What I learned launching a small farm startup

Entrepreneur’s Guide to “Minimum Viable Farming”

Well, I think I can officially say my season is over.

Even the rats are dead.

In a way, I kind of almost miss them… It sounds messed up to say, but you have to hand it to those little bastards. They make a worthy foe, until you adopt the right technology and apply it appropriately to the problem or situation at hand.

(Incidentally: Rat Zapper Classic — it really is the answer…*)

This first year of transition from farm worker to farmer was a bit rough at points but informative.

I don’t know how anybody is supposed to stick to a business plan. I mean, I’m sure having one is a good idea — I just wonder how often they “come out true.”

This was not quite a business plan, but it was the result of my months of research into trying to peg down some actual numbers before getting started. Just to lessen the shock a bit.

The principles informing the quest I document in that short ebook are, I think, still basically valid. I admitted I had no idea how the money stuff would turn out.

And boy did I not.

I estimated lots of different things and some of it was more on target than others. The thing I underestimated the most really is expenses getting started.

Garlic is a sure thing: sell the scapes, sell it fresh as a whole plant, dry it,

You know that old saying, you have to spend money to make money? Well it’s true in a general sense, but when applied to physical goods, I suspect it may be even more true…

Because when you’re farming, you’re not making money. You’re effectively making matter. Making matter take certain shapes through cooperating with natural processes. Kind of a rough definition, but workable for what we normally blithely just call “agriculture” and cross off the list as a viable way of life.

The truth is, looking back on this first year, I didn’t make any money. In fact, I’m about $1,500 CAD in the hole.

My expenses for about a six month small farming operation in Quebec, Canada for 2015 are approximately $9,000 after everything is said and done.

My monetary income during that same period was only $7,500.

The vast majority of my sales were in vegetal production, but I also raised to slaughter 2 tamworth pigs of probably 275 lbs each, 80 cornish cross chickens to varying ages, from 3 weeks to 12 — and had six turkeys and at one point 17 laying hens for eggs.

Eat your weeds: borage. Look for value in unexpected places.

I’m working on other projects, so haven’t yet had the chance to evaluate fully the financial information from the year. Sometimes you have to put a little distance between yourself and the past before you can really understand it. February sounds good for that sort of thing.

Now that the days are short (dark around 4:15pm here now), all I want to do is lay around.

Microgreens were really the item which carried my sales for the season. And despite thinking initially during the season that no one would ever buy edible weeds, I happily managed to prove myself wrong (and learn a whole lot in the process). So that was my second biggest seller, but the season for edible weeds up here I think peaks before the 15th of July, so its absolutely an early potential bonanza for small diversified organic farmers, but it drops off at a certain point in the season when plants start switching from leafy foliage mode into producing complicated flowers and hard durable seeds. There are other kinds of harvests you can make at that time of the season too, but the energy of the fields and the herb gardens is a moving target as the banner of time unfolds itself across the landscape.

“Life force” is something that is as difficult to pin down as it is easy to directly experience.

You don’t get rich selling eggs, but keeping a few hens is a steady product and very easy. Local regulations will apply to your sales, no doubt.

Perennial herbs are a surefire bet in your small-scale market garden. Early in the season I “cheated” and bought in about a hundred dollars Canadian worth of things like sage, parsley, a little fennel, sorrel — a bunch of stuff. My memory isn’t so quick to grapple with all their names now that I don’t go out and visit them every day. But then brought in easily a tenfold return, I’m sure.

The garden is asleep. The remaining six chickens have an insulated interior space inside a garage with a heat lamp over their water, and that’s it. I had another troupe who tuffed it out like that last winter, and continued laying 5 or 6 out of 6 all season, with the light on 24 hours. The birds have enough food and water to basically go on autopilot for a few days if need be. But I don’t want their eggs to pile up. It’s an invitation for the rats to come back to leave out high value food during the lean times.

After some initial failures with chicken feed disappearing, despite no captures, I switched to using dry kitten kibble inside my Rat Zapper Classic and bought some fresh AA batteries. Though made of plastic and requiring 4 AA batteries, I do think the RZC genuinely deserves the right to call itself “environmental”. Because poisons are only so effective. The rats go to other places and die, releasing the poison they consumed immediately back into the environment.

Or they get resistant. Some rats like poison.

But no rats like getting zapped by a hard jolt of electricity that stops their heart.

I figure the $1,500 difference (ahem, deficit) between my income and expenses after year one small farming is at least equal to the value of meat our animals yielded. With the addition of 12 lbs (or was it 24?) of grassfed ground beef we bought from another farm, our meat is basically all taken care of for the year and we have small quantities we can easily give away or sell. In Quebec, you don’t technically have the right to sell animals not slaughtered in a state-inspected facility. There are upsides and downsides to this. One downside is that the facility for large animals is at least a two hour drive in either direction.

A small sample of our pork

Dont quit your day job.

Like, literally. Don’t. If you have the idea that you want to get into small farming today or something soon, by all means, I encourage you to do so. It is worth the many challenges and myriad pleasures that go along with it. But don’t be stupid. Have some money somehow, somewhere, some amount coming in on the side. Whether it’s another part-time job nearby, an internet-based gig, a partner with a separate income (I had all three), you have to have something.

All those whiny articles you did or didn’t see where people complain that you can’t make a living as a small farmer are basically right. I set out to try to prove those ideas and models wrong, but it’s true. Financially, it is untenable.

For how many years, I don’t know. That’s the ultimate question. I tracked down the author of a mis-attributed quote about farms and profitability that I found and told the guy my situation and findings and asked if it was typical. This particular expert said not only is it typical, but that he knows of many farms which operate at a loss for years and years and have the “plan” to make it all back when they retire and sell the land.

That to me seems like an inherently foolish conception of money. Which is not to say that “smart financial choices” has ever been my driving motto in life, but no wonder farms and farmers are failing, folding and selling if no one is ever making a profit and waiting for a golden payday somewhere down the line. You’d think farmers would be among the first to not get fooled into golden-paydayism, but here we are.

Some kind of cucurbit. I did not have great success with this family.

I have anecdotal evidence from another farm much more advanced and “mature” than my small-time newbie production outfit that after expenses they have “only” around $275 CAD in profits per week.

Considering they employ and feed others (and presumably pay salaries to themselves), that’s not the worst thing in the world. But it’s nowhere near what people working most “normal” and “adult” jobs would be willing to make.

But it sounds probably realistic.

Fresh-fermented pickles is actually, I think, a really interesting and potentially viable small farm enterprise.

Outside of meat though, we also ate fresh, high-quality organic vegetables all season long. Not always complete meals of it, but definitely supplementing our diet in a large part and lowering our grocery bill by maybe $100 per week.

It’s tough though when we start talking about “virtual” earnings in the world of farming.

Does saving money = earning money?

I’m not super sure about this subject yet. But let’s “imagine” that our meat is worth $1,500 and our vegetables worth $2500 over six months. A penny saved is a penny earned? The presence of that dictum in our language may be the proof we need here. And $1500 for our meat is I think a low estimate as well. But its only worth what you can sell it for. And I can’t sell all of it. Oh, and let’s not forget all the eggs we ate.

Still, we’re looking at something very far from a major payoff.

I have “money” but a large part of it is in coins. And not bitcoins either — but lately I’ve been wondering if satoshis are worth more than celery?

You have to be wise about what to do with coins. Don’t put them into Coinstar unless you like losing ten percent for no reason.

The value stored in coins has a strange power to endure in a way that other forms of money don’t. And when you have $1 and $2 coins, like we do in Canada (and no pennies), then it starts to mean something…

But is that something enough to make it all worth it?

I usually have about $200 in cash outside of my coin stockpile — but that’s from another part-time seasonal job at another farm where I have no coverage if I get hurt. Being able to replace that arrangement with some other reliable (safer) off-farm income flow would be wise in the short term, I think. Doing small web contracts can be a major boon if you can find them… but they don’t replace cash in hand given to you by someone in your community for “real work” paid on a regular basis.

Speaking of, one other thing the farm finance guy I communicated with said there are a number of farms now supported by software money. But you could replace the source with any other business that will give you steady reliable off-farm income. If you’ve got that flow, you’ve got a way to pay for investing in the farm infrastructure and production other than the farm itself. From my inexperienced viewpoint, making the farm pay for itself is just too much to ask off the bat. You could maybe do it with microgreens, but you’d have to be smart and organized. And you have to have something which is much more difficult to find than you will think if you’re optimistic and just starting:

Guaranteed buyers.

You can basically screw up everything else you care to (and will) in your new small farming operation. But you cannot screw up acquiring your big guaranteed weekly buyers.

I’m not talking about a couple of maybe $40 purchases each week, I’m looking at more like a guaranteed $200 per week from your “best” buyer, preferably more like $500.

But coming up with $500 worth of product per week is actually much much harder than it sounds. Like you can plant you seeds and weed and water and do all the things you’re supposed to do that I basically gave up on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to come up with beautiful perfect salable products week after week after week. I think getting there with microgreens is a bit easier — if you do it in controlled interior conditions. Which is why it was my big winner this season. You have to like figuring out and perfecting processes though, which I happen to enjoy. There is something sculptural about it all.

Ideal guaranteed buyer:

  1. Semi-expensive restaurant with a high volume of business
  2. Chef is adventurous, open to interesting new products and understands the value of quality
  3. It may be that a chef spending someone else’s money is better than a restaurant owner who just happens to be chef but is more concerned about spending their own money — but everything depends on the chef or the buyer.

If you can line up one reliable guaranteed buyer and develop a good relationship with them, you can make this work until you get better at production. Don’t try to trick anyone if you have bad quality products. But don’t necessarily point out the flaws of something either. Sell your products to your guaranteed buyers in big bags instead of splitting it up into multiple smaller bags, because this way they’ll have to take everything, instead of just taking one of the two bags of a particular product you brought them. Maybe they don’t think they want that much oregano, but make them offers they can’t refuse by piling on other free supplementary products to soften the blow and figure out what works, and what they like to and will buy from you next week or down the road.

Chefs can teach you a lot if you let them. Farm-to-table, baby. #realfood

Being able to sell $200 worth of products per week is maybe a good benchmark for one person just getting started working part time on a market garden of probably 5,000 square feet or less. If you calculate that as an average across the course of one season’s inevitable bell curve, it’s a relatively achievable goal. But you will have to work for even that. Nothing is free.

Sounds miserable, I know. But I wished someone had told me this picture before the season started. So I’m telling you and you can decide what to do with this in your life. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Maybe there’s a seed here for somebody…

Last year when I told my plan to my then boss running his own small farm business in its second year (which folded after that season), he said it wasn’t possible to run a farm part-time. But my experience proves that it is possible, but don’t expect anything you do part time to be economically viable. And don’t expect either that if you just put full time hours into it that it will be economically viable either. It might be that out of the gates, but more probably not. That’s (presumably, I wouldn’t know) something you develop your business into as you figure out all the moving pieces and their proper arrangement.

Is it like that in starting any kind of new business?

Sometimes I’m not sure.

Wild chamomile on left and bottom, white clover in the background

  1. Guaranteed buyers
  2. Reliable quality production
  3. Minimizing expenses
  4. ?

Minimizing expenses may actually be the most integral means of “making money” while farming — by not spending it in the first place.

If you really want to minimize expenses, don’t have any animals.

Zero. I read it in an interview with what is their name, that couple in Maine, who were like gods for back-to-the-landers in the 1970s… They did it for more political/ethical reasons, but the fact of the matter is that they were right: animals are the biggest time and money sink on the farm.

If you want an easy farm workload with minimal recurring expenses, no animals. Simple. I can repeat it again if you want. It’s the recurring expenses that drain you the most I think. And all the little trips and fixes and problems. Of course, it grows you at the same time to go through it and to take care of all that stuff. But in terms of getting down to brass tacks, you’ll make your first year a whole lot easier if you cross that off your list. I wouldn’t listen to me either, but don’t say somebody didn’t try to warn you.

Some oyster mushrooms I grew using my non-sterile cultivation techniques. Not sure if I will continue this next year.

My plans for next year, of course, do include animals. I like them and one benefit is that while vegetal production pays off during the summer then and there, animal production pays off at the end of the season after that other stuff has dried up. And you can freeze the excess.

Probably, I’ll do another very small (under 4) batch of pigs, 50 cornish cross to slaughter young, 50 sasso/redbro to slaughter late, maybe 30 ducks indoors (everybody else outdoors — it makes a big difference in processing the carcass), and I have the right to do up to 25 turkeys without quota. (Quebec has supply management on certain agricultural production sectors)

I’m not sure I’ll go up that high. And I would have to figure out something for having deliveries of feed. I didn’t keep more than a bag on hand at a time last year due to rat problems. But I’m wondering now, is it possible to have a rat-free farm? They say Alberta is an entirely rat free province — but can the rest of us really dare to dream like that? What other problem will swoop in to take its place? I’m superstitious like that. You learn to be when you farm. You can displace trouble all you want, but it’s always there, dancing just alongside.

What’s the worst that can happen, on a farm, will happen. The degree of certainty is greater than 100%. But you learn to live with it. They say you can’t fall out of bed if you sleep on the floor.

For me that also means next year getting more heavily into perennial herbs, going big on garlic and shallots. Their growth patterns, weeding & watering needs (I don’t water anything, and weed only minimally) and product preservation all really appeal to my relaxafarian gardening model. They make good mathematical sense too for my personality type as a farmer, whatever that is.

One thing that if you get into farming you must realize is that everyone who farms says they aren’t making any money. It’s an unspoken rule: that you have to say you’re barely making ends meet, that you’re just getting by, that you have too many debts, etc. If you don’t talk like that, you won’t look “legit.” It’s part of the game. The tell-tale signs though of farms making money are building new buildings (or adding onto existing ones) and people always buying new equipment (or trucks or toys like snowmobiles, whatever). Those people are making money somewhere, even if they aren’t talking like they are. Or else they are risking it all against that magical Final Harvest we’re all banking on in the end...


Because I didn’t actually make any profit farming…

Buy my ebook and get 50% off the next edition

(when I finish writing it this winter including yr 1 financials)

If I had it to write again though, I would honestly probably title it something like: “The $0 Farm: And Why It’s Nothing To Be Embarrassed About”…

*Not a paid endorsement, but if Rat Zapper Classic is interested in sponsoring Invironment — we would gladly entertain offers…