Build a Business on Your Farm
by Cris Carusi
Someone once said that farming is the only business where you buy retail, sell
wholesale, and pay the transportation both ways.
While most people would agree that this is bad business, for most farmers it is
reality. With input and transportation costs rising more rapidly than commodity prices,
it's tough to make ends meet on the family farm these days.
In 1910, farmers got about 40 cents of the consumers food dollar. In 1992, the farmers
share was down to 9 cents and dropping. In other words, says ag economist John Ikerd, even
if farmers donated their corn to the processors, you probably wouldnt notice any
change in the price of cornflakes. Most of the food dollar is spent on marketing.
Rather than view this trend as an impossible problem, more and more farmers use it as
an opportunity. They shift marketing profits into their own pockets by growing, processing
and selling their products directly to consumers, restaurants, retail stores and other
unique markets. Some even open their farms to tourists for vacations and hunting. To
succeed, these entrepreneurs must manage their farms like businesses and grow a great
product for their customers.
Farming skills are assets that can be used to start all kinds of businesses. No idea is
too crazy, as long as you're willing to do the research and put in the time and energy it
takes to make it work.
Muriel Barrett, along with her mother, brother, and children, were faced with the
question of how to make their conventional grain and livestock farm more profitable. They
decided to develop several high-value enterprises on their Sutherland farm and to rent out
their crop and pasture ground.
The mainstay of their operation is 10,000 broiler chickens which they raise, butcher,
and sell directly to customers using Joel Salatins model of pastured poultry
production and marketing. They have a sporting clays range where hunters can improve their
shooting skills and offer hunting vacations on their farm. The family is in the process of
refurbishing a cabin which they plan to use for bed and breakfast-style farm vacations.
Muriel notes that having a small business on the farm is not a new idea. "Having a
second business on the farm dates back to the earliest days of settlement," she
observed. "Every farm wife had eggs, chickens, and a dairy cow which provided
household income. This idea still fits now. It doesnt have to be chickens or
Muriel says that her business is profitable. She is currently paying off her initial
investment in poultry pens and processing equipment, but in the near future she will keep
most of her profits. She charged $1.35/lb for her dressed broilers last year and she plans
to raise the price to $1.50/lb next year. One big advantage of direct marketing is that
the seller gets to set a price that covers production costs plus a fair wage and benefits.
Starting a small business can benefit rural communities as well as individual farm
families. According to Phil Menke, business specialist with the Rural Enterprise
Assistance Project (REAP), "Small business owners tend to have a stake in the
community. They have their roots there, and they care what happens to the community."
Menke said that a higher percentage of the profits generated by a local business stays in
rural communities, compared to an outside business like McDonalds.
Menke points out that profitable businesses on family farms create new opportunities,
which in turn can encourage young people to come back to the farm and increase the
population of rural communities.
Kevin and Charuth Loth grow, harvest, and process salad mix and vegetables on their
farm in southwest Lincoln. They sell their produce at farmers markets and to stores
and restaurants. One reason behind the Loths decision to start a business on their
farm was that Charuth wanted to work at home with her kids rather than work in town.
"This kind of work makes sense for a family," commented Charuth. "I want
to be with my kids while theyre young. We decided that I should work on-farm with
the kids rather than work off-farm. This is a wonderful way for women, and dads, to be
with their kids and have a small business at the same time."
Muriel says that government bureaucracy has been her biggest challenge in starting her
business. After consulting with USDA and the state health board, she invested $35,000 in a
poultry processing building and equipment which met USDA inspection standards. She later
learned that Nebraska law allows farmers to raise, process and sell up to 20,000 chickens
each year without USDA inspection.
"Learning to run the farm as a business has been a challenge," added Muriel.
"One of the best things we did was take the Nebraska EDGE business course. We
developed a business plan for the entire farm. The plan has been changed and modified over
the years, but the skills we developed in writing that plan have helped us."
EDGE is a community-based entrepreneurial training program offered through the
University of Nebraska. The program helps students complete a business plan and provides
networking opportunities. Since 1993, EDGE has held 32 small business training courses in
The REAP program offered through the Center for Rural Affairs is another resource for
small business owners. 33 REAP associations in Nebraska offer education, small loans,
networking opportunities and technical assistance to their members.
Although running a small business is a lot of work, both Muriel and Charuth love
working outdoors, and both value the opportunity to work with their families and kids.
"Its a wonderful life," says Charuth. "Sometimes my stress level
gets too high and I have to remind myself that I love it. But then I go outside, see the
beautiful scenery, hear the birds, and see the kids playing, and I remember why I love
For more information about small business assistance programs, contact:
Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), Center for Rural Affairs, 402-846-5428;
Marilyn Schlake, Nebraska EDGE Program, 1-800-328-2851;