The “Business” of Farming – Transforming the Vision into a Financially Viable Operation

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: October 1, 2012

Our Sonoma County ag entrepreneurs are approaching the end of their journey as participants in this first group of the UCCE’s Beginning Farmers & Ranchers training program. Over the past six months, they’ve been exposed to many facets of agriculture, from dairying to hydroponic tomatoes, small scale grains to goat cheese; and have had to face the underbelly of the “running your own business” beast – business planning.

Thousands of entrepreneurs start small businesses each year, and they are the backbone of our economy. Unfortunately, a huge percentage fail, much of the time due to a lack of planning.

To be successful, anyone looking to start a business must do research around the “vision” – who else might have already thought of it and is doing it in your community; how can you differentiate yourself, add value, and be sure you’ll have a market for that product before you begin. Putting the vision down on paper can be excruciating and somewhat disheartening. We’ve watched our beginning farmers and ranchers pass from passion to doubt over whether their ideas would become a reality.

The safety net our program offers is one-on-one counseling with Small Business Development Center (SBDC) counselors. In addition to the training and coaching these fledgling farmers receive from our Business Instructor Paul Bozzo, they also get small group and individual attention from the SBDC counselors.

Early on in the program, the beginning farmers and ranchers presented a two-minute version of their farming or ranching idea to the class. Over the past six months, they have fleshed out and refined that idea into something they can use as a tool for their business, to help them get a loan if needed, and guide them going forward. I received permission from four of them to share a bit about their journey.

Amber began with a laudable and much needed approach – to grow fruits and vegetables for schools. She has done her research and developed a carefully crafted multi-faceted farm operation with a focus on organics and education: bringing the public onto the farm to enjoy, educate and co-create community using social media, as well as face-to-face interactions with customers. Her goals around education include nutrition, seasonality, soil and environmental health, and possibly cooperative farming. Offering her farm as a meeting place will enlighten groups who may not otherwise think about what’s involved with running a farm, and turn them into new customers.

Tooti participated in 4H as a youngster raising market animals. Her son follows in her footsteps. She came to the program with a plan to continue that path of four-legged farming. She’s raising heritage breeds, heirloom fruits and vegetables. With the boomer generation as a target market, her farming methods include pasture raised beef and poultry, fruits and vegetables without pesticides. The farm will utilize animal power, and re-use all materials responsibly, i.e. gleaning, re-use, composting on-site, as well as creating biodiversity and stewarding the land.  Tooti intends to educate her customers about the health benefits of fresh, local product through her marketing, on-farm tours, and social media.

Jason grew up on what he refers to as a small hobby farm. He was in 4H for some years, but as an adult he took a different path. When his parents wanted to leave their small property, he and his brother bought the land, and spent time and money rebuilding infrastructure to function as a working ranch. As a youth, Jason had raised animals, and now that he’s back in the business of ranching (aside from nursing school and his paramedic job), he and his new bride, Jessica, have settled on raising dairy goats.

In his research, Jason talked with cheese-makers, dairy farmers, distributors in the region, as well as reading reports and data on value-added dairy opportunities. Marketing aspects of a value-added goat milk product include more complete protein, less fat, and easier for lactose intolerant people to digest. Thanks to many entrepreneurs over the years, value-added goat products have come a long way.

Jason plans to focus on “local”, raising pasture fed dairy goats on his land, controlling the milk quality, with the added aspect of an “artisan” product, because the dairy is on their farm. This “story about the farm” gives them a competitive marketing advantage.

Rick has come up with a well thought out business plan over these past months for a vermi-composting operation. Vermi-composting is a form of composting that uses specific varieties of worms designed by nature to digest waste products (manure & food scraps), creating a high value compost product. While still somewhat unfamiliar to many, it has been shown through many studies to be a very effective fertilizer, and takes a much smaller amount to produce results. Think of it as concentrated compost.

Rick will concentrate his efforts on education about composting options, methods, appropriate containers, and re-use of materials. He will incorporate an existing non-profit he created into his business model.

These four are a sample of the over 20 farmers and ranchers in our class who’ve been working hard and absorbing their training on both agriculture and business. With only two more classes left before their business plan presentations in November, they’ll continue to meet with their counselors, visit more farms – poultry, sheep, grains, vegetable CSAs and farmers markets, and keep refining their plans.

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