Raising animals and growing one’s own food has a nostalgic and powerful allure, as evidenced by the burgeoning number of people staking their claim on small acreages across the Maritimes.
The quest starts simply enough: the aspiration to be a hobby farmer.
Hobby farmers often start off small but are driven by a deep passion, dream or desire to get their hands dirty and work the land. Before long, the hobbyist is adept at growing crops and raising animals.
With harvests exceeding personal consumption, the hobby farmer gladly gives away excess production to family, neighbours and friends. Until someone says: “You know, you have a knack for farming. You should be selling this stuff.”
‘Sell’ is the word that awakens the hidden entrepreneur inside the hobby farmer. A few successful sales days at the local market, and a fistful of cash, is often enough to persuade the hobbyist to embrace a full-fledged farm business.
But stepping into professional farming is not a decision to be taken lightly.
For starters, a farm business means increasing investment, knowledge and skills and entails greater risk and demands on time – the antithesis of ‘hobby.’ Often, concepts of ‘economies of scale’ and ‘business model’ are critical to success but not easily grasped. The goal cannot be to farm until the money runs out. Rather the goal must be to implement sound strategies and practices that will make the business profitable, successful and sustainable in the long run.
Question is, how is that accomplished?
Try the following eight tips to ensure a smooth and successful transition from hobby farm to professional farm.
Think like a business: While not always easy, switching from ‘hobby farm’ mindset to ‘business’ mindset is critical. Make decisions based on what is best for the business; all other aspects will begin to fall into place relatively easily. Be sure to identify a clear vision and mission for the business.
Prepare a plan of attack: Lay out a solid business plan — it is much easier and less costly to make mistakes on paper than it is in real life. In fact, money and opportunities tend to flow to those operating with a sound business plan and business model. The greatest value will not come from creating the document itself, but from what you learn during the planning process.
Get educated: There will be a lot to learn about how to run a successful farm business including, but certainly not limited to, business management, production, marketing, finance and human resources. Skills development opportunities in all of these areas are often available through industry associations, academic and government extension agencies as well as online sources. Take the time to get informed.
Find a mentor: Every farm business can benefit from having someone to share past experiences and offer advice, as well as be a sounding board for new ideas. Having a mentor can help a business save money and move things forward to new phases faster.
Stay focused: Mixed farming has its benefits, but no farm can be everything to everyone. It is better to focus on doing one or two things well and become recognized as the ‘expert producer’ in that field. The best opportunities in small-scale farming are in servicing specific niches.
Develop a market mindset: It is very easy to fall into the trap of making things first and then looking for a ‘market’ to sell the products in. Marketing success comes from focusing on what the market wants to buy, not on what is easiest or most fun to produce.
Take your time: There is no race to be won in farming; strong businesses are built slowly over time. Do a little, test the market, talk to customers, get feedback, and then do a little more. This step-by-step approach is the best way to achieve goals.
Have fun: The adage is well known, but it often bears repeating: “Do something you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.” Farming is both a lifestyle and a profession. Choose well and let your passion come through.
The future of farming in Nova Scotia, and across the Maritimes, depends on hobby farms, as they allow new entrants to gauge whether farming is the right fit. Knowing that the fit is right, and working on a solid transition plan are the best ways to establish a successful farm business. After all, every fire starts from a tiny spark.
An environmental horticulturalist and business management consultant, R. Gary Morton works with farm-based clients to develop value-added opportunities, products, strategies and experiences.