A Farmer’s Guide To Owning Your Farm

This is a special guest post by Nick Burton, founder of State of the Soil Media. To keep getting great content from guests like him, make sure you check out our vertical farming newsletter. Newsletter subscribers will also be getting a steep discount code to Nick’s State of the Soil Virtual Summit.

In this post, Nick walks you through how to own your farm and not let your farm own you. He shares things like what employees to hire first and creating a good environment for them. My favorite part is where he shares the actual checklist he uses to operate (a six figure business) systematically, allowing him to accomplish more. Here’s Nick –

A Farmer's Guide to Owning Your Farm

I own a hydroponic farm and a property management/ landscape company. I also have spent just a few hours a month working at either of those two businesses in the last four months. In fact, I have been able to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, up to New York City, and a  trip to Hartford, Connecticut with even more travel planned to work on the upcoming State of the Soil project.

How can I walk away from two more than full-time commitments to pick the brain of American agriculture? Have the businesses suffered? Have I worried about quality declining? Are my investments, assets, and money safe?

Nick Burton in his hydroponic NFT farm

Nick with his hydroponic NFT trays

Business has remained steady with growth in the farm and new products. Quality is consistent, and no one has complained or expressed disappointment. In fact, my clients haven’t even noticed I’ve been gone. I embrace available technology and can run my businesses over my phone from anywhere. I’m not a skeptic or scared of technology and remain open to new developments. My accounts have had automatic payments & bills paid.

Most importantly, I have learned so many lessons on the road that I can share with you & my farm to help us all. Here is how I own my farm, without it owning me.

Creating an empowered environment

Getting hired on with me is no easy task. For the property management side, I have a foreman with a vested interest in the company. We have worked together 14 of the last 16 years I’ve been in business. He makes all of the decisions for that division; including hiring & sometimes firing a client. I have his back 100% with any decision he has ever made. 

For the Hydroponic side of things, we run the entire operation with two full-time employees.

propagation-growers-coach

960 plants in propagation

They run that side by a checklist & protocol designed to answer the questions that would come up during the week or month.  I even give out the checklist I use at the bottom of this article. This is highly organized and yet flexible enough for a schedule that can keep everyone happy. These two ladies also have the power to make decisions to keep the business running. If I am on a plane, giving a speech, or interviewing a farmer, they have the authority to make a decision knowing I stand behind them. I trust my people. We are close despite the fact I rarely see them. We foster an environment where everyone has a say, people are safe, fairly compensated, and have freedoms most people will never have working for someone else.

We also have a list of trusted vendor support we rely on for emergency help or guidance. Leveraging a support network is key to having assets in your corner who can get you out of a jamb with a couple of favors or strings pulled.

Systematizing with checklists & a management structure

A farm’s checklist isn’t created overnight. They also change with the seasons. These schedules are used to forecast labor hours and workloads. We schedule in routine maintenance of systems as well as plant care. There are also times allotted for deliveries, harvest, prep, special projects, IPM, repairs, and planning sessions.

Regular audits of checklists ensure productive changes and best practices. We look for ways to streamline or complete tasks economically; in regards to time & resources.

lettuce-growers-coach

A sampling of the 3000 heads of lettuce we have in production at a time

Our management structure is this:

Administration: Paperwork, taxes, banking, communications, accounts payable & receivable, purchasing, licensing, regulatory compliance, dealing with our CPA’s, VA’s, and legal team.

Marketing: Customer awareness, public relations, ad copy & design, branding, surveys, market research, A/V Production, & Social Media engagement.

Sales: Farmers Market Sales, CSA Client Acquisitions & retention, contract negotiations, networking, and relationship maintenance, both client & vendor support.

Products: What brings in the money: Products or services. (Includes the actual farming, harvesting, seeding, IPM, preparing products for our CSA/Market; or in the case of property management, the grounds maintenance & landscapes.

All of this is done with a current staff of 8 full-time employees. We have cross trainings and double coverage. A little more redundancy isn’t always a bad thing and here means our systems and processes are more secure.

green-industry-business-model

A look at the management structure that inspired my company. The full infographic is available at the bottom.

Are we perfect? Absolutely not. We are running a fast paced evolving company. But costly mistakes are certainly mitigated. We are also able to accomplish more than most through a highly nurtured network of vendors, city personnel, mentors, and other business relations that allow for expedited favors when needed. I cannot stress the importance of a well maintained & large network.  

Process before Passion

Farming is a passion driven profession. You have to love this to do it. You have to believe in things bigger than yourself & stay community-minded.

If you are to farm successfully, you have to embrace running it like a business or find someone to do that while you passionately tend your crops.

Conclusion

With years of experience, I’ve figured out how to step back from the day-to-day tasks of my farm and focus on the bigger picture. That’s only possible by focusing on the points I made above:

  • Create an empowered environment for your employees
  • Systemize your process with checklists and an effective management structure
  • Stay passionate

If I were to start a farm today, I would hire in this order-

Lawyer, CPA, marketer. A lawyer will help you set up the business correctly and stay out of tax & financial trouble.  An accountant will handle the day-to-day financials. Finally, you need to  have someone building & promoting your brand to the right audience with the right message. So, you sell lettuce? Who cares? A great marketer will know not only who cares, but where to find them, how to talk to them in their language and how to add value to higher profits.  

I hope these points shed some light on how successful farms & businesses compartmentalize duties, delegate appropriately, and run efficiently. For additional resources click on the links below for the actual checklist we use, our management structure, and a tool to help with quick decisions.

In the comments below share with your fellow farmers what you feel I have left out or management strategies you have successfully implemented.

List of Resources:

Free Checklist Guide– By signing up to attend State of the Soil, you can download the full ebook behind this checklist and other free bonuses. Evan will be sending out a special discount code out over his email newsletter to knock the price way down.

Tree Business Model– In this infographic, I show how compartmentalizing tasks can help you stay focused.

The Eisenhower Matrix video– In this two minute video, learn a simple strategy for prioritizing tasks, scheduling, delegating, and letting go of time wasting habits.

Growers Coach – My blog, with awesome posts ranging from marketing your farm to hydroponic mulligans.

PLANT SEEDS DAILY

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Nick Burton is the owner of Paris Victory Gardens, a hydroponic & CEA farm specializing in subscription based added value convenience products from the farm, Blue Collar Paris Property Management, and the founder of State of the Soil Media; an online learning platform for farm marketing designed to give small Ag the tools needed to tell their story for effective marketing. State of the Soil kicks off with a free Virtual Summit January 23-27, 2017 as a resource for farm marketing & management.

You can check out his blog here.

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