Turn Your Farm Venture Into a Business

Reader Contribution by Joel Salatin Of Polyface Farms

Have you ever dreamed of taking your part-time homestead to a full-time salary? What’s holding you back? Business books say most people are more afraid of success than failure. After all, if you’re successful at a creating a credible business from your self-reliant craft or farm venture, you’ll need to think like a business. Marketing, production, finance, accounting, permits – enough already!

As I’ve thought back over my success as a full-time farmer, several key ingredients come to mind.

1. I’ve never been alone. I grew up here, in this community, on this land, and although Mom and Dad never made it a going concern – always working in town to keep the farm vision quasi-alive – that psychological and financial support were key when Teresa and I decided to leave outside employment and return full-time to the farm. I always had other people who could complement my weaknesses with their strengths. Today, our staff of 20 brings gifts and talents to our farm that I could scarcely imagine.

2. I’ve not been in debt. Because the land was paid for, we could live cheaply, at $300 per month. A few dollars go a long way when you’re not paying debt service. We grew all of our own food, lived in an attic apartment in the farm house, heated with wood, bought clothes from the Salvation Army thrift store, drove a $50 car (in our first 20 years of marriage, our total automobile expenditures, cumulative, were under $10,000), and never went anywhere. We didn’t even buy baby food – just used our little hand mill and fed the kids what we ate. And cloth diapers.

3. I’ve let function drive design. Our farm does not sport white picket fences or picturesque barns. Before we had our own bandsaw mill, we tore down dilapidated barns in the neighborhood to scavenge lumber for building projects. Function over form drives our projects, and while they may not look like something to grace the front page of Southern Living, they work. We build sheds with rafters made of poles – like much of the world uses for their houses.

4. I’ve concentrated on portable infrastructure. Ultimately, this creates a portable farm, which is not only cheaper than stationary buildings, but it also gives tremendous flexibility. I can move structures around the farm or I can take them up the road to another property, temporarily, and scale our farm into nearby nooks and crannies. Nook and cranny farming offers unprecedented opportunities to utilize land owned by others.

5. I’ve value added. Whether it’s firewood turned into shed roof rafters or branches chipped into animal bedding or chickens fully processed into parts and pieces, creating more value from raw materials is critical to generate a salary from a small acreage. Commodities rely on large volumes at low margins. High margin farming creates opportunities for small acreage because the farmer wears more hats – producer, processor, marketer, distributor. If the middleman makes all the profits, that’s what we need to be.

6. I’ve diversified. The permaculture concept of stacking and multi-speciated symbiosis produces more per square yard of land and benefits sales through the one-stop shop concept. Leveraging an existing customer into buying a complementary item is the fastest and most efficient way to increase sales. It’s a lot easier to find 100 people to spend $1,000 with you than 1,000 people to spend $100.

7. I’ve centered my equity in management rather than infrastructure. The proverbial capitalization hurdle in farming can be pared down dramatically if we substitute management for buildings, equipment, and land. By loading our equity into information (why you should read MOTHER EARTH NEWS) and management, it’s not only portable but also easier to purchase. Few people go into debt for information or experience. You don’t have to buy management savvy from a bank.

We’ll talk about this and much more at the fairs this season. Hope to see you there.

Joel Salatin will present two workshops at each of the 2013 FAIRs. 

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRs: June 1-2 in Puyallup, Wash., Sept. 20-22 in Seven Springs, Pa., and Oct. 12-13 in Lawrence, Kan. Tickets are on sale now. 

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