Twenty years of observing new farmers has taught me that you are an enthusiastic, passionate, ambitious lot. This is a good thing because farming, especially in the early years, will take a toll — not just your body but your brain and sometimes your commitment as well. It takes a lot to get a successful farm business launched and when the results are not quite what you hoped, it can be a major blow to your dreams.
In sorting the successful start-ups from the challenging ones there are some lessons to be learned. They are not easy lessons but for your consideration:
- Avoid the tendency to over-diversify your production. Especially in the early years when you need to focus on product quality and efficiency. Taking on too many profit centers can stretch you thin and leave you with mediocre results. In the early years concentrate on excellence in one or two areas — then expand.
- Invest in post-harvest care. It is a shame to spend all that time and money on producing high-quality products that you mishandle. At the end of the day post-harvest washing, packing, and storing will impact the quality and flavor every bit as much as the careful selection of seed and your production practices.
- Limit your market channels. It sounds counter-intuitive but in exactly the same way that over-diversifying your product line can lead to chaos, over-extending your market reach can yield bad results. If you are focusing your startup on direct marketing then choose one or two channels that will compliment one another. For example, farmers’ markets and a CSA can work well together. Once you have some production experience you can always add markets and/or leave some markets behind. Concentrate your efforts on learning your costs of production so you
- Listen to your customers. The hardest thing for any business owner is to hear negative feedback. I often hear farmers talking about customers’ “unreasonable” demands and lack of knowledge. Ok, some customers are clueless jerks. But, here’s the thing…the customers you have close relations with are sort of like family…they are not going to want to tell you the bad stuff. It’s the difficult customers you might hear the truth from, even if the way they deliver that truth is mean-spirited. So, even though it is hard, listen to the negative feedback and mine it for the tidbits that you can use to improve. Maybe those beans were a little past their prime. Those last steaks were really tough. And that lettuce…it was gritty and buggy.
- Have a mechanization plan. Even though you may not have the resources to buy every piece of equipment that you need, that should not stop you from having a plan in place. Keep a list of the equipment you need and prioritize the list. What do you need first and what can wait a few years? Then start taking classes in how to maintain and repair equipment. Learning how doesn’t mean you have to do the work yourself–it means you will be better able to explain your needs to others and gauge the quality of their work.
The tricky part of farming is that you can do everything right and still not end up where you hoped to be. And that is why you need to plan carefully, proceed with caution and love what you do.