Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: 7 lessons in diversification
By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES Rural Women’s Project
For Kat Becker and Tony Schultz, diversification creates more than a smart income risk management strategy for Stoney Acres Farm, their certified organic operation located about 30 miles west of Wausau in North Central Wisconsin. Diversification, establishing various vibrant entities under their farm business umbrella, champions this couple’s underlying philosophy that our world would be a better place with more interdependence and connections.
“We believe in creating a family farm that serves our local community, moving toward environmental sustainability while providing a beautiful and constructive setting to raise a family,” Tony explained. “The family farm has been a central form of economic democracy in our country, and we hope to reinforce this tradition to support a healthy and socially just world for our kids and future generations.”
Now in their eighth season of production, Tony and his wife, Kat, run a highly diversified operation and serve as the third generation of farmers on Tony’s family land. The core of Stoney Acres Farm includes a 20-week CSA vegetable operation (Community Supported Agriculture), along with herb, fruit and flower production, grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, organic grains, maple syrup and their newest venture: farm-to-table pizzas served on Friday nights from May through November.
Tony and Kat openly shared their insights and experiences harvested from their farm diversification journey at a popular workshop at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in February. The workshop title, “Beyond the Box: Integrating CSA & Other Markets,” sums up Tony and Kat’s philosophy well. This dynamic 30-something duo cultivate a successful farm business alongside a personal passion for connecting their local community to healthy food sources and thereby transforming our food system by continually cultivating ideas out of the box.
“Diversification proves to be a win-win as it inspires us to continually be creatively challenging ourselves, thinking proactively about the future and always asking ‘what if,’” Kat explained. Apply some Stoney Acres Farm lessons and insights to your own operation through these diversification ideas Kat and Tony shared at the MOSES Conference workshop. You can see Kat in action at the Rural Women’s Project workshop Aug. 15.
1. Prioritize Your Roots
“The core of Stoney Acres Farm remains our CSA, and we are fully committed to our members,” Kat said. “These families form the backbone of our operation and believe in what this farm stands for and they support us through the ups and downs of small-scale agriculture.” This dedicated CSA membership base makes up their core marketing outreach when launching new ventures, such as serving as the first loyal customers coming to their farm-to-table pizza nights and growing the business through word of mouth.
“Do not betray your CSA,” Tony cautioned. “Do not start a CSA and then take your best stuff to markets and restaurants and leave your members scrap. Always remember and show your appreciation for these families that invest in the annual success of your farm.” CSA members also drive that “eater-farm connection” that is so important to Kat and Tony. Ninety-eight percent of their CSA members come to the farm at least once, with the majority making regular outings.
2. Know Your Scale
“We see ourselves as a true family farm, which means that our family provides the majority of the labor,” Tony shared. “Sure, we could grow bigger and hire people, but we simply don’t want to go there. Our goal, rather, is to grow more farmers on the land and thereby help cultivate more small-scale, locally based farm operations like ours. We see such an approach as better for the economy and democracy, versus the ‘bigger is better’ mentality our corporate agriculture world lives under.”
Stoney Acres has 2.5 staff hired for the 2014 season, along with 10 CSA worker shares that each contribute about three to four hours a week. Tony and Kat have found that eight to ten worker shares equal around one full-time employee equivalent in labor, but the worker shares go beyond just labor and serve as a way to further connect members to the farm. Other family members also help support the farm operation and pitch in by caring for Tony and Kat’s three young kids.
3. Think Seasonally
“Identify enterprises that take advantage of each season and that balance your workload throughout the year, but that can also serve as an income source year round,” Kat recommended.
Stoney Acres’ maple syrup operation fits this model, requiring a busy spring of 30 hours each week dedicated to processing the maple syrup, often boiling down until 3 a.m. But then maple syrup production wraps up until next spring, leaving them with a well-stocked inventory to sell throughout the year at markets including the Wausau Winter Farmer’s Market. Likewise, they process dry items like sunflower seeds, pop-corn and dried beans along with their grains to sell throughout the winter season.
“We try to take it easier physically in the winter, with more time for parenting and naps in between catching up on paperwork,” Kat added. “The weekly winter market has really bumped up winter income as we average $800 to $900 sales per event.”
4. Minimize Labor
“Try to balance how much time and labor commitment something takes with how much income you generate,” Tony advised. Stoney Acres’ grain business serves as good example. “Grain plants are like independent adults and need little attention after they are planted, but result in lots of income streams as well as cutting costs. I grind the grain into flour for our pizza dough as well as mix it into rations for our chickens and pigs.”
5. Embrace Failure
Remember not everything will go as planned. The beauty of keeping diversification ventures small and lean is you can readily close things down and move on when needed.
“In 2010, we diversified into honey and got two hives, which failed partly due to the fact that I didn’t want to get stung,” laughed Kat. “As it turned out, our neighbor is an excellent beekeeper and wanted to keep 30 hives on our land, which worked great. We don’t have honey in our business mix, but we still have the important bees on the farm. We didn’t invest much in our initial honey venture, so when we got out of it nothing adversely affected our bottom line.”
6. Invest Strategically
Stoney Acres’ pizza operation showcases the importance of researching and planning strategically when a diversification idea requires an investment. “Installing a commercial kitchen isn’t as intimidating as you think, but it did require us to research and understand the requirements so we used our money wisely,” Kat explained.
The commercial kitchen was part of a granary remodel and included $2,000 for the kitchen equipment purchased at auction and installing washable walls for a total of $6,000. In 2013, Stoney Acres sold over $30,000 worth of pizzas at $18 to $20 a pizza. As Kat and Tony grow and raise the majority of the ingredients of these pizzas – from pigs for the sausage to vegetables for toppings – the key pizza cost is cheese, which adds up to $2,000 annually.
7. Share your Experiences
“We stole all these ideas from other people, so please steal our ideas too,” announced Tony with a smile at the start of their “Beyond the Box” workshop at the MOSES Conference. But this philosophy runs much deeper than idea-pilfering for Kat and Tony: Stoney Acres Farm stands committed to open collaboration and supporting the greater farm community, as evidenced in their transparent, open-book advice-sharing at their workshop.
This philosophy that our food system will only truly change if we as farmers cooperatively grow more farm business is evidenced in Kat’s answer to the question: “What are you most proud of?” She quickly replied, “Last year, a young couple aspiring to be farmers showed up at our place, and we were happy to help them connect some local opportunity dots and they ended up purchasing 40 acres from Tony’s dad. Growing our local community of family farms gives us the deepest satisfaction.”
Lisa Kivirist writes from Inn Serendipity, her farm and bed and breakfast in Wisconsin, which is completely powered by renewable energy and specializes in local, seasonal, organic cuisine. She coordinates the MOSES Rural Women’s Project and will facilitate the Aug. 15 In Her Boots workshop at Stoney Acres. Contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July | August 2014 Issue