Farming Rule #5: Successful Farms are Successful Businesses

| 5/23/2018 8:33:00 AM

This post is Part 1 of Forrest Pritchard’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog series 5 Important Rules Every New Farmer Should Know. Forrest’s latest book, Start Your Farm, debuts September 2018, and is available for preorder here.

I grew up on my grandparents’ beautiful Shenandoah Valley farm, free to explore the rolling hills, orchards, and ramshackle barns dotting their two thousand acre operation. During my summer vacations, I pruned apple trees, picked sweet corn, painted fences, and gathered eggs, memories that will last a lifetime. With so many invaluable experiences, I eventually felt like I had enough knowledge to become a full-time farmer. And so, when I graduated from college in 1996, brimming with optimism, I pursued my dream of running my family’s farm.

That first year back was a complete disaster. Following conventional wisdom, I sprayed my pastures with herbicide, and converted the farm to GMO corn and soybeans. When autumn arrived, the harvest yielded a pitiful twenty dollar profit. I barely did better the next year, changing course and selling loads of firewood, hay, and straw, but still only making a few thousand bucks. Even after switching to organic livestock a couple years later, I’d often make a paltry fifty dollars selling sausages at the local farmers’ market.

What had gone so terribly wrong? Regardless of my prior experience and my heartfelt passion, I had never learned how to run the farm like a real business. Sure, I might be good at raising cattle, or constructing an equipment shed with my own two hands. But did I know what it truly cost to raise a steer, or build a barn? How did I really know if these expenditures were profitable? And when would I make enough money to actually pay myself? The hard truth was, I had no idea how to answer any of these questions.

Yes, I had a willing spirit, and hard work didn’t frighten me. But in my headlong rush to become a farmer, I had neglected to learn the intellectual nuts and bolts of finance. I had convinced myself that if I simply grew enough food, the money would magically sort itself out. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake! My ignorance cost me years of lost time and profit. And if it wasn’t for a few lucky breaks along the way, I might very well have lost the farm, too.

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