Written by Molly Nicholie of ASAP (February 2017)
Western North Carolina farmers must navigate a maze of challenges just to survive. An upcoming conference this month aims to provide support and resources.
We have all heard the saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” While there is more sophisticated language like “risk management” or “diversification,” the old saying still holds true for any small business—especially for farmers.
For most entrepreneurs, this includes financial, legal, and marketing risks. But for farms, production risk is part of the equation, and many farmers have to consider not just, “What if something goes wrong?” but, “What is it going to be like this growing season?” as well. Farmers in our region must enlist multiple strategies to reduce some of the risks in operating a farm business, and luckily there are resources to help them navigate the opportunities and challenges of selling into local markets.
As any farmer will tell you, for every year something goes well, something unexpected can knock you back. Breedlove Family Farm in Swain County experienced a lot of ups and downs in 2016. They successfully grew two acres of popcorn (a new crop for them); there was high demand for their chicken and game birds; and they were able to expand sales of their goats.
But after generations of growing sorghum cane to be squeezed and cooked down into molasses, the year was a total loss for their cane. “It just did not have the sugar content we needed to make syrup,” Patrick Breedlove explains. “We used a different field, but that should not have made such a significant difference.” After calling in experts from North Carolina State University and consulting with Cooperative Extension specialists, the Breedloves discovered it was aphids, a species only recently found in the region, which sucked the sweetness from their cane. The Breedloves plan to expand on their successes from this year, and try again with new strategies for their sorghum in 2017. Sustaining a small farm business requires a lot more than hard work and planning. It also requires resiliency.
Farming is sometimes romanticized, and the stories of success are shared and celebrated. But behind the beautiful produce, craft cheeses, local meats, and artisan gifts, there is a tremendous amount of planning, hours of hard work, and, too often, difficult losses. While farmers can do their best to plan, they have to be thinking simultaneously about marketing, financial planning, diversification, packaging, distribution, legal risks, record keeping, managing labor, and—oh yeah—actually growing and raising food and farm products.
For small farm businesses, economic sustainability is tied to diversification. This not only applies to product diversification (like producing more than just eggs), but also to having diverse market outlets (multiple baskets for those eggs). Relying on one market to sell your products is just as risky as only growing one crop. Farmers market sales may be solid and expanding, until it rains every Saturday for a month and customers dwindle. An area restaurant might offer to buy everything you can grow, until the chef you have worked with for years moves away. The most successfully grown products wilt and rot if you don’t have an outlet to sell them.
For farms in the mountains looking to diversify their market outlet and connect with more customers, ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) is available to offer support and resources to help farmers determine where and how to sell local food and farm products in our region. The nonprofit organization is also building market opportunities for farmers by increasing consumer demand for local food.
Behind the beautiful produce, craft cheeses, local meats, and artisan gifts, there is a tremendous amount of planning, hours of hard work, and, too often, difficult losses.
Every year for the last decade and a half, ASAP has held the Business of Farming Conference to provide farmers with the tools and assistance to manage risk. The conference is a full day of workshops, breakout sessions, networking, and meetings, with farmers sharing their own experiences, alongside agriculture and business professionals. Each year, 200 farmers come together to learn, share, and think creatively about how they can sustain their farm. Topics such as record keeping and financial planning offer a framework for the business planning component of the conference, while social media and crafting your farm story workshops examine successful ways to approach marketing.
One unique component of this conference that moves the classroom learning to real life is the Grower-Buyer meeting held every year. Farmers considering selling to restaurants or expanding into niche meats or selling wholesale get to explore the opportunities directly with a potential buyer. Eighty percent of farmers attending the Grower-Buyer meetings at the 2016 conference were there to build relationships with potential buyers, and they did. As one farmer put it about the buyers at the meeting, “They were here looking for farms, rather than us looking for customers.”
At that conference, farmers had the opportunity to meet with 17 different buyers, ranging from ice cream shops to regional grocery chains. Happy Hens & Highlands Farm made their first delivery of chicken to Roots & Fruits Market in Black Mountain two days after they met them at the conference.
This year Imladris Farm joined as a buyer, looking to connect with other blueberry growers because they have more demand for their farm-grown berry jams than they can grow themselves. “I could buy large quantities of berries from one wholesaler,” Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm shares, “but it’s important for me to support other small local farms.” This is where selling into local markets is different: It is about having good quality products, diverse market outlets, and a good business plan; but more than anything, it is about building relationships and connections that support our communities.
Now that’s something to crow about.
ASAP is a regional nonprofit committed to helping local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. The 2017 Business of Farming Conference takes place
Feb. 25 at A-B Tech Community College in Asheville. (Details: Asapconnections.org/events/business-of-farming-conference)
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