I have been sitting on my “Farm Dream” manuscript for over a year now. Who am I to have anything to say to anyone about how to start the journey of becoming a farmer? Well, I do have a lot of experience, but this past year has been personally difficult and confidence shaking, and that held me back from working on this project. Also, I have to admit it was even more daunting whenever I imagined trying to make something financially from it. So, what to do but let it go….I’m gonna give it away for free. I’ll release it in 3 or 4 installments, as it is too big of a document to do as one blogpost. Please know it’s definitely far from perfect, but I want to share the information I have worked so hard to compose! If you are thinking about farming full-time, or know someone who is, please enjoy and share. Thank you!
-also a huge thank you to Shinano from Some Sort of Escapade for the beautiful photograph!
Make a living as a Small Scale Farmer by following your passion!
By Khaiti French
So, you want to be a farmer? You have a Farm Dream, so let’s talk about it!
The Farm Dream involves all of the good stuff when you think of a farm; growing all of your own food, getting away from it all, becoming as self-sufficient as possible, living in harmony with nature. For many people this Farm Dream soon evolves into more than just this homesteading lifestyle. You want to live it all the time and quit that stupid day job that pulls you away from your farm. You want to become a FARMER, and make your living from the land. This is the Farm Dream.
My name is Khaiti French. I’m 35 and I’m a farmer, made-from-scratch. I didn’t grow up in a farming family, I was called to farming as a result of my passion for food, independence and animal welfare. I have been self – employed on my Wisconsin farm since 2011, where I offer a pastured meat CSA program with highland cattle, chickens, turkeys and geese, and I specialize in pastured duck eggs.
As a kid, I was an animal lover, the one with oodles of pets of all shapes and sizes. I have always loved tending animals and observing their behaviors. In a way, I was in training to become a farmer, I just didn’t know it at the time. There were gerbils, parakeets, iguanas, tarantulas, snakes, lizards, aquariums of exotic fish, parrots, horses, dogs, and many cats that passed through my childhood.
When I was 23, I started homesteading with a garden and 2 milk goats and a few ducks, and soon my passion for raising animals evolved into my calling; I got the Farm Dream and I wanted to become a real full-time farmer. However, I did not know initially how to take that passion and make it into a career. Through years of trial and error, joys and triumphs, frustration and poverty, I’ve finally made it. In this book, I will present details and information from my experiences learning how to start and successfully run a farm business and help you translate your passion into a business. I know this passion that you feel, because that is what got me to where I am today. Passion is an incredible tool for success, as long as it is properly directed and focused.
Pursue your Farm Dream and become a farmer! Our planet and our communities need you to! There is room for all to succeed, and I believe that if more small, diversified and sustainable farms are started and operated smartly, we’ll be able to feed our local communities, reduce the ecological impact of trucking food thousands of miles from farm to fork, the earth and all it’s flora and fauna will be more ethically cared for, and a whole bunch of people will have a satisfying career. A Win Win Win!
The Farm Dream affects all sorts of people from all walks of life: Permaculturists, retirees, Milennials, Stay at home dads, Preppers, soccer moms, Veterans, chefs, homesteaders, entrepreneurial tweens. No matter if you’ve been energized by the local food movement, want to help make a difference and heal the planet, want to quit your “meaningless” day job and be your own boss, or you just want to be reconnected with the land, we need more farmers in the world, and the lifestyle rewards for those that follow this calling are simply tremendous. No matter what’s inspired this desire, I am here to tell you that you can do it. But how do you actually become a farmer?
Farm Dreamers romanticize the life of a farmer and what their days must be like. What may not be immediately apparent, is that farming is as much about running a business as it is about the lifestyle. If you tap into your Entrepreneurial Spirit and true desire to become a farmer, you can do just that.
We’ll start by finding your passion for the right product to produce, and then how to plan for your farm-based business to be successful for the long haul. In my experience, if you are producing something that you are extremely and truly passionate about, you will succeed. What “succeeding” means is up to you, but in my book, it means being able to quit your day job.
The focus on the business angle of a Farm Dream is essential and sorely lacking information for new and aspiring farmers. That’s precisely why I wrote this book. Hey Farm Dreamers! Are you prepared to work harder than you imagined possible? Are you ready to feel extreme pride and joy when tending your animals or plants? Are you ready to feel that immeasurable thrill when you make your first sale? Are you prepared to cry and pull your hair out with frustration? Are you ready to excitedly sit with a calculator, repeatedly figuring out business numbers over and over? Well, then let’s begin!
I want to help you make the transition from Farm Dreamer to Farmer. Many farming books are out there to inspire and inform you, but they tend to gloss over the important detail that many beginners don’t come from a farming background. Most don’t know how to actually even start a farm-based business. Most won’t know to carefully diversify a farm-based business to avoid going crazy or broke. Tailoring your farm business to be a reflection of WHO you are and WHAT you are passionate about, through smart and thoughtful planning, is essential so that you can succeed, quit that day job and achieve your Farm Dream.
Chapter 1- “Passion, Product & Market”
Identifying what exactly your true passion is, then what the resulting product(s) could be, as well as the potential market for that product, whether you are still in the dreaming stage, or actively homesteading.
Chapter 2- ”Homestead vs. Farm, Scale & Specializing”
Examining the differences between Homesteading and Farming is essential for aspiring new farmers to understand, and from there we’ll talk about Scale and Specializing.
Chapter 3- “Marketing, Point of Sale and Branding”
Marketing can make or break your Farm Dream. Marketing is both how you get your product into the consumers’ hands and how you perform marketing action, aka “branding.” If you don’t have a marketing plan and also a back up plan for selling your product, you are up against a steep road, no matter how amazing your product is, or how much it follows your passion. This is the most common downfall I see with new farmers. I did it myself and before I knew it, I had 17 goats with no focused plan for how to make a living from them.
As a former Farm Dreamer and now a full-time farmer I want to let you know that, unless you are independently wealthy, there will be a period of time where you straddle both worlds, day job and farm. It’s a hard and sometimes tortuously long period of time where you may begin to really hate your day job and resent your boss. Don’t. Hang in there. Use your day job as a reminder of WHY you need to strive to thrive financially on your farm. Your day job will provide you with living expenses and financial stability while you plan and test out your Farm Dream. Save up your money as much as possible now, while you have this day job! If you can make a beginning farm work, while straddling these two worlds, it means you are ready to go full time. Never burn bridges at your day job; you never know how it might come back to you once you become a full time farmer. For instance, my previous co-workers are some of the buyers I now work with to sell my eggs, and my old boss still calls to buy a turkey from me every year.
Don’t be jealous of those who have unlimited money, family land, or some other leg-up. Having wealth will not make one a successful entrepreneur. Anyone can achieve a Farm Dream, however the passionate ones who are being true to themselves, selling products they believe in with all their heart-those are the ones who are most likely to truly succeed.
Chapter 1 – Passion, Product & Market
Hay strands embedded in a sweater, collecting warm eggs from beneath the cooing golden hens.
The hum of millions of honeybees pollinating apple blossoms, handcrafted apple chutneys sealing with a ping.
Robust, colorful hogs running to the fence in greeting, and the grateful smile from a customer as he’s handed a beautiful cut of pastured pork.
Close your eyes for a moment and ponder…What is your passion?
From the very beginning, passion is the thing that what will make you the most successful as a new farmer. Why is passion important when it comes to becoming a farmer? Because in any circle, the passionate ones always draw people to them. True enthusiasm is a magnet. Think of someone you know or know of who is passionate- you can’t help but fall under their charm. Meeting someone who is truly passionate is exciting because sadly, true passion just doesn’t exist much in our society. So many people just go with the program. They may have dreams, but the daily grind of job, house, family, mow the lawn, go to the supermarket, eat, watch TV, sleep, and repeat, can pulverize dreams. Aspiring new farmers are striving for more than the daily grind. They have dreams, the innovation to pursue them and the passion to achieve them.
However, the typical farmer nowdays is an older man with a bit of a limp, who’s exhausted and grouchy looking, hardworking, but not fulfilled…. you can sense the lack of passion like an odor. What a shame. It’s no wonder these types of farmers sells their farm products to the wholesale & commodity markets, and not directly to the consumer. Commodity farm products such as corn, soy, beef, pork and dairy are produced primarily in mass quantity, and secondarily quality. Producing them often costs more than they bring in, which is where the government subsidies you hear about come into play. No wonder there is little pride in producing these types of products, the farmer is at the mercy of the larger system. Passion for the product is obviously not why these farmers farm, no matter what they raise whether it is crops or animals. For these farmers, farming is just like another day job, except they bear much of the financial risk, they often live hand to mouth, have no control over their prices and feel little joy about their products.
These days however, because of the local food movement and the rising tide of newbies interested in raising food, the image of farmers is changing. Farmers can come in all forms, ages and genders. Anyone can decide to become a farmer, because they are not burdened with preconceived notions of what farming “is,” nor beholden to any existing farming protocols. They enter the field with fresh eyes and fresh hearts bursting with a longing for meaning, for connection, for fulfillment. These new farmers have authentic passion, because they want this more than anything. It is their calling.
Figuring out what makes you passionate is key to making your Farm Dream come true. However, doing what you love and following your passion, without a plan, is a recipe for going broke. Doing what you love will put you through some of the hardest trials and tribulations of your life, but will also lead you to a life brimming with purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment. We’re going to start by identifying what your passion is, so that you can begin to make a solid plan to succeed and achieve your Farm Dream.
Your passion is YOUR thing. How do you know what your “thing” is? What if you have multiple things? Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, let’s get your brain juices flowing by doing a written brainstorm. Give yourself a couple of free, uninterrupted hours in a comfortable place with a pen and a notebook. Put your hand to the paper and start writing, starting with some of your earliest memories. Note which senses are stirred. Are they visual memories? Are there aromas? Do you hear a sound or feel a texture? Recalling these memories will help loosen up your mind and get you into the flow of your hearing your inner voice.
For me, there’s the fresh breeze on a summer day as a little girl in South Dakota, laying in the shade on a satisfyingly scratchy picnic blanket with my baby sister, while my Mom and her neighbor friend Millie butchered chickens. There is murmuring between them as they work, and I giggle as a headless hen goes running, only to plop over in the grass moments later. There’s a cauldron of heated water wafting the earthy smell of wet feathers over towards me.
Now imagine yourself as a farmer. The farmer you want to become. You, there, in your very own Farm Dream. Transplant yourself to your imaginary future ideal situation. Scribble down every word and thought and sense that comes to your mind. What are you doing in your Farm Dream? What are you seeing? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What are you creating? What are you tending? It doesn’t matter what you write, the important thing is to just let that vision out to begin manifesting your Farm Dream.
When I did this practice writing a long time ago, I noted much of my imagining of being a farmer was simply being at home on the farm, doing as I pleased. A huge part of my Farm Dream was the independence I craved. I also wanted to be surrounded by animals, I just didn’t know right away which kinds or in which capacity.
After this brainstorming session with yourself, turn to a fresh sheet. Remember there are no wrong things to write down, just focus on your PASSION as the topic. We’re just letting YOU quiz yourself, deep in your own core. Now take as much time as you’d like to write out thorough responses to these questions:
What perks you up in a conversation?
What makes you fill with joy?
What are you drawn to?
What are you known for?
What do you do for enjoyment?
What would you change in the world, if you could?
What do you end up doing on your day off?
What feeds and satisfies your soul?
How do you want to be remembered?
What do you love to eat?
What do you love to craft or create or prepare?
Is there something you craft, grow or produce that brings you great pride?
Have you ever been unable to sleep because you were so excited?
What was it that kept your awake?
What are you naturally good at?
Is there something that you make that family/friends clamor for more of?
What do you feel you can or could do better?
What do people like about you?
What’s important to you?
If you suddenly had a million dollars, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
What do you want to be your legacy?
Once you are done thinking and writing about the questions, go take a break, walk away for a few minutes or even a day or two, and let your mind keep ruminating. Do you sense a common theme throughout your answers? Is there something that you are afraid to list as a possibility? The answers to these questions will help identify what your true passion is, and that is the beginning of your Farm Dream business.
Only you know what you are drawn to, what your passion is. Figuring out, identifying and acknowledging what you are passionate about is the first step towards making a living farming, because if it is your passion, you can authentically sell the products made with that passion, with all your heart and soul.
Remember this story when you think about your passion: I was sitting at a CSA Fair one morning next to a woman from another farm. Her table display was highlighting her Farm’s CSA subscription based on farm fresh produce, pastured eggs and chickens, and meanwhile, she was eating McDonald’s right there at her table for breakfast. How does this demonstrate that her farm products are her passion? It doesn’t! You need to walk the talk, put your money where your mouth is- and if you are following your passion, this is much easier to do authentically. Imagine if she had been eating a fritatta made entirely from her own products. Imagine if she had samples of that fritatta to hand out to potential customers. By the way, later that year she went out of business.
My passion is tending animals, which stems from a desire to be the change I wish to see in the world. I abhor factory farms, and shudder to think of all the meat, eggs and dairy products made from miserable animals. Factory farms are so bad for the animals, the environment and the consumer. I read a book called “The Compassionate Carnivore” by Catherine Friend, and in it I found where my passion and abilities intersected. My passion is to provide ethical animal product options so that animals can live better lives, we can work together with them to use their fertility to enhance the land and not pollute it, and for other compassionate eaters to have an ethical and healthy choice.
My other passion was that I REALLY wanted to quit my day job. I was tired of working on someone else’s schedule, of working hard without much reward or incentive other than a paycheck. Using my passion as my guide, I knew raising animals ethically was in my future, something to focus my entrepreneurial spirit on. I am passionate about animals and their quality of life, and I am passionate about how delicious their products are when the animals have that better life. I have high standards, and my passion is what helps me sell these products. The first time I heard a customer explaining to her friend that she was a “Khaiti-vore” I knew I was on to something, my passion had spread outward into my customer’s hearts.
Once you have decided your Farm Dream direction, based on your passion, it’s already a great time to start networking. Get some business cards made, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what you are going to be producing. Start a blog and/or a farm website and begin chronicling your Farm Dream journey. Never under estimate the value of putting your intentions and experiences out into the world. The experience and sharing will add fuel to your fire, and lead you in directions you never could imagine.
Once you have identified what your passion is, it’s time to figure out what your product might be. Your Core Product is the result of you following your passion. Your product is what you will sell to make a living, to become a Farmer. Your Core Product will be based around flora (raising plants) or fauna (raising animals.) Another option is creating a value-added product from one or both.
Here are some examples of different passions: cooking local foods, tending animals, working with specialty fibers, growing apples, artisanal butchery, heirloom vegetables and seed saving. In this section we’ll take these passions and look at what kind of products could result so that you see the diversity of products that could stem from a passion. I know! Aren’t the possibilities endless? There are so many exciting ideas and options! But whoa there, to succeed as a farmer I firmly believe that you need to concentrate your efforts and energy on one or two Core Products. These endless possibilities are fun to dabble in at first, but can become overwhelming and are simply not sustainable as a livelihood. I know this because my ex and I dabbled like crazy for the first 4 years. We did not have a thoughtful business plan based on our passion, and we had no Core Product to focus on and start our business around. We just tried EVERYTHING, and all at once. This behavior was fueled by an article he’d read by Kely Klober, who said it was far better to have 10 projects that each made a $1,000 profit, than one which brought in $10,000. For the sake of diversity, there is some truth to this, but 10 projects going on all at once is just not sustainable for your sanity. And who can honestly live on (and pay bills with) just $10,000 a year? Not many folks. I also know 10 things at once is not a good idea, because we tried it- at one point (and this is all at the same time) we had rabbits, chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs and ducks to raise and butcher and sell, we had soap to make and sell, we had a vegetable CSA with weekly deliveries, we were teaching on-farm workshops, we were trying to grow mushrooms, we were trying to put in permaculture installations, we had open houses, and we were delivering eggs to 11 stores. TOO MUCH! We had no idea what was actually making any money (let alone profit,) because every penny coming in was spent immediately to just maintain the madness of that diversity, those “endless possibilities” we had going on at our farm. This is a recipe for not only failure, but also burn out.
At this point, only you know what you’ve identified as your passion, and with that powerful knowledge you will be able to narrow your focus towards your ultimate Core Product. This product selection process can take some time to figure out, and your product may evolve as we work through the following section, but this will get you started. Even if you already have an inkling of what your product will be, it never hurts to keep your mind open as you begin this part of the process. I’d recommend you continue to write down your thoughts (or blog it) as you are pondering all of this, it makes for fascinating reading later!
Two things to note:
1) What follows is just a drop in the bucket of ideas for a farm-based product, and I am not intending to tell you what your product will be. Only you will know the right fit.
2) Just because you can see a great idea, or a missing product in the market, doesn’t mean that you should focus on that, unless you are passionate about that product. For instance, I can see a huge hole in the midwest market for a local raw apple cider vinegar. I spent many years working in the co-ops and this product consistently sells like crazy at all of the stores, and it is shipped in all the way from California. CALIFORNIA!!! Meanwhile we have millions of pounds of unused apples in this part of the country, the Midwest, and we have a much better apple growing climate than California. However, even though I can see this huge potential market doesn’t mean I should produce that product. It’s not my passion, as a farmer. As a simple entrepreneurial endeavor it would make sense, but I don’t want to just make and sell stuff, I want to follow my passion and live my dream. (I DO make apple vinegar for my own use though!)
Here are some examples of various passions and what products could come from that passion.
COOKING LOCAL FOODS
Specialized Prepared Food Product
Cooking local foods from scratch is a natural for anyone who loves good food. Amazing food and farming go hand in hand! Your product could be a cafe or a food truck where you prepare lunches for downtown workers, or take the show on the road to sell at festivals and events. You could go a different route and turn seasonal farm products into ready to eat meals. This model is called the CSK (community supported kitchen) a revolutionary idea of a subscription meal service, usually featuring local and seasonal food. It’s very different and more plausible than opening a café or buying a food truck since you could just rent a commercial kitchen versus having a brick and mortar location to purchase. Subscriptions being purchased ahead of time would mean lower overhead and operational expenses, as well as being much more flexible as many of the products are frozen as they are made. Are you that good of a chef? Do you want to grow the food you use in the cooking, or just cook? This could be a great partnership for a vegetable grower and a chef to enter into, where you both own the business and you both contribute to it in different ways. If you don’t have a grower to partner with in a business, you could ask local farmers about becoming a regular supplier for your cooking business providing them with additional steady income and you with top notch seasonal produce to work with. A passion for “Cooking Local Food” could also lead you to develop a business around a single food product that you make and sell, like a relishes, fresh pasta, bone broth, meatballs, ferments, pesto, herbal vinegars, etc.
Stack Function or Animal Combos
Tending animals is a passion that will need some definition, considering how many different types of livestock there are to choose from. Whether you want to tend to one type of animal, or a few, you need to decide what the product is; eggs, milk, meat or fiber. You could specialize and focus on one species, or several. What’s your passion telling you? Some livestock work very well together and can even be raised together, and some not so much. Pigs really are too omnivorous to trust around any animals that are not larger than them. You could raise cattle and sheep together, or cattle and pigs, but probably not pigs and sheep, or pigs and poultry. Poultry require different types of fencing to keep them safe from predators, so they usually are not an ideal fit with mammals, but turkeys or geese could possibly be raised in roomy and carefully fenced pastures with cattle, sheep or goats. Geese and ducks do well together, and require similar care. We had a great experience with geese, turkeys and chickens pasturing together when they were brooded together from the beginning. Rabbits are making a comeback in some areas of the country and new models for setting up a rabbitry on pasture are being experimented with by some innovative-thinking new farmers.
Selling young stock is also a possibility, but I’ll say right now that basing a whole farm business on breeding and selling young stock as your main product is not a good idea. For instance in the example of milking registered dairy goats to make farmstead cheese, the cheese is the product you’re focused on and counting on financially. To have the milk flow, the goats will need to have kids each year, and while selling the registered kids could be profitable, it’s not the focus, not the Core Product. The other way to think of it is many people eat cheese, but not that many people buy young goats. If you ever read anything about the ostrich breeding pyramid scheme, you know to beware of any “get-rich-quick” ideas especially when it comes to building a business around selling live animals.
Another product you could make from tending animals is fertility, in the form of your own compost to use, or making compost to sell. My sister and I talked about her creating a farm animal sanctuary/ethical compost company.
You could stack functions- planning for more than one product from the same animal. Star Thrower Farm in Minnesota is milking Icelandic sheep, making and selling cheese and yogurt, harvesting the fiber to turn into fine yarns, and harvesting the male lambs for meat. What a beautiful full range of farm products coming from their flock. I don’t know if they have any extra time or space, but they could very likely raise heritage chickens in the same pastures with the sheep to stack in more profit potential! Another example is Boondockers Farm in Oregon who specializes in raising heritage breeds of poultry, selling not only the specialty eggs and meat produced, but also the valuable day old hatchlings to others.
WORKING WITH SPECIALTY FIBER
Making products from Fiber
Working with specialty fibers can be just that, where you buy in the fiber, spin it and make fiber items. It could be weaving, knitting, crocheting, etc. You can grow your own source of fiber and then make the product as well. Perhaps you want to specialize in linen, and want to grow your own flax and process it into fiber. What fiber really floats your boat? Maybe you want to start a rabbitry of angora rabbits and collect their wool, and you could use their droppings to have a compost business at the same time. I heard an interview with a woman who had a pet Angora rabbit and started making angora wool bikinis (!!) and after she was featured in the press, her unique creations started fetching $400 per swim suit! She outgrew the ability to supply her own fiber pretty much right away, so she is now working with a woman’s collective of rabbit raisers to secure the fiber to make her product, which is angora bikinis. Angora bikinis!
A passion for apples might lead you to opening a nursery, establishing an orchard, selling apples or making value added apple products, such as raw vinegar, hard cider, apple butter, dried apples, apple pies. You don’t necessarily need to own an orchard to work with apples, in our region you’ll see unharvested apples on returning-to-the wild-trees everywhere. You could partner with an orchard to buy and use their windfalls or seconds. I’d highly recommend the magnificent “Permaculture Orchard” DVD/Book by Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farm as another approach to taking a passion for apples in a diverse and profitable direction.
A passion for the art of butchery may lead you to think about opening a butcher shop, but what about if you also want to raise the animals to butcher? Think about what you’d rather spend your days doing- tending livestock every day of the year, or running a small shop where you receive carcasses from gorgeous pastured animals, make specialty sausages, talk to customers, and cut and wrap the beautiful ethically raised fresh meats for their meals. You can absolutely decide your “product” will be both, and own both sides of the equation, but realistically you will need to have one person run one of those elements because you can’t be in two places at once. This could be an ideal business partnership situation for a butcher and a grazier, so keep your mind open and expand your networking.
If you want to raise the animals, you’ll need land. If you want to open a butcher shop, you’ll need to find a suitable location to do that. Jimmy’s Farm is a TV series from the UK about a farm’s journey to do just that (you can find episodes on You Tube.) The owner originally had a passion for saving a specific rare breed pig, and he grew that into an on farm butcher shop and agro-tourism destination, featuring all sorts of heritage breed meats. He scaled up his growing business to intentionally became a tourist destination with kids activities like nature walks and farm animal tours, which of course the parents pay for, and then they likely also buy meat in the shop on their way home too.
Contract seed growing
Started Plants/Nursery sales
Specialty food product
If you have identified that growing heirloom vegetables and saving seeds is your passion, there are many ways this passion can become your product. You can start your own seed company by growing the crops yourself, saving the seeds and selling them directly to your customers. You could contact an existing seed company and grow certain crops for seed for their company. If you wanted to run a CSA from a large garden of heirloom vegetables, you could work in seed saving as part of the planning, by isolating the seed stock parents in each planting, harvest the rest for your CSA shares, and then gather the seeds from the seed stock when they matured. You could come up with a unique Seed CSA and/or have a spring plant sale from the plants from your own saved seeds, or start your own seed company as a separate business. Installing vegetable gardens and teaching people how to grow heirloom vegetables is another business idea. Do what you do best and what makes sense. Consider also a value added food product made FROM your heirloom vegetables. There is often more profit potential in selling a unique food product than in selling the raw materials needed to make that product.
You don’t need a farm to start
Some farmers combine growing and also creating their value added item from their own product. But you don’t have to do it all, and you also don’t need to actually have a farm to start a farm based business: For instance, maybe you love to grow organic soybeans in your garden and transform them into the magical fermented product called tempeh. You want to make it your job and your business. You find a commercial kitchen space you can rent nearby. (I recently heard of a start-up in Minneapolis doing this, called Tempeh Tantanrum.) As you work on your business plan, you quickly realize you cannot grow enough soybeans to supply your own beans for making all that tempeh. Instead of lamenting over this fact, look around your local farmscape for a local crop farmer to supply the beans for your business, and you provide them with another outlet for their raw material. As you grow your tempeh business, you can absolutely set your sights on someday having enough land and equipment to grow and harvest your own beans, and if your business is viable, you’ll be financially better able to go out and purchase that land and equipment. Don’t let what you don’t have keep you from beginning your farm dream. In some scenarios, you may never be able to do it all, or your value added product production may supersede the quantity of raw product you are able to grow to make that product.
Another way to dive into farming without having a farm is to offer a complimentary business idea to an existing and established farm. Pastured chickens or sheep in a Christmas tree plantation, vineyard or an orchard, turkeys following grass fed cattle. You can almost always find pasture to rent in rural areas, you don’t have to necessarily live there to farm. Some farms have unused areas on their farm or fields and they may be open to renting some of that space to you. You could also investigate if there are any “incubator farms” in your region. There new farmers can rent space and can literally start to grow their business with land, guidance, tools and equipment, without bearing the financial overhead initially. Another way to get involved in a farm-based business without your own farm could be to form a CSK program where you would contract with a vegetable CSA farm to buy their seconds and surplus and turn them into products or meals (see France’s “Ugly Vegetable” Campaign.)
Interning or volunteering on a farm that appeals to your passion is another way to get on a farm and gain farm experience before you have a farm yourself. If you think you’d like to be a pastured beef farmer, you will learn so much from the hands-on experience of actually doing the work. The obvious benefit of doing the work for someone else is that you don’t have to commit anything other than your time, and you can leave if it is not to your liking. Imagine you bought 10 beef cows without a lick of real cow-time experience. What if they drove you nuts or scared you? Interning on a farm you imagine yours will be like offers a similar benefit that a babysitter gets- you get a good taste of what it’s actually like to have kids, but you didn’t have to go through any of the work to have them, and you get to leave and not have kids if you choose.
Market Research- the Market for your product
Now that you’ve got your passion identified and some great ideas of what your product may be, it’s Market Research time! By that, I mean starting to look at what the potential markets are for your product idea.
Ideally, your “market region” is the largest city or cities within an hour or two of your farm. In the area you are hoping to sell your product, take time over the different seasons to walk the farmer’s markets, the grocery stores, and the specialty shops, taking note of what products and categories are available or missing. You don’t necessarily want to produce a product that is already available in abundance, but you don’t want to choose a product that no one wants to buy either. You will definitely want to understand whether your product is unknown and will require you to forge your own market, or whether you are entering a crowded existing market. Look to see what customers are buying now. What sections in the stores or markets are large and heavily trafficked by customers? What are they paying? What do you think customers are wanting and not able to find? What do you produce that you know they will want?
Really, I cannot emphasize this enough- spend some serious time studying grocery stores, specialty shops and farmer’s markets. Next time you go to the store, take your time and really look around with “farmer eyes” while shopping. Don’t walk around in a store like a sneaky reporter, because you will arouse suspicion, but do take mental notes of what people are grabbing up, what’s in their carts, which sections and displays are bigger in the store, and what might be missing. You can use your shopping list pad or phone to discretely jot down notes. While you may not become a wholesaler to a store, grocery stores will tell you what people are buying. The prices are worth noting, but don’t pay too much attention because you are not entering the commodity food system. For instance, a local factory farm frozen turkey sells for $.99/lb., while I sell fresh, organic pastured turkeys every year at more than triple that price.
At the farmer’s markets, even if you don’t plan on being a market vendor, check out what people have in their baskets, mentally note the going rate for a few products each time you go to get a sense of what customers are spending. Note where a crowd has gathered, and which displays are still full, or nearly empty, at closing time. You can talk to the farmer vendors, but consider buying something from them first as a way into conversation. Be respectful of the fact that they may not want to encourage any competition. One of my major pet peeves is when people ask me about raising backyard poultry while I’m standing there sampling my eggs for sale. If they bought a package first, I’ll be much more likely to open up a bit!
Try searching online for any local farms or businesses producing your type of product, to see if it is available. The search results may tell you whether there is a saturated market or if you might have a new niche to bring to the area. If you were wondering if there are any suppliers of pastured heritage pork in your region, put that in the search engine with your city, state and neighboring states. If there are several farms listed, make notes of their location relative to the main market region, where they sell their product, and what their prices are if they have that information available online. Even if they are selling the exact thing you want to be raising or producing, they may sell wholesale to stores and not through a CSA or at farmer’s markets. Don’t call them and ask for information, it’s rude to ask or expect business owners to tell you the information you may be able to find out on your own. While some farmers and business owners are completely open to sharing all the knowledge that they have worked so hard to learn, I would suggest that you do not assume that. When you are ready to dive into learning seriously, then a well timed email with an offer to volunteer and ask them questions would be fine. Right now you are doing rough research to determine if there is a potential market for your product. If they raise a product you love and are thinking about as your product, buy it from them! It’s market research, its good karma and can be a gateway into a friendship with a farmer as well.
Other things to think about: What do people eat a lot of in your potential market/region? What do people frequently splurge on and why? Are there more frugal “cook from scratch” customers, or is there more of an “instant gratification” clientele with disposable incomes looking for ease or indulgence? These categories cross all over each other too, by the way. Where does your product idea come in? Most areas have all types of consumers, but it’s important to consider who your target customer is when it comes to your product idea.
Coming soon, Chapter 2 Homestead vs. Farm, Scale & Specializing