Business Advice for Farmers & Food Businesses That is Good for Every Small Business.

AKA “A Partial Recap of Family Farmed Expo’s First Day”

The events opened with a morning keynote speech from Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms. He talked about how he got his start in organic dairy farming, specifically in yogurt, and where the money came from and where he is today. It was certainly an amusing speech, and I think the dairy farmer behind me got a lot out of it.

Basically, the seed money for Stonyfield came from all sorts of people that Hirshberg repeatedly asked for money. He spoke of calling his mother-in-law fairly regularly to help him out with payroll. He spoke of begging from anyone he could think of and how “anyone in a tie” was fair game to ask for a loan. Those were pretty amusing stories from “way back when”, and made for good listening.

I’ll admit, I found certain parts of his talk distasteful. I liked hearing about the farmer who got $175,000 back after having been paid for $5,000 worth of milk in stock. I didn’t like hearing about the deceitful practices of doing things like writing a check, dropping it in the mud and stomping it a few times, then sticking it back in your drawer for a couple of weeks. Either until it was “safe” or until the person called and he could “find” it outside and say, “Oops. I must have dropped it on the way to the mail!” There were not many stories of this nature, but a few. That one, in particular, stuck out because it was the only actively deceitful story. Other stories were also a bit unappealing (for example, a contest, with yogurt as the reward, for your employees to see who can wait the longest to cash their paycheck), but it seemed most people were aware of what was going on. In those cases, it may not be the most palatable thing, but it’s less problematic. At least to my way of thinking.

In the end, all of these stories (distasteful ones too) were to help him illustrate why and how financing was so important. He seems he’d be the first to tell you not to fly by the seat of your pants, but to accept that sometimes something’s going to happen and you’re going to end up doing so anyway.

His recommendations? Figure out what kind of company you want, and how to finance it. Understand that most times you ask for money, you’re giving up some control of your company. Are you okay with that? If not, can you get past it? If not, better figure out some other way to get that cash. If so, how much control are you willing to give up? If you don’t have these ideas in your head before walking into the meeting room, you may get taken for a ride.

Write a business plan. Then throw it away and write another one. And, hell, why not another one for good measure? He said they spent a lot of time writing business plans, and not a one was worth the paper it was written on. However, the process was incredibly valuable and necessary. It helped them see what strengths and flaws were in their system, and allowed them to brainstorm and expand their “business thinking”.

Finally, if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably a “chronic optimist”. Make some very solid projections for costs and revenues. Do the absolute best you can in your projections. Once they’re finally solid, take those numbers and double the costs and halve the revenues. These are probably more realistic numbers than whatever you came up with, due to your chronic optimism.

I wonder what this means to those of us who are on the pessimistic side of the fence…

Moving on from the keynote, there was a panel for everyone, and then several workshops to attend. The panel was with Hirshberg, Irv Cernauskas of “Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks”:, Andy Whitman of “2x Partners”: and Michael Bashaw, who is the regional manager (buying only? Unclear) of Whole Foods Market.

This panel was much more straight geared toward farmers, I think, though it also touched on some business principles. It would make sense that this was more geared toward farmers, since the title was “Local and Sustainable Food Retailing.”

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how much readers of this blog care about the specifics there, so I’m going to keep it to the small amount that had broader business implications. If you want to know more, e-mail me or comment on this post (with a real e-mail address) and we’ll set something up.

So, what can any business take away from this panel?

1) Understand cheap marketing. Word of mouth is huge, especially when you’re small. On top of that, given that WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE (as Bill & Angelique love to remind me), there are so many ways to market yourself that cost very little.

I would add to that not to forget what you don’t know. I say this only because Hirshberg has said he’s put a rap about organic foods on YouTube, and he is hoping to make 2+ clips (~10 minutes each) from Food, Inc and put them up on YouTube that condense the message. He’s planning to make them “go viral”. Now, I’ve no doubt that excellent marketing teams can probably tilt the odds of a video going viral, but I’m not convinced that anyone can just make it happen. For one, I haven’t bothered to look up Hirshberg’s rap, and it’s theoretically something I’m interested in. So, as a business person, definitely consider making sure you know what you don’t know.

(In saying that, I’ll say I have no idea if Hirshberg’s organic rap has gone viral. I’ll be a bit embarrassed if it did. I’ll also say so in some future post. Best to be embarrassed in public if you say something embarrassing in public, eh?)

2) This one’s simple: If you’re all about using your own money (which is how Cernauskas of “Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks”: did it), ask yourself the same questions an investor would.

3) This is one my friend Michelle, the “When I Grow Up Coach”:, will understand (and utterly support): Plan. Put a ton of planning into your business model. Hell, put a tonne of planning into your business model. Cernauskas said that he & his wife spent about a year planning their business and conducting focus groups and figuring out how they were going to finance things before they launched. As I recall, Michelle took similar actions (though hopefully she stops by this post and reminds me roughly what she did).

4) If you have a day job, keep it as long as it’s feasible, says Hirshberg. He mentioned regretting quitting his as soon as he did. If you can go to half-time, maybe that’s for the best.

Now, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure this is the best advice, but I see where it’s coming from. It’s certainly important to have financial stability as long as possible, but I wonder if there will be times when it’s “feasible” to keep the day job, but a better choice to quit and focus on “the dream job”. Obviously, that’s one choice no one can figure out but you. I know Michelle kept her job and coached for awhile, but eventually decided to move to her dream job. (I keep going back to her because I know it’s her “first anniversary”: from quitting her day job, though she’s been coaching for three years.)

Wow, this post is getting long. I think I’m going to wrap it up here, because of the length.

I’ll finish with two comments:

First a lot of this (and the workshops & such) is supposed to eventually show up on the “Family Farmed Expo website”: (or, possibly, the “Family Farmed website”: This and so much more. If you want more, check it out there or e-mail me questions. I took a lot of notes and attended a set of workshops and the farm to fork financing event, so I may be able to tell you what was said. The website is likely to be more helpful when this info shows up, though.

Second and most importantly, I left out an entire recap of Will Allen’s afternoon keynote speech about “Growing Power”: and how it works. It was wonderfully inspirational (though 700+ slides is a bit much, even for someone as cool as Allen), and interesting, and I think you should learn more about Growing Power. However, I didn’t take it to have a lot of business lessons applicable to everyone. Just food & farming inspiration. Valuable, but not where I decided to go with this post.