Farm Incubator/ New Farmer meet up
Total farming noob here, just want to make a living growing and selling… but how do I get there?
I’m trying to organize a bit of a discussion around the plan to develop a Farm Incubator in Kamloops, and address the some of the challenges that most new farmer will face in their first years.
Farm Incubators facilitate new farmers with training programs, business planning and access to land. The viability and success of this program is important to our regional food security, and will make a world of difference to those entertaining the idea of this type of career.
In particular, the Farm incubator program will need to develop methods to generate long term soil fertility on less than ideal (or contaminated) land. This includes developing strategies for contaminant removal/neutralization, and ongoing soil tests to ensure appropriate amendments are added.
The proposed site at the TCC Ranch is contaminated land, and may require a multi year reclamation plan before it becomes safe for food production. Planning and implementing this approach will require significant volunteer hours, and this presents the challenge of ongoing committed group involvement.
Central to this program will be the development of a training model, which tries to address the needs of mentor and trainee. Creating a well structured training farm will require organized planting schedules, work delegation, crop rotation, etc. Building model intensive farms with which to train new applicants would allow for a more consistent training method, and this may also help the program to generate a revenue stream year to year
Thursday January 14, 2016 there is an Agriculture Land Leasing Workshop being held in Kamloops, and if there seems to be an interest perhaps we could book a date, later in the month for some group disscussion.
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Hi Jason- did we meet at the KFPC meeting the other night? I will be attending the
agriculture land leading workshop. I have attended these before and can’t say that I left with confidence around the networking capabilities. It seems that there is opportunity around land share and I know a few land owners/farmers that would be happy to share and exchange land for shared work & resources. Perhaps the upcoming workshop will help with logistics and legalities. In box me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and we can chat about particulars. Networking at our permaculture meeting may be a possibility as well.
Well Jason, as I said I went right down your exact path, more or less a gardening noob, with a fair amount of permaculture reading and some small amount of experimentation…and failed. Well…I had to give up in order to better support my family.
So i want to give you the hard truth that I found. But please know that this may not be your experience.
Growing food that is marketable is not easy.
Marketing food that is grow-able is not easy.
Making a living doing either or both of these things is not easy.
However, it is both possible and necessary that more young people get their fingers in the dirt.
#Step 1: Get to know some marketable varieties of plants.
I had very little when I attempted my foray into farming. If you don’t have much, then I suggest that you start right now. Here is a link @Shelaigh shared
about building a small hydroponic setup out of PVC and pop bottles…
#Step 2: Write a good, detailed, honest business plan.
Marketing food is just as important as growing it. I have found that this is actually a fairly rare combination of skills. I interviewed and worked with so many farmers, mostly aging farmers mind you, who had absolutely no business sense. One couple had bought a big van and were driving it to Kelowna from Rural Okanagan, 1.5 hours for years. It was until they got a business consultant that they were able to properly run the numbers and realize that they were rarely turning a profit on that weekly trip. People who innately understand plants, which are real, alive and growing, tend to not be good at seeing the abstract virtual numbers that make up their cashflow statements, cost of goods sold, and budgets.
Part of why my business failed, is that I had enrolled in an EI funded program through Community Futures. I had a few months to prove my business concept, got a stipend to live on in the meantime, and had to have a business plan. I started this whole insane project around March, beginning to jump through hoops into the program, and planning my growing. I got land in April and started digging. I was late to get the garden planned and up and running, I had around 40,000 sqft to work, of which I think I actually planted around half, maybe a little more. Finding the time to write a business plan, a garden plan, and actually plant and maintain the garden turned out to be impossible.
I wouldn’t expect to make a living until you have good experience with the plants you intend to market, and have a good business plan. Get this under your belt before you pull the trigger and expect to make money.
This is a big part of why ‘young farmers’ are always mentioned in this discussion. Somebody jumping into the farming market now, needs to be able to take a risk. The more financial as well as general life obligations you have (debt, family, bills, work, etc) the better your business plan will have to be to lower the risk you are taking.
#Step 3: If you don’t already have it, find land. (and if you don’t have any, fast track yourself to step 4)
This is the biggest barrier to entry. Real estate has gotten expensive, and it is hard to pay for it growing good healthy food for a niche market. I would not expect to be able to buy land and pay for it by growing food without some sort of intense operation involving lots of overhead. Real Estate is overhead, and overhead breeds overhead.
Check into SPIN farming. http://www.spinfarming.com/buy/
Small Plot Intensive Farming
There is a modest fee to get the information, the system. It is well worth the investment, as it can just be almost copy and pasted into your business plan, and will fill out the bulk of the operations portion of your plan.
It is a low overhead system. I believe low-overhead operations are the future of sustainable entrepreneurship. You don’t own any land. You find front yards, back yards, side yards, public land, under-used rural land, friends, neighbors, etc. It is very easy to find these kinds of arrangements for a few hundred sqrft here and there. Ideally you are able to find at least one fairly good sized plot of at least 5-10,000 sqrft to be HQ, maybe with a shed to store your gear, and a place to process for market.
By removing real estate costs from the equation, you cut your financial obligations significantly which also lowers your risk.
#Step 4: Network
Especially if you are SPIN farming, you will need to network to satisfy step 3.
But networking is going to be essential. Here’s what I consider to be the first principle of economics:
“Connect unmet needs with under-utilized resources”
You want to find land that is not currently growing food and then use it to grow food to sell to hungry humans. TO PEOPLE. What I really hadn’t considered deeply enough as I started my own journey was that I had to see this food to actual people. So not only was I in the dirt all day, writing a business plan, but I had to go out exhausted and shake hands and talk talk talk.
Marketing is all about relationships. You are competing with food that is filled with addictive additives, has billion dollar marketing budgets, that is convenient, easy to store, easy to prepare, easy to acquire and relatively cheap (although I think it is crazy expensive in the grand scheme). The food corporations have built up massive networks of relationships in order to get food to the store; with transport, retail, consumers, media, as well as things like legal, marketing, and financial services.
Start talking passionately about what you want to do. In today’s market, a big buzz is that consumers are buying “meaning” just as much as they are buying products. Think ‘greenwashing’; electric cars that will stop climate change, fair trade coffee, ethically made clothing, etc. Many people pay for things that they may not want or need if there is a good story behind it. WRITE YOUR STORY, and start TELLING IT to anybody who will listen.
You never know who will will meet. Most successful young farmer, low overhead start-ups have some sort of commercial business that they sell to. Restaurants, store fronts, caterers, food trucks. These places will buy far more food than a consumer. Talk to other farms, you need this for your business plan anyways. If you find other passionate young farmers, I found they were always willing to help out. They may know of a niche that could be filled. Many like minded farmers just want to see food security, and so they know there is a lot of work to do, and will help find you something to do. Perhaps, if you don’t have much experience, you can work, volunteer, shadow or apprentice at a farm.
Step 5: Grow food on the land you have secured.
Step 6: Market food to the network you have developed.
Marketting fresh produce is very difficult. If you have ever had a garden, you will know that it would make no sense at all to go through your garden chopping it all down, and then racing to eat it. You pick a leaf here, a leaf there, a root over there, and make a salad while the plants continue to thrive. Marketting is that chop it down and race to sell it.
I would strongly suggest that SOMEBODY try and find a good way to market food that you DON’T KILL FIRST. If you can find a few SPIN farm plots downtown, try selling lettuce by the leaf to people. I would absolutely love WALK to your garden, walk through with some guidance, and pick myself a salad and some veggies to grill for dinner. The key here, is that you are 100% sure that every single piece of produce that you are going to remove from its life-source, represents a sale. It could also be a very good social experience, spending time with customers, showing them what you do. Now of course, this is like inviting somebody into your kitchen. I used to be a camp cook, and am used to cooking in front of large groups of people that I will serve, but this makes many uncomfortable. I wanted to do this idea so bad, but I was in a rural place, which was another big factor in my failure.
look into CSA programs, Community Supported Agriculture. My dream, that was in motion for a short time, was a place in coldstream that was 10 acres with a ring of rural suburban houses around the outside, and I hoped to be able to just have them all sign up to have food dropped on their doorstep. CSA programs will provide you with cashflow. Usually, consumers pay a monthly, weekly, or by-the-box fee for a bulk amount of food that trickles in during the growing season. The great part is you have some idea of how much to grow, and also that like the above idea, you are more sure that the food you kill represents a sale as compared to showing up to a farmers market with a truck load of food you hope to sell.
Think outside the farmers market. This may sound like blasphemy. But I really think that farmers markets are a stop-gap, they do not support food security beyond being a visible place where food is exchanged. Think of the farmer’s market as a marketting/networking opportunity more than a sales opportunity. Find a good sales avenue outside of the market.
Local Food. I think a place like downtown Kamloops is actually ripe for the kind of thing I mentioned above. There are a lot of people downtown into local food and the market. Find an area like 200 nicola with a lot of appartments, and try and get whole appartment blocks to support you. Find a place where you can grow enough food to sell to people who can walk to it (or perhaps walk to them…)
Winters are hard. If you are considering this a livelihood, you need to find a way to get cashflow during the winter. Preserve food, Store roots, run workshops, find a greehouse, grow sprouts or something that can be done indoors etc.
Something I was experimenting with, and it goes with the idea that people will buy meaning. You definitely will have to sell food. But if you can find a way to make a large portion of your product NOT-FOOD, then you circumvent the winter problem. Perhaps you sell the service of providing a pathway to food security by collecting on-going monthly contributions. The food your customers is more proof that they are getting what they are paying for than it is the actual product. I would pay for this, in the neighbourhood of $40-$60 per month, as I do not anticipate having the time to garden much even if I do have land. I tend to go to the market with $60-$80 in my pocket. it isn’t like the store, where I am trying to get out of their spending as little as possible. I am looking for things to buy so that I can support small-scale local food culture and food security.
Do some research on pocket markets. Nu-Leaf on the North Shore is a fairly involved version of this. Although it is a different animal, finding places and ways to market food is just as important as growing it. The big thing I don’t like about Nu-leaf, is that it is owned by a farm, and so you only get that one option for most things. They also sell a lot of regular market prodcue (same deal as safeway next door, shipped in). It is nice that it is a couple of blocks away, but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough from a food security standpoint. The new economy is hopefully an open-source free-market. I think this is another business that this town could use. A small shop front that runs year round, selling local, healthy, food to people on foot and bike. If we are serious about food security, there needs to be a pocket market in Juniper Ridge, Batch, Aberdeen, Dallas, Baryardvale, rivershore, etc. There is a huge opportunity there, if maybe a little bit too early. People are still afraid of some of these ideas. I think they may be willing to give up that fear if they are hungry enough however. We just aren’t hungry enough.
Value-added. If you can ad value to your produce, you can either sell more volume, or sell at a premium. Adding Value means essentially pouring your labour and capital into the food, and selling it at a higher price. Maybe you do garden to table workshops in your garden. Maybe you make pickles, sauerkraut, or dried preserves. This can be as simple as supplying recipes with your produce.
Okay one more…promise
If it seems like this is a steep learning curve, never forget that a large portion of your target market is on the same learning curve. We have forgotten how to grow, preserve and prepare real food. Play on that common ground. And helping them conquer that learning curve is a good way to add value to your product.
#Step 7: If you have the idea that you are going to be able to do all of these things competently at once, forget that idea. You certainly always be marketing yourself and networking. You can always be learning about plants. But don’t expect to do it all at once.
Chew on that for a while. Feel free to reach out here or on Facebook (Bradley Maker) for feedback, clarification, encouragement, love and support.
I’m looking forward to this workshop!
you’ve brought up some key aspects to building a profitable market garden business, and I appreciate hearing your perspective.
The points you’ve raised, touch on why the micro farm industry is struggling to emerge. Barriers to land access, available marketing strategies, startup costs, the knowledge gap, and so on.
Together these challenges highlight why it is so important to have outreach programs, like the one you’ve participated in.
There are few other aspects that I have found which may determine ones odds of success: available labour, cashflow, and storage ability.
The prospective farmer will likely have to find an alternative means to cover day to day expenses, atleast in the startup years.
Storage capacity is essential to preventing waste, and for aquiring early and late season revenue.
Reliable low cost labour… This being a sore point for the farmers I have met. Having a WOOFER on hand is great, but not paying someone a living wage is nearly exploitive.
I think working on co-operative models is the way to get past a lot of these barriers. Co-op land ownership or leasing. Co-operative storage. Co-operative business planning and execution.
We have all become trapped in our little suburban boxes, we have replaced community with currency.
Working together is the solution. Find others that have a similar dream, and work together to share resources.