Are You Ready for Self-Employment?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

It’s widely recognized that a lot of new small-scale farmers don’t come from farm families. That is certainly one reason why so many of them are  having a hard time. But when you look at their complaints, most are not particular to farming. They’re just what any independent business owner has to deal with. Financial stress, uncertainty, worry, self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, all that goes with starting and running any small business.

Most of the up and comers don’t seem prepared to face up to the realities of self-employment. When you couple that with the missionary mindset many of them have, they’re trying to not only keep their businesses going, they also have to solve the problems of injustice, inequality, and oppression. It’s no wonder their bottom lines aren’t as solid as they could be.

A good percentage of all new small businesses struggle and fail, and there’s no reason to think farming should be any different. When farms fail, those in the farm movement worry that they are falsely developing new farmers without any place for them to go. The real problem is that new farmers are either being encouraged to believe farming needs to right the world’s wrongs, or that it is just a job.

I’ll leave it to the macro economists to explain when and why farming got tied up with the NGO aid industry. But those who are following the calling to farm expecting to find a higher purpose might have an easier time of it if they just joined the ministry. Those expecting to find a livelihood need to ask themselves if they are ready to be self-employed. If they are, there hasn’t been a better time to be a small scale farmer or market gardener.

SPIN photo farm stand GAIL Great


Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm


This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN-Farming is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.  

Performance-Based Farming: How Well Are You Doing?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

SPIN-Farming does not look at all like agribusiness’s vast fields of monoculture crops. But both SPIN and big ag show how farming, in a systematic way, makes itself more productive, efficient, and profitable. While agribusiness relies on capital and mechanization, SPIN’s asset is people, and how well they perform. And to judge performance, it needs to be quantifiable.

Certainly there is much about farming that can’t be standardized. But SPIN identifies what can be. With its emphasis on quantifying results and achieving income benchmarks, SPIN brings a new rigor to small-scale farming. Financial performance is now something farmers can brag about, if they know they measure up. Do you know how well you’re doing? Do you know if it’s possible to do better? How much better?

You can start to get at the answers by measuring yourself against SPIN’s benchmarks. They aren’t achievable in every situation. Some have already been far surpassed. The specific numbers don’t really matter. What does is the recognition that farming is a whole new game now, one you can actually make money at. But you have to know how to keep score.

SPIN photo Thumbs up

To see how you measure up, start with the benchmarks in SPIN’s guide # 18, Crop Profiles. And let us know how they measure up based on your experience.

How the Pro’s Compete

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A point that has gotten lost amid the zeal to reconnect with the source of our food is that farming is a profession. Calling anyone with dirt under their fingernails a farmer does not advance it. Being quirky or philanthropic is no substitute for skill, and a forceful personality or a good cause do not compensate for produce that looks like the cat dragged it in.

The ability to produce food consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade are the marks of a true professional. It means you have to get good at growing a wide variety of high-quality crops throughout the entire season, and always be working to get better. SPIN-Farming was designed to open up the farming profession to many more people who would not otherwise think it was an option, so we take it as a good sign that farmers markets are becoming more competitive, chefs are even more demanding, and techies are targeting the local food scene for disruption. It means there is opportunity for those who excel, and that markets are developing and operating as they should – ensuring that the best products are available, and that economic rewards flow to those who make them.

Opportunity brings competition, and the first reaction many have is to cut prices. Don’t. It is the lazy way to compete. Price-cutting for the sole purpose of grabbing market share leaves every farmer with lower sales, and it does not attract or maintain regular customers. It is a race to the bottom and ultimately self-defeating. Consumers want a broad choice of products, price and styles. For one business to win another does not have to lose, which is why farmers can maintain a co-operative spirit. But a part from the “everybody has a chance” ethos, the pro’s do have ways to make sure they get their fair share. Here are a few to help you get yours.

Don’t rely on farmers markets. They don’t appeal to, or have the capacity to reach, all the markets interested in buying local foods. Instead, use both old-fashioned shoe leather by leafletting door to door or posting fliers at well-trafficked sites, or become a keyboard commando, identifying and recruiting customers using Facebook and Twitter. Once you have a list of prospects, affordable and easy-to-use software can help turn them into customers and manage them. This gives you a customer base that is totally unique to you.

Use the Network Effect. Alert people you know who are involved in an interest about your business. They can get the word out to their groups. You might be surprised at the networks you are already connected to by “one degree of separation” that will drum up business for you simply by word of mouth.

Recruit customers where they live and work. Get business card templates from Staples, print them up with a fill-in space. Approach people at train stations, in parking lots of local businesses (with their permission)and explain your business and ask them to complete the card with their email address to receive a list of your weekly offerings.

Sell through allied organizations and businesses. Churches, schools, hospitals and doctor’s offices are all on the local food bandwagon because promoting good health is in their best interest. Contact them to work out a customized CSA or weekly farm stand on their premises.

Use SPIN as a credential. It’s becoming known as the practice of choice for the savviest, most talented and innovative farmers in the US, Canada, and increasingly the world. It’s proof you are continually perfecting your craft and recognize that high product standards matter.

Collaborate with seed companies.  Find small, off-the-beaten track seed suppliers (find some of them in the suppliers area of the SPIN website) and work with them to bring entirely new crops to market.

Specialize. A specialty can be an entirely new veggie (remember when kholrabi was considered exotic?), or an uncommon variety of a well-known one, like orange cauliflower and purple carrots. A signature product is a calling card, a way for people to remember you.

Be trendy. You can identify a food trend before it happens by noticing what the “tastemakers” are doing. Tastemakers are not just celebrity chefs. They can be doctors, rock stars or your grandmother.

Think like a merchandiser. Go beyond distinctive packaging and creatively organize how your produce is offered, tailored to different types of tastes or customers.

Change it up. Variety is the spice of life. Turning over your crop repertoire many times throughout the season will keep customers satisfied and loyal to you. It’s easy if you practice SPIN-Farming because that’s the basis of your production plan.

Remember these proven best practices. Whether you sell off-line or online or a combination of both,they work.
–Share your story
–Explain how you grow
–Show photos of your farm
–Hand out recipes
–Suggest uncommon uses for common crops
–Tell them how to keep it fresher, longer
–Give samples
–Eat all your own food so you know how it tastes and can offer your subjective opinion
–Clearly indicate pricing
–Design your farm stand strategically, for maximum customer flow
–Place brightly colored veggies in the middle of your table to capture their attention draw them in for a closer look

It’s great that more and more people want to try their hand at growing food. But let’s not conflate intention with performance, or style with substance. When it comes to commercial food production, get good or get out. Farming is not for dummies, and to throw your arugula on the table, you have to earn your place behind it.