If you have not yet begin farming, or even if you have and want to have better success, you need to focus on farming for results. While I do believe that everyone who sticks with trying to make a small farm a success does so primarily because they enjoy it, in the real world you can only continue to enjoy it if you make a success of it (unless you are rich anyway, in which case we are talking about a hobby farm and not a working farm).
So what does farming for results mean? It means looking beyond the 'lifestyle' and conventional wisdom and doing ONLY (or mostly) those things that will make your farm successful i.e profitable. Here's a few tips in that regard; the list begins with sales, because in the real world of business nothing happens until somebody sells something.
Seek to lock-in your customers.
Farming for results means doing everything you can to turn your casual customers into repeat customers. Acquiring customers is the most expensive part of the sales process; so once you've got one, try to lock her in. The Community Supported Agriculture model automatically tales care of this for you. But that's not the only way. If you sell at a farmers market, make every effort to get your best customers contact information. Ask them to sign up for a free newsletter; the newsletter can offer specials only available to subscribers. A farm website and e-newsletter makes this easy to do.
Offer to make up a 'basket' of their favorite veggies in advance, to make sure you aren't sold out when they get there. Give them a small discount on the basket. Offer to sell them a $100 coupon that they can redeem for $110 worth of produce at your stall. Find out their favorites and offer a bulk discount to them.
If you have or plan to have a Pick-Your-Own operation, create a Clientele Membership Club. This means that you sell memberships (for a nominal fee, perhaps $25) to your PYO farm, and only members can pick there. Offer a well-discounted price to compensate for the membership fee. You can afford to do this because approximately half the labour cost on a small farm is in the harvest. Your customers are doing the harvest.
Insure your success
This extends beyond having business and liability insurance (a must), you also need to plan your farm operations to be disaster-proof as much as is possible. For example, we use raised beds, drip irrigation, row cover, disease-resistant cultivars, crop rotation, green manures, succession planting, and multiple cultivars. Farming for results means ensuring you can deliver to your customers.
Diversify, diversify, diversify – but carefully.
Everything new product you add to the farm will take time and money to implement and manage. Farming for results means everything is subject to cost-benefit analysis. Contrary to most 'popular' advice, I don't automatically recommend that 'value-added' is the way to go for small farms. Processing raw farm products into value-added items may involve more headaches than its worth.
There are all kinds of rules relating to safe handling and processing of food, product labeling, identifying possible food allergens, zoning, and potential liabilities that you need to be aware of. If you have a good idea for a value-added product, and you can make it work on paper – i.e. the additional revenue will compensate you for your troubles - then don't let the bureaucratic BS stop you; just be aware of the pitfalls.
Local means local.
Is it still 'local food' if you have to drive 3 hours to get it to your market? Seek out customers in your immediate neighbourhood; every minute and every mile you spend off the farm is non-productive time. Keep it to a minimum. There may be a great market commanding premium prices a few hours away, but remember it ain't the money you make, its the money you keep. If you have to take away productive farm time, or hire help to tap that far-away market, make sure the premium will cover the added cost. Farming for results means minimizing off-farm time.
Learn the skills.
On the subject of keeping costs down, it seems like there are a thousand jobs on a small farm that need doing. Your first option to get these things done should be yourself.
Here's some things I learned how to do in the last ten years (other than raise a market garden and livestock) - rough-in electrical wiring, replace a well pump, rake and bale hay, plow a field, install steel roofing, operate a chainsaw (20 cords or so each winter), build a greenhouse, build a woodshed, create an e-commerce website, and write books.
I've read business books that recommend that you focus on your 'money-making' activities, and hire everything else out. Maybe that's true if, 1 – you can afford to pay journeyman rates for these jobs, and 2 – you can wait for the 'fixer' to get around to you.
If the whole she-bang has to wait while you call someone to do minor jobs, (and PAY them), its going to be hard to keep the farm going. Farming for results means learning basic skills. By the way, I was over 40 when I started this learning curve, so it ought to be easy for you young 'uns.
Stop and smell the roses.
None of the above is meant to suggest you can't enjoy your farm. I am thankful every single day that I am here, doing what I love to do. But in order to sustain that, I have to make sure I can pay for my fun. That may in fact be the secret to happiness; find something you love to do, and find a way to get paid for it.
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