Farmers need to use traditional business planning skills in selecting the alternative enterprise that is right for their farm and family. This project provided a one-stop business management course that included evaluating the farmer’s resources, exploring a variety of alternative enterprises, learning how and why to write a business plan for a prospective business, and how to make enterprise selections and business decisions based on realistic financial projections and practices, not on emotions. In the post-class survey, class members acknowledged that brainstorming with classmates about their alternative enterprise ideas was fun, but that the time spent struggling with how to write their business plans was the most valuable to them.
Eighteen people registered for this six-week course. Even though the classes were held in two different places during the course of the project, attendance was over 95% for all the classes.
The original target was to have 20 participants with four implementing their new plans by the spring of 2002.
The group was very open to discussion. Only one couple was not already involved in some type of farming or landscaping enterprise; more than 80% of the participants had some type of business experience. Several had operated small businesses prior to this class.
The initial assumption for the class was that the participants needed business skills training to make the best choices for alternative agricultural enterprises. Almost everyone in the class had some type of alternative enterprise in mind or already started. What they really wanted was to have open discussion about operating a business and for business skills training. Having worked in other small businesses they were aware of the need to plan, but not how to organize their planning.
The classes made use of guest speakers and agency resource people. Class members asked lots of questions and compiled a thick resource notebook for future contacts. They were given access to an online agriculture alternatives course offered by the local community college, and they will be able to access the course for the next six months. Holding the first two sessions in a computer lab also afforded the class Internet access to agricultural and business planning resource sites.
Though the initial grant proposal did not include an open discussion forum, the class elected to spend the last fifteen minutes of each session discussing problems and concerns about class topics or individual enterprises. These discussions often spilled over into the hallway and were continued after class.
Two of the six sessions were solely devoted to how to write a business plan. Since the process was presented in four modules, participants had time to work on select pieces of the plan each week. This made the process less daunting. Each module required completing a one-page worksheet and, at the end of the process, all four worksheets were laid end-to-end and the participants could see how all the components were inter-related and where changes or revisions might be needed. The marketing module was the most difficult unit for them to complete.
Every class participant worked through all the modules of the business plan classes. Over half of the class completed their plans. and the others needed to look for alternative financing or additional market venues.
On the post-class surveys, the sessions on how to write a business plan were ranked as the most useful. Three class members noted that the information on business structure–corporations, partnership, and so on–will be beneficial for their tax planning this fiscal year.
After trying to work out the business plan, one class participant decided that her chosen enterprise, wool sheep, would not be profitable. She is now considering changing to meat sheep or learning to spin her wool herself to add value to her raw product.
Three of the participants selecting equine enterprises identified other services they could offer in addition to boarding and lessons.
An organic vegetable producer has decided to add pastured poultry to his operation. To increase his value added options; he plans to make salsa out of his “uglier” vegetables, He has tried this on a limited basis. After completing his business plan, he secured the use of a local commercial kitchen for the next growing season. He plans to sell the salsa at his roadside stand and at the farmers’ market.
Class members enjoyed sharing their successes and failures, and they requested a copy of the class roster with contact information so they could keep in touch. Several local farmers unable to participate in this session of classes have asked if additional classes will be offered. The search is underway for financial support to offer this series again.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
The objective of this project was to approach the task of exploring alternative enterprises in a non-threatening and supportive group atmosphere. Participants were to idetify several possible alternatives and write a business plan for the one enterprise they identified that best suited their individual situation.
Eighteen people registered for the class, which had an average evening attendance of 15. Over half the class members wrote a business plan. While the original intent was to gauge their activities in the spring of 2002, I found that the time lag from paper to product was more like 18 months, not six.
In the spring of 2002, I sent a one-page survey to all class participants that was meant to record their progress toward the implementations of their alternative enterprise. Even though I did not receive responses from the entire class, I can report the following results:
An organic farmer in the class added a CSA to his marketing plan.
A horse boarding operation added a Web site as part of their marketing program.
One farmer started a specialty fruit orchard that includes Asian pears and several varieties of pick-your-own berries.
One couple with emus has started to concentrate on selling the oil and byproducts in addition to the meat.
One participant started a very popular petting farm.
Several participants modifed or changed their plans and are starting on a part-time or smaller scale that previously planned.
I have not heard back from the rest of the class; I am familiar with the examples cited since I work with them in my county.