Farming a lifestyle and business, speakers say

By PATTY MAMULA

For the Capital Press

Women farmers discuss risk management and other business topics at conference.

Vancouver, Wash. — Farming is not just a lifestyle, it’s a business, attendees were told during the recent Women in Agriculture Conference.

At the Vancouver site, Lorrie Conway, an accountant whose family has a five-acre goat dairy farm, discussed how to use the “SWOT” analysis when making financial decisions regarding capital expenses. SWOT is the acronym for internal Strengths and Weaknesses and external Opportunities and Threats.

Part of this analysis examines key financial ratios including equity position (total farm equity compared to total farm assets), liquidity (working capital compared to total expenses) and efficiency ratio (total expenses compared to total revenue).

Other producers also talked about their businesses.

Luisa De Paiva of Purple Rain Vineyard operated a successful 130-member community supported agriculture operation for four years.

“I learned to be flexible, know my limitations and realize that you are your business,” she said.

She said their family is transitioning into a winery and special event venue, ventures that won’t demand all their family time and effort.

Marge Herz, from Honey House Farms, talked about the growing demand for their honey and how difficult it was to fill all the requests.

Keynote speaker Heather Darby talked about the challenges she faced on their seventh generation family farm in Alburgh, Vt. Her talk was broadcast to all of the conference locations.

As a young girl growing up on a moderately successful dairy farm, she dreamed of becoming a farmer. In 2004, she realized her dream when she bought the 130-acre defunct dairy farm from her father.

“I was overwhelmed. I was starting a new job as an agronomist with the local extension service and the farm was so rundown. I questioned my dream. Why did I want this?” she said.

As Darby and her husband, Ron, tried to decide where to begin, they realized her father’s presence was not helping. She asked him to move off the farm.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Be aware that transferring a farm is much more than a monetary transaction,” she said.

Their first decision was to take advantage of the interest in local food and plant fruits and vegetables. They also began a custom grazing operation.

After several years her husband was able to quit his day job and work on the farm full time. She credits the farm’s success to basic management practices:

• Communication: She and her husband have clear and separate responsibilities.

• Recordkeeping, planning, monitoring: They analyze how each crop performs. “How much money does it generate per square foot?” she said.

• Diversification, in crops and in marketing: They sell 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables at their farm stand. They also have a 25-family community supported agriculture arrangement, sell at two farmers’ markets and sell wholesale, plus the custom grazing service.

• Highest quality products: “We are known for our quality,” said Darby. Customers drive an hour from Montreal to their farm stand. “Quality helped us in wholesale. Buyers buy our strawberries because they look better and last longer.”

Wholesale sales increased by 23 percent because of quality. They also sold the vegetables to retailers for a higher price, and the operation’s income increased from $60,000 to more than $100,000.

• Insurance: Like most farmers they buy crop insurance, but it’s their production practices that they feel are their real insurance — row covers, hoop houses, caterpillar structures, straw between the rows, black plastic, irrigation and maintaining soil health to build resiliency.

“Find yourself a good mentor and a good network of women farmers. Opportunities are good for women farmers,” said Darby.



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