How to Get Started as an Organic Farmer
Today's "I Want to Be" series features Helen Aardsma, who is an organic farmer. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Gerald. Together they have raised and homeschooled 10 children, ages 14 to 37. She now has 19 grandchildren, soon to be 20. Helen considers herself a mother first and foremost and waited to expand her business role until her children were older. Every year she expands her role so that when the children leave, she won't think, "What now?" She delights in working side by side with her husband and spending her days with him. Find out how to connect with Helen at the end of this article.
How long have you had your business?
Mulberry Lane Farm has been in business for 19 years. Mulberry Lane Farm is a daughter company of Aardsma Research and Publishing which my husband and I co-own and co-operate.
What led you to pursue it?
We mainly started organic farming to feed our own family of ten children. My husband and I are both writers in our own Christian ministry. We needed to keep our expenses down as much as possible. We also really enjoy home grown food and love the quality of life farming brings with it.
Are you full time or part time? If part-time, do you anticipate switching to full time?
I work full time for Aardsma Research and Publishing, doing writing, web design, accounting, office work, but am also available to my family as the need arises. I am still homeschooling the last two children, both of whom are now in high school. I do all the sales and website work for Mulberry Lane Farm, as well as picking and preparing orders for customers. I keep the store stocked with fresh veggies as well as organic grains, dried fruit, eggs, jams, and our own frozen organic meats.
How do you market your business?
Mainly through our website, www.MulberryLaneFarm.com. We also take advantage of free advertising on local radio stations, eBay classifieds, and Craigslist. By far, personal recommendations from our happy customers is what really markets Mulberry Lane Farm.
What is your favorite part of the business?
I enjoy sales because I enjoy people. I love talking to the customers about their lives, their problems, their interests, etc. I really care about people and want to minister to them in whatever way I can. Often, just a smile and a listening ear is what I best! I love setting up my store in country style decorating via thrift stores and garage sales. I enjoy re-purposing antiques and vintage items in my store. I love providing people with fresh picked garden produce that is not sprayed with chemicals. It feels good to be able to meet needs for those looking for healthy, fresh food.
What one question do you get most from people about your business?
What does organic mean? It means that we do not use any chemicals, pesticides, or weed killers on our land. All of the work is done by hand, even to the point of removing worms and potato bugs. Having organic produce is hard work, which is why organic produce tends to cost more. Ours does not. We try to keep our prices comparable to store prices, even though our produce is far superior. We want people to be able to afford healthy food.
What one myth or misconception do you want to dispel about the work you do?
People look on our life and think, "What a wonderful way to live. Be your own boss, work the hours you want to, be home, and live off the land." The truth is organic farming is very hard work! And the work is always there begging for your attention. It is fulfilling, but it isn't easy. We still think it is a lifestyle worth pursuing, but gardens aren't weeded by magic and the weeds come so fast, you won't believe it! We have never worked so hard in our lives. Also, one will not get rich doing this kind of work. Our pay is about 25 cents per hour. We supplement our income via our other site, www.DrAardsmasDrills.com, our educational online math and spelling drills and our writing on www.TheMothersCompanion.org and www.BiblicalChronologist.org.
What advice do you have for others who want to get into a similar opportunity?
Do what you love or you won't be able to stick with it.
Start small. See what you can manage before jumping in. Make sure you have the watering equipment you need. You don't want to be lugging 5 gallon buckets out to the back forty to water your garden. Make sure your animal pens have proper water and facilities BEFORE getting the animals.
Wait until your youngest child is at least eight years old before starting a home business. I feel that motherhood is a high and lofty calling and one that requires a mother's full time attention during the formative years. I have no regrets devoting thirty years to full time motherhood before beginning a home business. Of course, I had ten children, with many years in the "formative years"!
Make slow conservative changes to your business with a little investment each year, as income allows.
Listen to your customers.
- What are they asking for?
- Are you making it as easy as possible for your customer to make a purchase?
- Keep your facilities super clean.
Take one day off a week for rest and worship. You need a break! The work will still be there the next day. If you are doing retail, people can be very draining, especially if they come and talk to you and socialize! (It is fun, but draining!) Take down your shingle one day a week.
What is the first step?
- Figure out what you love and if you can make money doing it.
- Hang out your shingle and give it a try.
- Tell all your friends and family to spread the word.
- Give out free samples.
- Give people what they want.
- Keep your prices reasonable.
- Finding your niche takes time. What are people wanting but can't find in your area?
I think it is mostly a learning curve that each home business must go through on their own. "Five year business plans" rarely work out in this business. You learn as you go. Don't expect miracles overnight. It took us 18 years to get to the point of actually building our first store.
You can learn more about what Helen does at her website, Mulberry Lane Farm. Her journal/blog can be found at Mulberry Lane Farm Journal. Regarding social media, Helen says, "We don't use social media as we simply do not have enough hours in the day for it. We think personal contact, 'face to face', is way more important, on many levels, than Facebook."