Our farm is debt free … but that wasn’t the plan


By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Like many startups, my farm’s business plan has been tweaked a time or two. Initially, I wanted to start a commercial cow-calf operation, but I was unable to secure the financing necessary to get it off the ground. So instead I decided to explore a grass-fed beef operation and direct marketing opportunities, which offered lower startup costs plus higher profit margins.

The downside was, the production cycle for grass-fed beef is longer than for a commercial cow-calf business, so it would be a long while before I made any money. Also, my education and industry certifications were all focused on traditional cattle operations, so learning the ins and outs of more natural beef production was all on me. I read everything “grass-fed” I could find, and reached out to several other grass-fed farmers in the area. After a couple months of research, I compiled the info and revisited the original commercial cow-calf business plan I drafted in business school. By adjusting the production strategy and numbers to fit grass-fed beef, I finally had a roadmap customized for Willow Springs Farm.

But despite lowering my startup costs, I still needed capital to launch my business. My initial three options for funding my cattle—a crowdfund campaign, USDA/FSA financing, and outside investors—did not pan out. The crowdfund campaign did supply the money necessary for catch pen materials and additional fencing, so that was super helpful. But the USDA/FSA financing options did not work for me, and my network of tech startup investors were more interested in putting their money in the latest app than in cattle. At present, my farm is 100 percent self-funded, meaning I work my tail off as a full-time marketing and PR consultant and a part-time adjunct professor so I can put every extra dime in my “cow fund.” (more…)

Building a business plan that fit our community

heart shaped greens_cropped
By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

When coming up with our business plan, we put a lot of thought into what would work best in our community. While most of the country is a decade or more into the local food movement, it is just beginning to take hold here in eastern Kentucky. Two of the most common direct-marketing strategies—farmers’ markets and CSAs—didn’t feel right for our community or our farm.

When we were first making a marketing plan for our vegetable crops, there were a few small and inconsistent farmers’ markets around, but we didn’t want to depend on them for our income (although we do now sell at them some.) Will and his parents were already direct marketing meat through a modified meat CSA program, but as I created a marketing plan for vegetables, a CSA didn’t feel right either.

As a beginning farmer learning to grow vegetables on a new piece of land, I didn’t want to place myself under the stress that could come from striving to maintain the abundance and consistency that a CSA requires. I also didn’t believe that I could require customers to pay a large sum of money upfront in our area. Our region is one of the poorest in the nation, and I did not want to exclude community members by asking customers to pay hundreds of dollars in one upfront sum. Although I understand the sentiment of community support and solidarity behind farmers choosing which items customers receive each week, I also wanted my customers to have a choice in the items and amounts they purchase. I thought it would be easier to convince folks to buy locally via a non-traditional method if they were able to retain their purchasing choice.

After much discussion, we finally settled on a buying club model. Customers join our buying club and are then sent weekly emails with a link to the updated online farm store. Customers choose which items they’d like to buy each week, how much of each item, and then order online. After receiving the orders, we pack the produce, meat, and eggs and deliver to centrally located drop off points. (more…)

So You Want to Be a Farmer? First, know this….

CaitlinandBrandon_working_collageBy Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

You want to be a farmer? That’s great news because we need a lot more farmers! But there are some things you should know before diving in:

1) Farming is really, really hard. (Let me stress that one more time….)
Seriously. The hardest work I’ve ever done. You will work longer days then you ever have and take less time off then ever before. You will be perennially sore and exhausted. You will have less money than most (if not all) of your friends. There is no paid vacation, no health insurance, no company-sponsored retirement plan.

2) Farmers are not just farmers.
There is a lot more to farming than just raising your crop and bringing it to market. Farmers are bookkeepers, marketing geniuses, writers, advertisers, organizers, social networkers, managers, and office workers. Not only do you need to be good at growing what you grow, you need to know how to start and run a successful business. (more…)

Nine months, 20 chickens, and $300: BOOTSTRAP AT EMADI ACRES FARM


By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

Moving from a decent paying job to a job that reduces your income to below the poverty level is scary! But once you’re at the bottom, you know there is only one way to go. I conceded to my wife before I quit my teaching job that she would be the breadwinner for many years to come. It doesn’t bother me in the least bit, and she is completely cool with it. Man, am I lucky!

If I had a chance to do college all over again, I would have majored in agriculture and minored in business instead of going the psychology route. At times I feel clueless when it comes to the businessman’s mentality. I got into farming to farm, and admittedly overlooked the business side of things. The desire to accumulate wealth isn’t a strong sense I carry with me, but farming to make great food and provide for my family drives me. While I’m learning as I go, I would recommend any future farmers start learning business in tandem with farming. It’s something I wish I was well versed at.

Farming is a business as much as anything else, and like all businesses, you have to learn to play the numbers game. Is this venture worth the time, risk, and effort? When will I get my money back? How will I be profitable in the meantime?

For example, let’s say you have 20 chickens. If you buy the chickens as chicks for $4 each, that is an initial $80 investment. They will not make any money for you as egg-layers for at least 7-8 months. If you buy conventional feed for them, they will consume a 50-pound bag of feed per month at about $13 per bag. So that’s another $91 you pay before they can make you money. Once you throw in additional costs for their coop/pen, fencing, waterers and such, you will find yourself about $300 in the hole for seven months, and that’s if you get lucky and find cheap materials. (more…)

Capital: the high cost of getting started – BOOTSTRAP AT WILLOW SPRINGS FARM

path-uncleared farm_cropBy Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

A neighboring farmer likes to joke, “You know how you make a million dollars as a farmer? Start out with two million!” While my comedic neighbor’s joke isn’t accurate, farming does take a LOT of money just to get the ball rolling. Start-up costs for a small-scale agriculture operation can quickly get into six or seven figures. Land, equipment, operating capitol, property improvement, livestock, seeds—it all adds up.

Here’s a run down on the financing options and big ticket purchases I’ve invested in at Willow Springs:

Farm Assets
Getting land was a “biggie.” It’s kind of hard to feel much like a farmer until you actually have some land to your name. Due to my student loans, I wasn’t able to qualify for traditional land financing; thankfully, I found a property owner willing to “owner finance” an undeveloped piece of land. While my property may not look like much to most people, it’s a come a LONG way since we purchased it a year ago. We cleared more than 200 bodock trees (by hand), built a barn, installed a driveway, fenced and cross-fenced, and put in a catch pen.

Hannah's barn_crop

There’s a lot of equipment we’re in need of at Willow Springs. A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a little farm tour to a local homeschool group. While I was showing them my catch-pen-in-progress (hand cut cedar posts and two-foot post holes) one of the mom’s asked, “Where’s your post hole digger?” I rolled up my sleeve, pointed to my scrawny upper arm, and said, “Right here!” She gasped; it was pretty funny. I think it’s easy for folks to forget just how much equipment modern farming requires, and that beginning farmers rarely have access to such “help.” Sometimes you just have to work with what you have. (more…)


sunflower selfie_cropped

By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

Will and I often throw out ideas for our farm while working; things that we can do right then, things that we can do next year, and big ideas for future years. In these beginning years of farming it seems that every year brings a few really big things to fruition. As the days grow darker and our weekly farm deliveries slow to twice a month for the winter, we work through our list of ideas and decide what will be the next big things, and we re-adjust our long-term vision. Our next big things are:

Farmer partnerships and heirloom cornmeal
We believe that farmers, even with different practices and farm types, can work together to increase financial sustainability and strengthen our farm communities. One of Will’s friends, Spencer, raises row crops about an hour and a half away. He expressed interest in diversifying his operation, and that conversation has given rise to a partnership. With his farm equipment and corn growing experience, Spencer has grown a field of heirloom flour corn. Will and I will take the corn, grind it, and sell the cornmeal. It is a profit-sharing model that we are interested to see develop. We also grew a little bit of our own flour corn in a different variety that we plan to experiment with.

Kentucky Agricultural Leadership Program (KALP)
I’m honored to be participating in this prestigious two year program. Will participated in the previous KALP class and says that he learned more during the program than during his four years of undergraduate education. I know this program will help me understand aspects of agriculture and rural communities better and will push me to be a better leader and better farmer.

Perennial crops 
We will be planting a small orchard and an asparagus patch. We’ve found that the wide range of products we offer (veggies, meat, eggs, and flowers) really play off one another and encourage customers to treat our farm as a grocery stop. We hope that providing even more variety in the future will increase this behavior among customers. (more…)

Planning for the short-term– BOOTSTRAP AT FURROW HORSE FARM

Horses Lady and Abby_cropBy Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

Before I dive into this post, the farm has a big announcement:

We now have our first team of draft horses! Lady and Abby, two Belgian mares from Sandpoint, Idaho, were delivered to us a few weeks ago. So far they are doing great, and we have already used them in the garden to harrow in our cover crop. We are so excited to finally have them here and realize our dream of owning our own team. Now we can truly start making our way to becoming draft horse-powered. I can’t fully describe just how good it feels!

As for our next big plans, we have a lot in the works for the 2016 season. In September, Brandon spent a week helping our landlords take out an old, unproductive orchard at the lower end of the property. This month we will be tilling up an additional acre where the orchard was, then planting a cover crop so it will be ready to put into production next season. We hope to use it as our potato and winter squash field, to free up space in our main garden for more labor-intensive crops.

By adding the additional acre, we will have about 2.5 acres in production next year. Our hope is to double the size of our CSA to 24 members and begin selling at the Olympia Farmers Market, which is much bigger than the Saturday market we were at this year. We also want to expand our restaurant sales. Between these three areas, our goal is to double our gross income next year. (more…)

Death happens (and other facts about being a farmer) – BOOTSTRAP AT EMADI ACRES

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

We asked each of our Bootstrap Bloggers to tell us the top five things people should know about farming. This is Derek’s list:

1) Love thy organic matter
Simply put, always accumulate organic matter. If you farm, whether it’s mulch, hay, manure, leaves, topsoil, cardboard, etc, take what’s free. People are always getting rid of wonderful organic matter. It’s a great resource that is often overlooked or disposed of. Organic matter is helpful in improving your soil, making compost, managing erosion, and much more.The possibilities are endless. Even if you don’t have an immediate use for it, your farm will be rewarded in the future. Remember that the microbes in the soil are hungry, so feed them food they love!

2) “Organic” ain’t easy
Everyday, through tremendous effort, my farm moves closer to organic status. One of my end goals is to be a diversified organic farmer who only uses rainwater to irrigate. Sounds like a crazy dream, but I’ve seen it in action at a farm down the road. The farm’s owner has never pumped any water from our aquifers in 26 years. He intensively manages the organic matter and soil on his 5-acre farm and uses moisture retaining techniques like heavy mulching. It’s really impressive and something I believe we should all strive for in the agricultural community. His farm is the best example of true sustainable, organic farming I’ve seen. At an “organic” farm I worked at previously, I was taken aback by how much water the farm was constantly running on. Even during the brutally hot summer, they ran water all day. This gave me the desire to be a water conserving farmer, even in our drought stricken area.


The Best and The Worst: Bootstrap at Furrow Horse Farm

Furrow Horse veggie rows_cropped

By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

Being a farmer comes with ups and downs to the extreme. Every day we simply hope to wake up prepared for any and all situations and well rested enough to deal with what comes.

Sometimes, what comes is disaster. The story of one of the worst days on the farm this season comes from Brandon:

A few weeks ago we had an epic windstorm. Caitlin was away for the weekend, and I was all set for our Saturday market. I woke to an email on Saturday morning from our market manager: the market is rain or shine, but we will not set up if wind exceeds 40 mph. The weather report was looking iffy: 25-30 mph and steady rain throughout the day. Do I stay or do I go? Because we had harvested all of our vegetables the day before, completely unaware of the extreme weather forecast, I couldn’t just let our produce go to waste.

With an extra rain jacket in tow, I set out for the market. The weather seemed agreeable, so far. By the time I arrived, the rain had turned from a light drizzle to a consistent downpour. Just moments after our market tent was set up, the wind started to pick up. We had 25 lbs. of weight on each leg and a heavy-duty aluminum market canopy, so I wasn’t overly concerned.

Just as the next vendor arrived and began unfolding his canopy, a strong gust blew through the market, picked his canopy up, folded it in half, and blew it over the top of his truck, rendering it useless and destroyed. The next two vendors would not take the chance: they eschewed the use of their canopies, and sold produce directly out of their trucks. They kindly offered us all of their market weights, meaning I had 75 lbs. of weight on each canopy leg.

By noon, the weather was even worse. One other tent had blown in half, and multiple vendors had packed up and left. Completely soaked through to the bone and worried about the stability of the remaining market canopies, the last three vendors and I decided to call it quits. That was shortly after noon. (more…)

Weddings and chickens: A farm business plan – Bootstrap at Emadi Acres Farm


By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

The beauty of farming is that there are many avenues to make money, though you have to work extremely hard to get it. I have a silly dream of having all of my business commerce happen here on the farm. Not that I am necessarily a hermit, I just never like leaving my property because it’s where I always want to be. That dream is many years off, so for now I go where the money is.

In my first year of farming, I tested the waters with a small community supported agriculture (CSA), began going to the farmers’ market in our small town, dabbled in “on-farm” sales of poultry and produce, and held a successful wedding on our property. 

CSAs are consistent moneymakers. Most folks love having things delivered to them—just look at Amazon’s success. My CSA is like a farm-fresh Christmas every week, and I’m the tan, sun-kissed Santa who delivers the presents. My small CSA fluctuates between five and 10 people. Really it shouldn’t fluctuate, but I’m still working out the kinks. The demand is there, and at times I wish I could fulfill everyone’s orders, but I only have what natures gives me. I have come to the realization that I have to expand my garden plot to well over an acre of production. The half-acre I have now is capable of producing hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, but it just isn’t enough. And the prospect of using my tractor to get new areas prepped is exciting, especially for someone who has done everything by hand until now. (more…)