Posted by: J Nyman | June 18, 2008

How to Start a Farm #2: Farming Fails Business 101

This is Part Two of a series called: How to Start a Farm: 6 Things All Would Be Farmers Should Know Before Getting Knee Deep in Sheep (or any other farm venture). See Part One here.

Farming can look really good from a middle income drudgery job that has you bored out of your mind for 40 hours a week. You and whoever you share your life with might even head to your favourite wing joint once a week to mull over how and when to make your farming dreams come true.

Maybe you imagine a nice house in the country with an old red barn or a rustic market garden plot while you browse the garden centre, coffee in hand, picking out terracotta pots for your balcony herb garden.

These are just couple of brief mental images – possible normal, everyday scenarios – that I ask anyone thinking about starting a farm to scrutinize closely. How much of what you consider ‘normal, everyday’ could you stand to forgo?

This is important because, unless you’re bringing a small fortune into the farming venture with you (read: a cool million, no exaggeration), some of what you consider incidental will become luxury.

Farming as a small business (as opposed to a large business that you create with your million dollar investment) is not very financially profitable. Sure, there is a great return on investment if you’re counting health, peace of mind and other soul-salve type personal rewards. But, it is generally accepted that actual profit above and beyond a somewhat meager wage for your labour is hard to come by, to say the least.

I’m not saying it will never happen. I’m saying it takes a long time and requires that you ‘keep your pencil sharp’ as John’s Opa and weathered dairy farmer would say.

Let me lay out what ‘keeping your pencil sharp’ might entail using the two scenarios from above.

Start with the wing night dream session after a torturous week in a cubicle.

First things first, weekly wing night is out. Unless there is at least one substantial off-farm income, that weekly restaurant trip will turn into a biannual event.

How’s that working for you so far? Remember that you’re trading some of it for other rewards like starry skies, letting kids run out the door unchecked, getting your hands dirty and feeling connected to the natural cycles of the Earth.

Let’s talk about your forty hour work week. Feel long, does it? Well, you’re in luck. It’s history. Juggling an off farm job or a veggie CSA means 7 days a week from sunrise to sunset, or longer for part of the year, at least.

How about the vehicle that got you to the restaurant. Can you drive something cheaper? More versatile? Rustier? Something that is full of little bits of hay and smells suspiciously like livestock? Our Ford Focus is my farm truck, hay and all.

How about the dream farm scenario number two? I’m sure you can see where I’m going with the coffee and nice terracotta pots.

Sure, you won’t be confined to your balcony but your plants will be in whatever pots you can get at Giant Tiger for $3.99 or the cracked ones the old farmer left in your newly acquired, dilapidated drive shed. The coffee is something you’ll stop for on your way to wing nights – on your new schedule, in your new farm truck/’92 Ford Taurus wagon.

(Guilty conscience here: We currently drive a 2005 Ford Focus wagon, fully loaded with leather seats. We got it on lease and have been kicking ourselves – hard – and wearing the exact same clothes to wing night every since.)

Your nice house will be a wonderful home, if you make it so. But if you’re used to calling the repair folks whenever your tap is dripping, you’ll likely need to think again. A lot of minor things can be overlooked if you have to trade your dinner to get them fixed.

The big red barn, while an icon of simpler, nostalgic times, will be dark and damp and not that great for raising animals in. When the roof leaks, it will have to be fixed before the house gets any attention and will cost significantly more than you can fathom being able to afford. Here is where the line of credit becomes your friend and your foe. If you had any space left on it after planting crops, it’s full now. Better not schedule any more emergencies till after harvest time.

Have I got you kissing your computer terminal with it’s regular, tidy summed paycheque yet?

This is the reality of starting up a farm. The money will be tighter than most people can ever see themselves coping with. Handling money stress is a job requirement. But, if you’re up for it, if you can let financial uncertainty and the need for new shoes slide off your back like water off a duck, the rewards are worth it. And, if you keep your pencil sharp, you’ll see a sustainable farm income in time.

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