While we know how exciting it is to share and learn about growing vegetables and raising animals, we also know that farming is a business. We have to make time to talk about those aspects of running a farm, too! So, WNC CRAFT hosts two Twilight Talks each year and we focus on a farm business related topic.
At June’s Twilight Talk, we discussed Enterprise Decision-Making, i.e things to consider as you decide how and what you want to produce on your farm. Many thanks to Walter Harrill from Imladris Farm for facilitating and sharing his own farm enterprise journey over the years. And, we are grateful to the Wedge at Foundation for letting us meet in the Cloud Room!
History of Imladris Farm
Imladris Farm is a 6th & 7th generation family farm in Fairview, NC. Walter, Wendy, and their son Andy are the first generation to attempt farming commercially on the land. Much to Walter’s dismay, value-added jams and jellies became the main enterprises for Imladris. They currently grow some blueberries on their land but contract with 4 other local growers for 85-90% of their berry and fruit supply. But, that is not how they started years ago. The farm has gone through several different permutations since driven by conscious enterprise decision making.
Walter made sure to preface that what he is is not saying he “knows the right way” or show that he’s “super successful.” Rather, he is sharing his journey and how they made decisions over time. He is “someone that has screwed up at this several times,” Walter said.
We also defined Enterprise Decisions as any decision (or lack of decision) upon which the future viability of the company may depend, for the purposes of this conversation.
Imladris Farm’s Brief Timeline of “Bad Decisions”
- 2000 – Attended our first tailgate market. “Worst idea I’ve ever heard.” Sold fresh berries. Quickly sold out. Wendy suggested they make jams & jellies. Walter thought that was a terrible idea.
- 2001 – Fresh bread and pickled eggs, cultivated raspberries, and blackberries, goats (later sheep)
- 2002 – Pasture raised rabbits and shiitake mushrooms
- 2003 – First commercial account, first buyer agreement
- 2004 – First grocery store account
- 2006 – Lost Whole Foods account
- 2007 – Discontinued mushrooms to expand rabbits
- 2008 – Regained Whole Foods on our terms
- 2010 – Discontinued goats and sheep
- 2015 – Started ketchup, discontinued raspberries, blackberries
- 2018 – Discontinued rabbits
- 2019 – Discontinued ketchup
At the height of their production, they were growing blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, rabbits, eggs, and apples. However, they have significantly paired down after finding it difficult to be the farmer, processor, and marketer all at once. With their current business model, they are able to support other small farmers by handling the processing and marketing aspects.
Goals for Enterprise Decision Making:
- Safeguard the economic and psychological sustainability of our operation.
- Recognize that economic success depends on risk-taking.
- Develop borders within which we can safely take those risks.
- Learn to evaluate decisions objectively after a reasonable trial period.
Walter also pointed out that a farmer has two choices, “We can either make sure we only make the right decision all the time, every time, or we can work to develop a system that allows, even encourages mistakes.”
How do we get there?
- First and foremost, never “bet the farm”
- Be willing to take risks, but scale the risks to protect the enterprise
- Either be or find an objective mind
- Use any profits from a product prototype to fund expansion
- Be willing to walk away from any idea, at any time, with no second thoughts (see #3)
- Be willing to try a bad idea, even if it has no chance of success.
- Never forget that you are not your customer.
What are our challenges?
- How do we set ourselves apart? (Note that quality is never, by itself, enough)
- What is the correct level of “out front” for a start-up enterprise?
- What trends are oncoming presently?
- What trends have peaked or are waning away? Is it worth still pursuing those trends, and if so, how do we do that?
Thanks so much to all the folks that came out and contributed to the discussion. Gathering as a CRAFT group is always a highlight of the month. Looking forward to next time!
Now is the time to join WNC CRAFT for 2019! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Sera Deva, Farmer Programs Associate (email@example.com).
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.