Karen Warner founded Big Head Farm in 2009. The farm, located in southwest Michigan, is United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic, and produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. After experiencing the challenges of starting a farm and creating a viable business, Warner began thinking through ways to support new farmers and to protect small to mid-sized farms from going out of production. Warner is currently working to advance a farm accelerator model that would give farmers the resources and support they need to succeed from start-up to retirement. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to talk with Warner about this innovative model.
FT: What do you think are the limiting factors to the success of new farmers?
KW: The biggest factor is time to profitability, and the amount of money that it takes to get there. First of all, you start off in debt, unless you have a bunch of money that you are bringing to the table when you start. You have to lease the land, buy seeds, livestock, and other inputs, such as feeds and fertilizers well before you can see an income. The other limiting factor is the amount of time spent learning the business and/or production side, depending on what your skill set is when you come into farming as a career. You may have some of what you need but not all of it. You may be spending too much time figuring out how to do the required record keeping because you are unaware of available resources to make record keeping more efficient on your farm. It’s as if each new farmer has to reinvent the wheel, and that is time spent that you can never get back.
FT: You are currently developing an incubator model in order to support new farmers. Could you describe your vision for the incubator?
KW: So here’s what I have observed, and why I suppose you could call my idea an incubator—but really, it is an accelerator for small and mid-sized farms and farmers. I see and hear many people working on food system issues. But I hear something missing from these conversations. We aren’t talking about farmers. We assume that there will always be farmers to fulfill these demands.
Now, I want to point out that I am talking specifically about the “agriculture of the middle,” to quote a white paper. The reason I am concerned with this sector of our food ecology is that these small and mid-sized farms tend to be farmsteads that are diverse … [and] environmentally more sustainable growing systems than the large-production and mono-cropping farms. My concern is that if we continue to ignore this sector of our food system, we will lose valuable, viable farmsteads either to larger agricultural systems, or to developers, or worse yet, the farms will sit untended and underutilized.
What my idea does is create a clear career path (from training to retirement) for farmers, plus the business efficiencies and systems needed for small and mid-sized farms to grow, survive and prosper. The thing about my idea that is really different is that the farmstead (the land with its unique set of assets and infrastructure) is treated as a unique and valuable “person” by being held as an asset separate from the farm business that is being run on that farmstead.
What I mean is that the farm business (the farmers and their family who run it) works in partnership with the farmstead (the unique asset that has real value: a house, barns, etc.) and with the “accelerator” company (which I am calling One Million Seeds) that provides all of the business systems, efficiencies, support, capital, sales and marketing, legal, human resources, administration, equipment pool, labor pool, training, production, pest and disease specialists, all of whom are on staff. The farmer then earns a vested percent equity in the farm business plus retirement and other benefits and has the option of first right of refusal for her children to take over the farm business if they so choose when the time comes for the farmer to retire.
What I am trying to build is a system that works to keep food producing farmland viable and healthy and productive for generations, where the risks of farming are spread across the many different farmsteads.
FT: What will it take to make this accelerator model (One Million Seeds) operational?
KW: A great team of passionate, intelligent people who can help me execute this vision (from business strategy to farmers) and a whole lot of money—and farmsteads—from investors who know that this is an excellent long term investment whose returns will be two-fold, with dividends in the bank and good food on every table.
I am working to make One Million Seeds a Certified B Corporation, so that all farmland assets will be managed from a mission-driven mindset: people, planet, profits. Or as I say: farms, farmers, and food. Check out the One Million Seeds website. (It’s a first, rough draft of a website but it’s out there!) I am also in the full application stage for a Conservation Innovation Grant for this business idea to create a new investment opportunity for impact investors, and am currently seeking $1 million in grant matching funds.