Schooling the Successful Farmer
BY JACQUELINE GRADY SMITH / ILLUSTRATION RAE POZDRO
We conjure an image of farming on a small scale. Farmers tilling their fields in early morning mists. Cool, musky earth juxtaposed against the warmth of the midafternoon sun. The sweetness of vegetables just pulled from the soil. Ask any farmer “why?” and he or she will describe the satisfaction of creating food from the sun, air and soil. Of feeding people. Of working with his or her hands.
But farming is also a business and a tricky one at that. With uncontrollable risks from weather and pests, a farmer’s financial success hinges on the mastery of a diverse and demanding set of skills.
“Farmers must have expertise in a number of subjects,” says Tim Carroll, founder of Farmer Tim’s Vegetables in Dudley, MA. “They need to be business people, agrarians, marketers, and capitalists. Very few professions require you to be an expert in so many things.”
Carroll would know. A so-called “career-changer,” with a Ph.D. and an MBA, he came to farming the way many beginning farmers in New England do -- as a second vocation. Lacking a formal, comprehensive agricultural education, such farmers often forgo business planning in the rush to meet planting, tending and harvesting goals —a tradeoff that can feel necessary under the pressure of the agrarian calendar, but may ultimately risk the solvency of the business.
Like Carroll, Dan Berube was tired of sitting in an office every day. An avid gardener, he had grown up on a farm in Massachusetts and was familiar with the hard work, precision, and resolve required to build a successful farm. Despite that background, he was still struck by the steep learning curve he faced when he founded Berube Farm in Dracut, MA in 2013.
Carroll and Berube are not alone. According to a 2011 report compiled by the National Young Farmers Coalition, starting farmers struggle most with not their products, but their businesses. When asked to rank the biggest challenges they face, 78% of farmers identified lack of access to capital, 68% identified lack of access to land, and 36% identified lack of access to business planning and marketing assistance, three vital components to running a successful small business.
Students enrolled in undergraduate business or MBA courses are introduced to a curriculum heavy in entrepreneurship, accounting, marketing, operations, and strategy, all of which help them succeed in business. Yet except for a handful of agricultural programs at colleges and universities, academic farm business training is typically minimal, if available at all. Even if such coursework is offered, it can be too broad or general to be useful to beginning farmers. This deficit is all the more pronounced among the many career changers, the people who come late into farming from other professions likely never attended any type of agricultural educational program.
“There’s a lot of romanticism around farming and agriculture,” says Dorothy Suput, founder and executive director of the Carrot Project, which offers funding and business development technical assistance. “People go into it because they want to farm, [but] it’s [also] about understanding farming numbers, basic financial management, and business.” Failure to manage the business can mean farm failure.
Desiree Rucker-Ross, program specialist with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at the United States Department of Agriculture, attributes the lack or farm business skills to the specificity of the training required and the tremendous amount of work farmers must do to survive year after year. “There is so much [for new farmers] to learn, and their focus is on having their crops and animals succeed. Sometimes their focus is not on the business,” she says. “Farming is a selfless endeavor.” But she adds that farmers should not only have “a model of what a farm should look like,” but “have [a business] model on paper.”
This dearth of financial training and technical assistance is only multiplying as the number of small farmers grows. Although the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture reports that the overall number of farms in the United States is decreasing due to older farmers retiring and the consolidation of land, the number of small farms led by farmers under the age of 35 increased by over 11% from the 2007 total. While a healthy small farm ecosystem is beneficial to the sustainability of a vibrant food system, failing businesses put undue stress on local agriculture economies and can harm the quality of food available to a community.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic. A variety of organizations in all six New England states are working with local farmers to close this training deficit and help grow a thriving small- to mid-sized farm economy across the Northeast. In addition to the Carrot Project, a number of state government agencies and nonprofits are focusing their efforts on providing technical assistance and mentoring. With this support, beginning farmers are getting opportunities to learn crucial business management skills, become appropriately capitalized, and reach their production and personal goals, whether that means buying new equipment, increasing their yield, or even just taking a vacation.
One such organization is the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project based in Lowell, MA, which offers programs ranging from an introduction to farming seminar, to a farm incubator, to field and livestock training. Farmers Carroll and Berube both recognized that they needed a better understanding of how to run their small farms before making career changes and enrolled in New Entry’s seven-week Farm Business Planning class.
People get into farming because they love farming, not because they love keeping records,” says program manager Janel Wright of New Entry. “But lenders want to make sure that farmers are keeping accurate records.” Wright notes that many starting farmers are risk-averse and cautious about taking on debt, but the most successful farms are able to capitalize quickly. That requires a clear understanding of business planning and practices and the funding mechanisms available to new farmers. New Entry’s planning course, she says, is designed to take students through the hands-on process of building a realistic business plan that will then help them prepare to launch or grow by covering topics such as marketing, operations, risk management, funding, and cropping plans.
Travis Marcotte is the executive director of the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, which provides an assortment of training opportunities for starting farmers across Vermont, including a rigorous business-mentoring program. “We sit down [with farmers], go through their goals, think about what they want to achieve, and do a very deep-dive business planning process. [Farmers] end the yearlong program with a pretty robust business plan,” Marcotte says. “The following year we are there to help them, to see how the implementation is going, and then we’ll provide additional follow up support. Farms are businesses, and they are also a big part of our culture, our community and our landscape, so it is critically important that we help [them].”
The UN predicts that the world population will increase about 1.2 billion people by 2030, roughly the same time frame in which environmentalists and scientists predict the effects of climate change will begin to critically stress the viability of many small farms. As we think about how the world can support that growth and mitigate those damages, careful food and agriculture planning must take a front seat. Use of long-term, sustainable farming methods—like those often employed by small farms—will become increasingly necessary if we are to preserve a diverse food supply.
Agricultural business education is a key component of that sustainability. It is fundamentally about making sure that the next generation of farmers like Dan Berube and Tim Carroll have the support and the skills they need to succeed. It is not enough to simply sow the seeds. Farmers must also grasp the analytics that make their businesses possible. Given the appropriate training and support, farmers can successfully learn how to fuse their desire to grow good food with business acumen, and farms will continue to thrive, nourishing the communities around them.
“I love farming,” says Carroll. “There’s a concept grounding which loosely means ‘to get in touch with what’s real’. The best way to ground yourself is to put your hands in the ground. Transplanting seedlings helps you focus on what’s happening right now and it’s hard to think about anything other than what’s right in front of you. Once you get into that rhythm. There’s something very sustaining about being outside in a beautiful location planting plants that you know will give you food. From 50 pounds of seeds you might get 25,000 pounds of vegetables. That’s magic, right?”