Our family grows corn and soybeans and has a 60-cow beef herd. Mom and dad are 10 years from retirement. My wife works in town; I work part-time in town. What might be the best farm sideline enterprise with growth potential?
Mike Evanish: Some can be money-losers
In business, things never go as planned, so a strong understanding of options leading to success are also needed. Do some soul searching into what you know and have an interest in.
I’ve seen significant sums of money lost when, “to make use of the land we have,” the owner bought into something he/she knew little about. At the first sign of trouble, which often comes quickly, they either did the wrong thing or did nothing — then lost it all.
Agriculture is a low margin, high risk, knowledge intensive piece of the economy. It has no guarantees.
Many times, renting out the land to the neighbor is the best ag money-generator.
Dale Johnson: Thankfully you’re no hobby farmer
I’m looking forward to how my cohorts answer this question. At least you seem to be grounded in farm family reality. If there were easy answers, I wouldn’t be a hobby farmer.
USDA gloomily forecasts 2018 inflation-adjusted net farm income to decline 8.3% from 2017. If realized, it would be the lowest real-dollar level since 2002. Even farmers markets have had decreased consumer traffic in recent years.
But I’m not all gloom and doom. I’m frequently amazed by farmers who find niche enterprises and markets. I don’t pass those ideas on until the farmers are established enough to protect their turf. By then, it’s not much of a niche.
So, keep those off-farm jobs. Help mom and dad make it to retirement with dignity. Capitalize or innovate on your experience. For example, consider GMO-free organic corn, soybeans and beef. But do your homework first.
Make sure you have a market that’ll give you premium prices. If you have an itch for new enterprises, scour the internet, starting with USDA's List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification.
George Mueller: Only you can answer it
It all depends on your interests. Some farmers buy bigger machinery than they need and do field work for neighbors — plowing, planting, spraying, harvesting hay, harvesting corn silage or harvesting corn grain. Perhaps owning a tile machine would find plenty of extra work. Perhaps an excavator and bull dozer could develop into a thriving business.
Maybe processing your beef for the local freezer trade would excel. Consider joining a network with other producers.
In the late 1960s, Willow Bend Farm grew sweet corn and had a terrible time selling just a few bushels. The next year, we put two acres in early on our well-drained, low-elevation gravel soil and sold out every day for the 10 days of our early corn. We had the only local corn that early. Over the next few years, we grew our sweet corn acreage to 100 acres and expanded our markets and advertising.
We sent our cattle truck full of corn to the Syracuse area. We rented a Ryder truck and sent it full of our corn all around Rochester. Smaller trucks went up to the lake or down to Watkins Glen and Penn Yan.
We put ads in the local Penny Savers looking for grandmas and grandchildren to sell our corn from a card table from their front yard. We’d deliver fresh corn each day and take back corn that failed to sell.
Florida corn wasn’t as good back then. And, we only had that market for 10 days a year.
America is a land of free enterprise opportunity. Success comes from trial and error. You may have to try several projects before you find one that fits. Good luck as you venture forth!
Glenn Rogers: Inventory your assets first
Your assets may reveal your options. Spend some time brainstorming. Look for activities or products on the "leading edge" that may be under-served in your community.
For instance, are there opportunities for bed and breakfasts, farm site weddings, vacation stays or outdoor winter and summer activities? Are there opportunities for concerts, meetings, events in historical buildings, or other marketings where you can use your farm properties? None may be feasible, as the cost to initiate and maintain those activities profitably may be too high to gain a return on investment. But you’ll never know until you do the research.
Also, look at certain vegetables, small fruits, herbs, flowers, pick-your-own pumpkins, pick-your-own corn, a corn maize, tractor or wagon rides on the river bank. Prioritize them based on your interest, feasibility, local and regional market capability. Then start your real research.
It sounds like you have good natural and mechanical resources. You just need to find a niche that needs filling and that matches your interests, capabilities and time available — in a profitable way. I can't emphasize enough the power of having a sound business plan and market analysis. You also need a work force, a management team and advisers on board before you begin the project in earnest.
Now do the real research
Glenn Rogers also offers this business-side advice: Visit other farms doing the same research. Talk to those already in the business and learn from their mistakes. Map out the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) of each.
Talk with an Extension specialist, your banker and close friends who may offer wisdom. Check with town and county officials on the permits needed.
Work on budgets: be liberal with expenses and conservative on income. Do a market analysis to determine if a market exists. It’s essential to do a business plan before you invest. Yes, I’m serious about that. Business plans work! Many Extension offices have classes on how to do a business plan and can give you much help.
Take your time. This has to match your interests and capabilities; the market need and your business plan. This isn’t a sprint. It’s a long race, and you need short, intermediate and long-term goals to make and keep it profitable.
Got a question? Our experts await!
Our Profit Planner panel would like to hear it. The panel consists of Michael Evanish, farm business consultant and business services manager of Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Members’ Service Corp.; Dale Johnson, Extension farm management specialist at University of Maryland; George Mueller, dairy farmer from Clifton Springs, N.Y.; and Glenn Rogers, University of Vermont Extension professor emeritus and ag consultant.
Send your questions to “Profit Planners,” American Agriculturist, 5227 Baltimore Pike, Littlestown, PA 17340. Or email them to email@example.com. All are submitted to our panel without identification.