Start a Farm: Don't Be Scared, Be Strange
Joel Salatin describes himself as an “environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer.” His innovative farming systems and passionate advocacy have earned Salatin the role of America’s most celebrated and influential farmer. He has authored a number of books including: “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”; “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” and “You Can Farm.” He has also been featured in movies and books such as “Food, Inc.”; “Fresh” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”; and is a sought after speaker at conferences and universities around the country.
Salatin’s current mission? Motivate as many people as possible to stop thinking about running a farm and start doing it.
Salatin visited the Kansas City area in October as the keynote speaker at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence, Kansas. The Fair, a sustainable lifestyle event featuring dozens of practical, hands-on demonstrations and workshops, made its Midwest debut, after three successful years on the East and West Coasts. Salatin’s speech, “Don’t Be Scared, Be Strange,” outlined seven common fears that hold people back when starting a farm business, then suggested solutions to overcome each fear.
With Salatin’s seven fears and solutions in mind, I sat down with a few of Kansas City’s new urban farmers and food entrepreneurs to talk about their fears and how they have, and continue to, overcome them.
Eileen Ellis and Francine Nelson both started farming with the support of Grown in Ivanhoe, a community initiative that aims to empower residents of the Ivanhoe neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo. to grow and sell healthy fruits and vegetables.
Both Nelson and Ellis have participated with Grown in Ivanhoe since 2011 and operated their own small businesses since 2012.
Jessi Bishopp and Sarah Dehart joined forces to start Three Forks Farm, one of Kansas City’s newest urban farms, established in October 2013. They each independently apprenticed on farms for three years, which lead their paths to cross when they both spent this past season apprenticing at Urbavore. Their partnership began with casual conversations while working in the field, and became reality when Dehart acquired land across the street from Urbavore.
Craig Howard founded Howard’s Organic Fare and Vegetable Patch in 2012, a self-service, membership-based, 24-hour grocery store featuring products from local farmers and producers. While the store featuring products from local farmers and producers. While the store is Howard’s primary business, he is pursuing multiple ventures to bring in a diversity of revenue, including catering, food preservation and farming.
Each of these farmers and food entrepreneurs has overcome significant fears in the early stages of their business ownership. While fear may look different for each individual and each endeavor, it is a common thread that underlies the experience of all business owners. Salatin has seen fear stop too many promising farmers from ever getting started, so he shares ideas on how to overcome seven common fears and get to farming.
THE FEAR OF NOT KNOWING
How do I do this? Where do I start? What do I do first?
“Start with what you love and start small,” Salatin suggests. “You don’t need to have a five-year plan in place before taking the first step, if you wait until you’re totally prepared, you will never get started.”
Francine Nelson, owner and farmer of “Black to Green Thumb,” certainly felt the fear of not having knowledge, and her story demonstrates the truth in Salatin’s advice to start small. Nelson had worked at an architecture engineering firm for 14 years before she was diagnosed with lung cancer. While she was ill, she lost her job. Needing to find something to support herself, Nelson began attending Grown in Ivanhoe classes at the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council in 2011. Nelson knew nothing about growing food, so she started small. The first season she grew in pots in her backyard – tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower – things she liked to eat. To her surprise and delight, they grew! She has continued learning and growing. Now Nelson’s operation includes several raised beds near her home and a community garden plot at the Grown in Ivanhoe garden. Nelson said, “This year I had big heads of broccoli, beautiful peas, beans, tomatoes and greens. I was really thrilled that I could grow something that looked like it came from the store. And I knew what went into it.”
Not sure if your idea has what it takes to be a profitable small farm business? Salatin has one simple test to rule it out – does conventional agricultural wisdom think your business is a good idea? If so, don’t do it! Salatin stresses, “Do the opposite of what conventional agriculture wisdom says to do.”
Salatin also emphasizes that you don’t have to do everything perfectly at first, switching up the common phrase to state, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly at first.”
THE FEAR OF NOT OWNING LAND
Where do I get land? What if I can’t afford to buy land?
“You don’t need to own land,” Salatin reminds new farmers, “The equity of a farm is in the management, not the infrastructure.” He encourages people to invest in portable infrastructure so they can farm anywhere. He encourages partnerships, renting land, even squatting on land; doing whatever it takes to start building experience and a track record.
FEAR OF FINANCES
What if I run out of money?
“First,” Salatin says, “be debt free. Live cheaply.” Cut out every non-essential expense and save up enough to live for a year without income.
Then think about how to mix up the cash flow of your farm business. Some things take longer than others to be profitable, so don’t rely on only one income stream.
Craig Howard is all about mixed and innovative income streams. While Howard’s Organic Fare & Vegetable Patch is the heart of his operation, the model is designed to be able to build layers of revenue through other streams. Howard grows some of the food he sells in the shop, but the chef also uses his culinary skills to preserve excess food during the peak of the season. Processing adds value to otherwise unsellable produce and provides supply for the shop during the winter months. Howard has also partnered with BADSEED Farmers Market to certify the kitchen in their building so he can prepare and sell sandwiches during their Friday night market.
He set up his business model to be flexible – he does not have a lot of money invested in it and is not accountable to other people. “It’s just me making decisions and supporting myself with this endeavor,” says Howard. “I get to pick and choose what I’m going to do each day and if something is not working I can shut it down and refocus.”
Over at Three Forks Farm, both Dehart and Bishopp will maintain part-time jobs off the farm to supplement their living expense while they start their new venture. Both new farmers are concerned about finding balance between their farm work, other jobs and personal well-being. “I’ve seen a lot of different farmers, who farm in a lot of different ways on a lot of different scales, struggle,” Dehart said. “I want to find a balance so that I can support myself doing something that I love and it does not kill me in the process.”
THE FEAR OF LABOR
What if I can’t get all the work done that I need to?
Salatin’s first solution is to “love people”. Remember that you don’t have to do everything by yourself. Build a team that is strong where you are weak to create synergies of different skills and talents. At his own farm, rather than hiring people as hourly labor, Salatin seeks to “carve out fiefdoms” in which each individual earns their keep in some way. They have ownership over a particular aspect of the overall farming operation.
Although it is on their minds, none of the farmers I spoke with seemed to be held back by the fear of labor. They all seemed ready to jump in and get the work done, and to figure out parnerships to make their dream feasible. Bishopp admits that she never would have gotten started running a farm business on her own and is grateful to have connected with Dehart to start Three Forks Farm. “I have more the ‘put your head down and work’ mentality, while Sarah has more of a business mind than I do,” explains Bishopp. Nevertheless, the pair still wonders if they are bringing enough different skills to the table to make this work.
The farmers from Grown in Ivanhoe expressed a different set of fears around labor. As women in an impoverished neighborhood, they sometimes feel unsafe working outside on their own or are afraid that the fruits of their labor will be stolen or vandalized. After three years of growing, Nelson now feels that her neighbors are looking out for her and supporting her, so these fears have lessened to some degree.
THE FEAR OF MARKETING
What if I can’t sell the produce I grow?
First and foremost, Salatin advises new farmers to diversify their portfolio. It adds value to a business, and while a customer might come to you for one thing, if you can offer another they may buy that too. Salatin suggests that if marketing really is not your strength, then find commission based partners to sell your products.
The farmers and food entrepreneurs I talked with all appear to be strong in marketing, so this fear was not expressed. Nelson and Ellis both noted the importance of growing vegetables and fruits that people in their neighborhood are familiar with and like to eat. Some favorites are tomatoes, collard greens, beans, and watermelons.
Dehart and Bishopp haven’t started selling yet, but Dehart’s background in marketing and strong network of relationships in Kansas City are sure to be an asset for Three Forks Farm.
THE FEAR OF BUSINESS
How do I do this?
From record keeping and taxes, to business licensing and insurance, fear of business puts agrarian dreams on hold for a lot of people. While usually very thrifty, Salatin encourages new farmers to hire a bookkeeper. The amount you pay is worth the hours of headache and frustration you are likely to face trying to figure out systems and spreadsheets.
Howard was lucky. He knew that bookkeeping was his weakness and something he did not like to do. His mom was retiring around the time he opened his shop and offered to help in this area. At first he was determined to do it on his own, but his records quickly became a “jumbled mess” so Howard eventually let his mom help establish systems for the shop, including inventory and bookkeeping. Things are running smoothly now, and Howard has come to see the value in keeping good records.
Ellis and Nelson were very nervous about the business license process because it was unfamiliar. With guidance and encouragement from Grown in Ivanhoe staff, they were able to get a license to sell their produce and have been in business since 2012. Salatin also advises new farmers to know their enterprise margins inside and out. “Once you know this, create Standard Operating Procedures, time them and push yourself to be more efficient,” challenges Salatin.
Efficiency will be Howard’s focus as he enters into his third year in business. “The last two years have been a lot of really hard work and not a lot of sleep, but my foundation is built,” said Howard. “My next step is consolidating things down and streamlining. I need to cut off the fat of the hours per week to be more efficient with things. I need to get everything closer to the heart of the operation. Right now I work three gardens, the BADSEED kitchen and the store. Now that I have a foundation, I need to focus on where I can do the most good and grow in that direction.”
FEAR OF OPTIMISM
Isn’t everything going to the pits?
“Vision drives everything,” he says. “Concentrate on what you want your community to be like and figure out what you can do to make it happen.”
In a way, Howard let a pessimistic thought motivate him to get started. After spending several years traveling and working on farms on the west coast, Howard returned to Kansas City to start his own business. He didn’t think it would happen as quickly as it did. “I was working 70 hours a week in restaurants. I found a building that would work to start Howard’s Organic Fare and Vegetable Patch and I ran through all the worst case and best case scenarios,” explains Howard. “The worst case wasn’t that bad, so I decided to go for it.”
In each case, it is clear that fears are transient. While fear will always be an underlying factor, it is natural and should be expected and welcomed as part of the process of starting a small business. Fear should be a catalyst, not a paralyzing factor. Fears will change; they will not go away; if they do, it is time to push your business to the next level.
After three seasons of growing and two seasons of selling her produce, Nelson reflect, “I have a lot more confidence now. I thought I’d give it a good hard try and if I failed, I’d try again. I’ve been successful so far.” Next season Nelson will continue to grow and sell her produce with her business, Black to Green Thumb. She also wants to teach more people in her community how to grow food.
Ellis plans to continue growing in her Ivanhoe neighborhood and selling her vegetables and fruits to neighbors next season. She also has big dreams to show off the work she is involved with at Grown in Ivanhoe, “I want to invite the First Lady to come visit our gardens and give her a tour. We could share and compare garden stories with her.” Howard’s fears have shifted from the short term, “How can I make this happen?” to longer term, “What should I do next?” With food-growing, cooking, eating – there is a vast expanse of possibilities. “I can do whatever I want and figure it out as I go,” says Howard.
Howard’s advice to new farmers or food entrepreneurs? “Just think about starting as small as you can,” he says. “Don’t borrow a lot of money for something you don’t know is going to work. Start as small and out of pocket as you can, you can always expand.” The ladies of Grown in Ivanhoe encourage new farmers to start learning. “With the economy the way it is, we all need to know how to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Nelson. They are constantly telling people in their neighborhood to attend the Grown in Ivanhoe classes.
In addition to the classes, Ellis love to read books and watch TV shows about gardening. She constantly spreads her knowledge and passion for growing food to those around her, whether sharing seeds with the kids on the bus, where she has worked as a bus monitor for fourteen years, or helping the folks at her church start a garden.
While they have just barely begun the journey of running a farm business, Bishopp and Dehart say at some point you just have to jump in, which is exactly what they’re doing. “You have to do a certain amount of research and planning,” explains Dehart, “but balance that out with taking the first step and diving in. I could spend the next three years mapping out a budget, a business plan, mapping a field and crop rotations. I could plan myself out of action.” Dehart shares the African proverb “Only a fool tests the depths of the waters with both feet,” noting that your first steps do have to be calculated to some degree.
Bishopp recommends that you get really deep into conversations about your farm business dream with someone. “There might be an avenue that is more realistic than you thought,” she reveals.
Kansas City has a strong community and network of farmers and food entrepreneurs who have taken the first steps to overcome their fears and become small business owners. More importantly, there is plenty of room to grow! Have you been dreaming of your own food business? Will you be Kansas City’s next urban farmer? Now is the time to take your first step.