Owning any small business is no small feat. In addition to the difficulties of starting the business, there is also the daily and annual work to ensure the success of the business. How much are we spending? Are we making enough money to support ourselves? How do we manage risks? And perhaps the most difficult question, how do we stay happy in our profession?
For any small business, the past two years are probably some of the toughest in over a decade. Restaurants that have been open for 40 years have closed, people are shopping online instead of in local stores, employers can’t find enough people to hire, and everything has to stop if staff go down with COVID. All of these concerns are felt by small businesses, including farms.
Owning and starting a farm is like becoming an accountant, biologist, natural disaster responder, salesman, government bureaucrat, employee manager, CrossFit athlete, long-distance driver, market analyst, and farmer all rolled into one (and I’m probably missing some analogies). Along with the romantic idea of farming, spending time outdoors, tilling the soil, and reaping the fruits of our labor come all the usual small business concerns. Added to this is our direct interface with biology and climate. Farmers have pandemics to negotiate every year, although pandemics affect our crops and animals rather than ourselves.
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It’s a lot of work for farmers to wear all these hats, and certainly impossible to get everything done on time to other people’s deadlines. People often ask us if we know of this or that farmer’s subsidy, or why we don’t try this or that technique. How do we politely respond that we barely have time to sleep, let alone spend hours on a grant application or changing the trajectory of our business?
I’m writing all of this because in December our farm completed a three-year program with an amazing non-profit organization, Kitchen Table Advisors, which helps regenerative small-scale farmers build economically viable businesses.
Looking back on the three years of advice we’ve received from Kitchen Table Advisors on how to manage cash flow, how to take out a loan when to grow the business, and how to stay afloat and happy in the face of natural disasters and pandemics, I realized how crucial this support system is for us, and for all farmers.
Other organizations and programs exist to help us, but we still lack the support and representation needed to make real change in our industry. Every year, farming will become more difficult, especially due to climate change and the increasing complications of owning a small business.
We need support systems, societal awareness and government representation that understands what farmers need to be successful. Farmers can’t do everything all the time; we are busy enough planning, planting and harvesting the food that keeps the country alive.
Maybe it’s time for real change that allows us to do our jobs, knowing that we have a support system that cares about our success. After all, if we lose all our farms, what will happen to our country?
While the primary way to support a small-farm, local, and more sustainable food system is to buy directly from small-scale farmers, there are other ways to help us succeed and bring about real change in the food economy. Namely, create and support organizations that serve and ally with farmers! Whether it’s donating to the Napa Farmers Market (one of my favorite farming allies), Kitchen Table Advisors, or any of the other groups in this space, these organizations work hard to ensure the success of farms. We also need more leaders and government officials who understand the realities of farming – real farming – and not just on the massive scale of staple crops.
I encourage you all to support these organizations, to get involved, to create new ones and, of course, to ask and listen to what help farmers need. This list is long and the hands to help are few, but I promise that we farmers will always be grateful for the help we receive. And we won’t give up easily. After all, one of the most essential qualities for working as a farmer is being tenacious.
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