My first year farming: the highs, the lows, and the future

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Preparing for this final Bootstrap Blogger post, I went back through my earlier posts and was immediately reminded of just how far we’ve come in a matter of months. The first few posts were all about digging fence postholes and scrounging for cash, and now we’re on to funny piglet stories and taking orders for grass-fed beef. When you’re down in the “day to day trenches,” it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of farm chores and forget to celebrate the mini-successes along the way.

I encountered a few “oh god” moments over the past year:

  • A barn-building back injury turned into lots and lots of doctors visits and physical therapy.
  • Juggling off-farm professional opportunities (income producing) with farm responsibilities (not yet income producing).
  • Budget cuts meant the loss of a contract employment opportunity that had been covering my farm expenses (forcing us to dig deeper in our already empty pockets).
  • It turns out piglets are Houdini-like escape artists.

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And I made some wonderful memories:

  • Sharing our farming story with half-a-dozen community groups and agriculture publications.
  • Feeling the pride of owning a self-funded (and debt FREE!) farm for a full year.
  • Joining Kansas Farm Bureau’s Ag Advocacy SPEAK team.
  • Sleeping in the barn when the piglets arrived (I’m pretty pumped about my piggies!).

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More Old McDonald than Superman? A Day in my life

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

A Day in My Life I get up early—6 a.m.— and go for a quick run. I also print off lecture handouts and skim Wall Street Journal over breakfast (the digital version—it takes days to get the printed version delivered out here). Then I don a suit (but don’t bother with makeup) and pack my satchel with the days’ necessities.

My university classes start at 8 a.m. As a student, I wasn’t all that fond of early morning classes, and I can certainly sympathize with the glazed, “don’t call on me” looks my students’ project at the podium. After class, I skedaddle out to faculty parking and crank up my 20+-year-old pickup truck (it’s the only one in the lot with a hay spear and mud flaps).

hannah_barn_ladder_cropI shift gears from business professor to marketing consultant and spend the next few hours pounding out social media strategy for a client. I work through lunch and start client calls at 1 p.m. The beginning of the year is big in my business, so I’m hoping to land three more retainer clients. Maybe then I can start putting a “dent” in my student loans and building a savings nest egg.

At 3:30 p.m I swap the business suit for Carharts and cowboy boots. Hooking up my peeling stock trailer, I drive out to a rural farming community west of Bushong, Kansas, a Depression-era ghost town with a Cold War missile silo perched above the desolate remnants of the town. It’s a fascinating and eerie place—oh, if only these Flint Hills could talk…. (more…)

Our big goal: Giving back to veterans

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

It’s that time of year— a new year, new goals. For many entrepreneurs, the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a time to reflect and clarify goals. What have we accomplished? Where are we headed? What’s the best way to get there?

A quick recap of 2015
Willow Springs Farm has developed from a 24-page business plan to an actual farm. This time last year, I recall telling my husband that, “if we still own the land in a year, I’ll consider it a success.” Both of us have student loans, and we were building new businesses while working full-time in addition to farming. While the farm’s business model was pretty solid, its execution was hampered by multiple financing rejections and two failed crowdfund campaigns. Just seemed like the cards were stacked against us from the get-go.

After licking our wounds from a few setbacks, we revamped our business model, requiring customers to pay upfront for custom beef products. Such limited offerings narrowed our customer base but enabled us to purchase cattle and get the ball rolling.

Here’s where we’re headed
Having lived in the community a little over a year now, I’ve been able to develop relationships with area farmers and land owners. Our goal for 2016 is to grow our little herd to 20 head and enter a five-year lease with neighboring property owners for additional grazing land and water resources.

HannaWithGrass_croppedThe cool thing about this bootstrapped business approach (aka: not qualifying for traditional financing) is that we’re operating a debt-free farm. Have you ever even heard of such?! It’s slower growth, but it is super neat to own 100 percent of a business.

Our farm is located about 45-minutes outside of the Kansas City metro area, which presents a huge market opportunity for Willow Springs. Our current customers are mostly from our rural county, but we hope to expand into the metro area. There are several restaurants in the area that are always looking for additional local grass-fed beef suppliers. Theses restaurateurs aren’t able to order whole beef packages 12 to 16 months in advance; however, they have expressed interest in our products once we’re able to offer retail cuts. It’s exciting to see such expansion opportunities develop.

Double bottom-line
Giving back to our community has always been a “biggie” for us. As members of the military community, we’re keenly aware of the employment challenges today’s veterans and military spouses are facing. While unemployment stats and backlogged VA claims may just be news headlines to most Americans, they’ve been the overwhelming theme of our post-war life. (more…)

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

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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…)

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.

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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…)

Top 5 Things You Should Know About Farming

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

There are pros and cons to every endeavor, and farming is no exception. As a first-generation farmer, I did not have ancestral insight into the world of agriculture; the majority of my education came via trial and error. Looking back on my experiences thus far, here are the top five things I think new farmers should know:

Farming is expensive
I’d always heard, “it takes money to make money”—well this entrepreneur’s adage is certainly relevant to farming! The cost of land required to make a living is often seven figures. Property improvements can cost thousands more. And those costs will only get you a place to farm—what about seeds and/or livestock? Equipment alone can cost more than the average American’s mortgage (and they give you 30 years to pay that off!).
Farming is expensive, especially for us first-generation folks. It took me several years to accept the endless stream of zeros behind the initial investment for farming—more money than I thought I’d even make in a lifetime! Don’t be daunted; we’re all in the same boat. First generation farmers have a unique set of challenges, and startup capital tops the list.

Farming is dangerous
Noted as one of the most dangerous professions, farming is no joke. Growing up a tomboy, I’ve always considered myself pretty invincible. Sprains, cuts, and broken bones accompanied my years of playing sports; however, the risks that often accompany farming pose unique dangers. Much of my farm work involves beings miles away from civilization with no cell service. Just me, my equipment, and my animals. I can attribute a broken leg, muscle tears, and a back injury to my agricultural efforts. Thankfully I’ve never suffered a more serious injury, but I’m always seeking to minimize risk. (more…)

I wanted to be a cowgirl – Bootstrap at Willow Springs Farm

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

One of my earliest memories is sitting on an old Paint gelding outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t have been more than three or four, but from that moment on I was obsessed with becoming a “cowgirl”. Despite growing up on quarter-acre lots in suburbia, where the only cows I saw were on old Bonanza reruns, my passion to own my own cattle operation never wavered. Completely ignorant of all things agriculture, I knew educating myself would be the first step towards owning my own cattle farm.

At 19, I enthusiastically enrolled as an animal and dairy science student at Mississippi State University. Week one, I was informed by a seasoned Delta farmer and distinguished alum that “people don’t ‘become’ farmers—you have to be born into it.” Discouraged (I was one of the only students not hailing from a multi-generational farm), I was determined to pursue my education and find a way to make my farming dream come true.

master_cattle_Hannah__cropAs an undergraduate student I began to recognize the immense market potential many “traditional” farmers were overlooking. The agriculture industry seemed oblivious to the inevitable evolution of consumer demands, driven largely by millennials and their purchasing power. Organic and natural products, community supported agriculture (CSA) and reformed animal husbandry techniques, etc. weren’t even on “those old Delta farmers’” radars until the GMO debate began making headlines. The industry was teaming with opportunity. (more…)

Bootstrap at Willow Springs Farm: Meet Hannah

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Welcome to our 2015 Bootstrap Blog series! Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to our four Bootstrap Bloggers, who are all in their first or second year of running a farm. Throughout the season, each Bootstrap Blogger will write about the highs and lows, glory moments and curveballs that come with farming.

 

Hi! I’m Hannah Becker, founding farmer of Willow Springs Farm. Located in Franklin County, Kansas, Willow Springs Farm is a first-generation, bootstrapped startup focused on producing high quality grass-fed beef products. Our farm currently has 15 acres under operation, with another 45 leased acres designated for future development. We just wrapped up our first crowdfund campaign, and look forward to purchasing our inaugural herd August first.

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I did not have many opportunities to explore agriculture despite my strong passion to “be a cowgirl” since the young age of five. Determined to pursue my dreams of owning a cattle operation, I graduated with a B.S. in Animal and Diary Science, and my Masters of Business Administration (MBA). Additionally, I became one of the first female cattle producers recognized as a “Master Cattle Producer” by Mississippi State Extension, and completed the Masters of Beef Advocacy Certification.

hannahbecker2My objective for Willow Springs Farm is to lead the Kansas City area in high quality beef production by producing enough beef in 2020 to feed 150 community members. As a self-funded farming operation, Willow Springs’ development requires innovative strategy and determination. Completing my undergrad and graduate school education required the resources of student loans. (more…)