Create a Cottage Industry

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Do you dream of turning your farming passion or kitchen expertise into a viable, sustainable income source?

You aren’t alone. Each year, many of us turn the rural-lifestyle dream into reality. Sometimes, a food business even finds you. And if you’re like Kathy Hanson of Pasco, Washington, that business finds you at the perfect time.

Kathy never expected to be a business owner, yet she has creatively turned her small farm into a self-supporting enterprise. Along the way, she’s learned when to persevere, when to abandon a working model, and when to pivot to a different arrangement.

A Nimble Navigator

Twenty years ago, Kathy’s life suddenly changed when her husband died after a brief illness. She was in her 40s, her children were grown, and her home belonged to her husband’s employer, so she had to find a new place to live. Friends who happened to be relocating at that time reached out, and she was quickly the new owner of their small ranch.

To assuage her grief, Kathy became a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, wandering the acreage and pushing seeds and saplings into the ground, subconsciously turning the property into a farmstead. “Planting forces you to think of the future,” she says. Today, she lovingly refers to the farm as “Therapy Acres.”

The first crop, a large variety of herbs, quickly proliferated. So, she dried, packaged, and sold them at a local farmers market. Thus, Hanson Herbs was born.

Operating a food-based business means negotiating a number of federal, state, and local regulations. These regulations determine where, and under which conditions, your product can be manufactured. About this time, the state of Washington decided that dried herb products must be prepared in a licensed commercial kitchen. That requirement didn’t work for Kathy, so the business was forced to evolve.

Productive fruit trees and an overflowing vegetable garden led to the next business model, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The CSA worked for a while, but delivering boxes and collecting bills was time-consuming, so Kathy pivoted again. Seeing an opportunity with the growing slow food movement, Kathy reached out to a few local chefs. They loved her unique produce offerings, and a partnership was born. Today, she specializes in baby vegetables and unusual fruit, such as tomatillo pineapples, apriums, gooseberries, edible flowers, and Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers. Kathy has accomplished all this without staff, and she doesn’t even own a tractor.

Despite this partnership, Kathy’s business continues to evolve. Her entrepreneurial spirit has led to a nine-year stint as market manager at a local seasonal farmers market. During her tenure, the market has grown from 30 vendors to a vibrant 80-plus vendor market.

Next, Kathy and a friend realized that many people have no idea how food is grown, so they started a farm-to-table event called Plow-to-Plate. It showcased local farmers and wineries at several area farms four to six times each summer. Although the venture was a success, changing local and state regulations once again made it difficult to continue.

Kathy’s farm business has come a long way in 20 years. The erstwhile horse ranch is now a lush food forest with nearly 100 fruit trees, a large vegetable garden, herbs grown in containers, and decorative flowers and trees. Her love of growing fruits and vegetables combined with the increased interest in locally produced foods has led to a sustainable business. When obstacles get in her way, or the current arrangement isn’t paying the bills, she pivots and figures out a new way to make things work, either by changing crops or adding related ventures.

A Worthwhile Endeavor

Managing a one-person business isn’t easy, no matter the focus. But running a one-person farm has its own challenges. If she could go back in time, Kathy would have hired an accountant and someone to mow the yard and do a few other tasks years ago. (She also recommends not planting 20 trees at once.)

“Be creative with help,” says Kathy. She currently mentors a young neighbor with a penchant for farming, a mutually advantageous situation, and calls on her son to help, especially when choosing or repairing equipment. Volunteers can be helpful too, but this doesn’t always go as planned. For instance, enthusiastic harvesting volunteers once arrived at Kathy’s dressed for an afternoon at the park, not for digging in the garden.

As time goes on, Kathy is considering additional changes, such as reducing the number of mature fruit trees, pruning trees to a manageable height, taking some land out of vegetable production, leasing out part of the farm, growing plants that are easier to harvest, and planting more crops in containers to reduce weeding. Like many of us, sometimes these good intentions go out the window when the seed catalogs arrive.

Kathy encourages others to pursue a farming business. Twenty years ago, she’d have been surprised to learn she could make a living selling produce grown on 31⁄2 acres. She recommends finding a niche, and trying not to offer the same crops as the large farms, because “you can’t compete,” she says. “Grow produce that local chefs won’t find anywhere else.”

Kathy also wants to remind everyone that a farming business is hard work. But if you love it, go for it. “Start growing anything,” she says. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor.”

Advice for a Prospective Business Owner

  • Stick to the heart of the business. The approach may change, but the core of your business should stay the same.
  • Don’t waste time with extraneous tasks, such as produce delivery or yardwork, that keep you from your business. If you find that you’re spending too much time on such tasks, hire help, or change the model to reduce the extra work.
  • Don’t be afraid to alter your business model to meet changing needs.

  • Try something new, but also be willing to let it go. If you encounter obstacles, cut your losses and start a new venture.

  • Be unique. Look around and see what’s missing in your industry.

  • Be open to serendipity. You might not plan on becoming a business owner, but if an opportunity arises, go with it.

Renee Pottle writes about food preservation, food businesses, and gardening from her home in Kennewick, Washington.

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