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Lessons From Exploring the Small Farm Dream

Posted: March 27, 2014

Have you ever asked yourself, “Is farming right for me?” Are you currently working on a farm or have aspirations to start your own agriculture enterprise? Twenty-eight participants of Penn State’s “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” 2014 course discussed these questions and more during the four-session class lead by extension educator Tianna Dupont.
Exploring the Small Farm Dream class participants with educator Tianna Dupont

Exploring the Small Farm Dream class participants with educator Tianna Dupont

Class participant Renee Lang says that Exploring the Small Farm Dream, “helped me to understand some of the specific administrative tasks associated with farming as well as the farm skills themselves. It's a structured way to assess the different skills needed to run an agriculture business.” As a participant of the course myself, it has been extremely valuable to discuss the challenges and realities of starting a farm business.

We learned that when deciding whether or not to start a businesses it is important to take a step back and:

  1. assess yourself
  2. assess your resources
  3. assess your market.

Assess Yourself

 Defining your farm goals, understanding your strengths, and identifying your limitations better prepares you to tackle the many challenges of farming. Farmers Anton Shannon and Lisa Miskelly of Good Work Farm C.S.A. presented how they balance quality of life and financial goals to the Explorer class. They formed their business by working backwards from their personal, financial, and environmental goals. They decided how much they need to sell based on their personal living expenses. At a personal level, their desire to work with animals and reservations about tractors, led them to integrate draft horses on the farm for working the soil.

Just as Good Work Farm did, it is also vital to weigh the potential risks and rewards of starting an agriculture business. Below are a few examples. See if you can add anything and come up with a risk management strategy for each example.

Rewards

  • Being my own boss
  • Working outdoors
  • Setting my own schedule
  • Doing hard physical work
  • Making my own decisions
  • Opportunity for stewardship
  • Produce food, healthy food 
  • Chance to experiment

Risks

  • Uncertain compensation
  • No paid vacations or sick leave
  • Dependence on seasons and weather
  • Possibility of serious physical injury
  • Responsibility of health insurance
  • Possibility of farm team breakup
  • Possibility of crop damage due to pests, disease and weather

Assess your resources

Take stock of the tangible resources you already have and set up a timetable for acquiring additional resources. This will help you plan investments and forecast your start-up costs and yearly budgets. There are two main types of tangible resources you will need: physical resources which include infrastructure and equipment, and financial resources that include personal savings and borrowed money.

Eight years ago, Heidi Secord started Cherry Valley CSA. She described to the group that, “I took a chance and used all of my personal savings to invest in my business. I bought a tractor and started farming.” Luckily, Heidi had already garnered an inexpensive lease and had a wealth of knowledge from past experiences on farms. Assessing her resources and weighing her risks led to her to success as Cherry Valley CSA heads into its ninth year of production.

Assess your product

Instructor Tianna Dupont emphasized that, “You need to grow what people want to buy, not necessarily what you want to grow.” Conducting research benefits you when preparing, promoting, and selling your products. Areas you should research are:

  1. rules and regulations
  2. production cost and capacities
  3. market potential
  4. revenue potential. 

There are two main types of research. Primary research involves gathering information for yourself, by for example, counting cars or pedestrians or conducting surveys or interviews. Secondary research involves studying data that has already been collected and published by somebody else. Additional resources for research and questions to ask before starting an agriculture business.

Here are some examples of questions to ask when researching and examples of data collected for a pick-your-own strawberry operation.

Market potential

  • Are people buying your product? What are the market trends for your product?
  • Who are your potential customers? Is there anything about them that I can use to market my product?
  • How much is already produced in the area? Is the market saturated?

Production and revenue potential

  • How much can you produce in the area you have available and with the labor you have available?
  • Given how much you can produce and the price what is the potential revenue?

Below is an example of some preliminary market research for a pick-your-own strawberry operation:

Product or Service

Features & Benefits

Potential Primary Customers

Production Capacity

Number of Potential Sales

Estimated Gross Revenue

Sources of Information

Pick Your own Strawberries

Freshest, organic, fun activity

Families, home canners within 15-mile radius

2 acres = 6,000 quarts (9,500 pounds)

4,000 qts PYO, 2,000 qts wholesale

4,000 x $3/qt = $12,000        $2,000 x $1.50/qt = $3,000

Extension and survey of area growers

Before starting your agriculture business, take the time to evaluate all aspects of your potential operation. Assess yourself – define your goals, your abilities, and your limitations. Have a clear picture of what you want in business and how to balance your enterprise with your personal life. Assess your resources – take stock of what you have, what you need, and how you will acquire additional resources. Assess your product – before putting all your eggs in one basket (no pun intended), make sure there is a market for your product in your location and have an idea of the potential revenue you stand to make. Researching all aspects of your business before you start can lead to long-term success in the future.