The third workshop in our New Farmer Summer Workshop Series was at Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury VT. Hannah Sessions and Greg Bernhardt shared lessons they've learned during the start-up phase of a successful farmstead cheese operation, focusing on business strategies that have served them well. ("Take away" business pointers are listed below the video link) [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/14405204]
The video from this workshop is really long (because they both had so many insightful things to share) but I really encourage everyone to watch it. If you are interested in starting a cheese making enterprise, the video contains a lot of specifics on the various steps in the process. If you are not pursuing a career in cheese, I still think watching the video is very worthwhile. Hannah and Greg's approach to their farm (as a business) and their focus on maintaining a scale that is both financially and mentally sustainable is relevant to any agricultural endeavor. Learn how they approached infrastructure investment, scaling up, bringing on employees and interns, streamlining their processes, identifying their markets and more.
"Take Aways" from Hannah and Greg's presentation:
- Apprentice! Take the time to learn what works, what's efficient, and what things don't work before you invest in starting your own farm. This can dramatically shorten your learning curve when you do set out on your own.
- Set Goals and Principles for your business up front. Some really important ones for Hannah and Greg are:
- To build a financially sustainable business (took five years to achieve)
- To reach mental sustainability for the family (days off, time away from the farm, etc)
- To create an environment that was pleasant and efficient for employees to operate in.
- To stay true to local customers who first supported the business (keep 50% of sales within the state)
- To produce a product that they can afford (this commitment has impacted many decisions on how to grow the farm and their product lines)
- When you are first starting, be creative, and invest when you have to and at the level that you can afford. As you grow though, make investments for the future, and when you need to reach the next level in your business.
- When marketing, figure out what works for you. Do you really like talking to individual customers? Do you like being on the phone or dealing with internet orders? Do you mind sending your product off with a distributor and not knowing who the final customer is?
- Think strategically about scale and how you personally want to be involved in the business. Do you want to continue to be involved in the hands-on, day-to-day, labor of running the farm? Do you want to be on the phone and managing employees for a portion of you time (what portion?)?
- Always push yourself to do what you do better. Be on the lookout for how to grow or make a superior product, become more efficient, and so on.
- Find a mentor, ask a ton of questions
- Do your homework, many answers to what you need to learn can probably be found in books, research papers, industry publications, etc.
- Ask the experts (if you can get them on the phone)
- Similarly, know what resources are available to you
- Join growers associations, councils and listserves relevant to your farm's products
- Subscribe to industry publications and follow local, statewide and national trends
- If you are working in a regulated environment (like cheese production) contact regulators early on. Take their advice and learn from them. Ask whether or not your plans will pass inspection or not.
- Some resources that were important to Greg and Hannah include:
- The Vermont Land Trust - money from the sale of their farm's development rights capitalized their first cheese making equipment and necessary infrastructure improvements to get the farm started.
- Efficiency Vermont - access to low-interest loans for energy-efficient retrofits and building projects made projects more affordable.
- Farm Service Agency - if you've been denied a loan from a conventional lender, you may still be able to work with FSA. They are able to offer low-interest rates on farm loans, especially to "beginning farmers"
A huge thanks to Hannah and Greg for sharing their time and experience with us!