Starting a small farm
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What does it take to start a family farm?

The business of starting a family

Farming has played a vital role in America’s history and makes a significant contribution to this country’s economy. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 97% of U.S. farms are family owned. And, thanks partly to the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets as retail opportunities, more families are creating farms. 

If you’re interested in starting a farm as a family business, you’ll want to do the same kind of due diligence required of any startup business to know what kind of costs and returns you can expect. Start with a farm business plan to outline what your farm will look like. Will you have crops only, or will you have animals such as goats, chickens or sheep? All of these are factors you should consider as you begin developing your business plan.  

Pinpoint a location for your business. You may want to stay in or near your current hometown. Or perhaps part of the reason you’re interested in starting a family farm is that it will allow you to move to a region that has attracted you for years. A farm may be the right reason to make that move. 

Location will determine what your farm sells

As with any business, much of your farm's success will depend on location. Climate and soil are two things that will help determine the crops your farm will support, so you’ll want to do your homework to understand what grows best in your area. Study the challenges and benefits that your climate presents; if there is a lack of certain crops in that area, learn why; it could be that they don’t grow well there. 

Location will also determine what people are interested in buying. Research your market to know what food grows and sells well in your area, then make those your farm staples. If it’s a food that grows abundantly in your region, check if there is room in the market for an additional seller. (In some cases, you may find that you only want to grow enough of a crop for your family, and you can focus on growing other crops for sale.)

Also, it's important you know where you will sell the food you produce. Your farm will need to sustain itself financially. Examine the opportunities around you and then make a plan. Your plan should factor in such things as how much preparation your food will need, such as washing eggs and produce and packing food boxes. Include those costs in the overall financial plan. You’ll also want to factor in such costs as the setting up a stand at a nearby farmer’s market, advertising, including printing signs, business cards or flyers, and the cost of gas to transport that food. 

You can also examine the many opportunities for selling food and choose a model that works best for you. With the increased interest in organic and natural foods, organic family farms can thrive through selling produce at local farmers’ markets and through community supported agriculture, or CSAs. In a CSA, people buy a "share" of the food produced on a farm and receive weekly or bi-weekly deliveries from the farmer. 

Long hours, hard work

Starting any small business is a challenge, and a family farm is no different. It takes hard work as well as an ongoing time commitment. You’ll have to care for crops and animals on nature’s schedule, not yours. The days will begin early and, depending upon the season, end late at night.  

Remember that although people get vacations, holidays, and the occasional snow day, animals and crops never take a day off. Farm work is physically challenging and doesn’t come with paid time off. That’s something to consider as you plan how you will operate your farm year-round. 

Farming is more than an occupation. It’s a lifestyle. 

You’ll want to ensure that you have the manpower within your family to make a farm thrive. Hiring labor can be expensive. Being able to work your farm as a family can benefit your bottom line.  If you need extra help, you might consider local 4H groups or your high school agriculture program to find students who are interested in a hands-on learning approach to farming.  

Planning for success and farm succession

As your family farm thrives, think about its future. Farm succession planning allows you to transfer or sell ownership of the farm to a vested family member and make provisions for how the farm will be managed when you are no longer able to run it, or when you are ready to retire. It allows you to map out your role as you near retirement and the future path of your business, including issues related to the ownership of property, equipment, seed and livestock. Do you want to remain strongly involved in operations? Would you like to see the farm focus on certain areas or expand?  

While a family farm requires a big commitment, it can also be rewarding and profitable. Thorough research about what you’ll need to do and a sound business strategy can help you make the right decisions and lead to long-term success. Learn about how Nationwide’s agribusiness resources can be a valuable part of your family farm planning.

  • Lawn mowing
  • Snow plowing or shoveling
  • Babysitting
  • Dog walking or house sitting
  • Gift wrapping
  • Being a party assistant
  • Baking
  • Selling homemade crafts
  • Running a lemonade stand

Some of these can be short-term projects, while others can continue for years. Regardless, kids can learn a lot of lessons about professionalism, including punctuality, attention to detail and strong customer service. 

Here are some skills they can learn with your guidance.

Marketing: Letting people know about your business should be more than just word of mouth. Your children can create inexpensive but professional-looking business cards on the computer and home printer or through a printing service. They can hang flyers advertising their business at the local stores and hand them out in the neighborhood. 

Websites are easy to create, and there are many free ways to host and create a website online. The kids can create social media accounts for their businesses as well to do online marketing

Customer service: A good lesson when teaching kids business is how to treat customers. Solving problems and helping customers feel good about the purchase or service is vital to a continued relationship. Kids can learn that sending a nicely wrapped package for a customer order makes a difference, or that doing a little extra edgework when a client isn’t happy with the lawn-mowing job can go a long way toward having a satisfied customer and being proud of the job they’re doing. 

Planning: Part of teaching kids business is the planning process. To book babysitting clients, your child needs a calendar. If your child doesn't write down other babysitting gigs or school obligations, it's possible to double book, which is a planning problem as well as a customer service problem. Help your child troubleshoot what can go wrong and create systems to prevent problems before they happen.

Business plan: If your child has a business idea, encourage him or her to think through all the details, even creating a short business plan. That might include determining how much a product will cost and how much they can charge. Determining a need for that product or service is helpful, too. If a child enjoys making bookmarks and there are several book clubs or libraries in your area, it may be a winning business idea.

While it may be too early to teach your kids about business insurance, it's something worth discussing in easy-to-understand terms. If a baked item is contaminated or the package sent across the country doesn't make it there, the seller can be liable. Discuss these types of situations and the importance of business insurance after they get up and running.

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