Courtesy Tim Roth/Flickr
We small-scale farmers might not consider ourselves in the same entrepreneurial league as the high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, but we actually have a strategic advantage against conventional business ventures that work under the cloud of overhead, payroll and debt. We family farmers are small, lean and readily able to diversify. As nimble operations, we can make decisions quickly (no board of directors to report to), test out multiple ideas to manage risk and readily experiment with ways to add to our income mix.
Take advantage of this flexibility, thinking beyond traditional farmers’ market sales to generate farm-based income. As demand for local food continues to grow, new opportunities sprout that enable us to increase income flow through diversification while providing additional venues to showcase our creativity and talents. Here are six ideas to broaden your farm-income horizons.
1. Host Off-Site Farm-to-Table Dinners
While the idea of hosting a farm-to-table dinner on your farm is appealing—who wouldn’t want to savor a meal under rural starry skies raised and prepared by the farmers themselves?—such an event can quickly get complicated and expensive. Some states require installation of a full commercial kitchen on-farm, along with other permits and requirements, such as separate bathroom facilities for guests.
Before you make such an investment, take inspiration from MaryAnn and Marc Bellazzini of Campo di Bella, a diversified family farm in southwestern Wisconsin. While they have a long-term vision of building on-farm infrastructure to support regular farm-to-table events, they’re renting space at their local church (which meets their state regulations) to host such dinners in the meantime.
"Renting kitchen and venue space at our church was a win-win for us because it enabled us to start our farm-to-table dinners quickly and garner both experience and income while we plan our larger venture,” MaryAnn Bellazzini says. "We learned a lot from this setup, from how to market and price the event to organizing the meal preparation, which will help us tremendously as we move forward.”
These dinners have further expanded their income base as they attract new customers who aren’t likely candidates for their weekly community-supported-agriculture shares, for instance, those who don’t like to cook but love going to (and paying for) a unique dinner out.
2. Trade Words for Cash
Share your food knowledge with others through the written word and earn income. In today’s online media world, there are specific resources out there that focus on the food blogging niche.
Pinch of Yum, a Minnesota-based food website run by the husband and wife team of Bjork and Lindsay Ostrom, is amazingly transparent about their food-blogging business. This duo shares the "how-to” side of successfully creating a Web-based source of income around food, from monthly income reports to three basic steps to starting a food blog. They also offer a fee-based food-blogging start-up portal, Food Blogger Pro.
3. Sell Direct to Chefs
Identify something local chefs are looking for and be their supplier, particularly catering to high-end chefs willing to pay a premium.
Paula Foreman, of Encore Farm in St. Paul, Minn., did exactly that by specializing in unique dried beans and selling to Lucia Watson, the chef and owner of Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Minneapolis, Minn.
"I grow unique heirloom varietals like Ireland Creek Annie—beans that you can’t find anywhere else,” Foreman explains. "Dried beans also expand my income, as they are different from a perishable crop that I have to sell that day, and chefs have time to feature them on their fall and winter menus.”
4. Raise Something Niche
Similar to polling chefs for on-demand ingredients, research the local market to see what unique products folks are looking to buy that currently aren’t being offered, particularly tailored to individuals with distinct dietary needs. For example, think about duck eggs. Devout bakers and pastry chefs love duck eggs, particularly for the thick, rich yolks that make delicious, creamy custards and fillings.
5. Cultivate Craft Supplies
What specialty items for crafters could you grow? These could be raw items, such as gourds for birdhouses or lavender for herbal crafts. Look around your farm and forage wild items, such as pinecones, acorns and curly willow tree branches, or twist your grapevine prunings into wreaths.
6. Supply Food Artisans
Seek out someone who is creating a specialty food product that uses your produce in larger quantities and develop that relationship. This can work out as a win-win for both you and the producer, as that food artisan might be OK with your seconds or less-than-perfect produce. Someone making fruit jams or tomato salsa might be perfectly happy with slightly blemished produce for a discount off premium farmers’ market prices.
Todd and Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, Calif., established their business around that exact principle: buying whatever their local farmers have in seasonal abundance and creating value-added items, from apricot chutney to quince candy.
"We joke that we are a farmer’s best friend,” Jordan Champagne says. "We’re always open to working with area farmers who have certain items in abundance and have designed products specifically around their harvest.”
Income diversification goes beyond simply increasing cash flow—it creates stability for your farm’s financial future. By creating diversified income sources, you’ll better manage risk by having multiple income streams. If one client goes under—say, that gourd-birdhouse maker moves and you no longer have a sales outlet—you’ll keep afloat because the jam maker you sell berries to is expanding. Stick to Grandma’s words of wisdom: "Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist farms, writes and runs a highly diversified operation from Inn Serendipity, her family’s farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin. She is co-author of the award-winning book ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008), Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009) and Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011).