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This week's Book of the Week feature is Foundations of Natural Farming, by Dr. Harold Willis.
How To Brainstorm a Successful Business System For Your Farm
All new business endeavors should start with a good brainstorming session. By working with the people who know your existing farm or business, you can create exciting new means of income and production!
You should start by sitting down (along with your spouse and any partners, financiers or managers) and assessing your situation. Have a brainstorming session; write down your thoughts or record the session. Don’t be afraid to dream, to imagine some pretty wild ideas. Think big. Imagine you could do anything; don’t be limited by practicality at this stage. Think of goals. Try to fill needs or supply possible markets. Think of new ways to use a resource you already have—like corn cobs. Can corn cobs be made into toys—or paper—or alcohol? Combine elements from widely different sources.
Get additional ideas from what others are doing and from published resources, such as Acres U.S.A. and Mother Earth News. Watch for new and developing trends, such as public concerns about saturated fats, or growing biofuels.
After you have brainstormed for ideas, then it is time to be more realistic. What are your short-term and long-term goals and needs? Just for supplementary income or to start a whole new business? Do you want steady year-round income or will a seasonal operation meet your needs? Go through your ideas and pick out several that seem the most promising.
For each idea, take a sheet of paper and write the idea at the top, like Raising Llamas. Then write down why you want to do it, such as, “To provide a popular and unusual animal for an expanding market,” or perhaps, “To develop a new market for llama milk.”
Next, you really have to get practical. You need to do your homework and investigate the feasibility of your idea. Evaluate the pluses and minuses of your present situation. Find out what you will need to get started—and to grow bigger. Using our example:
- How much land do you need to raise llamas?
- Will llamas do well in your climate?
- What do llamas eat, anyway? Can you grow it?
- Do llamas need special housing?
- How many hours per day are required to care for a llama?
- How promising is the market for llamas? For llama milk?
- How much can you expect to pay for a llama?
- Etcetera, etcetera.
Naturally, you would like to make a profit right away, but many ventures will have sizeable start-up costs and/or may not get into the black for several years, such as growing tree fruit or pulpwood. Can you round up the needed capital—from loans, grants or investors? Check into the possibility of grants or matching funds from state or federal agencies or from private foundations. What is the likely cash-flow?
Check out the possible legal requirements or pitfalls, such as zoning laws, food safety laws, pollution control ordinances, and tax laws. Is insurance required?
Talk to potential markets to be sure they would buy your product and for how much. Do they have any quantity or quality requirements? Check out any transportation costs. Will you need to advertise; if so, which media are best and what will it cost?
Make out a detailed (as best you can) business plan and projected budget—for each year for five or ten years. If this is too much for you to handle, there are professional small business advisers available. Some government agencies provide their service at no cost.
Now, do you still want to try that idea? Is it a wise, practical idea? Think about it for a while. Discuss it with your family and others whose opinion you trust. Could your new venture survive an unexpected disaster such as illness or injury, or a devastating storm? Don’t rush into anything. Probably it would be best to start small and see how things go. Don’t risk everything at once. Maybe “Larry’s Llama Milk” is an idea whose time has not yet come.
Following are some pointers from the book How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres by Booker T. Whatley (1987):
- Produce only what your customers want.
- Produce high-value commodities (plants or animals) in such a way that different ones are ready to market at different times of year, thus providing year-round income and employment. Diversify into unusual products.
- Be located on a hard-surfaced road within 40 miles of an urban center of at least 50,000 population.
- Run a pick-your-own operation, so that much of the labor is done by the customer.
- Have a guaranteed market with a clientele membership club with an annual membership fee (community-supported agriculture).
- Be weatherproof, with drip and/or sprinkler irrigation.
- Avoid middlemen. Market your products directly.
- Be covered by at least $250,000 of liability insurance ($1 million is better).
Here are some other ideas that you may find useful in increasing your profitability or starting a new business:
- Buy used machinery, not new. Do your own repairs (maybe start an equipment repair business). Adapt machinery to new uses or invent new machinery (a possible new business).
- Grow your own fertilizer in order to reduce purchased fertilizer inputs. Use green manures, legumes, animal manures and compost.
- Grow your own high-quality seed (on contract or start your own seed business).
- Use solar and wind energy, and grow biomass for alcohol or diesel fuels, or make methane fuel from manure.
- Recycle wastes; make compost from a variety of organic matter, including city leaves, newspaper and wood waste. Start a compost business.
- Do field research or run test plots for ag companies.
- Add value to a commodity by doing your own processing, such as butchering meat, spinning and weaving wool, or making apple cider, maple syrup, sorghum, flour, baked goods, yogurt or ice cream, jams and jellies, pickles or salsa.
- Raise high-quality crops and/or animals, commanding a higher market price. Become certified as an organic grower. Develop your own brand and logo, and begin intensive marketing.
- Raise fish, turtles, frogs or crayfish for food or pet stores. Or raise fish bait.
- Raise game animals and birds. Open a hunting preserve.
- Raise unusual animals or rare breeds, which will command a high market price.
- Raise goats for meat, milk and cheese.
- Raise bees for honey and pollination services.
- Raise veal or feeder livestock (humanely). Rehabilitate poor quality (cheap) livestock.
- Raise high quality poultry for meat and “farm-fresh” eggs.
- Grow high quality crops for forage (for yourself or to sell) or for making livestock feed pellets.
- Grow unusual or high-value crops (examples include mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, oyster, etc.), fresh flowers, flowers for seed or to make dried flowers, wildflowers and prairie grasses for seed or bird seed, start tropical plants or house plants, specialty grains: amaranth, spelt, triticale, food-grade soybeans, flaxseed, quinoa, kamut, popcorn, especially unusual colors (red, blue), vegetables, for early-season market, ethnic and specialty markets (possibly in greenhouses or with a hydroponic system), fruit, melons, pumpkins, squash, sod, trees for nuts, maple syrup, lumber, pulpwood, fenceposts, firewood, seedlings for reforestation, Christmas trees, nursery stock, etc.)
- Sell directly to grocery stores, restaurants, schools, health food stores or co-ops.
- Start your own organic foods restaurant, health food store or organic foods co-op.
- Start a membership community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation, with in-season produce supplied or delivered to customers each week. Keep in touch with customers through a website and/or newsletter.
- Do custom plowing, planting, cultivating or harvesting.
- Become an agricultural consultant and/or a dealer for products.
Perhaps you can merely fine-tune your current operation, cutting down on expensive inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; or becoming more efficient in other ways; or raising higher quality plants and/or animals. Or maybe you can expand your current operation into a related area that would require only small levels of new expenses, such as growing and packaging your own brand of popcorn, or processing your high quality milk into yogurt. These approaches should be safer and easier than jumping into an entirely new venture.
About the Author:
Dr. Harold Willis was born and raised in Kansas, eventually going on to earn B.A. and Ph.D degrees in Biology and Entomology. Dr. Willis taught in Wisconsin at the university level for 15 years before entering the field of agricultural consulting and then writing. He is now retired.
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