“If they can market what they grow to their neighbors and make a living doing it, they can enrich their lives and those of their neighbors.”
— John Grovin, Wisconsin family farmer
With a mix of specialty crops, livestock and some savvy-marketing, small-scale family farming can be profitable. As the population grows more urbanized, it turns out U.S. farmers are finding that city folks and their children like to come visit the farm for fun and learning.
Corporate agriculture on a vast scale has come to dominate the U.S. farming sector in recent decades, and small family-farms have had a hard time remaining competitive and profitable. By developing a new model for their farms and finding new customers, some U.S. farmers are proving their small operations can carve out a profitable niche in the marketplace.
These U.S. growers have lessons to share with their African counterparts as the latter attempt to progress beyond mere subsistence farming to become commercial enterprises.
Mandela Washington Fellows members saw a modern, profit-making operation made from a small farm when they visited Govins Meats and Berries in Menomonie, Wisconsin, a few months ago. Answering questions from the African visitors, owners John and Julie Govin explained how their business has evolved and how they make money.
Question: Why did you choose to be farmers?
John: I grew up a dairy farmer. Julie was a university marketing major.
Julie: I grew up in a city suburb but I knew farming was the lifestyle I wanted.
Q. How did you finance your farm?
Govins: The seller gave us good terms and our bank backed us up. We’ve expanded and borrowed along the way. We have always been able to pay back our loans. Our farm is 65 acres (26 hectares) — the right size for the two of us to handle.
Q: What do you grow?
Govins: Cattle and sheep, which we sell for meat, and chickens for meat and eggs. We have six acres [2.5 hectares] of strawberries.
Q. How does your farm make money?
Govins: Through direct sales to customers and through agrotourism. People like to know how their food is raised and will pay to see where it comes from.
In the spring, we invite people to visit our lambing barn. City people like to see animal births. We charge a fee for visitors to watch lambs being born.
We have goats, ponies, and even alpacas, a camel-like animal from South America. Children like to pet them. We also have educational signs throughout the barn that teach people about the animals.
In late spring, people pay to pick their own baskets of strawberries straight from the field. Or they can buy already-picked fresh berries. The arrival of the strawberry crop is a big attraction. The fellows asked if we replant strawberry seeds the next season. We said that instead every year we buy strawberry tissue cultures from a certified strawberry nursery to replant.
In the fall, we cut a decorative pattern in a maize field for people to walk through (comparable to a path through a garden maze of hedges). That is another way to generate tourist income. We bought another property and decorated the barn to rent out for weddings.
Q. Where do you market your products?
Govins: We are in a good location near a major highway. We have a large sign next to the highway directing drivers to the farm. That brings in a lot of business.
We sell our meats at an open air market in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 22 miles [35 kilometers] away. More than 100,000 people live within 80 miles [129 kilometers] of our farm.
We use print flyers and social media to advertise our products. Word-of-mouth is another big promoter.
Q: How many employees do you have?
Govins: One full-time and up to 20 seasonal employees. They are all neighbors and friends.
Q: How do you keep your fields fresh?
Govins: Through crop rotation, which allows nutrients to replenish the soil. After two or three years we take the strawberries out and plant a cover crop of wheat, or pumpkins or sweet corn for a couple years. We then plant strawberries on another plot.
Q: What is your farming method?
Govins: We are conventional farmers. Fertilizer goes on everything, and herbicides and pesticides when needed.
When they visited in summer 2014, we took the Mandela Washington Fellows to a neighbor’s irrigated corn field. The corn was nine feet [2.8 meters] tall. It looked beautiful. They looked at the soil and wondered how the ground could be so clear and free of weeds. It was planted with genetically modified seed that resists weeds.
Q: What is your advice for young Africans considering farming?
Govins: If they can market what they grow to their neighbors and make a living doing it, they can enrich their lives and those of their neighbors. For many of them, that’s their goal.
Identifying a competitive edge and the needs of specific customers are key strategies for African farmers who strive to expand a small farm to become a commercial enterprise. An executive at Honey Care Africa is helping East African beekeepers grow their businesses and offers a few tips on how to get there in this blog post.