Becoming a Farmer (Part 3 of 7): “What” Do You Want to Produce? Can you? Should You?

There are as many microorganisms in a spoonful of healthy soil as stars in the sky and neurons in the brain. Astounding facts! I’m not sure which is more mind-bending.

There are almost as many different ways to farm and things to produce.





So, you need to know the “what” that drives your farming dream. Is it fungi (mushrooms)? Grains (corn)? Fruits (mango)? Large animals (cattle)? Small birds (quail)? Maybe even insects (crickets)? Or, any of the thousands more options interspersed in the kingdoms, phylums, genuses  and genius of nature.

(Adding in the “how” we produce these food sources provides even more permutations. But, we’ll save “How” for another post.)

Get Into What?

The “what” depends on the “who” and the “why” from our first two installments. If you raise livestock, animals will require daily care and observation, seven days a week. What about those camping weekends you enjoy? Who will do the chores? A neighbor, cousin, a “farm-sitter?” The Farm Sitter™ offers this service, but it’s not available everywhere and not everyone has the budget for it. Maybe you don’t want (or can’t afford) to spend your remaining meager margins on this service, especially after you already gave up the NFL ticket and HBO Max to make the household and farm budgets work.

Our Small Farm Start-up School will help you sort out these trade-offs. In farming, every day is a decision about what you have time for, what you can afford, what must be done and what can wait till another day. The “what” you grow has a significant impact on those decisions.

Turning (farming) romance into reality, since 2015.

Are you choosing your “what” based on primary and secondary market research that confirms there is a market for your organic, non-GMO, whole, 5-pound, freedom-ranger broilers at $25 per bird? Yes, the demand calculation needs to be that detailed. Don’t rely on the YouTube charlatan who confidently promises that everyone wants pastured poultry, right before he’s interrupted by the commercial that pays his bills (conflict of interest, much?). What if the competition charges only $20 for a similar product? “But we’re different,” says everybody everywhere every time, reminding me of the recent movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Sounds like farming!

What’s the Difference?

Batch of new chicks in the brooder, won't be ready for pastures for weeks. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Rod Greder]
Batch of new chicks in the brooder, won’t be ready for pastures for weeks. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Rod Greder]

We might claim our product is distinct because it’s non-GMO. Maybe that is a distinction without a difference, when it comes to this calculation. (Sidebar: My face reddens and head expands like a balloon ready to pop, when the talk turns to GMOs, and we can have a full discussion on that another day. For now, as a recovering Ph.D.-level geneticist, I strongly attest there is “no there there” when it comes to questioning the safety of GMOs for human consumption. Lots of misinformation and partial information that make for a lack of meaningful difference. And my wife, if she’s reading this, no doubt will mark this down on the whiteboard as yet another time she’s heard this rant from me.)

But, is there still enough margin if you compete on price? If the margin is now $5 per bird, how many do you need to sell to make it worth your time and make up for the weekend dilemma described earlier?  How big is the market? Where is it? If you have the labor, equipment and time to do 300 birds per year (at five batches of 60, over 6-10 weeks), that pans out to $1,500 net profit before tax.

Not. That. Much.

And, that doesn’t account for death loss, even more desperate price competition, and customers who back out of orders or require costly delivery or want to negotiate on price or… well, you get the point.

Is there another “what” with less risk and less labor? Have you done a risk management plan and asked the right questions?

Wait… What?

My son, during a job transition, decided he wanted to farm and raise pastured poultry. We built a chicken-tractor, acquired other portable shelters and lots of waterers, feeders, crates for transporting them to butchering, and the whole kit and kaboodle. At the time, he worked as a freelance writer for several magazines to support himself and lived with us. After a year of farming like this, the bright lights, craft beer, and girlfriend in the city looked much better to him than dirty, hot work for not much money.

Down a body, I had to now figure out “who” was going to do all that work? And from that, my “what” to farm dwindled quickly. Remember, they’re all connected.

What… If…

You need to consider the labor required, the upfront capital, and all the factors that go into making a farm sustainable, let alone successful. The UF/IFAS publication “Keys to Successfully Choosing Enterprises That Suit Your Small Farm” will help you rationally and methodically whittle down the “what” list. Still, the son (or other help) leaving the farm can happen even after your thorough analysis. So, contingency planning should also be done.

Just know, your “what” should be pressure-tested with the “what if…”

The dream of pastured pigs. The reality? An ankle-breaking moonscape when they're done [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Rod Greder]
The dream of pastured pigs. The reality? An ankle-breaking moonscape when they’re done [CREDIT: UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County, Rod Greder]
Additional factors to consider when choosing “what” to produce:

  • Weather and market risk
  • Learning curve
  • Competition
  • Regulations
  • Packing, storing and/or shipping infrastructure
  • Size of profitable market you can access from your location (or, the “where” which we’ll tackle in another post)

What… Else…

Be diligent when choosing the key products that will give you 80% or more of your farm income. If you’re so inclined, you can still experiment with the remaining 20%, assuming you have off-farm income. You can try dairy goats, microgreens, bees, whatever. I experimented (maybe more than the 20%). The growing “what” list on my farm drove the “who” working with me to emit sad, barely audible whimpers, as they mumbled “What next?”

My billions of neurons are tired from considering all the possible farming enterprise (“what”) combinations. In our next installment, we will add the “how” question into the sausage grinder, as in: “How” will you choose to farm? Certified organic? Regenerative? Sustainable? No-till, humane, carbon neutral?

I need a break. Did someone say craft beer?


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Posted: September 14, 2023

Category: Agribusiness, Agriculture, Farm Management
Tags: Ag, Agriculture, BecomingAFarmer, Business, Farm, Farm School, Grower, Pgm_Ag, Ranch, Small Farm, Small Farming

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