During my stereotypical suburban upbringing a handful of decades ago, two words never entered my realm of career possibilities: “farmer” or “entrepreneur.”
I plugged away on the expected career track of getting a job requiring daily commutes to a cubicle. A paycheck was direct deposited in my bank account every two weeks.
While from the outside my life appeared “successful,” I felt empty inside and found no meaning or passion for what I was doing: creating advertising to sell more stuff.
In this article …
About the Author
Flash forward a few years: After I chuck the corporate cubicle scene for my five-acre slice of paradise in rural Wisconsin, I jump full-force into the role of both farmer and entrepreneur, as well as juggling all the other hats that go with living the self-employed, country life.
Learning What I Really Wanted
I realized that, personally, I didn’t need a regular paycheck–or a job offered by corporate America. Give me rolling green hills and an acre garden, independence to follow my passions and flexibility to grow my own ideas and keep my financial needs low.
I realized that running my own business on a farm setting, blending operating a bed and breakfast with growing fruits and vegetables for a market garden and writing or speaking nationally on topics I care about, adds up to an off-the-chart level of fulfillment, no pantyhose required.
Others Join the Trend
Turns out, I’m far from alone in choosing to take on the role of both farmer and entrepreneur. Net rural migration continues to rise as families like ours move to country settings seeking overall quality of life issues as well as the desire to start their own business.
Women constitute the largest and fastest growing group purchasing farms today, many of whom are considered “micro-farmers,” working with fewer than 50 acres and often growing foods organically.
Many also operate other small farm-based enterprises that cover categories from web-based technology to the arts or tourism, such as Inn Serendipity, the bed and breakfast we operate from our farm.
Farmers Place in History
In many ways, this entrepreneurial renaissance on the farm harkens back two centuries to Thomas Jefferson’s call for a nation of yeoman farmers, independent and self-reliant enterprises that fuel a vibrant national economy based on self-sufficiency within local communities.
While we may share Jefferson’s passion for agriculture-based enterprises, we’re not talking about grandpa’s farm business.
Thanks to the Internet and improved delivery services to rural areas, today’s farm-based entrepreneur possess inspiring potential to blend their passions with making a living while making a difference.
Qualities of an Entrepreneur
Throughout history and still today, farmers exude all the key qualities of successful entrepreneurs.
Ironically, common stereotypes laud the Donald Trumps of the world as the master entrepreneurs, but a farmer could trump Trump any day in self-reliance, independence and creativity.
Rather than inventing, mass producing and selling a new widget, farmers work with what supplies are already available in the barn and design their own unique way of solving a problem, whether it be efficiently getting water to the chickens or harvesting apples.
Not afraid to take a risk and try something different, farmers constantly experiment with innovative approaches.
What is an Ecopreneur?
A blooming segment of entrepreneurs are evolving into “ecopreneurs,” passionately creating businesses that go beyond building just profit, but reflect a desire to leave the world a better place and redefine success not by bank account size but by life’s tangibles: health, wellness, meaningful work, vibrant community life and family.
In our new book (co-written with my husband John Ivanko) ECOpreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Planet before Profits, we provide a detailed resource guide for this growing movement.
Given your love for the land and farming heritage, chances are you already an ecopreneur (see sidebar). By working in areas we are passionate about, we find meaning as ecopreneurs.
From raising rabbits to radishes, many of us moved to the farm because of the diversified quality of life farm living offered. No need to narrow things down to one interest area.
In fact, farm entrepreneurs thrive – both personally and profitably – when they take on a diversified livelihood. Like nature, we thrive on interdependence.
Think multidimensional: I call it a portfolio perspective.
Like a diversified stock portfolio, by having multiple income sources stemming from your passions, your livelihood provides multiple benefits to integrate and overlap these interests strategically, prompting our writing the ECOpreneuring book since few resources exist from such a perspective.
A Shifting Mindset: Job & Passion
Such a shift fundamentally alters the conventional perspective of separating your “job” from your “leisure” activities, the traditional idea that your job earns you money to pay for your leisure interests.
What if you love llamas and helping people learn to cook healthy, seasonal meals? Why not make both areas a part of your livelihood? Sell fiber on-line (a particularly good income source during the winter months) and teach on-farm hands-on workshops where participants harvest a bounty from your garden and learn to prepare one of your favorite recipes celebrating fresh flavors.
A portfolio perspective means looking at your life as multidimensional, not just one paycheck coming from one job but rather a range of income-generating sources. If one project disappeared, you’ll still have others.
Pruning our passions keeps entrepreneurs focused, working towards goals but doing so strategically. Start a strawberry U-pick, raise alpacas for fiber, write a novel and convert the chicken coop to a pottery studio.
Where to prune? One approach is to remember income generation. Prioritize projects and endeavors that help the bottom line and make your business viable.
Still, don’t neglect the passions that save money, meaning you have to earn less income. Growing your own food, repairing something instead of buying new, making your own holiday gifts instead of hitting the mall save money while still following your passions.
Blending Family and Business
As the media declares the demise of quality family time due to our fast-paced modern world, we farm entrepreneurs know a secret to keeping families connected: run a business together.
In the traditions of farming families of generations ago, farm-based businesses give everyone reasons to work together, communicate and rely on one another.
Instead of couples separately commuting to different jobs, husbands and wives grow closer through running a farm business together.
No surprise, working together magnifies the need for strong spousal communication. First thing after sunrise, John and I have our “morning meetings,” where we discuss priorities and schedules of the day, the weather’s effect on the farm chore list, what’s for dinner, errands needed in town and whatever else comes up.
When kids contribute to a family business they do more than just complete a round of chores; they become invested in the family and are exposed to the realities of economics.
Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, author of many farming business books, explained why he never gave his kids an allowance: “I don’t pay people for breathing.”
Instead, his children always had a role to play in the family’s business, Polyface Farm. Today, several of Joel’s children have matured into adults with their own families and have formally taken on managing aspects of this successful family-based venture.
How We Involve Our Child
We’ve adopted the same idea with our six-year old son, Liam. He operates a small market stand when we have open houses or tour groups come to the farm and deposits his earnings into his bank account.
He’s listed as an author of our cookbook, Edible Earth: Savoring the Good Life with Vegetarian Recipes from Inn Serendipity; he contributed his own chapter with his favorite recipes.
We want to instill in Liam the entrepreneurial and self-reliant spirit, enabling him to direct his own life and income and not have to rely on a job if he doesn’t want to.
Farm Entrepreneurship 101
Ready to take your hobby, your passion, to the next level of becoming a viable business? Here are some basic steps to help you get started.
Remember, particularly at this initial stage, to not feel overwhelmed by the idea of running your own business. Take baby steps, realizing a wealth of resources–from books to websites–are there to help.
The world of business can be supportive to entrepreneurial upstarts, but keep in mind it is complex and changing; you’ll want to obtain guidance on current issues from your accountant and attorney.
- Write Your Business Plan
Start putting your thoughts on paper. While business plans vary in formality, the basic idea remains: Take the time to strategically develop your vision for the business. You’ll end up with a document on paper that you can reference and adapt as you move along.
A piece of advice: Write your business plan in the winter. With the season-based farm lifestyle, the slower winter months offer an ideal downtime during which to reflect, brainstorm and peck away at the computer creating your plan.
Trying to focus on strategic thinking smack in the middle of garden harvest processing will lead to stress and neglect on all fronts.
The Small Business Administration website www.sba.gov provides general information on business plans and can direct you to your state’s SBA office for specific resources in your area.
- Select Your Structure
Choose a business structure based on how much personal liability protection you need. Generally, a corporation best protects the personal assets of the officers, stockholders and employees of the business; having a corporation reduces the risk that your house, personal property or bank accounts would be jeopardized if there were ever a court judgment against the business. If you decide to select and set up a corporation, be sure to obtain professional legal advice.
- Track Deductions
One key financial benefit to starting a small business is the many legitimate deductions available to your business. A business is taxed after expenses are deducted, so managing deductions effectively means your reported earnings will be reduced and you’ll owe less in taxes. A few examples of deductions>>
The key is to understand your target market: Who is the person buying your product or service and what is the most effective way to get the message out. The better you know your market, the more effectively you can reach them with your message.
When we first started our B&B, we paid rather large fees to be included in standard B&B directory guides. These guidebook listings tended to attract guests simply looking for a night’s B&B lodging.
When we started focusing more on our passions of organic gardening and renewable energy, we also began to donate room nights to like-minded nonprofit organizations for fund-raising events and taught food preservation workshops at our area food co-op. Not only did we eliminate the need to spend money on advertising but we also attracted the ideal guest, someone interested in and sharing our conservation and land stewardship passions.
For example, replace standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, which use about 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer, saving around thirty dollars or more in electricity costs over each bulb’s lifetime.
Embrace Failure & Innovate
This article provides an overview of some core small business concepts, but the key to your success remains keeping a positive attitude toward failure and remembering to innovate and try new ideas.
A perk of farm-based businesses is that you can try out various business ideas for a relatively low investment cost, a pack of seeds, for example. We planted a small field of sunflowers thinking we could sell them to the Chicago market two hours away.
Turns out, we didn’t have large and cool enough transport systems to get them to the city – plus we weren’t savvy enough with organic flower growing techniques to keep the bugs at bay. No problem, as we had just invested a few packets of seeds and we could readily learn from the experience and move on.
Wear your farmer and entrepreneur hats simultaneously with pride, knowing you are part of this growing movement of small-scale businesses growing in rural areas across the country. Experiment and innovate as you craft a livelihood that both earns you income while fostering that independent agrarian spirit and commitment to leaving your land, this world, a better place.