The Farmer as Business Entrepreneur

Direct market farming is not for the faint of heart.  When a farmer chooses to produce specialty crops and livestock in a diversified system, and market direct, they are essentially signing up to run an intensive small business.  Besides having to master production of multiple crops and animals, they also need to actively engage in marketing and business management.

Most farmers I know entered the profession because of a love for producing good food, or the desire to become a steward of the land, or possibly for the independent lifestyle.  Few chose this as a calculated business decision, and fewer yet are excited by the prospect of studying numbers on a spreadsheet.

But those who embrace the entrepreneurial side of farming put themselves in position to have more fun in their daily lives.  They can use management and marketing skills to reach other goals on their farm and make more profit.  Understanding business management is similar to understanding how to manage a high tunnel or a moveable chicken tractor.  There are good principles to guide you, proven practices to learn from, and appropriate tools to master.  Put them together, and you can become a more successful farmer.

As the sustainable food movement has matured, we’ve seen a greater need for business management education specifically aimed at market farmers to go along with all the training available on production and marketing. 

Participants in Southern SAWG conferences and training courses have increasingly asked for more information on record-keeping, pricing and profitability.  In response, we’ve conducted several educational sessions such as “Tracking Finances for Increased Farm Profitability,” “Pricing and Profits,” “Improve Your Farming with Better Financial Records,” and “Know Where Your Money Goes.”

Last year we developed a new course called “Growing Farm Profits” that instructs farmers on how to price products for appropriate markets, how to track expenses, and how to calculate profitability for farm enterprises.  We trialed a one-day version of this course twice – once in Georgia in partnership with Georgia Organics and once in Virginia in partnership with VABF – late last year.

Using tools that are specifically designed for diverse horticultural producers, participants were taught how to identify and collect farm data that is important to their decision-making, and how to analyze this data to determine the economic impacts of their production and marketing decisions.  The instruction was illustrated with real farm data from Ellen Polishuk’s Potomac Vegetable Farm.

Over 120 people participated in two trainings, and at the end, nearly all of them indicated that they had a better understanding of how to put this information to use on their own farms.  As importantly, most participants seemed genuinely enthused about keeping better records and using informed analysis to make better business decisions.  As one participant wrote, “[The course] was great, inspirational, and serious at the same time.”  Another wrote: “[This course] provoked me to evaluate our farming income and expenses in order to make strategic plans for the future.  I will use the data form to see how profitable our CSA [really is].”

Look for more courses like this from Southern SAWG in the future.  And let us know other ways that we can help farmers in our movement become better business managers.  After all, one of the pillars of sustainability is “economic viability.”