Scaling Up — What is it? How do we plan for it?

Autumn harvest display

Scaling up our regional food production is gaining a fair amount momentum in the northeast. Much of the discussion is driven by the desire to ensure that we have enough local food (and food diversity) so that we can declare our region food secure.

From the community perspective it is relatively easy to know what we want. We want to be able to produce enough “calories” to ensure adequate nutrition for all our citizens. Most of us are not thinking in terms of 100% of every individual’s diet but rather enough so that, if supplies of imported foods were to be cut off we could at least keep people fed at a very basic level. Certainly, there are complex issues embedded in this decision (affordability, personal choices, etc.) which are trickier to address and may take us some time. But one of the first questions that needs to be asked is, “Do we have enough farmers willing to scale up their production to produce the foods we need“?

It is not an insignificant question. What does scaling up entail on the farmer side of the discussion? It means rethinking the business pretty much from the ground up. Imagine that you are a small scale farmer thinking about scaling up to produce 100% of your family income from the farm. Here are some of the questions you will have to wrestle with:

  • Do  you have the land base to expand your production?
  • Do you have the experience necessary to grow something at a larger scale and more intensively?
  • Are you willing and able to grow products to industry standards?
  • Are you prepared to “specialize” in one or two (or three or four) areas so that you can streamline your production?
  • Are you prepared for the transition from a family business (or solo operation) to an enterprise that will require employees (potentially many employees)?
  • Are you financially prepared to invest in more (or bigger) equipment?
  • Are you prepared to take on more debt in order to scale up your infrastructure (coolers, packing areas, fencing and watering systems, trucks, wash stations, etc.)?
  • Have you done the homework to know what your sales volume would have to be to achieve your financial objectives? Can you reach that volume?
  • Are you willing to reach out to new market outlets?
  • Will you give up your direct markets entirely or try to balance farmers’ markets with wholesale accounts?
  • Have you considered joining a marketing cooperative or signing on with a distributor?

Without a critical mass of farmers who are ready, willing and able to scale up, our local food system dreams will take a very long time to reach fruition. The reality is that scaling up may not appeal to every farmer. There are many good reasons why a farmer would not want to grow in this direction. But, as with all aspects of business planning, the decision to scale up or not should be a conscious decision that you make and not the default result of failing to decide.

In the coming months we will be offering a variety of classes related to the decision of scaling up the farm business. I hope we see some of you there!


About Mary Peabody

Working with beginning farmers since 1994.
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