Looking for a side business for your farm, or profitable hobby farm ideas? Gain some tips and inspiration from these big and small farm income ideas.
You’ve probably heard the joke about how to make $1 million in farming: You have to start with $2 million. Farming is a notoriously tough profession to earn a profit in, and those margins are particularly tight if you operate a small farm or are trying to break even with a backyard homestead. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most small farms rely on off-farm income to keep afloat.
Based on the profitability of your farm products, making money just by selling your products can be tough. Relying on traditional models, such as farmers markets and roadside farmstands, to sell eggs, dairy, meat, and more can provide a small farm with supplemental cash, but it rarely does more than cover costs. Instead, more and more backyard farmers are considering alternative options of producing an income that can keep them on the farm without relying on a crop as their sole source.
Profitable Hobby Farm Ideas: Community Goats and Llamas
Hope Hall of Sunflower Farm Creamery in Cumberland, Maine, brought home her first pair of goats in 2008. At that time, she never imagined having more than a couple, but since then, her small dairy farm has grown to more than 30 goats as well as a thriving farmstand and cheese kitchen. As a small home dairy, she knew it would be almost impossible to make a living simply from the goat cheese and goat kid sales. So, about a decade ago, she started offering “kid snuggling” visits — opportunities to play with her baby goats every spring — for friends, neighbors, and the community. It was a way to bring people to the farm, and it created a bond between her customers and her goats that made her products seem all the more special, in a way lifting the curtain between produce and process.
Nowadays, Hall offers regular goat yoga sessions; maintains a thriving YouTube channel with videos of her goat kids; has published children’s books about the goats; hosts “Put the Babies to Bed” nights, where children can read the goat kids bedtime stories; and even sells “golden tickets” for private visits and photo shoots on her farm during kidding season. These profitable hobby farm ideas have turned her small dairy into a thriving business.
Hall isn’t the only one offering unique, immersive farm visits. Matt Yorke owns and operates Pembrokeshire Llamas, a farm that offers “llama walks” in Pembrokeshire, Wales. He’s been running the llama treks for seven years. After having walked with llamas himself and following a health scare, Yorke fostered a newfound determination to live his llama farm dreams, so he purchased an 1870s farm and his first llamas in 2016. While the farm does have pigs, poultry, and much more, it’s the llama walks that provide a booming business.
“The whole egg-and-chicken situation is pennies in comparison — the llamas actually subsidize the egg business,” Yorke says. Part of this is because of the low cost of keeping llamas, which are particularly low-maintenance animals. Since its beginnings in 2016, Pembrokeshire Llamas has been featured on BBC News and in The Independent, among many other publications, and it continues to see high demand for scenic treks with llamas in the beautiful Welsh countryside. And Yorke isn’t afraid to branch out into other llama-related opportunities. Notably, he created a delivery-by-llama service when many people were on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic to bring essentials to those within llama-walking distance of his farm.
Both Pembrokeshire Llamas and Sunflower Farm Creamery have also added Airbnb stays to their farms. Upgrading existing farm buildings or adding cabins to a farm can quickly turn your land into a destination for visitors, and today, many travelers are actively looking for “farm stays” when planning a vacation — especially ones that involve visiting animals. According to a 2019 article in Vox, farm stays between February 2018 and February 2019 accounted for more than 745,000 nights booked through Airbnb, with hosts earning more than $81 million.
Big and Small Farm Income Ideas per Your Preference
Farm stays do require suitable infrastructure and a farmer willing and able to be a gracious host to a steady stream of guests. To make a destination unique and create demand for it, ensure your farm accommodations are comfortable and clean, and consider what could make your place distinctive. The ability to see, pet, and sometimes sleep next to livestock will enthrall many guests, while more quirky building options, such as beautiful A-frames or geodesic domes, will attract others. Building and maintaining spaces like these does require investment and time, while one-day visits to participate in llama walks, goat yoga, and even corn mazes can work better for farms without the space or desire for regular overnight guests.
For those looking for something less social, there are still plenty of profitable ideas for hobby farms or other farms unable to accommodate guests. Using sheep as lawnmowers and goat landscaping have become a popular way to control overgrowth in cities, with farms trucking in small herds of goats to remove invasive species and even help protect areas from wildfires. A “goatscaping” service can complement a dairy farm, as goats can be bred and milked and will still work hard as landscapers. Today, goatscaping is so popular that some companies, such as Rent-A-Ruminant LLC, offer franchising opportunities for goat farmers and have service providers in multiple states.
Options exist even for the farmer who doesn’t want to have any public interaction involved in their revenue stream. A solar or wind farm installed in a farm’s fields can provide a passive source of revenue for the farmer while their animals graze around the installations. A farmer can install solar panels or wind turbines themselves and enjoy the full profits from the project (with a large upfront cost), or they can lease their land to a solar or wind farm, which would handle all installation, and receive an annual profit. A farm with an acre of solar panels can produce an average of $14,000 per year (depending on environmental factors), while a single wind turbine can make around $5,000 in a year. Solar panels or wind turbine installations can work for farms with livestock, vegetables, or any available large areas of land.
The vegetable farmer may be wondering what else is possible for them, since they can’t host tomato yoga or broccoli walks. (Or can they?) One of the longest-standing alternative sources of income for a farm is the corn maze. Corn mazes have gifted farms with supplemental income for generations, while also providing a sentimental charm. According to an article in Modern Farmer, a corn maze can generate anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for a farmer annually. In fact, some farms exist solely on the profits generated by corn maze tourism.
And if corn mazes have you imagining fall colors, other on-the-farm activities, such as harvest festivals, apple picking, and haunted hayrides, can provide people with a fun family day. In addition to income, this exposure could get your farm’s name out there, so when folks see your produce at the market, they’ll remember the entertaining times they had at your event and may be more likely to purchase from you.
Things to Think About
As with other farming enterprises, there are initial startup costs to any alternative income source. These can vary greatly depending on your existing setup and what alternative models you wish to pursue, but the most important cost to consider for any tourism-based income is farm insurance. Whenever people are interacting with animals, there are risks, so you’ll need to take precautions, from choosing a good liability insurance plan to creating clear signage about interacting safely with animals. It’s always better to be overly cautious where interactions between the public and farm animals are concerned.
That being said, animals can be surprisingly wonderful hosts for farm guests. “I used to worry about every little thing … since we were working with the public, large animals, frequently children, and our walks involve negotiating public roads,” Yorke says. “However, over time, I learnt to trust my animals — the llamas are brilliantly intuitive and respectful around people, and they actually help me manage the customers and ensure we get a positive outcome every time.”
A little bit of creativity can turn the struggle of trying to make small farm income ideas into projects that are both enjoyable and lucrative. While options like solar and wind energy may work best for some farmers, the idea of on-farm events that involve meeting farmers and interacting with animals seem to create the most excitement among the public and the most pride among farmers. Most important to Hall is how kid snuggles, goat yoga, and other farm experiences bring people right to the source, allowing them to “see the goats, the milk room, the cheese kitchen, and then take home a product with the whole picture in mind.”
And you never know how interactive experiences like these might inspire you and others. Yorke knew his life would someday involve llamas as soon as he went on a llama walk himself. Expanding the vision for your farm beyond traditional eggs, meat, and vegetables offers an exciting new way to bring people in, and your farm can go from a hardscrabble existence to enjoying profit margins.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is an author and farmer in Liberty, Maine, where she and her husband are restoring a 200-year-old farm and raise Nigerian Dwarf goats and Babydoll sheep. She’s the author of two books on homesteading, The Modern Homesteader’s Guide to Keeping Geese and So You Want to Be a Modern Homesteader? Kirsten shares farming knowledge at Hostile Valley Living and on Facebook and Instagram @HostileValleyLiving, and she also offers occasional classes.