ActionCOACH Southern Indiana

2 Business Lessons from Operating a Hobby Farm

In 2019 I moved back to my small but quaint hometown with the desire to be closer to family, and act on a dream to own a small hobby farm. I had no prior experience with farming, but had, since as long as I could remember, wanted to own livestock and grow my own vegetables. I had frequented Farmer’s Markets through the years, and always fantasized about how cool it would be to have my own booth, providing customers with home grown vegetables for their friends and family. In 2020 I moved into an old Amish house, and I was well on my way. Through this process I’ve learned a lot about myself, life, and business. I want to share some of these insights with you today.

Lesson 1: Don’t Be Afraid of Failure

I was reading a story yesterday about the behavior of successful comedians. An interesting practice they all seemed to share was the ability to utilize failure as a tool for constant improvement. Let’s assume that you are a comedian, and you decided after making your family laugh for the third consecutive year at Thanksgiving you were going to quit your job and follow your dream to become a stand-up comic. You are excited and eager, counting the days until your first gig at the open mic night at the comedy club down the road. You spend many hours rehearsing your material, watch countless videos, and visualize a room full of attendees overcome by the hilarity of your stories. The day finally comes, and you walk up on stage, stand before the mic, and to your great disappointment 98% of your jokes barely get so much of a cackle. 2% of your jokes cause a modest chorus of laughs. You go home dejected, pop open Indeed, and realize that you made a grave mistake. 

Unfortunately for you – this was no indication of your comedic ability. In fact – you share a lot with the most famous comedians! A good comedian goes on a low-risk tour prior to their big performances where they may stand before a much smaller audience for hours, informally trying a series of jokes. 98% of their material never sees the big stage. They are selectively searching for the material that gets the biggest laughs. When you watch comedians that pack Madison Square Garden, you’re actually watching a “best jokes” compilation from this long process. This might mean that Robin Williams and George Carlin were actually not quite that funny 98% of the time. They just were willing to be resilient to failure.

The same goes with hobby farming. The first year I was determined to have a garden, I whipped out the tiller, tilled a quarter acre, efficiently mapped out my garden plot, and with absolutely zero prior experience planted a garden big enough to feed two small villages. In retrospect it was as if I was just screaming to fail. One thing about tillage is that it gives garden plants an advantage. It aerates the soil, loosens it for root development, and provides an easy planting medium. The other thing about tillage is that it doesn’t discriminate against who can take advantage. The weeds love it too! In fact – it exposes so many weed seeds that within 2 weeks, a small army with hoes couldn’t clear the tree-size weeds growing in my quarter acre plot.

My future father-in-law came over, took one look at the jungle growing in front of my house, and just shook his head. I knew that I had gone too big too quick. The next year I dramatically reduced the size of my garden and focused on feeding myself, and doing the small things right. This year I mulched with leftover hay, animal manure, and reduced my use of tillage. I even turned a modest profit!

Sometimes in business we grow too big before we have the capacity to deal with our growth. But oftentimes what I see is the opposite: business owners are so afraid of failing that they never take that first step. This act of self-sabotage is predicated on the notion that somehow failure is something to be avoided at all costs. This notion seems to be pervasive. I’ve always found it odd that many esteemed academic journals won’t publish papers with a null hypothesis. Failure is the greatest teacher we have access to. It is not something to be feared, or avoided, or scorned. It is something that we all must grow acquainted with to grow and expand not only our businesses, but ourselves. And besides – failure leads to lots of self-deprecating humor!

Lesson 2: Trust Your Instincts

Goats and sheep are prey animals. That means that over millions of years their species have developed a robust set of behaviors to conceal any sign of sickness or injury. Although this was advantageous to their ancestors in the wild, it is hardly beneficial to their domestic descendants. Many shepherds throughout the years have reported the sudden surprise of discovering deceased animals who the night before appeared to be in great condition. This reality means that one of the responsibilities of an owner of a small herd is to be constantly vigilant, watching for the tell-tale signs of an animal that may be sick. As with all things in life, failure is the best teacher. But failure in this case can be a catastrophic teacher with a depressing lesson.

During my first kidding season on the farm I had a pygmy buck named Elmer who was born in late September. Late September babies are unnatural in the wild because nature understands that the odds of surviving winter are much higher if the young can fatten up all spring and summer on fresh pasture and wild brush. As the temperature dropped in November I would drive down my lane, peering out over my small herd munching down on the last bit of green grass. And there stood poor little Elmer, off to himself, his hair standing straight up and his tail between his legs. I remember remarking to myself “he doesn’t look quite right.” But of course, as we all know I started to make excuses to justify inaction. Afterall it was unseasonably cold and windy. He was relatively small. Just the other day I saw him jumping and prancing around in the pasture with his siblings. I don’t need to get into particular details about Elmer, but let’s just say I learned a poignant lesson on trusting one’s gut.

How many of us are aware that one particular employee is toxic, not the right fit for the role they have, or hurting our businesses rather than helping it? How many of us are excited for a new business idea that we have discovered or developed that we are just sure would transform our business but get discouraged when our peers don’t share in that passion, or we are met with failure when trying to implement it for the first time? How many of us aren’t confident enough in our instincts to actually act on them? I’m always struck by the depth of character, the range of abilities and skills, and the insights of business owners I engage with. Oftentimes their instincts are much more attuned to reality than mine. But yet they fall victim to endless cycles of rationalizing why their instincts are wrong. If your business or a particular segment of your business is like Elmer, standing in a pasture with its tail between its legs shivering in the cold wind, take my advice: Trust your Instincts!

Author, Logan Cockerham, Business Development Manager