The idea of getting started farming from scratch is daunting.
Millions of dollars in farmland real estate. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. Not to mention all of the money in inputs such as seed and fertilizer. All to gamble on the fact that mother nature will allow you to produce a crop that someone will buy.
If you’re starting without a pile of money or farmland in your family, is it even possible?
“There is a difference between difficult and impossible” says Tom Bottoms.
Tom has been passionate about farming since a young age. Although his family were not full-time farmers, his dad was an Extension Agronomist and his mother lived near orchards in California.
Tom recently began his career in farming in Northern California with Timothy and Viguie Farming. But his plans to get into farming have developed over years of intentional actions. He has plans with his employer to eventually acquire an ownership stake in a farming operation of his own.
Listen to the full story on the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast here:
How is he making his dream of farming come true? Tom shares his story and offers several valuable tips to others who may want to do the same. Below are ten of them.
If you’re not an aspiring farmer: GREAT NEWS! Every single one of these tips can also apply to building any business from scratch.
1.Talk 1-on-1 with as many farmers as possible. Tom has setup countless lunch meetings and coffee chats with farmers to learn about their operations. He makes a point of telling them he doesn’t want to sell them anything, just to learn about their operation and how they got to where they are today. Most farmers don’t get this sort of request very often, and are more than happy to share.
2. Learn the science. Not that you need to get a PhD in Horticulture and Agronomy like Tom did, but learning the science of agriculture is extremely important. As he mentions, there are a lot of complicated problems in agriculture that need to be solved by smart people who know the science behind farming. This may mean getting an advanced degree, or just doing independent study to truly understand the plants/animals that you will be producing.
3. Start taking action where you are with what you have. Tom didn’t have a farming operation to go back to after college. He spent time working for another farm during school. Then he and his wife went to run a farming operation that was part of an orphanage in Swaziland, Africa. This is a far cry from what most think about when they want to own their own large-scale commercial farm. It wasn’t large, it wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t lucrative, and it was a LONG ways from home. However, Tom helped raise money for the operation and built it up to a self-sustaining commercial farm.
This is the part a lot of people miss. He STARTED. He didn’t wait. He didn’t turn his nose up at an opportunity that didn’t look exactly like a commercial farming opportunity. Also, the opportunity with the farming operation he works with now, partially came from one of the owners noticing the work he was doing and eventually recruiting him. This is a perfect example of why someone who wants help or mentorship should start with action.
4. Read. It’s not a coincidence that many of the most successful people are readers. Tom has been able to learn leadership principles, finance/accounting concepts, operational structures, and more from diving into books and applying what he learns to his business.
5. Build trust-based relationships. Too often the “build relationships” advice is interpreted as “meet as many people as you can”. Talking to a lot of people is important (see #1 above), but this tip is more about building deep, trust-based relationships. Tom mentions that his current employer relationship is built on a great deal of mutual trust. They trust that he is going to come into the operation and add enough value to justify paying him. He trusts that they have the best long term interests of him and his family in mind. These types of relationships take time and effort to develop, but they are worth it!
6. Be Patient. We live in a time of immediate gratification. We can hop online to find and purchase almost anything instantly. However, difficult things, like building a farming operation or any business, take time. Years, if not decades. If this is truly what you want, you have to be willing to put in the daily effort and have patience for seeing the results.
7. Enjoy the Operations. “The key to succeeding in farming is to realize that it is an operational business, not a financial opportunity” says Tom. In other words, if you’re looking for a path to quick riches, look somewhere else. If you don’t truly enjoy the PROCESS of farming and improving your operation, you will likely struggle.
8. Keep your day job as long as you can. Farming may be your passion, but you still have to pay the bills. If you are trying to work your way towards farming full time, it’s important to make continuous progress toward that goal. But jumping into farming full time too quickly could spell disaster. Tom recommends to try to do as much as you can while making your income elsewhere for as long as possible. This avoids putting added pressure causing an “all or nothing” situation before necessary.
9. Question Everything. First of all, this is your biggest asset as someone new to farming: you see everything with a fresh set of eyes. Secondly, this allows you to understand the thought process related to everything that happens on the operation. Why do farmers hire custom crews to do things like planting, spraying, harvesting? Do you really NEED to own land to farm profitably? Are there creative business structures that might help you get started? Why do farmers in your area always market their harvest the same way? Continue asking questions to understand how decisions are made.
10. LISTEN! If you’re going through all of the effort of the first nine tips, don’t waste it all by not listening! Really seek to understand, not just go through the motions. Don’t worry about “being seen as knowledgeable”. Instead, try to be seen as curious and inquisitive! This not only encourages others to help you but it will accelerate your own development process in more ways than you can imagine!
I am truly inspired by Tom’s story, and I could stand to apply these tips to my own business. There is no one way to be successful, but if you can follow the ten tips above, I think your path to success will most certainly be accelerated.