Diversify Wisely

Friday, April 26, 2019
By Wayne Gehrke
District 1
Young Leader Committee Member

Spring has sprung across Illinois, and the daffodils emerging in the flower bed outside my window proclaim that meeting season is over! As a member of the state Young Leader Committee, I had the privilege of attending a number of conferences this winter, including the IAA Annual Meeting in Chicago, the Young Leader Conference in Peoria and even the American Farm Bureau’s FUSION Conference this past month in Milwaukee. Looking back on the conference agendas and my notes, I noticed a trend that was presented upon at each of these conferences: on-farm diversification.

This topic of diversification is nothing new, having been presented upon numerous times before, but with commodity prices low and carry outs high, the dream of higher income through farm diversification carries a little more weight now than in years past. Diversification has also been trumpeted as a great way for a young farmer to find an income source that makes returning to the farm a possibility.

On our family farm, located in Kane County, about 50 miles west of downtown Chicago, we have diversified our row crop operation in two ways.

First my parents added a hay-production business.

And secondly, my sister and I started growing and selling what is now five acres of pumpkins and fall décor at a roadside stand.

Both side businesses were started when I was in my teens and my parents kept both of them going while I was in college. In my case, this diversification is the reason why my sister and I were both able to return home to the family farm.

I have a few key steps to share with anyone considering a new way to diversify their farm. Maybe you’re thinking of adding a seed dealership, raising freezer beef or growing hops for the microbrewery in the next county, but these steps can be applied to any new venture.

Identify a market or need. This can be a completely new, separate business or an offshoot of something that your farm already does. In my case, growing pumpkins was completely new to the farm, but being so close to the Chicago suburbs, we saw a market that had potential, even if we didn’t know anything about raising pumpkins. If our farm was located somewhere else perhaps growing another product or providing a different service would have made more sense. This leads me to Step 2.

Do your research! Find out if your idea is actually feasible, and ask yourself some questions. What will you do to market your product or service? How is a new crop grown? Can you utilize some assets or equipment that the farm already has for this new venture? How much of your time will it take? Will you be able to secure any needed capital? Look for opportunities to learn from other producers who do something similar. University Extension and Farm Bureau offices may be able to help you get off on the right foot or give you another place to go for help.

Accept that you will make mistakes. They happen to all of us, but they give us an opportunity to learn from.

Review and Reflect. Once you’ve started a new venture, be sure to look back and make sure things are working. Don’t be afraid to make some changes to your business or marketing plan. Remember that it takes time to build a business and success doesn’t always come right away.

Perhaps the most important thing when diversifying an operation though is to talk it over with your family. Make sure that they are supportive and understanding of the time and attention your new venture will require. Farming is often treated as more of a lifestyle than a job, which can result in more time spent away from home than would be acceptable in any other profession. It is up to you to find and set the right work/life balance. Ask yourself if expanding or diversifying your operation will still leave you the time to be present for your family, friends and other interests. If the answer is no, you may need to re-evaluate and consider something else.

Best of luck in all of your ventures, and if you’re willing to share some of your experiences, I might just see you presenting at one of next winter’s conferences.