Farming Rule #5: Successful Farms are Successful Businesses

Reader Contribution by Forrest Pritchard
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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.

Farming Is a Business First

This leads us to our first rule as new farmers: Follow your farming dream, but first learn to run it like a successful business.

Bob Dylan once wrote, “You have to get up near the teacher if you want to learn anything.” Farming is no exception. Making a profit in agriculture is famously difficult, so a smart new farmer should seek out profitable farms, and glean the hard-won wisdom of an experienced producer.

Surprisingly, this important investment in your education doesn’t have to cost you a dime. How can this be? When it comes to farming, zero-dollar learning opportunities abound. They can occur in a dozen different ways, once you know how to find the right opportunity.

Farming internships. The most pragmatic way is through a farming internship, or better yet, via a multi-year apprenticeship. To be sure, these positions should offer more than just endless hours of farm work, or repetitive drudgery. They should give you access to the farmer as well, and offer transparency into how the business is run.

Ask the right questions. And ask lots of questions. How does the farmer market her products? How does she account for daily, monthly, and annual expenses? How much does she pay herself? Does the business make enough to replace the cost of her land investment? Most importantly, is she happy? These are the critical answers you’ll need to know for your own farm someday.

Take paid positions. And to be clear, this should always be a paid position — don’t settle for anything less. Think about it: Why would you want to work for a farmer who’s unable to (or chooses not to) pay his own workforce? From my experience, if someone relies on free labor to run their farm, it’s usually a red flag.

CRAFT. There are dozens of other opportunities to get up close to the farmer, costing little more than your time and some gas money. Most local Extension Services offer annual farm tours, and programs such as CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) provide amazing farm field trips for a nominal membership fee.

WWOOF. If you’re an adventure-seeker who’s willing to volunteer your time, WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) can offer a fascinating glimpse into some fairly exotic locations. And of course, you can always hire on as a farmhand on a successful farm, and learn under the tutelage of an experienced manager.

Every new farmer should be a dreamer at heart — it’s one of the most beautiful parts of farming. But to nurture your dreams, learn from a teacher who knows the ins and outs of the farming business, and has succeeded.

Next month: Rule #4, “Don’t Worry About What Other People Think”

Forrest Pritchardis a full-time farmer and New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, Start Your Farm, debuts September 2018, and is available forpreorder here.


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