Posted by: J Nyman | July 28, 2008

How to Start a Farm #4: Farming is More Than Half Marketing

This is Part Four 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 Three here.

There is some confusing language used around farming.  Even the word farming doesn’t really convey what the job entails.  (A lot of jobs have this problem, though.  When we say police officer, we don’t think paperwork, but I understand that they do a lot of it.)

I think the business of farming suffers more acutely from this confusion, though, because of the romanticism that it stirs up in people.  When people – even farmers – think of farming, they’re imagining sunny afternoons planting crops, late night barn checks watching and listening to their peaceful animals and all of the outdoor, in-touch with nature tasks that farmers do.  Even the less desirable tasks that come to mind are of the outdoor, hands on variety.

How many people picture paperwork, computer time and a long list of phone calls when they think of farming?  Not many.

And what on earth could farmers need to spend that much office time for, you ask?  Why, marketing of course.  Let me elaborate.

Marketing wasn’t always a task that the small family farm had to engage in, for sure.  In fact, at least since the Barley Days (1860 to 1890) here in Prince Edward County, marketing has been done by out side bodies.  Export to other countries and continents has been going on for generations.

My own Great Grandfather was a grain buyer for Pioneer Seed in Alberta around 1900.  He would travel from farm to farm buying up all the grain to export and ship to cities.  Similarly, nowadays, farmers can simply haul all their grain to the elevator or all their animals to the auction hall and wait for a cheque to arrive in their mailbox.

So why, you ask, do farmers need to do marketing if the systems for it are already so well established?  Why, if you can simply transport it to the right place and wait for a cheque, should farmers do anything else?  The long answer to that could be another post altogether to discuss the ethics of certain production models, start-up costs and more.

The short answer is this ‘Mailbox’ business model sees the farmer getting about 9¢ per retail dollar.  So bread, for example, you’d make about 14¢ for the wheat it took to make one loaf.  The ‘Do your Marketing’ model of small farm businesses can see you making 60, 70, 80, 90 cents on the dollar.

Hmm… a lot less work to get the same money.  Or a lot more money for the same work. Marketing looks pretty good, all of a sudden.

For those who have read the previous posts in this series, you already know that keeping your pencil sharp is essential.  The difference is that, on John’s Opa’s farm, the main use of the pencil was the math required to spend less than you make.  Your pencil will have more varied work.  It still has to do those expense calculations, but it also has to plan how best to market what your farm is producing.

For anyone seriously looking at farming for a living, I give you yet another set of questions to ask yourself:  Do you like dealing with people?  Are you a planner?  Are you self motivated?  Basically, do you want to do the marketing?

Because, farming really is more than half marketing.  Said another way, the success of your farm is based at least 50% on the quality – and possibly the quantity – of the marketing you do.

You might want to get a second pencil.  It’s going to be busy.

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