5 Ways to Stay Grounded & Avoid Burnout While Starting A Farm
Over the past 5 years of starting and running a farm, I’ve been determined, excited, exhausted, frustrated, and fulfilled. Along the way I’ve learned that growing food and running a business are two separate, but equally important, skills.
If you’re just starting out, or if you’re a few years in and wondering how the heck you’ll pull this farming thing off, here are 5 ways to stay grounded and avoid burnout while growing a farm business:
1. Take a business course.
When Edge and I started Good Heart Farmstead in 2013, we had a collective 9 years of farming experience under our belts. We knew how to grow vegetables and manage livestock on pasture. We didn’t know quite so much about actually running a business.
The winter of 2013 I enrolled in Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers, a course then offered through the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension. It was there I learned that farming and financial sustainability are not mutually exclusive. When one of my teachers said, “I know farmers who have retirement accounts and take vacations every year,” I knew I was in the right place.
The truth is, our culture still largely holds onto the belief that farmers do this work only out of love and don’t care about money. But if you do something out of love, without the intent to make money, you have a hobby. Farming takes enormous energy, and the work you do feeds people and takes care of the land. It’s not only okay, it’s vital that you pay yourself. Swapping a “poor farmer” mentality with a good business course is the first step in growing financial sustainability into your farm.
The bottom line is this: understanding how to run a profitable business is essential to creating a lasting farm that will support you instead of stress you. Prioritize learning and improving your business.
- Holistic Management International (HMI) is the organization behind the Whole Farm Planning course I took. They offer training courses and have many free resources on their site.
- Most states offer business-related support to farmers through Extension and Agency of Agriculture. In Vermont, we are fortunate to have the Farm Viability Program, which pairs farmers with a business mentor.
- NOFA provides support to beginning farmers through each of its state chapters, and offers education year-round through on-farm workshops and seasonal conferences.
- Books & Podcasts:
- Farmer to Farmer Podcast, with Chris Blanchard. This is a fantastic podcast. Chris interviews farmers all over the country. We listen to this in the fields, in the kitchen, and in the car. It’s a great way to hear what’s working and not working for other farmers, how they set up their farms and sales, and what they’ve learned along the way.
- The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, by Richard Wiswall
- The E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber. This is book isn’t farming specific, but is a great resource for understanding how to build a business that actually works. Chris Blanchard mentions it in his podcast as an important book for farm owners.
2. Start with why.
The most powerful businesses start with a purpose. Find yours. It doesn’t have to be grand or bold or total-world-changing. But it needs to be stated.
Our purpose is twofold. The personal: to create a life of balance that nurtures our family, and in extension nurtures our community. The big picture: to make local food more accessible to low-income Vermonters.
These two purposes have directed every change we make on the farm. The first has helped us transition away from doing everything to doing what we do well. The second influences how we structure our offerings and how we connect with our community. Many times, these two purposes drive change together. For example: increasing efficiency improves our work/life balance and decreases the expense of production. Keeping expenses down helps us offer organic vegetables at an affordable price.
Knowing your “why” helps you effectively communicate with customers, but more importantly, it keeps you going through the hard work and challenges of farming.
3. Cultivate relationships.
Organic farmers know the importance of the relationships between soil, plants, and insects. Take a lesson from your fields and develop nurturing relationships in your own life, too. Relationships with customers, neighbors, fellow farmers and business owners, and with friends. Farming can be hard. Relationships make it easier.
Cultivating relationships with other farmers is especially important. Ignore the “competition” and focus instead on community. Taylor Hutchinson of the Vermont Young Farmers Coalition says she’s seen a sense of isolation and hopelessness in many beginning farmers. To combat this, VYFC holds monthly meet-ups, where farmers can commiserate, ask for advice, and unwind. While farmers do love their fields, the support from community can re-enliven you and make you a better farmer.
For meet-ups in your area, check out the National Young Farmers Coalition site, where you can search for your state chapter.
Or, just pick up the phone and call a fellow farmer in your area. We make a point to meet up with our farming friends for coffee a few times a year. It may be infrequent, but it’s always rejuvenating.
4. Eat well.
Seriously, eat the delicious and beautiful food you harvest. Take the time to cook and sit down for a meal.
Every season has high points that keep us working long hours and shooting into the kitchen for quick quesadillas. While cheese and tortillas have their strengths, let yourself enjoy the fruits of your labor. At the very least, chop up a tomato fresh from the greenhouse. Your customers aren’t the only ones who deserve to enjoy the food you grow.
At Good Heart, our strategy for eating well is sharing lunch duty. One person makes lunch while the others keep working. This rotation allows each of us to take time in the kitchen and all of us to sit down to a prepared meal.
5. Take care of yourself daily.
Get enough sleep. Drink water. Practice gratitude. This last one may seem woo-woo, but it’s an essential practice in life and in farming.
Gratitude has been shown to increase physical health, psychological health, mental strength, and can even help you sleep better. Gratitude also increases motivation, and according to Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, “Gratitude is the ultimate performance-enhancing substance at work.”
Starting any business takes a lot of hard work and endless determination. So take care of yourself. When you find yourself in a rough patch, look up and remember why you’re doing this. Put your hands in the soil, take a deep breath of fresh air, and give thanks for the fact that you get to work outside and grow a business that will feed your community and your spirit.