Answer: Thank you for requesting information from ATTRA on tools for evaluating possible rural enterprises for your farm—to find what will be profitable. The PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm, published on-line by the University of Kentucky, is highly regarded as an evaluation tool—once you have narrowed the search to a number of specific enterprises—and includes worksheets.
Listed below is the USDA/NAL/AFSIC list of potential ways to use rural land to make a living. Small farmer Brett Grohsgal of Lexington Park, Maryland, says (1) the key to finding your enterprise is “smelling the niche.” The U.S. is almost certainly on the brink of significant change. It is important to find out what your target consumers may want before they themselves (or your competitors) know they want it. Grohsgal has other advice, drawn from his experience (p. 4):
• Start small and experiment
• Never compromise on quality
• Innovate every season
• Don’t’ give up too soon
• Make it easy on yourself by standardizing methods, packaging, etc.
Growing for Market, the monthly that published Grohsgal’s article, is probably the premier source of cutting-edge information for small, alternative enterprises.(2) The publishers (Dan and Lynn) operate a cut flower business, and Dan teaches at Kansas State University.
It takes research, planning, and luck to find just the right enterprise (or combination) for you. Some specialty niche producers have told me they invested a year doing farm visits, research, and education before they felt confident about starting their chosen enterprise. Access to the Internet and confidence in using search tools helps immensely.
Small-farm enterprises follow a curve. If you are one of the first to exploit the niche, you will feel you have at last found the long-term solution. But when many others decide to do the same thing (or when economic conditions change), you may find the niche suddenly becoming shallow and income drying up. Constant innovation is the key.
Suddenly, workshops teaching city dwellers to grow vegetables, raise goats and chickens, and cook what’s available locally are springing up all over, as people become concerned about steeply rising food and gasoline prices. Basic cooking classes are having a new vogue, since a whole generation has grown up without skills needed to process raw foodstuffs into meals. Specialties such as jerking meat and processing through fermentation (sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, vinegar, etc.) are also making a come-back.
Usually a combination of enterprises—including an off-farm job or profession—is necessary for small farmers to make a decent living.
1) Grohsgal, Brett. 2007. Innovation & risk management: The yin & yang of farm success. Growing for Market. p. 4.
2) Growing for Market
P.O. Box 3747
Lawrence, KS 66046
Contact Lynn or Dan at:
Subscription rate: $33/yr. (credit cards accepted)
GFM sells a wide selection of books on market farming. (Call for a list.)
Evaluating a Rural Enterprise
Agricultural Business Planning Templates and Resources
Gold, Mary. 2008. Alternative Crops & Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification.
March. 15 p.
Woods, Tim, and Steve Isaacs. 2000. PRIMER for Selecting New Enterprises for Your Farm. UK Cooperative Extension, Lexington. 24 p.
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