Planning to start a farm? Get it right
By George Mbakahya
| September 17th 2016
You want to become a farmer, growing food not just for yourself but for your greater community. You yearn to work with the soil, and are prepared for a life of physical toil, intellectual challenges, and uncertain finances.
All that’s left is to trade in your suit and tie for sturdy boots and a dilapidated hat. Welcome to the world of farming! Kenya needs nutritious food, and that requires thoughtful, intelligent people to grow it.
So if you’re genuinely considering farming as a career, here are the basic guidelines.
Following them might not guarantee success, but they will certainly put you on the path to economic and agricultural sustainability.
Farming doesn’t have to be financed with borrowed money. Avoiding debt should be a primary goal for any new farmer, even if they have to start very small for a few years. Most great producers have abandoned their farming dreams simply because they couldn’t pay their debt when the bank came calling.
In a nutshell, debt (borrowing money, with interest) allows us to accelerate our goals, turning dreams of tomorrow into realities of today. While borrowed money might buy us a tractor, a new barn, or even the land we’ll be farming, experience, the most valuable farming asset of all, cannot be bought.
Experience doesn’t come with a Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture, and it certainly doesn’t come from a book. Agriculture is fraught with uncertainties, surprises and intellectual challenges. Adding monthly payments to this intimidating list financially handcuffs most people right from the start.
So does this mean ‘never take on debt’? Certainly not. There are plenty of times when leveraging assets makes sense. As you gain farming experience, and create reliable cash flow in your business, these opportunities (or necessities) will become clearer. In the meantime, however, embrace this generalisation: avoid debt as much as possible.
Our culture seems obsessed with failure, simultaneously terrified and captivated with the concept. I know people who spend their days avoiding the humiliation of failure at all costs. Some people fear failure so much, they never try to accomplish anything. The thought of failure paralyses them. If failure is a major concern to you, here’s a spoiler: in farming, there is 100 per cent chance you will fail.
But here’s what no one will never tell you. It’s OK to fail. Moreover, in farming, it’s important to fail. While painful at first, failure can be an enormously useful tool. It helps us learn our personal limits of time and energy. It’s an instrumental timesaver in the long run, letting us know what works well, and what does not.
Failure provides us perspective for future enterprises, making us intellectually stronger, more emotionally resilient. But while you’re failing, fail gracefully and thoughtfully. It’s the only sure way to recognise success when it finally arrives.
WHERE IS THE MARKET?
Before you start, identify your market. So you want to raise cattle or grow watermelons? Maybe you just want to sell wool to local knitters. Awesome. I like steaks and water melons as much as the next guy. But how are you going to find customers like me?
Do I live in your neighbourhood, or 500 miles away? How much of your stuff will I buy? How will you find others like me? What will you do if I buy all of your stuff, and you’re sold out? What will you do if I buy none of your stuff, and you’ve got a barn full of it?
Before you plant that first seed, take lots of time to figure out where you’re going to sell your products, who is going to buy them, and how you’re going to do it. Once you’ve done this, create a backup plan. Then, come up with another backup plan.
Spend an enormous amount of effort finding customers. This is every bit as important as growing the food to begin with, because without appropriate sales channels, fresh produce will quickly languish.
When all those watermelons ripen at the exact same moment, you’ll need a place to sell them—and fast. Have a solid marketing plan prepared well in advance.
WHAT IS YOUR PASSION?
Everyone knows farming is hard work. So do yourself a favour: grow something you love. Like blueberries? Then grow blueberries. If you grow what you’re passionate about, it will help mitigate those difficult days when the sledding gets rough and things don’t go your way.
It may seem like common sense, but we often find our decisions driven more by finances, tradition, or inertia than by something we truly love.
SET REASONABLE GOALS
Take care of yourself. Burnout is big in farming. You already know that the work is physically taxing, with unique emotional demands. Find your pace.
Visualise a 50-year career, and set annual, reasonable goals that will get you there. Check in with yourself frequently. And by all means, if you raise flowers for a living, be sure to “stop and smell the petunias” from time to time.
- The writer is an expert on sustainable agriculture and agricultural innovations
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