30,000 pounds of artisan cheese a year. We sold it to a distributor which then sold it to Whole Foods, Kroger, Disney and the like. When I’d go into Kroger I’d see our cheese at $28/lb. Definitely a lot more than I got paid for it. So, could I have made great profit selling directly to consumers for less than that—say, $25/lb, or even $20/lb?

Absolutely!

And the same applies to the vegetables, fruits, meats, soaps and everything else in those type of stores.

But—those high prices they charge, at least in the case of meats, is partly because of the convenience. I mean, they’re not selling a whole cow. They’re selling a filet mignon. Or a chicken breast.

And, they have a physical store close to the consumer. So that warrants a high price for premium supermarkets like Whole Foods.

But Whole Foods, even at $16 billion in annual sales, is tiny. I mean, total supermarket sales is about $700 billion in annual sales. So the overwhelming majority of Americans shop at conventional supermarkets and, increasingly, at supercenters like Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam’s Club.

There’s no way small farms can compete on price against the average supermarket or Costco. So, since the majority of Americans shop there, it’s clear that small farms are a more expensive alternative.

Now, before you start yelling at the speaker that it’s an unfair playing field because big Ag gets grants and subsidies, let me say I hear you. I get that. And I almost added that as reason #11 small farms struggle. But really, it’s not a separate reason. It belongs here under prices, because the fact is that it makes prices seem cheaper for consumers. And that’s my point with reason number five—that small farms are flat out a more expensive alternative.

Reason number six that small farms struggle to sell products is because they’re not unique as perceived by the consumer. This is related to what I said earlier—a carrot is a carrot, a chicken is a chicken and so on.

Small farms spend a lot of marketing energy talking about why pastured poultry is better than industrial chicken. Why raw milk is more nutritious than ultra-pasteurized milk. Why an organic carrot grown in fertile, local soil is more nutritionally dense than a supermarket carrot grown in sandy Florida soils. Why an orangish free-range egg yolk is so much more delicious and healthy than a cheap supermarket egg.

We all go to great lengths to educate consumers for a good reason. Most of them can’t tell the difference. A chicken looks like a chicken. A nutritionally dense carrot looks, on the outside, like a carrot devoid of nutrients.

So, while we know our products are unique and have nutritional benefits, most consumers are unaware of this. That’s reason number six.

Reason number seven that small farms struggle is that most people don’t even know they exist. Even the most famous farmer, if there is such a thing, is unknown to almost everyone. You may know Joel Salatin and Polyface, but I can promise you that the vast majority of residents of the Shenandoah Valley shop at typical grocery stores. They don’t even know of his farm.

It’s easy to see why. I mean, small farms like yours and mine don’t have money to spend on television or radio commercials, We don’t advertise on billboards, we don’t have retail store fronts, with signage, and we don’t sponsor events to “get our name out there.”

So, it’s true. Most people don’t even know that your small farm exists. But as I’ll explain next time we explore this subject, that’s a big opportunity for you.

Reason number eight that small farms struggle is that they have inconsistent production. What I mean is that they either grow seasonally, as in the case of fruits and vegetables. Or they produce a finished grassfed cow “every now and then.”

Obviously this makes it difficult to sell to those who need a steady, dependable supply. Buyers like restaurants and resorts, for instance.

So as much as many small farmers want to sell to restaurants, and chefs would like to support them, the fact is the farm’s production is not aligned with the restaurant’s needs. So it’s a force fit, at best.

Part of the reason for that relates to—

Reason number nine that small farms struggle, which is processing bottlenecks. Industrial meat producers have at their disposal huge processing plants that are increasingly automated. They can process thousands of animals a day, dispatch the bones and wrap everything in clear, plastic packages.

By comparison, a typical small meat farm has trouble finding a local processor for their grassfed beef or pork. Most of the time they’re forced to drive many hours each way for processing. Even then, they have to make their appointments months in advance. So imagine how challenging that is—forecasting when your cows will “finish” on grass and scheduling the processing date to match that.

Pastured poultry farmers can’t even find someone to process their chickens. Often no matter how far they’re willing to drive. There are just not many processing plants that process small batches of birds.

If the farmer does find a poultry processor they’re usually forced to drive long distances each way. Imagine how much extra cost this adds to the price of a chicken since the farmer can’t exactly “make it up on volume.” So this contributes to the huge pricing problem small farms face.

Of course, many farms would be happy to process on farm themselves. But various laws and regulatory bodies block this. Which leads me to my final point.

Reason number ten that small farms struggle to sell products is intense regulation hurdles.

What do I mean? Here’s a simple example. My farm was located five miles from a state line—on the South Carolina / Georgia border. I was in Georgia but much closer to Greensville or Columbia, South Carolina than I was to Atlanta.

But could I sell my raw milk or pastured poultry in South Carolina? No. Even though I was only a half hour from a good South Carolina market, I couldn’t sell there. But I could drive 6 hours to Valdosta, GA to sell there.

And I’m not alone. It’s common for farmers to live near state lines—often multiple state lines—and not be able to sell their products on the other side.

And, as I said, many farmers would like to process their red meat or poultry on farm. But you can’t do that without investing in becoming an inspected USDA facility. Some farms, such as White Oak Pastures in Georgia and Gunthorp Farms in Indiana have done this. But at a major capital expenditure that most small farms can’t, or won’t, risk taking.

So there you have it. The ten reasons that I see for why small farms struggle to sell their products. As you can see, there’s no fluff here. These are very real reasons why it’s challenging to sell small farm products.

But where there is challenge there is opportunity. Ask any entrepreneur. And in the next marketing episode, I’ll guide you through what you can do to overcome these hurdles and position your farm for sustainable success.

Thanks for Listening!

To share your thoughts:

  • Share this show on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

To help the show:

Thanks for listening. Until next time!

OTHER WAYS TO ENJOY THIS EPISODE

Download on iTunes

How to Create an Email List

How to Create an Email List for Your Farm

One of the challenges I hear most often expressed from small farmers (really any small business, actually), is how difficult it is to create an email list of potential customers. In fact, when I created a survey in my farm marketing group on Facebook, members rated “building a customer list” as the number one challenge.

It’s frustrating to them, I know, for not only is farming and owning a small business challenging enough, now they’re thinking that they must become experts in marketing as well. They’re right. But I’d like to offer some encouragement and perhaps a few helpful tips to help them, and you, to automate the process of building your email list. In my experience, there are three components…layers, if you will, to ensure that your list automatically grows over time and becomes populated with people who are genuinely interested in what you’re doing, and what you have to offer.

1) What’s Your Story

Effective marketing, particularly in the niche of sustainable farming, farm to table restaurants and homestead based businesses, starts with a story.

  • Why are you doing what you’re doing?
  • Why is it important?
  • Who cares and why should they care?

The last question is important because it relates to the market you’re targeting, and your words need to resonate with what the customer values.

Where do you tell your story? You tell it on your “about” page, for sure, but your story needs to be conveyed in other ways throughout your website. Your use of images will tell the story as well as the words you choose on each page, in every email and in all social media posts.

WARNING: Don’t fall into the trap that I see so many do of copy-catting language. In the world of sustainable farming, it seems that everyone’s about page draws from a limited supply of words that run the risk of being overused. I’m thinking:

  1. sustainable
  2. organic and/or non-gmo (or beyond organic)
  3. grassfed or pastured
  4. humane
  5. back to the land
  6. and so on

These may be true statements behind why you began and how you operate, but, if you’re not careful you’ll look and sound like everyone else. You don’t want that because customers won’t perceive you as special as you really are. So choose your words carefully, but make sure they’re YOUR words, even if you pay someone to write them for you.

2) Create Rich Content

Even today, there are still far too many businesses that create websites to serve as online brochures. The problem with that is, once the visitor reads your about page and your offering, they “get it” and have no reason to come back.

It’s your job to give them a reason to come back frequently! Why? It’s one way they stay connected with you and that you stay top of mind when they think of who their favorite farmer (chef, etc.) is.

So how do you get them to come back? For over a decade now, the answer for many has been via blog posts. That’s still a viable strategy for many reasons, but the truth is that many people read those blog posts through RSS readers, which delivers a feed of your post to them without them actually visiting your site. And if you’re opt-in forms are in the sidebars, RSS readers won’t display them. True, you’re still in their thoughts, but it’s a pretty passive relationship. Not nearly as active as them typing in your URL to visit you.

Think about it from your perspective. What would cause you to go back to a website, other than one like Amazon where you make frequent purchases (we both know you do)?

A great method of driving traffic is through email marketing. Sending an email with links to rich content on your site that they can’t get another way.  Of course, this requires an email list, which is the subject of this post, but you’ll understand how to do that once you digest all of these tactics. For now, your goal is to create keyword-rich content that is true to your story and resonates with what your target audience cares about. What kinds of content?

  • how-to blog posts
  • inspirational images
  • how-to static pages (doesn’t have to be blog posts)
  • recipes
  • stories (case studies, customer stories, etc.)
  • press releases and announcements
  • etc.

The content needs to be “rich” from two perspectives;

  • rich in terms of value to your reader and
  • rich in terms of keywords that will enable web searches to find you. Those keywords should be the things your target customer thinks about and searches on.

For instance, if you’re targeting folks interested in “organic farmers near Lexington, KY” or “raw milk near Woburn, MA”, your blog posts or static pages are a great way to create copy that’s both rich in keywords and content for your target customers. That way, you can craft language on your “about” page that’s less boilerplate and more unique to your story, mission, and values. When you’re a relatively new enterprise, showing up in search results is an important way to “get found,” and one of the best ways to show up is to create a steady stream of content. But when visitors do show up, your job is to get them to convert from visitors to subscribers. Often, you accomplish that with lead magnets.

3) Use Lead Magnets the Right Way

A lead magnet is simply something you offer in exchange for your visitor to sign-up for your list. It needs to be valuable since they’re giving you something valuable in exchange. An example of a lead magnet is the image on the left, which goes to this page. I use it throughout this site where I offer an enticing guide in exchange for opting into my list. This simple lead magnet added 120 subscribers to my email list in the first 3 days. All I did was share it on Facebook, that’s it.

Now, here’s what’s critical about this lead magnet. It directly connects my target audience (owners of farm businesses) to what I want to offer them (membership in the Small Farm Nation Academy). Therefore, the lead magnet works because it’s completely in alignment with my membership site offering.

In your case, it will be whatever you have that’s unique to you and, most important, valuable to your audience. For instance, if you sell raw goat’s milk, perhaps it’ll be a guide on how to make soap or cheese from the milk. If you sell pastured poultry or pork you may create a special subscriber’s section of your website that includes videos for cutting up a whole chicken, making bacon and charcuterie and so on. The point is to think about content that your market values and will be willing to join your list in exchange for receiving the content.

But–here’s where many people go wrong. It needs to be something that, if the person doesn’t download, they will either experience pain of some sort, or they’ll realize a great reward.

In my lead magnet example, if the farmer doesn’t download, they could miss out on knowing the secret sauce…the expert tips that bridge the gap between how their farm is currently performing and how the best farms perform, from a marketing perspective.

At the same time, they get a great reward if they insight that can help propel their farm business. So you’ll have to ask yourself, “will my customer feel pain if they don’t download the bone broth lead magnet, or will they experience a great reward if they do?” I’m thinking not. So, lead magnets can be a great tool in building an email list, but, to get great results, they need to be the right kind of lead magnet. FYI, for you members of the Small Farm Nation Academy, just post your lead magnet question/struggles in the forum and get some expert advice.

Of course, when you create content that connects to a lead magnet, don’t just post it on your website. Repost it on Facebook and other social media platforms, and be sure to use widgets and tools to encourage readers to share it on their pages. This will ultimately drive visitors to your site so that they can opt-in for the valuable content you’re offering.


This is a detailed topic and I could go on for quite a bit, for we haven’t even discussed the technology you use to create your opt-in forms, email marketing providers and so on. For this post, the point is to think about creating content that:

  • tells your story in a unique, compelling way
  • gets folks to visit your site repeatedly
  • has a clear strategy for converting them from visitors to subscribers

In terms of action items for you, think about these:

  • Set a specific goal for building your email list…say, adding 20 or 100 new subscribers a week, or whatever’s appropriate for you.
  • Review your “About” page as objectively as possible to see how will it resonates with new potential customers. Again, if you’re an Academy member, post in the forum if you’d like an expert review.
  • Look at your website to see what lead magnets you’re using. If you’re not using any, see what content you have that could be developed into a lead magnet.
  • Get into a habit of emailing your list on a predictable schedule (every Thursday, every two weeks, once a month, etc.). This not only sets a clear expectation with them but also forces you into a pattern of developing new content on that schedule.

Now, get busy growing your marketing list. It’s the lifeblood of your farm business!

10 Business Rules for Starting a Successful Farm

10 Business Rules for Starting a Successful Farm

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.

Tim and Liz Young with laying hens on their Georgia farm

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 membership site 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’ll want to succeed. And, since we all like to eat, we all need you to succeed.

With that goal in mind, here are my 10 Business rules for starting a successful farm business.

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 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 plan to succeed at farming. 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, and 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.

Farm Business Rule #2 — Nail Down Your Competitive Advantage Before You Start

One of the reason 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 doesn’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.

Brooding baby chicks for pastured poultry

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,

  1. proximity to markets,
  2. being a low cost producer or,
  3. 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.

Raising heritage turkeys; Bourbon Red and Narragansett breeds

For instance, 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 starting a Grade-A raw milk dairy and farmstead cheese business, which was not only much more lucrative, it was much 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 defensiblecompetitive 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.

Farm Business Rule #3 — Select the Best “Go to Market” Strategy Before You Start

If you have something 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.

Now, with direct-market farming, there are several ways to go to market, including:

  1. farmers markets
  2. farm stands or on-farm sales
  3. CSA or community supported agriculture
  4. metropolitan buying clubs (MBC’s), or delivering to groups of farm customers
  5. selling to restaurants
  6. selling to retailers
  7. wholesale selling to distributors
Delivering pastured poultry to the farmers market

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 have their own pros and cons.

As members of the Small Farm Nation Academy know, I don’t believe in trying to define 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 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, do your one-page farm business plan, choose your competitive advantage and then decide the best way to go to market to achieve that advantage.

Farm Business 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.

Farm Business Rule #5 — Bridge the Gap Between What the Land Needs and What the Market Needs

This is both a business and a 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?

Tim Young with an Ossabaw Island hog in the forest

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, started 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.

Tim Young standing in one of his artisan cheese caves

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.

Farm Business Rule #6 — Balance Profit With Passion

Okay, so we’re talking about a business, right? Not a hobby. So…measure EVERYTHING That Affects Profit Everything.

It’s not about what animals are cute or what garden tasks you like to do. It’s about making 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. 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:

  1. what is your cost of production
  2. what is your required profit margin
  3. 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. 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, as we did for Ossabaw pork and other farmers have for their unique products.

Also, others won’t know what profit margins you require. For instance, if you have debt to service, your margins have to accommodate that.

And others certainly don’t know your cost of production. Nor do they know your specific target market and its demographics.

So the point is, measure everything that affects profit, because you absolutely need to know your cost of production, down to the nickel. What does it cost you, ALL IN, to produce that chicken, carrot or cheese curd.

Farm Business 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.

Tim and Liz Young collecting eggs from one of two eggmobiles

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’s 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’r 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 law suit. And that’s a perfect segue into rule #8.

Farm Business 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) for having coffee spilled on them.

Tim Young leading a farm tour

Beyond legal structure, be sure to get the right 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.

I had all my policies through Westfield Insurance. They have a Farm & Ag section on their website that may help you if you’re having trouble finding a carrier.

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, the most controversial rule on this list.

Farm Business 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 of you thinking, “No! That’s crazy! Don’t take the leap until you know it’s working.” And, 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 that, 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 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.

Tim and Liz Young with their diversified array of livestock on pasture

I jumped ship as president of a division of a Fortune 500 company at the height of my career to start my own business. Then, I found myself immediately 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 that 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.

Farm Business 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.

How?

By sharing the truth. Your dreams about the life you want to create. Yourvision 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.

  1. You’ll build a loyal tribe of supporters, because you’re allowing others to live vicariously through you.
  2. If you do it correctly, you’ll get a head start on building your most important marketing asset: your email list.
  3. By creating one blog post per week, for example, you’ll get a huge head start on search engine optimization (SEO) by marketing early.
  4. You’ll gain the potential for media exposure by sharing your plans.
  5. 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

  1. Your Farm is a Business, Not a Hobby
  2. Nail Your Competitive Advantage Before You Start
  3. Select the Best “Go to Market” Strategy Before You Start
  4. Avoid Debt at (Almost) All Costs
  5. Bridge the Gap Between What the Land Needs and What the Market Needs
  6. Balance Passion with Profit
  7. Know the Difference Between Profit Margins and Cash Flow
  8. Protect Your Assets
  9. Quit Your Day Job
  10. 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 closely with 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 grassfed 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.