By Paul Dorrance
This is an excerpt from Paul’s book Farming Without Losing Your Hat, published by Acres U.S.A.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
In the beginning of farm entrepreneurship, there will come a time when you must turn your attention to educating those around you. I’m not talking about your built-in support network; those who would love you and cheer for you even if you were contemplating leaving your steady day job to join a nudist colony in Alaska. I’m talking more about those who will need a little time and a lot of convincing to come around to this cockamamie scheme you are planning, those who will think that starting a pasture-based livestock operation and marketing your products directly to consumers is crazier than your nudist colony idea. Think bank lenders and Farm Service Agency bureaucrats. They won’t be able to see your dream, much less help you fund it, unless you are able to put some concrete ideas and numbers on paper. Hence, the need for a business plan.
The other person that benefits from the admittedly painful yet critically important process of writing a business plan is you. This is ultimately where all of your amazing ideas and rainbow dreams of gorgeous sunrises and frolicking animals gets turned into reality, or at least a roadmap pointed towards that reality. As you work through the process of capturing your values, developing your vision, crafting your mission and setting goals, something equally as exciting begins to happen. Your dreams begin to take shape — likely not exactly as you envision right now, but a better version of them. Better because these dreams are realistic. They are fully researched and supported by reality. And they represent the success that is waiting for you within your soon-to-be established farm enterprises. Now that is exciting stuff!
VALUES BEFORE VISION
By definition, farms are — or, more accurately, should be — treated as businesses. In one form or another, farmers produce a product, bring or send it to a market and get a paycheck in return for their toils. So doesn’t it make sense that economics, the Almighty Dollar and the financial bottom line should call the shots? I’ve heard it said that “if it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense,” and to a certain point I agree. However, I do challenge the preeminence of that way of thinking, and believe that it should — no it must — be subservient to a concept that is more important, more powerful and more compelling: your values.
As we embark on this journey to define, discover and detail your future farm, it is critical to start by asking a very important question: “what type of life do you want to lead?” This isn’t the only question you will ask yourself as you move through this book, but it is undoubtedly the most important. The reason is simple… agriculture more than any other occupation that I am aware of, has the ability to test our mettle and challenge our perceptions. This lifestyle is tough. There are plenty of amazing moments and seasons cradled within this lifestyle — please don’t forget that part!
However, in my experience, it is when the literal manure hits the fan that I need to be reminded of my values. That makes sense right? We don’t typically “need” our values or our bedrock principles when things are going great. One of the unique and enjoyable things about farming compared to other occupations is that we generally get to call the shots and make the decisions. Of course, Mother Nature and the Good Lord always have the final say, but more than other jobs we often get to chart our own path. The trap here is that there is usually no one watching when we are tempted to cut corners, to take the easy way out or to cheat the system. Without, or sometimes in spite of our values, this represents a real struggle.
Here’s a concrete example: One spring early on in my journey, I was wrestling with the reality that my cattle were dealing with mites, little critters that cause skin irritation, hair loss and stress. The cows were patchy, ugly and ornery; although I suppose would have been too if I were them! The “normal” and “easy” way to combat mites is to use a chemical pour-on that kills pretty much anything: fleas, ticks, lice, intestinal worms and, yes, mites. It is also incredibly harmful to the environment, gets excreted in their manure and kills earthworms, dung beetles and a multitude of beneficial critters in your pasture. Even knowing that, I succumbed to the lie that it was too much trouble to dust the cattle with diatomaceous earth (an effective organic topical treatment) and too expensive to run out and buy a scratching post to allow the animals to remove the mites themselves. Instead, I went against my values, treated the herd with Ivermectin, and in one moment of weakness I single-handedly wiped out every dung beetle on my property for the next 3 years. After that, my values formally included that I would never use a product that isn’t specifically authorized by the USDA Organic Standards. I was not and have never been certified organic, but this was an easy way for me to draw a line in the sand, communicate value to my customers, and elevate my values above the temptation of the easy way out.
The only way we farmers can stand in the face of the isolation, risk and tragedy that is part of our day-to-day life is to cling to our values. And they have to be identified and codified before they are needed. In the middle of the difficulty is the wrong time to determine what we stand for; we humans are too weak and fallible for that! When the cattle were in the chute that spring day was the wrong time to decide if chemical treatments were right for me.
Capturing your values can be done through a multitude of options, the most critical thing is that it makes sense to you. Feel free to write an essay, craft short bullet points or draw pictures. The important part is to be intentional about identifying and capturing your values. Often, just asking “What are your values?” feels overwhelming somehow, so many times this task can be broken up into more manageable subsections. For example: Personal, Economic, Environmental, and Community. Again, go with what makes sense to you and your situation.
When I started my farm, one of my personal values read: “I want to raise animals in a more natural environment than is conventionally done.” Another said: “I value family time, and want to create a business where I can work together with my son.” One of my environmental values was: “I desire to honor God through strong stewardship of the land that He gives me.” There is no rush here, I wrote those values back in the Spring of 2011, two-and-a-half years before I finally started the farm and when I only had one of my three kids!
DEVELOPING YOUR VISION
Now we get to the fun part. This is the part of the process where you get to dream big, think grand and fill your mind and heart with all the good feelings that brought you here. Instead of thinking about where you are (although much of this will be necessarily based there), now you are free to imagine your ideal farm: what it looks like, who it serves and how it operates. It really is heady stuff, the kind of stuff that will get you through tough times and remind you of why you made this crazy decision to start a farm in the first place.
Dreaming about what you want your farm operation to look like in the future (whether that be one year from now or ten) and capturing that on paper, will help establish a destination to which you can create a pathway through appropriate planning. But for now, it’s time to turn off your left brain and turn loose the right side. We won’t leave organization or logical steps too far behind – I’m wound far too tight for that – but, as much as possible, let your imagination run wild for the moment. Don’t worry as much about reality, specifics, goals or strategies. Rather, your goal is to capture your farm dream and vision. To help do that, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
• What are you producing and how?
• Where and to whom are you selling your products?
• What other (intrinsic) values do you get from or share on your farm?
• Who else is involved with your farm?
When I completed this process for the first time, my vision statement looked like this: My farm dream is to have a sustainable farm where I can produce enough food for my family and others. I want healthy, nutritious food that I can be proud of and excited about. My passion is healthy food without unnecessary chemicals, a happy place for my family and enjoying the animals. I hope to gain life satisfaction and gratification, knowing I am helping the environment and helping other people to become healthier. My kids are involved, growing up on a place where the land is beautiful, expansive and apart from the world. That actually brings tears to my eyes, as I remember capturing that dream on paper and thinking to myself “this might actually be possible.” I hope the same happens for you, as you create your own vision statement and enjoy the chance to dream big!
To keep learning about successful business planning for your farm, including tips on mission statement, strategy and more, find Paul Dorrance’s book Farming Without Losing Your Hat at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore.
About the Author
Paul Dorrance is an author, speaker, consultant and regenerative agriculture advocate. He was raised close to the land, growing up on a small self-sufficient homestead in upstate New York. His journey back to farming started in 2013 when he started Pastured Providence Farmstead — a successful pasture-based livestock operation, marketing 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured non-GMO pork, poultry, and eggs directly to consumers in southern and central Ohio.
Paul writes for Acres U.S.A. magazine and speaks at agricultural conferences and gatherings around the country. Previously an active-duty Air Force officer, Paul still serves our nation as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves. He is the chairman of the American Farm Bureau’s Issue Advisory Committee on Organic and Direct Marketing and serves on the board of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Learn more about Paul’s Eco-Ag U Online course – Proven Lessons for Success in the Business of Farming at Learn.AcresUSA.com.