How do you know what to do to be a profitable farm?

small farmLet me say first and foremost that Runamuk is not what I would yet consider a “profitable” farm, lol. Runamuk does contribute to the rent and to the purchasing of feed, equipment, supplies, and livestock─but a large part of our income is supplemented by my off-farm employment.  Our finances here are tight, and as I’ve mentioned previously, I make a lot of sacrifices because I want to be here, doing what I love to do.

No one gets into farming because they want to get rich. I can guarantee you that every farmer does what he or she does because they want to, and they’re willing to take a hit financially to do so. That being said, I know where Runamuk is going, and I have a pretty good idea of what I have to do to make this a “profitable” enterprise.

Each farm is as unique as the farmer behind it, and so each farmer may have used a different strategy or different tools to figure it out for themselves. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve thought about it a lot and listed below the 3 key things that I─personally─have done to figure out this piece of the entrepreneurial farmers’ puzzle.

1. Research, research and more research!

Throughout my progression from a mere gardener to homesteader to farmer, I was always researching one thing or another. I was one of those weird students in school who actually like research reports and even now I’m pretty serious about my research. Any new interest that takes my fancy is the subject of research and investigation. I keep composition journals and 3-ring binders full of notes, pictures and diagrams, articles and news-clippings, and these take up space in storage bins in my office and on my bookcases. It’s a little obsessive, I’ll admit, but I like to hang onto it all─it shows that I’ve done my homework, and if I needed to, I could go back at any time and read through my notes and books to refresh my memory of find a specific detail that I need for the current project.

When I decided that my gardening and beekeeping and homesteading activities were going to start paying for themselves (and hopefully, some day, pay the bills too), I began researching farming in general, then I looked at current trends in farming, and the problems and struggles that farmers were facing.

Most importantly I looked at what successful farmers in Maine are doing; specifically the central Maine area where I am located. I spent hours upon hours looking at the websites of other farms, pouring over the information about farms across Maine as listed on the Get Real Get Maine website. I wanted to know what was already being produced in the area and what was not. I was looking for information about what the consumers wanted, and any possible opportunities for me to slip into the industry and fill a need or meet the demand for some mystery product that I might be able to grow, raise or craft with my own skills and abilities.

2. Play to your strengths

I thought a lot about my skills and abilities, too. What am I good at and what at do I enjoy doing? I brainstorm a lot─either with mind-mapping or just list-making─to get the ideas flowing and down on paper.

For me that was: writing, gardening, beekeeping, photography, crafts and cooking.

And then look at what resources you have at your disposal. What do you have access to that might help you succeed? Tools, equipment, land, mentors, experience and knowledge, people to help you─whether they’re watching your kids, constructing a shed for/with you, or looking after your livestock or garden while you’re away at market─it all makes a difference.

3. Talking/Asking questions

Most farmers, gardeners and homesteaders are only too happy to talk with you about their farm and their farming-principles. I’ve learned a lot just by talking with other farmers and asking them questions.

Get out and meet other farmers and find out what they’re doing to make their farm work, or talk about the obstacles they’ve had to overcome to garner information on what type of struggles farmers here in Maine are facing. Go to your local farmers’ market and talk with the farmers there, or attend meetings and conferences, participate in workshops through MOFGA or the Cooperative Extension to meet like-minds, learn more, and network.

4. Trial and error

No one likes to make mistakes, but it’s important to accept them as a necessary part of the journey. Because of the very nature of farming, there’s a steep learning curve and you’re not going to find success around every corner. If a particular project fails or doesn’t pay off, it’s important to try again and again, to persevere and not give up. Patience is a dear, dear virtue in farming, so if you really want it-stick with it.

Just one farmer…

I’ve had a lot of false starts with Runamuk, and still face a number of challenges in getting Runamuk and myself where I want us to be, but I haven’t given up. Because I did my homework, and because I continue to evaluate the local market along with regional trends and the specific needs of the community I serve, I’m confident that with time and hard work Runamuk will be profitable enough that I will eventually meet my goal of working full-time on the farm (and pay my bills too!).

But this is the story of just one farm and one farmer, every farm has a different story and the farmer or farmers who manage them may have all used similar or different strategies to solve the same puzzle for themselves. I encourage anyone who is interested in beginning farming to get out there and talk with some of the fascinating individuals who have taken up the cause of farming today.

If you have any words of wisdom to add, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!