Four Words That Could Save The Farm

[imgbelt img=popcorn.jpg]The key to development: If what you really like is salty caramel, don’t get into the business of making pizza-flavored popcorn.


Eureka! Ranch in Ohio. Doug took a sabbatical from his company to teach at U-Maine during the fall semester. For three days, however, he taught a class of 100 business leaders, non-profit staffers, and three Maine legislators. I was one of the legislators.

The purpose of the event was “to lead and teach the creation, communication, and commercialization of meaningfully unique ideas.” And that gets us back to the four words:

Innovation:  That is, meaningful uniqueness.  If it isn’t unique, it’s a commodity.  If it is meaningful, your customers are willing to pay more for it.

Engineering: A structured approach to thinking and planning.

Leadership: Inspiring others towards effective outcomes.

Institute: A society created for the purpose of learning.

Recently, my husband I made the decision to sell our dairy herd. We came to accept the fact that we could not recover from a long period of record low prices. (I wrote about this decision in the Yonder here.) 

Now the question facing us is how do we continue to farm? Without the routine, time constraints, and income from daily milking, will we be able to expand our natural meats and poultry production and marketing efforts in a strategic way that ensures farm profitability? That was the question I brought to Doug Hall, the same question many people in rural America are trying to find the answer to.

[imgcontainer left] [img:Doug-and-volunteers.jpg] [source]Nancy Smith

Doug Hall taught us that rural communities have to innovate (and to find business partners) in order to survive.
Hall told us the key to economic survival is innovation. We had to define and then communicate our “meaningful uniqueness.” And then we had to do the regular business stuff: create a management system to track costs and income, plan for investments, and continually watch the market for trends that impact our product lines and our customers.

Snafu Acres, our farm, has already been innovative. In 1990 we responded to market demand for local, humanely raised, natural and organic meats and poultry. In 2008 we created a home delivery system that has been more successful for us than any of our farmers’ markets. 

I took away three unique ideas from the conference that may actually help our farm. They are about failing, partnering and passion.


• The most provocative thing Doug taught was the “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” strategy.  Innovation means risk, and risk arouses fear.  Fear is a normal response to chaos, and will be a barrier to necessary change.  To move forward with a new concept, break it into smaller components, and experiment, so risks are decreased to a manageable scale.

Want to find out if there is demand for your new idea?  Rather than contract with a marketing firm that will cost you time and money you can’t risk during the early stage of a venture, talk to your potential customers one-on-one and get a preliminary sense of the market.  Not sure what regulations cover your concept?  Talk to the code enforcement officer, or the grocery store department manager, or someone already doing something similar.  Talk to people already in the supply chain: customers, suppliers, and buyers.  You won’t get all the answers, but you’ll learn key information quickly, and you can proceed from there.  Risk is reduced when taken in small pieces.