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Beyond the Field: What To Consider When Diversifying Your Farming Operations

Posted by Jacob Meyers on Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Diversifying your farm can lead to new opportunities and income streams. Learn more.

A Farmer Working in a Cornfield After Adopting a Farm Diversification Strategy

In today’s evolving agricultural landscape, farmers are exploring ways to boost their revenue to remain economically viable. One way is through diversification — the intentional expansion of farming operations beyond a single crop or enterprise. Rather than putting all of their eggs in one basket, they are making better use of their land, labor and capital by spreading out their offerings and services. The USDA's Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) states that a significant number of farms engage in diversification. The extent and type of diversification can vary greatly, from cultivating new crops to adding value through processing.

In this article, we’ll expand on the popular options and benefits of diversifying your farming operations as well as other considerations to help you be better positioned for success.

1. Weigh the Benefits of Diversifying Your Farming Operation

The primary advantage of diversification is risk mitigation. Relying solely on a single crop or product can leave your farm vulnerable to fluctuations in the market, weather-related challenges and other unforeseen issues. Multiple income streams can provide a buffer to help your farm weather financial uncertainties.

Diversification can help you make better use of your existing resources, such as labor, equipment and land. For instance, you may have the equipment necessary to accomplish all the tasks for your enterprises. However, if you only use the machines a few times a year you could also use them for other operations or custom hire for others.

Enhanced sustainability is another benefit. Farms that diversify may be able to adopt more sustainable practices. Integrating livestock, rotating crops and other diversification strategies can improve soil health and promote better land management practices.

As markets evolve and consumer preferences change, a diversified operation is better equipped to adjust and remain relevant in the agricultural industry. It can also make a farm more appealing to the next generation of farmers in your family and be part of your farm succession planning strategy to attract younger farmers. They might be more interested in a diversified operation, like selling seed or custom farming.

2. Know the Potential Challenges of Diversification

While diversifying your farming operation can have many benefits, there are challenges that may arise. The biggest challenge is time management. You don’t want to spread yourself too thin by expanding your operation with another product or service. You may need to learn new skills, which can require additional training, or look to others for their expertise. Diversification can strain existing resources, such as labor and land management. Like all new ventures, there is financial risk. Your farming operation may not immediately generate revenue and you may have to absorb losses during the initial stages.

To be successful, balance your time and resources while you develop a clear strategy that aligns with your farm's goals.

3. Understand Common Farming Diversification Options

There are a variety of ways to diversify your operations. However, the choice should complement your current farming situation. Here are a few popular options:

  • Crop Diversification: Rotating crops, like corn or soybeans, over different seasons or offering specialty crops, like hay.
  • Input Sales: Selling seed or other crop inputs can be a viable option, especially if you have expertise in seed, chemical or fertilizer usage. Having a trusted advisor who utilizes and knows the market is beneficial and a value add to others looking for someone who is knowledgeable in that specific sector.
  • Livestock Integration: Raising livestock, such as cattle, hogs or poultry, along with crops to provide additional income. You may also decide to purchase or build a livestock building.
  • Manure Management: Generating organic matter for composting, enhancing soil and reducing fertilizer costs.
  • Value-Added Goods: Turning your farm products and farm-grown ingredients into goods that can be sold on your farm or at a farmers market.
  • Collaborations and Partnerships: Working with neighboring farms on joint ventures, such as cooperative marketing or shared equipment, can reduce costs and expand offerings.
  • Custom Farming: Offering harvesting, planting and other services to farmers who may not have the right equipment or labor to manage their crops efficiently. It can provide a supplemental income stream and allow you to make better use of your machinery beyond your own farm’s needs.

4. Create a Business Plan

After you’ve decided on a revenue-generating opportunity, craft a business plan. It should be realistic, simple and specific, beginning with a mission statement that reflects your overarching purpose. You’ll want to describe your company, list your products and services, and include short- and long-term goals. Your plan should also include a marketing strategy, a management summary and a financial analysis that details your new venture’s capital investment, operating expenses, expected income and overall return on investment.

5. Secure Farm Financing

If you’ve determined that you’ll need financial support, meet with an agriculture banker to discuss farm credit financing and equipment financing options, such as an agricultural loan, farm equipment loan, operating capital loan or Beginning Farmer Loan. Advisors will go over what agriculture loans and treasury services are available for your farm. They can also provide expert guidance and strategies on diversifying your farming operation.

When you’re applying for loans or financing, detailed farm records are often required to determine your eligibility and prove that your farm is financially stable. You may need a line of credit, which can provide quick access to funds when you need to bridge the gap between payables and receivables.

It’s also a good idea to meet with your financial advisors and farm business consultants for financial planning.

The Small Business Development Center, the Iowa State Extension and the Iowa Farm Business Association are other great resources for financing tips and additional grants to help your farm grow.

5. Monitor and Assess Your Farm’s Performance

To be successful, you need to regularly track the performance of your diversification ventures. Analyze key performance indicators (KPIs) such as revenue and expenses. Stay informed about economic trends, inflation rates and interest rate movements. Regularly review your financial statements and adjust your diversification plan as well as pricing strategies accordingly. By monitoring and forecasting, you can proactively respond to changes in the market.

Be willing to collaborate with other farmers, local businesses or organizations that can support your diversification efforts. Building these relationships can open doors to new opportunities and insights specific to your projects.

Remember that diversifying your farming operation is a process that requires careful planning and execution. Start with a well-researched and realistic plan and be patient as you work toward your goals.

Contact our team of agriculture bankers today to learn more about how Northwest Bank can help position your business for long-term success.

The Author

Jacob Meyers

Jacob Meyers

Ag/Commercial Banker, AVP

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