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Business of Farming Workshops: A Look Inside

A Q&A with Farm Business Planning Co-Manager Alex Fouliard

Alex Fouliard is MFT’s Farm Business Planning Co-Manager. Since 2016, Alex Fouliardshe’s worked with farmers to build tailored business plans through programs like the Business of Farming workshops.

Every year, Maine Farmland Trust hosts workshops to help farmers analyze their business model and use the information for decision-making.  The Business of Farming workshops draw on a panel of business experts from around the state, as well as other growers. The goal is to uncover the story a farm’s financial records are telling. Participants join workshops with other farmers, then receive tailored business planning assistance to implement what they learned in the workshops.  After this year’s workshops, Farm Business Planning Co-Manager Alex Fouliard shared her thoughts on how the sessions went.  

Q: How do MFT’s Business of Farming workshops help farmers?

A: Most farmers come to the Business of Farming with questions about the financial health of their business. Other farmers are thinking about making changes to their business, and they’re ready to crunch the numbers. Before the workshops, they might ask:

  • “How can I make a living from farming?”
  • “Am I pricing my products enough to cover my expenses?” 
  • “How can I focus my business and my time on the most strategic products?”
  • “I’m stretched too thin, and want to use my time in the best way possible.” 
  • “I’m looking at a couple different ways to scale up. I’m not sure which one is more aligned with my vision and financial goals.”

In the workshops, farmers take their understanding of basic business concepts to a deeper level. We spend most of the workshop time on building financial literacy. We talk a lot about how to read financial statements, what information to look at and what it means, how to improve profitability, and the effects of different decisions on a business’ profitability. In addition, the workshops also go in depth on calculating cost of production and comparing unit costs of products on diversified farms. 

We dig in deeper to vision statements and vision-aligned decision making, introduce farmers to our niche marketing framework, and overview creating financial projections and how to build equity.

Q: What makes the Business of Farming programs so successful?

A: What makes the programs overall so successful is the combination of workshops with personalized technical assistance (TA) and financial incentives, so it’s not just a workshop series. In the workshops we cover a lot of ground and even play games with case studies to apply the concepts. 

“There’s a financial incentive when farmers finish the workshops and technical incentives. That carrot is really helpful in getting folks to stick with the TA process for a whole year.”

Then, after the workshops, every farm identifies their goals and challenges for the year, and we pair them with a technical assistance provider. Together, they do the financial analysis we learn about in the class with their own farm’s information. In addition, there’s a financial incentive when farmers finish the workshops and technical assistance. That carrot is really helpful in getting folks to stick with the TA process for a whole year.

Q: What were some of your favorite conversations during the Business of Farming workshops?

A: My favorite conversations in the workshops were with farmers who shared their own experiences with business planning.

For example, we did a recorded interview with Pumpkin Vine Family Farm, Wise Acres Farm gave us a tour of their office and recordkeeping systems, and Emery Farm and Morning Dew Farm shared great stories about specific, financially-informed business decisions they’ve made over the years. We also had fun strategizing marketing with a farm who volunteered to be our case study!

Stories from those experts are so valuable. The stories were specific, and the guests spoke really well to their decision-making process. They were all very open and honest, and I think everyone learned a lot from them.  

Q: What are you looking forward to next?

A: For us, it’s crunch time to get technical assistance projects done (or to a stopping point) before the busy season. Baby animals and seedlings tend to get first dibs on farmers’ attention; bookkeeping set up and financial analysis… not so much. We slow down during the production season, and ramp up technical assistance in the fall so we get everyone’s projects completed by the end of the year.

The next round of workshops won’t be until winter 2022. We’re still exploring ideas with potential partners about what they might look like. More information will be available soon!

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