When Farming Reality Doesn't Match the Business Plan

2014 Annual Report for LNC12-342

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $165,293.60
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Kent Solberg
Sustainable Farming Association

When Farming Reality Doesn't Match the Business Plan


The Adjust 2015 project summarized findings from surveys and interviews, identified key learning objectives, developed preliminary educational modules, tested educational presentations and identified needed revisions to curriculum.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Our objectives for year two of the project were as follows:

  • Finish surveys and interviews as prescribed in the proposal.
  • Develop and define key learning objectives for educational modules
  • Using the learning objectives, develop educational modules
  • Test educational modules and revise as needed.


We finished the project with 232 surveys of farmers who had struggled in the beginning of their farming careers or had exited.  Of those, we interviewed 36 farmers and farm couples regarding the specifics of the issues they experienced.  These surveys and interviews have been the basis for developing our learning objectives and educational modules.  Key survey and interview findings were reported in our 2013 annual report, and the additional surveys and interviews conducted in 2014 provided findings very consistent with those from 2013.


As a team, we met in mid-2014 to summarize key themes from the survey and interviews.  The team initially identified 20 key themes, then refined them to the following:


  1. List of Key Themes as identified by participants
    1. What to watch out for.
    2. Advice to beginners
    3. Common issues.
    4. Keys to success.
  2. Learning objectives for students completing the New Farm Reality Check Curriculum:
    1. Identify life patterns (relationship and behavior) contrary to farming or business success.
    2. Identify progress benchmarks consistent with realistic expectations. Build them into the business plan.
    3. Identify benchmarks associated with exiting the business.  (find examples from other industries, and businesses.
    4. List the basis for each assumption in your business plan.  ex. Dairy farmer and his milk checks.  Old equipment owned by mr. fixit.
    5. Ability, awareness, impetus to actually build a network of experts, friends, colleagues, consultants, professionals who are your “team”  :  Including an “honest skeptic”

      How do you find an honest skeptic? qualifications.

    6. Be able to develop alternative plans (3) in addition to primary plan.

      -“Pre-nuptial” agreement – practical ideas for managing risk. (e.g. “What are we going to do if:…[fill in the blank]

      -back up plans for enterprises (e.g. irrigation)

      -How will future events affect my business, climate change

      -Managing risk- Insurance.

    7. Identify community building opportunities:sources of expertise,associations, memberships (SFA, FLAG, others…),Books,publications, magazines,online forums

    8. Develop plan, expectations regarding number and timing of children.
    9. Acquire necessary soil literacy to develop reasonable expectations for land aquisition, production and mitigation of problems.
    10. Establish clear roles with family members.  Managing family differs from employees.
    11. Understand basic employee management

The learning objectives listed here have become the basis for our curriculum development.


We developed 6 separate learning modules addressing these objectives.  In testing these modules with presentations to small groups of SFA staff, volunteers and farmers, we determined that separate modules would be cumbersome and difficult to use consistently across other educational organizations.  However, the resulting combined educational presentation would be much too long to be used for smaller, shorter meetings, and might limit the availability of the curriculum overall.  

A sample module for employee management training is attached.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Presentations were made at NPSAS Annual Conference in Brookings, SD, SFA Annual Conference in St. Joseph, MN, and at the MN Dept of Ag Organic Conference in St. Cloud, MN in early 2015.  Evaluations from these presentations were positive, indicating the material presented was helpful to participants.  Across all presentations, 29 evaluations indicated 76% (22) participants found the tools provided were sufficient in helping them identify issues to be addressed in their business planning.  Fifty-nine percent (17) of participants felt the workshop provided exit strategy tools they would implement.  


These evaluations have informed another round of revisions to the educational modules which will be available later in 2015.

A video recording of the presentation at NPSAS Annual Conference is available online through NCR-SARE’s YouTube Channel at: https://youtu.be/nzUB-bbZnzA?list=PLQLK9r1ZBhhFIETmMLo1dZBEVYZWXBIM1


John Mesko

[email protected]
Executive Director
Sustainable Farming Association
Box 192
Princeton, MN 55371
Office Phone: 7632600209
Brett Olson

[email protected]
Creative Director
Renewing the Countryside
2637 27th Avenue S, Suite 17
Minneapolis, MN 55406
Office Phone: 6512931172
Dr. Valentine Cadieux

[email protected]
Associate Professor
UMN Department of Geography
414 SS, 267 19th Avenue S
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Office Phone: 6126258591