When I speak at agricultural conferences, I hear some common things from the audience. They want to escape their current jobs. They desire more time to farm or homestead. And they want make more of a living from their land.
So how does one get from the “stuck in the city, working for someone else” life to the captain of their own ship? For me and my family, it started by “doing the hustle” with an assortment of side hustles.
My family’s foray into farming came about for a simple reason. I couldn’t find a sufficient supply of certain products for the Louisville Whole Life Buying Club I started in 2006, such as pastured eggs from layers fed non-GMO or organic feed.
So after we moved out to the country and got settled, we immediately began to pursue producing key products that I knew the club needed, such as pastured eggs.
But we quickly realized that, given our land and other factors, eggs didn’t earn us much money. It seems everybody loves a chicken dinner, but most guests do not want to pay for it. This includes the uninvited ones—raccoons, opossums, wild dogs, coyotes, owls and a dozen or so others.
But one thing we learned along the way was that pullets—chicks raised to about 12 to 14 weeks old—did earn us money.
Really, pullets taught us some of our first—but most important—lessons.
The first lesson was was function stacking. Starting a new niche or enterprise unrelated to your interests, resources, skills or current infrastructure can be difficult. But finding a related option to try and possibly get into is considerably less so.
If you’re already selling eggs, getting some additional chicks to brood out and sell as pullets generally requires little to no extra effort. If you’re selling fruit from your farm, why not also sell jars of jams or jellies as well? Pursuing a function-stacked enterprise reduces your risks and costs.
Our second lesson was that value-added products are where the real money is. Our profit per dozen eggs was maybe 50 cents. Our profit per pullet sold was closer to $6 to $8. Now, clearly you are going to sell a lot less pullets than eggs. But when you realize that to make an $800 profit requires selling 800 to 1,600 dozen eggs—around 10,000 to 20,000 individual eggs—or just 100 or so pullets, it puts things in perspective.
This value-added curve applies across a wide range of products. In our area of Kentucky, pork prices are low. Very high-quality farms are wholesaling ribs and other cuts for $1.50 to $3.50 per pound. At the store, pork prices are low as well.
But do you know what hasn’t dropped? Value-added pork products such as bacon, sausage, meat sticks and other easy-to-prepare or ready-to-eat cuts.
A farmer friend of mine told me he can make around $200 to $400 selling a pig half or whole. If he sells it as snack sticks, he can make near $2,000. Again, there is a bit more work and expense, but the return compared to selling a mere commodity cut is immense.
I was also reminded of this at a recent event that I was speaking at. The event included some fabulous food-truck vendors that are based out of (or work with) local farms.
One truck had smoked beef brisket and pork. Both cuts sold direct to consumers as fresh or frozen would demand relatively modest prices, in the $4-to-$8-per-pound range. As a value-added product, the food truck had a line 3 miles long and was selling them at the equivalent of $22 to $30 per pound.
Our land presented a particular challenge for growing food. It came with “soil not included.”
To make our chickens more profitable, as well as to improve our soil at the same time, I turned my weekly trip to town into a compost-scavenging extravaganza. We filled our old diesel pickup with 2 to 3 tons of compostable material.
Pitch produce, expired dairy, coffee grounds, wood chips—whatever I could get for free from local businesses filled the bed and back seat of the truck. Sometimes my kids wondered if they were going to have to ride on the roof on the way home, we were so stuffed!
Our soil is now fabulous, while our laying flock is down to just a few chickens, which is enough to keep us in eggs. However, our worm compost business—now mainly in my 11-year-old son’s hands—continues.
We weren’t new to worms. Before we ever had land, I was sneaking veggie scraps to our apartment building’s basement to feed our first worm bin. But the amount of material I could collect in town, the need to rapidly rebuild our farm’s soil and the value-added margin that worm compost creates over other kinds of fertilizers made it a great fit. The infrastructure cost was low to get started, especially because we built our own separator.
The only downside was reaching buyers. If we’d like to see any of our side hustles increase substantially in sales, that enterprise would be the worm compost. Our current mid-four-digit sales are great for my son, but we would love to produce and sell more.
Plus, we know there is demand for it. We just haven’t fully cracked how to make that demand find our supply. That’s another important lesson. It doesn’t matter how good your product or your price is if you lack the skills to find the people who want it. Marketing matters.
We also learned that marketing can quickly change. We previously relied on Craigslist and Facebook marketplaces for most of our worm-casting sales. The substantial decline in Craigslist use—the site hasn’t really had an update since before my now teenage children were born—and Facebook’s recent public relations nightmares and constant algorithm meddling means this year we saw almost zero sales compared to previous years .
This is why it’s vital to collect contact information, especially emails, from anyone who purchases from your operation. You can start an e-newsletter to stay in touch with them. Platforms and avenues that may work today may not work tomorrow.
Plant Your Feet
Like many homesteaders, our farm is diverse. We have hazelnuts, serviceberries, sour cherries, raspberries and herbs of all kinds, from annual dills and basils to perennials such as sages and comfreys. This diversity has a practical purpose—we provide a good deal of our own food and medicine—but it also provides opportunities. The first one we started taking advantage of was plant starts.
If you are starting plants and purchasing seeds already or propagating perennials that are already well established, it doesn’t take much to start an additional few hundred plants, as long as you have the space. Depending on the types, timing and your local market conditions, 300 plants can fetch between $600 and $1,000.
While writing this article, I came across a post from a lady who funds her family’s entire homeschooling budget by three annual plant sales. Each time, she sells almost 1,000 plants!
Also note that the type of people who purchase plants are likely to be ideal customers for your other farm products. This is another way you can save time and resources with new side hustles. Even if it doesn’t overlap with your existing infrastructure, there may be synergy with your current customers.
Similar to worm castings, the biggest challenge is not demand for our plant starts—there are tons of people looking for plant starts each spring in our area. It’s getting that demand to find the supply.
You can’t neglect marketing with any of your side hustles. And don’t ever embrace the magical “if you build it, they will come” mentality or you may well find yourself shoveling all that hard work onto the compost pile. An astute reader will note that plant starts are a perfect fit with worm castings, so the two enterprises function-stack in many ways, especially on the sales and marketing side.
While I hate to mention it, it has to be done. With side hustles, such as the ones listed in this article, one factor you can’t ignore is your state and local regulations. Some states have fairly draconian “nursery” laws for plant sales, while others don’t. Some have good cottage food laws that cover a wide range of possible products. Others, not so much.
These laws can add another layer of complexity and challenge. But you will need to navigate the system if you hope to make the permanent leap to self-sufficient farm living!
Sidebar: Latest Craze
Among our most promising and biggest side hustles, which may well become a true family business, is the elderberry. It all started when we added eight elders to our farm some six or so years ago. We had no particular purpose in mind beyond self-sufficiency and biodiversity.
Fast forward a few years. My daughter has begun making and selling elderberry syrup, which many people use as a natural medicine to help boost the immune system.
(All our side hustles start as part of a homeschool project. Each of our kids is required to have their own enterprise by the age of 8. This generates money to pay for things they want, from judo lessons to movies and more.)
Demand exploded over the past two years. Now we are off to the races, not just trying to expand our own elder bushes but the entire operation.
I am hoping that elderberry isn’t going to follow a boom and bust cycle. My hunch, though, is that is probably going to happen to some degree in the coming decade.
This is yet another important concern and word of caution. Look at the current popularity of CBD oils and hemp products. A hot market often creates a great deal of risk—and possible reward—for all parties involved. It can also result in quickly collapsing prices and profits.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.