Tim Young: How To Start A Small Farming Business

Many readers of this website have shared with us their hopes of one day shedding their office jobs for a more meaningful, more resilient life involving a deeper connection with Nature. Starting a small-scale farming business is the most common dream we hear from these folks.

But how to get started? And.. Can you really make a living at it?

In this week's podcast we're joined by Tim Young, who made the transition to 'artisan entrepreneur' after spending twenty-five years in marketing roles within the high tech industry.

Tim credits his business background for his successful transition. And he realized along the process that it's the lack of such business skills -- more than any other factor -- that determines whether a new farmer will make it or not.

So to help those considering making the same career jump he did, Tim founded Small Farm Nation, which which offers 'farm-preneurs' practical guidance for growing their farm businesses.

His first and most important advice: Successful small farming is just 20 percent about growing stuff, and 80 percent about marketing effectively to your customers.

When we started operating our farm, we used to do farm tours. A whole bunch of people would come out, and one of the things that I noticed was how many of them wanted to live vicariously through us. They were looking to do something like we were. But they had a number of unanswered questions that prevented them from moving forward. Questions like: How do I start a farm? How do I run it? And: Can you make money farming? That's was the single question we heard more than any other.

I noticed that the biggest limiting factor was that most people just lack the business skills to make a farm -- or, quite frankly, any small business -- successful. And my own firsthand experience had taught me that the skills that are required to make a business marketing firm successful aren't really any different than the skills required to make a small diversified livestock farm, or an artisan cheese business, successful. They really are one and the same.

So the Small Farm Nation Academy was created to help those folks interested in becoming any type of small direct marketing producer (i.e., people who are trying to go to market directly and not be caught in the commodity business). That includes farmers, soap makers, cheese makers, equestrians, breweries, wineries, distilleries, etc -- anyone who's using the land to create an artisan product. We walk them through the steps they need to follow to determine where their revenue is going to come from, what products they're going to offer, what their go-to-market strategy is going to be, what their cost structure should be, what their critical success factors are -- and all the other elements necessary for being successful with their business. 

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Tim Young (51m:28s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/tim-young-how-to-start-a-small-farming-business/

I hate marketing. Here in Spokane we have a group who does it for you: http://www.lincfoods.com/about/
I am not a member but if I produce more than I can consume next year I plan to join. Grain farmers have been doing the coop thing for 100+ years.

How much capital did this dude blow through to start his cheese business? Sounds like into the 7 figures. There’s lots of good perspectives in this interview — and the topic is alluring — but, seriously, if you’re a multi-million dollar ex-investment banker you can do this kind of thing. For the rest of us, it’s gonna have to be a hobby around the day job.

is how small can you go? What is the smallest amount of money to start investing; smallest amount of land; smallest amount of time invested/week, to start with? Is this topic addressed on the Academy website?

Without a doubt, small scale farming is a terrible way to see a return on your investment. As in real estate investments," location, location, location" is the operative phrase. Without a solid business plan and a cost effective way to get you product noticed and on its way to market, you may be better off putting your $$ into Bitcoins. I moved to the country 35 years ago and have eaten fresh produce and home grown products (yes, including cheese) and have raised a family of 7 people on a single income during that time. It has not come without sacrifice, however. The overarching concern in this discussion is, however, not about your return on investment in dollar value, but in health, community and self reliance. As a monetary investment, we’ll see what the return is on our 3 acres only when we sell it. In the meantime, we are going to be subsidizing a 4 acre parcel with living accommodations attached, solar power, rainwater catchment, geo-thermal assisted heating with one of our kids and husband. We have always overproduced food and have given and traded much of it to friends, family and the local food bank, when possible. If you’re really serious about getting back to the land, beware, serfdom can still be the outcome if your eyes are on the wrong goals. Maybe revisiting Gene Guarino’s interview might be more appropriate. Try these on for inspiration:

I would recommend you watch curtis stone’s urban farming channel on Youtube. I believe he is farming on just a few acres, but he is growning speciality crops for local high dollar resturants that demand the best. Curtis does offer a training program, It use to be free, but now he has to charge because of the Canadian gov’t (no unpaid internships permitted).
That said. Unless you are able to obtain “paying” clients to supply produce directly to, you going to find farming profits challenging on the small scale. Most farms are at least 80+ acres. As far as time & effort invested, that largely depends on the crop or livestock you choose to grow, but generally farming is a lot of work, When your not tending crops or livestock your repairing or maintaining infrasturture (fences, outbuidlings) or machinary (tractor, tractor attachments, harvesting equipment). Farmers usually get up early and go to bed late most working days.
FWIW: Unless you already have a family farm, or can follow Curtis Stone’s model, your going to need a lot of capital to start a farm. Farming takes decades of experience, from understanding the markets (to know which crops to plan, so you don’t end up with a worthless crop because the market is saturated - ie price drops below production costs), how to deal with fungus, insect and plant diseases, Operating & maintaining heavy machinary (engines, hydraulics, drive train). Maintaining your property (fences, irrigation, errosion, out building). The list go on. The more you rely on others to take care of tasks you don’t want to do, or can’t because you don’t know how, the more difficult it will be to earn a wage.
There are plenty of Youtube farmer channels showing how they operate their farms.

As I mentioned on this podcast, I have direct experience with small-scale farming & ranching. I owned a stake in a meat CSA, and I have served for three years on the board of Farm Trails, a non-profit that supports the economic viability of local agricultural producers here in Sonoma County, CA.
Farming and ranching is hard work. But I’ve not yet encountered a small farm that failed because it couldn’t figure out how to produce enough product.
Instead, nearly every failed farm I know of failed because of one thing: running out of working capital.
Expenses exceeded revenues long enough to burn through all of the available funding. Workers couldn’t be paid, vendors couldn’t be paid, distributors couldn’t be paid.
For a farmer, success depends on growing revenues and controlling costs every bit as much as it does on growing a good tomato. Like it or not, the business side is key.
Yet most folks who go into small-scale farming are deficient in business skills. They rarely have anywhere near the years of experience (if any) in business that they do in farming. As a result, they often struggle to remain profitable because their focus is overwhelmingly on the production side of things vs the bottom line.
From my first-hand experience, I have seen and continue to see the real positive impact business optimization can have on small-scale farming operations. Marketing, cost accounting, inventory control – these 3 disciplines alone will make the difference between sustainable profits and company-killing losses.
But how does a busy small farmer learn these skills?
That’s why I appreciate so much what Tim is doing. He’s offering access to a knowledge base through his Academy, as well as to a community of farmers putting these skills into practice who are sharing advice, best practices and ideas. I think a subscription to the Academy is only $25 per month, which IMO is a crazy bargain. Farmers finally have an affordable “go to” resource for direction.
On top of that, for farmers who want even more custom attention to their specific business situation, he offers mastermind discussions on key topics and 1-on-1 counseling.
So, yes, small-scale farming is really tough and will not make you rich overnight. But if you don’t want to doom yourself to outright failure or permanent financial struggle, you must focus on the business side as intently as you do on the production side.

Adam and TechGuy both have some good points in a prickly pear of a problem
Urban Ag, permaculture, the countergreen revolution, and…for the lack of better term, the utter destruction of the planet and its insects, still produce a huge number of variables for modern farmer john. As many wise people have pointed out, including guests on this site, we have a lot of the human race being shoved into mega-cities. We have a whole generation (or two) of humans who have forgotten how to make food just at the very moment the dependent, destructive and poisonous food system is about to collapse. I’m not sure food is going to be produced in entirely “traditional” ways moving forward. And I’m not sure its gonna be with a lot of carbon gulping machines. Besides, the plants should be the ones gulping the carbon.
As TechGuy points out, there are ways to make a living in very non traditional ways. Some folks now coordinate suburban plots and perhaps barter that space for food payback by the folks who sit on the land. There are incredible efficiencies in urban farming when a huge density of eaters and restaurants are in an abnormally small arms reach. I think “farming” may have to give way to “gardening” for us to literally survive the transition away from this human chapter of mass irresponsibility. I think there will be an enormous window of opportunity for creative growers. And I think they will be absolutely vital and necessary. As Adam points out, all of that will still take “business analysis,” but even business analysis, in this crazy digital and destructive era, needs to look forward, and as this site is so good at doing, step back and soak in the big picture. Who knows…

My advice to new aspiring farmers is to stay flexible and find your niche. It took me 6 years farming to figure out what direction to go in to make a profit. You might want to start with vegetables but find that the market is too crowded, and you might end up raising cattle instead.

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