Monday, November 17, 2008

The big picture

The beginning
I'm starting this blog as a way to document a farming neophytes venture into a small, for-profit farming venture. I've started and operated other businesses, but never anything related to agriculture or animal husbandry, so I'm expecting more-than-the-usual amounts of difficulties.

The goal
I'd like to own land in the country, to provide a balance for my mostly-city life. Most of the work that I do is cerebral, so I seek out projects that I can do with my hands and see tangible results for. It's an emotional need to see what I create and enjoy its use, and it's manifested itself in my life in a continuing love of remodeling, construction, carpentry, welding and cooking. The goal of this venture is to combine both of these interests, and a small, working farm seemed like a good choice.

I don't think that any business venture (and the farm is one of those) is really complete without a discussion of money. In this case I wanted to own the most land that was suitable for my purpose, for the least amount of money. Operations of the farm have to pencil out as potentially making a profit. There has to be enough profit to be able to hire a part-time employee eventually. In doing the math I assumed I'd need a tractor, a barn, and implements for the tractor - post hole auger, ditcher, chipper/shredder, etc. So I set my overall budget for land, buildings and equipment at $100k.

Guidelines for farm products
First, I dont' want to do any sort of farming that I would be ashamed to have someone look at. No battery cages, the least amount of confinement possible for the animals, the most natural environment for the animals, and each animal should be able to do what it would normally do.

Second, there should be defined periods when you're dealing with customers, but nothing that requires staffing a retail store full-time, to keep the overhead down. So seasonal staffing, yes. But full-time staffing, no, unless required by the crop being produced. An example of this might be turkeys; buy them in march/april, raise them until early november. Not much customer contact until late october, all of the birds sold by thanksgiving, one month of retail activity. The goal is to enjoy the rural life and product, not to run a retail operation.
Third, when a crop or animal is picked, work on all of the variations of that crop or animal. So if you pick chickens, think pigeons. If you have chickens and pigeons, think turkeys. If you've got turkeys, thinkg guinea fowl. Work on a diversified set of income producers to spread the risk of failure out. Because I expect to fail. And I want to use the same facilities as many times as I can to save capital.

Fourth, no crop or animal should be selected unless it pencils out as a product that will make a profit after all costs are figured, and that there is a ready market for. Items that a large number of people are growing should be approached with caution. Items that noone is growing locally that are bought locally should be carefully scrutinized.

Fifth, start small, grow large. Each animal or crop should be done with a test crop or unit of animal. After a year of working through the issues related to that crop a careful review of the results will determine if another year of that crop is to be undertaken.

Amount of land needed
I've already got a house that I'm happy with. Initially, I'm planning on commuting to the farm every day, or every other day as needed. As a result, any parcel of land that includes 3 acres of clean pasture and an acre of other space for buildings and silos will work for me initially. It would be better if there were room to expand later -- so parcels that adjoin other land that can be leased or purchased later are more desirable. 

Land location
As close to the retail market as I can afford, as close to a major highway as I can afford. Optimally near a freeway offramp within 20 miles of Seattle, with the potential for signs that can be seen from the freeway and/or the ability to draw UPick customers from a major metro area. Reduces the time to market , allows customers to pick up items from the farm, and allows minimally staffed (upick) crops.

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