Young Farmers Conference Focuses on Farm Business Management 

By Martha Hodgkins, Stone Barns Reporter-at-Large

Richard Wiswall sets a stapler, rubber stamp, ink pad and paper trays out on a makeshift desk. We’re made to believe the desk is that of any small farmer. He then proceeds to sort incoming mail into piles of immediate action, incoming checks and monthly or quarterly bills, all the while quizzing the young and beginning farmers who are attending his workshop.  For something as unglamorous and tedious as bill-paying, he has everyone in the room rapt with attention. They readily call out answers to his questions about what to do with a mundane piece of the business that farmers, perhaps the original small-business owners, have to deal with every day.

His humorous skit of letter-opening and phone-answering, part of a workshop called “Office Paper Flows and the Efficient Desk,” seemed so obvious that this reporter at first didn’t get it. Then it came clear: by walking farmers through the basic steps of financial management, Wiswall, a veteran Vermont farmer and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, was taking the scariness and dread out of the business aspect of farming, which, as he astutely pointed out, is frequently not the reason people choose to farm.

“Office Paper Flows and the Efficient Desk” was one of several sessions in a new business track offered at the 5th annual Young Farmers Conference, hosted by Stone Barns Center December 12 – 14, 2012. “The lack of business acumen can be a big stumbling block for new farmers,” says Jill Isenbarger, executive director of Stone Barns Center. “We wanted to add courses that would help them build their business skills and efficiency.”

If workshop attendance is a good indicator (most were standing-room-only), it’s fair to surmise that young and beginning farmers are hungry for this type of business know-how and coaching.

“By focusing on the business end of farming, I hope to give a leg-up to farmers so they don’t have to make the same mistakes that I did over the past 27 years,” says Wiswall, who with his wife Sally Colman runs Cate Farm, an organic vegetable, medicinal herb and seedling operation in East Montpelier, Vt. He decided to farm after a college year abroad landed him on a subsistence farm in Nepal and, upon returning, he read Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America.

“I’ve done a lot of trial and error, and it takes a lot more work that way than to have a little bit of experience point you in the right direction,” says Wiswall. This was his motivation behind writing the handbook and conducting workshops all over North America. “I want to help get people to a level of profitability and business savvy quicker than they normally would. I want see more happy less-stressed-out farmers who don’t burn out.”

Wiswall’s mantra: profit equals income minus expenses. “Profit gets a bad rap these days, but don’t shy away from this,” he told the assembled farmers. “You have to stay above water or you can’t farm.”

The first and most important step any farmer can take is to set a financial goal, Wiswall states emphatically. Without a goal, you don’t know what you’re aiming for, sort of like sailing a boat without a point to help you navigate.

In addition to Richard Wiswall, the 2012 Young Farmers Conference drew upon the business expertise of experienced farmers from across the country. Dan Kaplan, who oversees a 520-share CSA at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts, presented on how to manage finances on a CSA Farm. Stephen Hadcock of Cornell Cooperative Extension lead a workshop that outlined how to minimize the risks associated with farming. Other workshops in the new business track provided beginning farmers with the tools to create farm budgets, start value-added product lines, access wholesale supply chains, and more.

The bottom-line message of these workshops: success depends on smart planning and business management. “The biggest fallacy in farming is there’s no money in it,” says Wiswall. “I’m bullish about farming. Being positive about what you’re doing is a big part of it.”

Want to learn more?

Watch a video of Richard Wiswall at the 2012 Young Farmers Conference as he discusses the importance of farm business management.

Visit Cate Farm’s website to learn more about Richard Wiswall and Sally Colman’s farm in East Montpelier, Vermont.

Read more about the National Young Farmers Conference.

Receive farm business management advice from experienced farmers by starting a conversation on the Virtual Grange.