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Adding Revenue Sources to the Small Family Farm

“You’ll never get rich farming!” this was the first welcome I received from my neighbor after buying our first farm. We have the smallest farm in the valley, just 10 acres, but it’s ALL ours! It was once the central property of a 1,000+ Acre dairy farm that produced for the entire region and was well known from the very early 1900’s until it’s eventual multiple land sell-offs, rejection from the children of the original settlers and the final insult was a series of destructive renters who carelessly allowed things to fall into decay. 4 barns, 6 outbuildings, the main farmhouse, multiple fallen or ‘harvested’ buildings and 50 years fallow land…all 10 acres of it. I heard out the offer, bid a bit lower seeing a total re-build of every building from the frames up, and bought it for 1/2 the estimated market value. In 6 years we have quadrupled our investment and we are almost half finished!
But as we have gotten the buildings and fences mended, windows replaced and floors relaid…new roofs on the house and two barns and doors made….yes..the buildings, all together, were mysteriously missing 43 or the 54 total doors leading to the outside…it’s as if there were some great door dearth and the entire community scavenged doors from THIS farm! And as the new roof was going on the house and we were moving in the neighbor called me over to the fence, and after ascertaining that I was not a new renter or squatter settling in to stripping the plumbing out and stealing the windows (for some…weird…reason) they blithely announced “Well, you’ll never get rich farming, THAT’s for sure!” and with that they sauntered on along the fence line with their tiny dogs and not well muffled laughter at the new ’city folk’ thinking they could be farmers!
As it tuned out these would be the nicest neighbors I had EVER had and they were full of wonderful wisdom and lifesaving tips on how to make due when the right thing wasn't on hand! They moved on because of age and illness but they were wonderful people at just the right time!
I took to heart their comment and determined to make this little homestead at least cover it’s own property taxes and provide all of our food! I worked for years in the medical field and finally as a radiation physics safety inspector for medical treatment facilities across Europe (MSRTRIA-for those interested) and my retirement savings would buy chips and Oreos, screws and nails until we got things off the ground.
1st we needed our home to be livable. So to the big box shop and lumber yards (remember $9.60 - 3/4” OSB Dense, $17.00 both side smooth 3/4” one side oak cabinetry plywood and $1.39 ea. Studs? (I KNOW it was just three years ago!) I decided I didn’t want to make many trips so we piled the truck and trailer both high with supplies and are STILL using lumber from that first purchase! Looking back, such foresight has saved us almost $460,000 to date! We got out home in order (still needs work) and then got the barns sound and dry for storage. New roofs, windows, flooring, sub flooring, radiant heating…but that’s not what this is about. You want to know how to live off your homestead!
There are some basic certainties.
First: A profitable small acreage farm starts with a significant investment. Unless you have perfect business sense, a very high profit product and investors with an appetite for significant risk…you need to start with low or NO property payments, the basic infrastructure already in place and enough cash to burn through both living expenses and business building without any income for at least the first year…probably 3-6 years without breaking even.
Second: NO Debt! If you are not in a place in your life where you have paid off all debt and can focus all of your means on the singular project of turning your small homestead into a thriving business (until you reach reliable profitability - also known as ‘Repeat Customers’) then you may not be ready for homesteading. Of course this can all be mitigated if at least one person in the family has an adequate REGULAR income from work or retirement to sustain ALL of the needs of everyone on the farm and the many costly emergency expenses that will pop up….starting from the moment you move in…. Everyone involved needs to have the peace of mind and security that there is going to be Water, Food, Heat and the needed supplies to move forward with the endeavor. MORALE IS KEY and unless every person living and working on the farm has the confidence that their most basic needs can be met on an ongoing basis you will not have the full attentiveness of every person so very necessary to focus on the work and make a success of the homestead.
Third: Goals. Everyone in the family and any employees that you take on MUST be FULLY invested in your goals. They must be simple, clear and achievable. Stay away from imprecise and unclear goals such as “We want to make money in our first year” and focus more on small achievable goals that everyone understands and can participate in, like ‘Have the Garden tilled, weeded, fertilized and planted by April 18th, 2022’. This is a goal that is clear, has the progression of necessary chores built into the simply stated objective and can easily be divided up into jobs with a clear cut finish point and date! In short, IT’S ACHIEVABLE! It’s a thing you all can DO! If you can reduce every goal into several smaller goals and divide those smaller goals into daily chores with a timeline of accomplishments…when they MUST BE DONE BY…dates…you can accomplish EVERYTHING.
Fourth: Expect (but don’t ACCEPT) ‘Failure’. Sometimes the thing you will do will fail. You may plant 200 carrots in neat rows and end up with none. If you are a carrot farmer, exclusively, this is disaster! But if you are a small acreage homesteader this is just ‘Tuesday’. Not everything succeeds. But you can take a few moments to identify what went wrong, if the failure is specific to someone not performing their daily assigned tasks, this is simple. Have a discussion and reaffirm the group goals, identify if low (or no) morale could be part of the problem or if something was not planned well or followed through correctly…and once you know what went wrong you can correct it on paper, draw up a new plan in writing that everyone understands and TRY TRY AGAIN! Our first year of harvesting the garden yield 18 daikon radishes as ‘hot’ as the sun, 32 red common radishes, 3 unnibbled leaves of lettuce and 6 under developed cucumbers that were soft…NOT an enormous success! We had Voles. THOUSANDS of VOLES! But after a short discussion we came up with a plan! The second year’s garden yielded 1700lbs of vegetables! It lasted through the entire Winter months feeding us without reliance on the grocery store! NOW we have a working plan for our garden! Failure should ALWAYS lead to solutions, stronger relationships and clearer, better defined goals!
Fifth: DIVERSIFY!!! This cannot be overstated! When making your plan you have two options: 1. Specialize in one single product that is unique to your area, in short supply and high demand (even if you have to CREATE the demand!). 2. Diversify. This, in many ways can be more difficult but also has the highest chance of success. On our farm we have sought multiple diverse revenue streams: Vegetables for Farmer’s Market, Sheep for wool and meat, Chickens for eggs, Bees for many profitable revenue streams: Bees produce Honey, Wax, More Bees and Queens, Royal Jelly and help your garden and fields to prosper wildly! We are starting Meat Rabbits this year! We also re-seeded our fields and plan to produce at least part of the needed Winter feed for the sheep and rabbits as well as build healthier pasture. The final product that is often overlooked or thought of as a problem…MANURE! If you’ve been paying attention, Fertilizer will be in critically short supply this year. We have over 30 tons of brown gold sitting in various states of compost and ready for our own fields and for SALE! Yep! POOP is a revenue stream!
Sixth: Constantly be thinking on how you can improve! Most of the jobs you do throughout your 7x16 hours days will be routine. Fencing, fence repairs, feeding animals, cleaning animal stalls, milking, collecting honey etc., watering, weeding, checking on animals throughout the day for safety, health and danger…are all monotonous, tedious, boring and repetitive, repetitive, repetitive……ad nauseum…. You mind can either descend into bland oatmeal mush, you can count your steps or you can think about feeding systems, automatic watering systems, better slaughter procedure, more efficient cleaning, garden row spacing for efficient weeding and harvesting. Infrastructure improvements and repairs, welding or building machines to help do your work…or do it in your absence….like early morning rabbit pellet dish refills? A snow plow for your quad or farm truck….stable stands for bee hives that keep predators out….making hay feeders that waste much less hay….even feed mixers out of motors and scrap metal lying about the farm to do the job of the feed mixing machine for $28,998.00 (that just went up $2,160 AGAIN over the last two months!) that you saw at the ag fair but couldn’t justify buying for your 30 sheep and rabbit feed needs….(with thought I invented one that cost less than $350 and mixes/blends/prepares 2 tons of feed per hour!) or simply thinking through efficient ways to get the NEW jobs that are not even on the list done! If you are not constantly thinking you are planning to fail….or sink hopelessly into debt!
Seventh: SPECIFIC BUDGET! Once you have established patterns of operation in your first year you have a better idea of what it will take to run your farm every month. You have been through a Winter and know what it will cost to keep you, your animals, their babies and their water warm and thawed. You have lived through a couple of vetrenary emergency calls at hundreds of dollars each… You know about how much feed the animals will eat, the medications and vaccines etc. that you will be injecting to keep them healthy and in good repair and you have seen an inflationary cycle and can ‘guess-te-mate‘ the potential costs for maintaining what you are doing, growing, adding projects and revenue streams and you have a better (though not complete) idea of what you MUST have set aside for emergencies. Last Summer we experienced a rare 6 week drought. A ‘Heat Dome’. Our normal 80-90F temperatures for those 6 weeks went up to 119F EVERY DAY and remained at 92-102F EVERY night! Combines with a Federal policy change that shut down hay production and grazing on Federal land (a Jan. 22nd gift) the fourth generation of of hay producers on that land lost their jobs, businesses, farms,Our pasture failed and our well burned out the wiring from added water usage. Hay crops failed from heat. Winter feed hay went from $80 tonne to $400-$900 tonne…and the sheep still needed good hay during the reproduction cycle and nursing! The rabbits need hay too! So last year our feed bill went up 1000% and the well repairs cost $11,000….with ME doing most of the work! I don’t mean to alarm anyone or discourage you from trying but sometimes horrible things happen and they seems to come in clusters. In our first year I bumped a main power line…$12,000 due by the NEXT DAY -repairs that I could not make! It meant that two barns, the woodshop, garage and machine shop also had to be repowered and rewired….another $11,600. All due THAT WEEK! I did all those repairs myself. If you don’t budget for emergencies, which are regular and much costlier than in a home or apartment, you will end up with credit card or mortgage debt for long term that you DID NOT PLAN….and now must be added to your monthly bills. (See: Suggestion #2)
Eighth: (probably should be ’Last’…I do go on..) You may not be used to promoting yourself but with a small homestead that should start producing at least some surplus product by the second or third year…you will now have to rely on ‘the oldest profession in the world’, ADVERTISING! (She had to TELL SOMEONE first!) you need to find out where people in your area are getting their information. If you are rural this could be at the Farmer’s Market, cafe, the feed shop, the farm store, local garage, barber shop or tire shop, radio or ONLINE….Everyone hears about, finds out about or asks about the things they need SOMEWHERE and you have to find out the three most likely places that happens and begin trying to reach people there. I’m 60 so I hate to admit it but the classified ads are no longer the gold mine that they once were! You should talk to your neighbors who are doing what you are doing…go looking for them by driving around your community. Very few (though I can tell you from experience there will be SOME) will chase you off with a loaded shotgun…and they probably aren’t doing much thriving business of the type you are interested in anyways…. Once you have taken a few months to thoroughly isolate the best points of contact with your broader community (don’t discount Radio! EVERYONE has a pickup where we live and they all mostly listen to three main stations!) you are finally ready to begin throwing some money at it. Begin with FREE. This costs you nothing but time and printer ink. Post what you have, leave business cards (a dying art form) in every local business that will let you. Check to make sure they are STILL THERE at least weekly. It may sound corny but have clearly printed tear off tabs with business name, primary product, phone/TEXT numbers AND EMAIL!!! (do NOT use Gmail…it is unprofessional and will not yield results! Get a customer email account for your business…mine is “SSShire@pm.me” short sweet and easy! Our farm is the Sheep Shape Shire and anyone can remember this short email!)
The most painful and heart stopping step in advertising is signing the contract. When you advertise on line you MUST back that up with a Web Site that people can go to and contact you through. It has to have all the information you want them to see right up front and easily understood. Your product has to be EASY to find, order and PAY FOR using their smart phone..through multiple payment platforms…. within seconds or you will lose their interest and they will never look at your flier again! With many people you have just one chance…two at the most.
In this Smart Phone Era many people do their grocery shopping, travel plans, scheduling and even business through the Smart Phone. They will leave their wallet at home, forget their glasses, forget to fill the gas tank but they will NEVER be without their Smart Phone. If your product is not easily available and clearly understood on a single Smart Phone page vies without having to scroll…you just missed a sale. And they won’t be back….unless they are….in which case you got lucky!
So these are some of the realities that we have discovered. There is certainly MUCH MUCH MORE than this and if you are still reading this you are probably pretty serious about getting and starting a homestead and making it work. If this is your sideline you still have to make sure that it is not costing you money. If it is your hobby and you don’t mind working hard and spending your ’spare’ cash on your hobby then just enjoy it all and do what you love! Most of us love what we are doing AND trying to make it our source of income or at least self-sustaining and reducing our living costs.
Very few of us are financial geniuses (myself foremost!) and we learn the hard way after blowing out the budget and then realizing we could have done without! *I bought $2,400. New electric corded AND cordless sheep shears anticipating shearing my sheep. They weigh 260lbs+ and I weigh 160lbs dripping wet….and I’m 60 and disabled…so while I have a tool for crunching and trimming as needed (which IS handy) it is nothing I couldn’t have done with a $60 professional hand shears! I still have to call the shearer twice per year (my breed of sheep grows wool FAST!) and it only costs me about $200 per shot. I could have paid for shearing for six years for the price of the shears and used that money elsewhere. These are the kinds of decisions that should be thought through for several months or even a full annual cycle before making…and breaking the budget. Once you make your ‘Final Draft’ budget….take it out in the yard with your significant other and have a good belly laugh, tear it into tiny pieces and use it for kindling to start your first of many refuse/weed burn piles that will become part of your life now. Smile in the knowledge that you ’ALMOST’ had it right….and then add 50% for the unexpected…then take that money, set it aside and absolutely NEVER touch those funds no matter how desperate you become unless it is an ACTUAL
”life can’t go on unless we get this done” emergency. Then take a day to talk about it and see if there is ANY other way to not tap your ‘emergency’ money without going into debt….be SURE it is necessary RIGHT NOW!…then swallow hard and write the check…and start saving again to replace it as if your future depends on it….because it DOES!
I hope this helps. I have to go feed my bottle babies now! They have expanded to FOUR and we aren’t half done yet!
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