The following is a guest post by Michael at Your Money Geek, a site where he discusses various financial topics with a dash of geekiness. (I dare you to stump him with some sort of Star Wars trivia!)
As you know, I’m a big fan of side hustles because they can make such a dramatic impact to your finances. I’ve shared some side hustle ideas worth considering but today’s topic was not on the list.
You see, Michael is a hobby farmer and I thought it would be great for him to share the ins and outs of what it takes to make money with a hobby farm.
Fun fact: When we were in Michigan, we were days away from buying a property with 10 acres including about four of them that grew blueberries, blackberries, and so forth. I even had a slogan picked out: Family Farms, When You Want the Berry, Berry Best. Ok, I know it’s corny. 😉
We only decided otherwise when the inspection came back with some major water issues (i.e. the well was full of nasty minerals). But if it hadn’t have been for that, I would have been a berry hobby farmer.
So with that said, let me turn it over to Michael to tell us all how to make money with a hobby farm…
What is a Hobby Farm?
A Hobby Farm is a part-time business where the operator grows produce or raises animals for profit. Sometimes you may hear the hobby farm referred to as a market garden or gentleman farm. No matter what term you use, there is no denying that part-time farming for profit offers compelling advantages over other side hustles that are worth your attention.
Note: Before you click away thinking you do not have the land or space to have a hobby farm, please realize that you do not need massive land holdings or even to own any property to be a hobby farmer. Keep reading to find out how.
Why Should You Become A Hobby Farmer?
There are several reasons you might want to consider becoming a hobby farmer including:
1. You already know your customers
Do you have friends and family? Do these people regularly buy produce and meat? Well great news, you have customers!
Many side hustles require spending hours networking and finding new customers. The great thing about a hobby farm side hustle is that you likely already know all the customers your business needs. A successful and profitable hobby farm only requires a handful of families to turn to you for produce and meat. If you are producing quality, fresh, organic products you will not need to work hard to find buyers.
2. You can include your family.
Many side hustles are a solo pursuit. As much as I enjoy blogging as a side hustle, it does take some time away from the family. Rental properties and flipping items on eBay are not much better. When you work full time on your main gig, picking up a side hustle that pulls you away from home and the family is not very appealing.
The Hobby farm offers the ideal alternative. Your whole family can participate and enjoy the farm. Our children love feeding the animals and are a great help around the property…usually.
[Editor’s note: This is another reason we bailed on the berry farm — the kids could see their lives taken up by picking berries five months of the year!]
3. It’s not as much work as you may think.
Hobby farming is not that labor intensive, especially if you set up your farm correctly. Plants need watering and animals need to be feed. However, if you set up irrigation and automatic watering for the animals, you only need to check on the farm a few times a day.
Ideally, your hobby farm will be at home or close to home, and checking in the morning and evening will not be much of a problem. Watering and feeding is a great chore for the children. Over the course of the day, we spend less than an hour checking in on things.
Note, if you don’t have an hour a day to farm, you could set up a co-op where your customers contribute money and labor towards the purchase of your product. However, if time is that strapped you may need to honestly assess whether a side hustle hobby farm is for you.
4. You don’t need as much space as you may think.
You can grow high-value crops in a small area of land. A 20 ft by 20 ft patch of lavender can produce nearly $1,800 a year. If you turn the lavender into a value-added product like lavender infused oils, lotion bars or face creams, you can increase your profits.
No land, no problem. You can set up hydroponic systems, in an unused portion of your basement or even your garage. I have also seen people raise starter plants in trays in their kitchen then sell the seedlings at the local farmers market.
If your dreams are a bit bigger, you can always rent space at local community gardens or even lease land from local farmers. One benefit of renting property from local farmers is they usually have years if not generations of experience and will offer invaluable advice as well as a guiding hand.
5. The economics rival, if not beat, most side hustles.
A hobby farm side hustle can be as simple as a roadside stand that makes a few hundred dollars a year to a more commercial greenhouse. In the case of the latter, an 8 x 40 foot commercial greenhouse can be set up for approximately $60k to $80k and produce nearly $3,700 per month, depending on the products.
Many side hustlers may not have the spare capital to purchase a commercially available solution. However, there are plenty of plans available online to build your own low-cost greenhouses, hoop houses or cold frames. The great thing about hobby farming is you can start off small and grow as time and your budget allows.
6. It’s the ultimate security.
The reason I recommend a side hustle to my clients is because of the economic security they provide. If you lose your job, it’s great to have rental income or business income as a backup plan. The problem with most side hustles is they are highly correlated to the economy overall and do not provide much diversification.
I have been having a blast blogging; however, I would never feel secure enough in blogging to rely on it for economic security. All it would take is an update to Google’s algorithm or another recession for advertisers to decide to cut back on ad spending, then the blog could be rendered worthless.
Food at the end of the day is the ultimate Safety Net; it’s better than gold and bitcoin. People will always need to eat. I have spoken with many people who lived during the great depression, and I routinely had them tell me “they were poor but didn’t know they were poor because there was always food on the table.”
So, You Want to be a Farmer?
Hopefully, the above six reasons have convinced you to become a hobby farmer and now you are wondering how to get started. A few resources I highly recommend:
- Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living: The Original Manual for Living off the Land & Doing It Yourself
- The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
The 5 S Plan of Hobby Farming
Here are the five S’s to starting a hobby farm:
The essential step in building a profitable hobby farm is doing a survey and determining what natural resources or assets your land or location offers. When developing your hobby farm business plan you want to write down all the comparative advantages and disadvantages your property offers. When you design your farm, you will want to choose systems that will work with the resources you have.
Keep an eye on weather patterns. Do you have a piece of land where the snow seems to always melt off before the rest of your property or maybe you have a bit of land that no matter how dry it is in the summer the grass never browns? These little micro-climates can be the key to a profitable hobby farm.
For example, if your property is acidic, then grow acidic loving plants like blueberries. If your property is rocky, consider produce that does well in raised beds or hydroponic systems.
Determine what scale (size) you need to reach profitability and determine if that scale is reasonable or even possible at your location. The increased cost and time involved in maintaining a tenth of an acre garden and a quarter acre garden is minimal. Planting 50 acres, however, requires investments in machinery and infrastructure that is beyond the scope of a side hustle.
“This year we’ll make enough on the harvest, so I’ll be able to hire some more hands.” ― Owen Lars
Profits in hobby farming rely on finding the optimum scale; you want to find the sweet spot, where you keep adding additional production up to the point where to grow more substantial you will need additional labor or infrastructure.
If your farm is not environmentally sustainable, you will not be profitable in the long run. If you try growing crops that require excessive water or nutrients for your location, you will quickly deplete your land and become dependent on bringing in outside resources. Ignoring sustainability hurts your bottom line in few ways.
First, people are willing to pay a premium for delicious sustainable raised, organic produce. If you become dependent on bringing outside nutrients, it can be extremely expensive if not impossible to maintain an organic rating.
Secondly, plants raised in depleted soil tend to have higher rates of crop loss, health issues, and bug infestations. The latter will require pesticides that both increases costs and may influence your organic rating.
Thirdly, plants raised in depleted soil do not taste as good as plants grown in balanced, nutritious soil. If you have ever purchased hydroponic tomatoes, you may have noticed they do not have the same quality as those raised in the garden. If you want your customers to keep coming back, you need a superior product.
Agricultural product prices can swing widely based on environmental factors, consumer demand, or commodity prices. If your hobby farm is not self-sufficient, you run the risk of your profit margins being held hostage by market forces. Consistency in profits will be found by trying to ensure your systems are as “closed loop” as possible.
As an example, for a few years in Northeast Pennsylvania, it was almost impossible to buy straw. Usually, bales of straw are plentiful and cheap. However, natural gas companies were buying up all the straw and using it for groundcover when reseeding land.
Many times, due to a comparable advantage, it makes more economic sense to bring in outside resources; however, when building out your systems, you will want to focus on being as self-sufficient as possible. One of the easiest ways to ensure self-sufficiently is to grow produce inside of hoop houses, cold frames, or greenhouses.
Growing inside of a shelter allows you to control the climate and light precisely. Growing “indoors” will eliminate the risks and extremes associated with drought, high winds, and early or late frosts. Additionally, growing indoors allows you to provide your items to market earlier and later than your competition. The best margins in farming are found selling fresh quality produce out of season.
One of the most significant benefits to hobby farming is you do not need a massive customer base. You can be profitable with just a handful of families. Instead of focusing on growing 8,000 heads of lettuce a month, think along the lines of diversity.
Do you have families with small kids that buy your produce? You could add a pumpkin patch and have them come back in the fall to pick pumpkins. Are you raising lavender? Lavender goes excellent with beehives and you could make and sell honey. Are you raising goats or sheep? You can put out vending machines where kids can buy feed and feed the animals.
Knowing your customers is the key. Find out what items they routinely buy and determine which you can produce at a better price or quality. As you get to know your customers, you may even find they are interested in helping with the work and can form a co-op.
A hobby farm can be a rewarding and fulfilling side hustle.
It is hard work at times; however the work is rewarding. When your professional career is relatively abstract, it is oddly satisfying to go home, roll up your sleeves, and build something.
If you do your homework and follow the five S’s of hobby farming, you too can create a successful hobby farm side hustle.
Common Questions about Hobby Farms
Does your family get attached to the animals?
All the animals we raise are loved and cared for and are treated better than commercially produced animals. We like to say that “animals live great lives with one bad day.” We did have a chicken with more personality than the rest that ended up becoming a pet. Overall, raising animals have helped my children be compassionate and mindful of where their food comes from.
I don’t think I could butcher animals, how do you do it?
The simple answer is I don’t. I am capable of butchering an animal, but I do not have an inspected facility to do so. A local facility picks the animals up and humanely process them.
What if I still don’t want to raise animals for meat?
Not a problem, there is plenty of opportunity in raising produce. Additionally, you can raise non-meat animals for wool or milk.
I have no farming experience, how do I get started?
The best place to start is at your local farmers market. Talk to the other farmers and find out what they are doing. Ask other hobby farmers for a tour of their farm.
Call your local university and see if they have an agricultural department. If so, find out if they hold public classes or workshops. In Pennsylvania, Penn State is continually offering classes on the topic.
Your local extension office will have resources available as well. Your county fair is also an excellent opportunity to network with other farmers large and small.