Farming is perhaps the oldest profession in the world but it’s an occupation that lacks comprehensive, formalized training. Although universities offer degrees in things like agronomy, crop science, and animal science, there isn’t a formalized educational degree that encompasses the countless different things one must master in order to run a farming business. On any given day, farmers must be accountants, mechanics, veterinarians, land stewards, marketers, and engineers.
But as more consumers take an increasing interest in agriculture, some are even looking for ways to forge a new career path in food production. Taking the leap into farming full-time can be terrifying, however, especially if you are starting a farming operation from scratch and hope to derive your sole source of income from the business.
“When I heard about Square Roots’ program, it was the first time I considered a career in farming as something that made sense,” Jonathan Bernard, program graduate and founder of Jon’s Gourmet Mushrooms, told AFN. “I was working as an accountant at the time, but I wasn’t really enjoying it that much. I always had a garden in my backyard but I never thought about it in a business sense or as a career path even.”
Indoor farming startup Square Roots’ Next-Gen Farmer Training Program offers participants a one-year immersion into the world of indoor agriculture, including everything from a curriculum on plant science and high-tech, enabled indoor farming systems business planning and marketing. It also touches on aspects of community building through indoor agriculture.
There are a number of resources available online and through various government programs like University extension services that can help aspiring green thumbs learn how to cultivate different crops, but being able to capture a decent earning in the process of launching a scalable business is a challenge that tends to fall by the wayside for many beginning farmers.
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“One of the things I valued most going through the program was the entrepreneurship aspect, meaning how to turn something that is a hobby or passion into a business. The program helped us learn about USDA microloans that offer super low-interest rates to help us get started after we graduated,” Bernard adds.
He also underscores the rigor of the program as one of the best ways to prepare for the rollercoaster ride that business ownership often provides. The day Bernard arrived with his fellow cohort members, 10 shipping container farms were being dropped off in the parking lot and the trainees were told it was time to hit the garden running. This meant assembling the initial components of the containers, testing a market, and finding buyers.
“We had to pay bills on the farms including monthly expenses for supplies and electricity, for example. We made money off of what we produced and sold, but if we weren’t producing and selling we still had to pay the overhead for the containers,” he explains. “We also had to get customers. I figured out a lot of stuff that I don’t know if we would have learned had we not been thrust into that situation.”
The business development and marketing component is perhaps one of the biggest draws for the program, as the local food space sees more and more entrants.
“We are about halfway through the program and one of the exercises we did is creating a product based on customer interviews. It really taught me how to engage with customers and to learn what is needed in the market,” Brandon Brones, a current farmer-in-training with the program told AFN. “I am one of the older farmers in the program and I have had a lot of work experience, but here I am really learning how to effectively communicate with so many different people to get a task done. That has been the most surprising part, actually, and what’s shaped what I really want to do.”
Brandon is using his time in the program to develop the skills he will need to launch BareBack Farms, an inclusive, educational and small production farmstead centering on continued practices and traditions of our ancestors.
As local food continues to be a popular trend among diners, restaurants and supermarkets are clamoring to source the freshest and best items possible. Unsurprisingly, the space is attracting serious investor attention. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio recently invested in indoor farming operation Bowery, for example, and indoor ag software developer Artemis (formerly Agrilyst) announced an $8 million Series A to help it target enterprise level indoor farms throughout the world last month.
Square Roots recently announced a new partnership with major US food service company Gordon Food Service to bring Square Roots’ container farms to more locations throughout the country, which could open the door to more farmer training programs throughout the US at farms located at the new Gordon-backed campuses.
The influx of capital and growth of indoor ag is promising for beginning farmers interested in the space, but that doesn’t negate how difficult it can be to build a successful farm business from the ground up. There are still plenty of challenges facing the often overhyped sector, including the high cost of paying for utilities like water and electricity to run the indoor farms, the limitations on what each container can grow, and a lack of real estate in pricey urban city centers close to the restaurants and farmers markets that comprise the operations’ target customers.
“Do as much research as you can. Indoor ag is a very expensive industry. It has a lot of capital startup costs to it when you talk about lights, hydroponics, and things like that,” cautions Bernard. “If you can find an industry veteran or someone to walk you through it or a chance to intern somewhere then that’s ideal.”