Avoiding big risks on small farms

CORVALLIS, Ore. — While a prevailing school of thought among some business owners is to take big risks and embrace possible failure, Ellen Polishuk says farming is not like other businesses.

The difference, Polishuk said, is most farms survive and thrive based on execution, as opposed to innovation. Fail to grow healthy crops, or operate machinery safely, and the consequences can be severe.

“We’re risk-takers already because we chose agriculture, one of the riskiest realms to work in,” Polishuk said. “I don’t think we need to celebrate here this idea of, yeah, you just keep trying.”

Rather than celebrate failure, Polishuk, a farm consultant based in Washington, D.C., stressed the importance of working together and learning from past failures to avoid future setbacks in a presentation Feb. 23 at the Oregon Small Farms Conference, hosted by Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Prior to founding her consulting company, Plant to Profit, Polishuk spent 25 years farming herbs, vegetables and fresh cut flowers in northern Virginia. She identified several areas where farms can fail, including poor management practices, choice of markets, health, safety and planning.

Class participants shared mistakes they made in working their own farms — including Polishuk, who recalled an incident where one employee hit herself on the head using a metal post driver. The lesson, Polishuk said, is making sure farms offer workers compensation to avoid risking lawsuits and losing close relationships.

Polishuk remembered another story where her neighbor, while working alone, managed to run himself over with a tractor. The man was OK, but Polishuk said it emphasized the importance of paying close attention to safety features on machinery and making sure there is someone to help in an emergency.

“This is a dangerous game, when machinery is involved,” she said.

Farmers also need to pay attention to their own physical and mental well-being, Polishuk said. She recommended doing yoga stretches to keep the body from breaking down, and seeing a counselor to help deal with the day-to-day stresses of running a farm.

“It’s great to have one, 45-minute session a week that’s completely devoted to your (situation),” Polishuk said.

At the end of the day, Polishuk said farms need to turn a profit to stay in business, which is why it is so critical to choose crops that can make money and are well suited for the land.

Perhaps more than anything, Polishuk said new or beginning farmers should realize they do not need to go it alone.

“Figuring things out on your own doesn’t usually work, and if it does, it usually takes a lot of time,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to exercise this impulse (to farm), and not have to do every single thing yourself from square zero.”