Back Story: Beginning Better Farm

As part of its curriculum, the Introduction to Business (BUS 112) course at Jefferson Community College hosts a lecture series that invites small-business owners in the North Country to come on campus in Watertown, N.Y., and recount how they started their companies. Cheryl Ditch, associate professor of business at JCC, got in touch with me a few months ago to see if I'd be willing to talk about my circuitous entrance into the business world via none other than the incorporation of Better Farm herself.

I was, and gave my lecture at the college yesterday morning. I was admittedly nervous: As my route into the business world was so roundabout, it came to be without me taking a lick of business schooling or having any sort of real knowledge about how all this business stuff works. That meant a bumpy road with a lot of missteps. But I've learned a lot in three years, and tried to share as much as I could with the students. Below are some of my notes...

 
Lecture to BUS 112 Students, 11/12/2012
By Nicole Caldwell 

I grew up writing. In journals, in the margins of the books I read, in letters, on walls, on the soles of my sneakers while I sat in class. I always knew I wanted to write. So it was an easy move to apply at the writing-centric Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, an obvious decision to major in literary journalism, and a natural extension of myself to take on a senior thesis project that involved a 2-month, cross-country trip by Greyhound Bus documenting the people I met and the communities I visited. My love affair with writing about the world around me was cemented.

After college, I took a job in New Jersey working as managing editor at a local weekly newspaper. I was underqualified for the job—having never worked at any publication before, or even so much as serving on the yearbook committee in high school.

I learned the ropes, from press releases to editing to hard news coverage and concert reviews. But after a year, I also grew impatient. I knew I'd need several more years' experience if I wanted to move up the ladder to the daily papers; more than that if I wanted to work in magazines. I daydreamed about one day landing on the masthead over at National Geographic, for whom I could criss-cross the globe talking to people doing all sorts of extraordinary things in their daily lives. I could write about the environment; a topic I grew increasingly obsessed with.

I looked into grad school. Columbia University was just across the Hudson River from where I lived in New Jersey. And though I felt it was a long shot, I applied for the school's graduate journalism program. I studied for their entrance exam at a dive bar in New Jersey; sipping chocolate porters and oatmeal stouts while memorizing the names of George W. Bush's cabinet members and learning the geography of every country in the world. By the time I took that test, I was reading four newspapers a day in order to be well versed in everything from pop culture to politics—any news item I might get grilled on.

When I was accepted at Columbia, I found a small apartment in Harlem and moved in with two friends. The curriculum was rigorous. For my graduate project, I wrote a feature-length story about scuba divers using New York City's waterways as their playground. And when I graduated, as all my classmates signed up for the Associated Press' waiting list and took jobs at daily newspapers across the country, I climbed back aboard a Greyhound bus and took off for a summer of talking to strangers and seeing all I could before the inevitable cubicle culture took me over.

As I traveled that summer, I remembered back to the guest lecture series we had in my grad-school program. The speakers from that series were tasked with lecturing us on how they got to where they were professionally—much like this lecture series. What struck me about those lecturers—war journalists, famous news anchors, columnists for the New Yorker—was that their stories weren't clean, straight lines. You never heard people say “I took such and such class” or “I got this degree” and then success just sort of rained down on them.

In fact, overwhelmingly these success stories were peppered with failures; missteps that any normal person might fall into, bad judgments or errors that led them down different paths less-frequented by the masses. Or, the stories began in unlikely circumstances; places we overlook everyday for their mundane nature. It was in these alternative endings that the real beginnings started—the cocktail-party conversation that led to a book deal; the odd local news story that turned into a Pulitzer. I thought about this as I made my way from little town to big city all across the country, and I decided that I believed in circuitous routes, alternate endings, and question marks. I forgave myself for not jumping right into the work force, and quietly applauded myself for loving the unknown.

I got back at the end of the summer and applied for every journalism job available, eventually being hired at 24 years old as managing editor of Playgirl Magazine. A year later, I was promoted to editor-in-chief. I worked for Playgirl until the magazine went online-only in 2008. I switched gears to become editor-in-chief of a small trade publication covering the diamond trade in Midtown Manhattan.

I was unhappy at the new job. Working overtime in a cramped cubicle space below ground level took its toll. Gone were the Greyhound bus trips. So long to hitchhiking, jaywalking, honky-tonking, and kootchy-kooing. I was too tired to keep up with my “Finnegans Wake” book discussion group. The bicycle I had in my apartment collected dust. Even the spinach plants I labored to grow on my windowsill looked ill.

At just 26, I'd become a woman without a cause; working for a paycheck instead of a passion. I was rooted to my monthly bills, and a sense of gathering experience for someday down the road. I got up early, took a combination of subways to work, sat in my cubicle while people around me discussed TV shows, took the reverse route home, went for a jog, made dinner, and lay in bed reading until I fell asleep. It was no way to live—though I knew all along this was exactly how many people do.

Now, in the midst of this in early 2009, my uncle contracted pneumonia and landed in the hospital. After battling in the ICU unit for months, he passed away. I was devastated. I looked around at my life in New York and felt deeply unsatisfied. As I grieved and handled funeral arrangements, there was another particular that needed ironing out: My uncle's 65-acre farm 350 miles away in Upstate New York, which he'd decided to leave to none other than yours truly.

BETTER FARM'S ORIGINS

My uncle bought “Better Farm”, as he so-called it, in 1970, and turned it into a commune. The name came from the “Better Theory”, a belief among my uncle and his friends that every experience, good or bad, is an opportunity for growth—or, in their words, to be better. We transform actions, memory, and responses with our perspective, the theory goes, and to seize our full potential requires that we take advantage of the experiences put in front of us by turning them into opportunities. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as “better” would have it), it's often the most trying, difficult times in our lives which offer the greatest opportunities.


My father and I regularly logged the 700-mile-roundtrip voyage from my suburban New Jersey home to Better Farm throughout my adolescence during the 1990s. I saw it go from a social hub in the early 80s to a one-man kingdom by the late 90s. After my dad died in 1999, I began making the trip myself and visited with my uncle, the only one left in a house the rest of the world had long-since left behind. Soon after my uncle died in March 2009, the house sat vacant.

I wanted to reclaim my life. I wanted something new. So on June 15, 2009, I sublet my apartment, loaded my belongings into my car, said goodbye to my loved ones, and headed across and up New York State toward Better Farm; nestled in a sleepy hamlet called Redwood somewhere along the Canadian border with a population of only 500.

In the coming days and weeks, I kayaked more than I walked. I sat on the back deck and looked out over empty fields. I listened to crickets and coyotes at night. I swam in lakes and hopped rides on motorcycles and wrote in my journal and signed up for horseback lessons. I advertised rooms for rent and threw fresh coats of paint onto Better Farm's walls. While they dried, I pieced together a game plan for the farmhouse to be turned into an artists' retreat and sustainability education center; initiatives my uncle and I had dreamily discussed, not knowing he'd check out and I'd check in so soon. I picked up dozens of freelance gigs and wrote morning, day, and night.

After six weeks in the North Country, I'd made some pretty major tradeoffs: pumps for rubber boots, smog for stars, pencil skirts for Carhartts, window-shopping for gardening, makeup for bug spray, and subway cars for pick-up trucks. I felt myself slowly waking up. Better Farm, not Brooklyn, was fast becoming home.

But now that I'd decided to start a business, I had to figure out how. I envisioned creating a “living laboratory” where people from all over the world could come to study green living and learn about sustainability. But I didn't have so much as a garden at the farm—just acre after acre of open fields and unkempt forest. As I sorted out the mechanics of making my imaginings a reality, Playgirl came calling: the magazine was coming back. I restarted work for that publication remotely; hosting meetings by computer and organizing photo shoots through e-mail when I wasn't ordering seeds for the garden or fielding applications for sustainability interns and artists-in-residence. 

BASIC FRAMEWORK OF BUSINESS 
This was the Who, What, and How. For me, this was very vague at first. I knew I wanted to offer a “living lab” to the public for education in sustainability and green living. I also knew I wanted to offer a space for artists to come and get away from city settings.

What I needed:
  • a formation of a business: Better Farm
  • identification of my strengths
  • a revenue stream
  • a facility (realization of space: garden, living quarters, studio space, etc.)
  • a curriculum
  • willing participants
  • credibility in the community
  • a marketing strategy

FORMATION OF BUSINESS: LLC
A Limited Liability Company (LLC): a business structure with a flexible form of enterprise that blends elements of partnership and corporate structures. A few types of businesses generally cannot be LLCs, such as banks and insurance companies. I thought this was the simplest business model I could create; and since it was just me starting it, it was perfect.

Better Farm's mission statement: Better Farm is a sustainability education center and artists' colony founded on the principles of the Better Theory—a belief that every experience brings with it an opportunity for exponential personal growth. Through educational workshops, internships, artist residencies, gallery showings and events, and an ongoing commitment to sustainable living and community outreach, we strive to apply the Better Theory to all our endeavors while offering the curious an opportunity to expand, grow, and flourish. 

I talked to friends and family members who knew what an LLC was and the basic steps to go about forming one. I formed the LLC with the help of those people and extensive Google searches. Some recommend a lawyer for this step. My business structure was so simplistic, I passed on that. From there, I figured out (again, through online research) how to created an Employer Identification Number (EIN) for the LLC so I could open a bank account. After that, I went ahead and opened the bank account. 

IDENTIFY YOUR STRENGTHS 
Things I had going in my favor:
  • My ability to network and communicate
  • My ability to do extensive research and relate information in a digestable way
  • The property itself lent itself to communal living and farming: old property was a farm, big old farmhouse with 8 bedrooms, two-story barn on property, several outbuildings, and lots of natural resources made it a draw for visitors
  • My background in writing meant I could write press releases, blog every day, submit articles about the farm, and design the website without the help of an editor.
  • The recession meant people were looking for less-expensive living situations, and because the job market was terrible, people were looking at other ways to spend their time between work.
  • My access to talented experts in their fields: My friends are a diverse bunch; from community organizers to teachers to engineers. Calling on them to piece together programming or set up e-mail helped in ways I can't begin to calculate.
REVENUE STREAM
The money for my business was to come from people paying to be at Better Farm. Some money would also come from merchandising (T-shirts, mugs, etc.), and overflow of produce we grew. I decided not to take out a small business loan, which meant I had to figure out a revenue stream that started very small without a lot of money down.
  • SUSTAINABILITY STUDENTS/INTERNS: College students were basically offered the opportunity to study, work, and learn at the farm free of charge; but if they wanted to live at Better Farm while they did so, they were asked to pay a low stipend to cover their share of utilities and food.
  • ARTISTS-IN-RESIDENCE: Artists had to apply and submit a portfolio to be considered as a resident at Better Farm. The program started out very simplistic; but with its eventual success would command its own business—I formed the non-profit subsidiary of Better Farm called betterArts in 2011. Those accepted to the residency program paid a lodging stipend.
  • OVERNIGHT GUESTS: I listed Better Farm on bed and breakfast and youth hostel websites, which allowed me to supplement income from artists and interns with nightly fees for visitors. I offered private rooms, shared bunk-style rooms, and camping facilities.
  • MERCHANDISE: I printed 300 T-shirts that said "Better Farm" and sold them online and out of the farm stand at Better Farm.
  • PRODUCE: A big part of Better Farm involved community outreach. The organic produce we grew fed people staying at the farm; but was also sold to local grocers, and out of farmers' markets and the farm stand we had on-site.
FACILITY
  • GARDEN: I had a friend down the street come over and plow up a 1,000-square-foot area of dirt. Thus began the garden. Because I was interested in organic gardening and permaculture, I utilized an alternative method called mulch gardening. The garden (and all its additions—herb gardens, aquaponics inside, etc.) became the living laboratory.
  • STUDIO SPACE FOR ARTISTS In the last two years, I've converted an old, two-story hay barn on the property into an art gallery and studio space for artists and musicians. Having the gallery space has allowed us to host art openings for the public at the conclusion of each artist's residency. This additionally offers us the opportunity to sell artwork. 
  • LIVING QUARTERS: Name of game was renovation. Added bathroom, replaced railing on staircase, painted all rooms, bought a bunch of bunkbeds off Craigslist, added several lofts, etc. (this process is still happening... continual improvements)
CURRICULUM
In another business, this would basically be what you're selling and how that's being presented. But for Better Farm, we sell an education and an experience. Those points include:
  • Communal Living and Simple Homesteading: Cooking and cleaning on our own, growing our own food, shared responsibility, reduced carbon footprint, using only what we need, looking out for each other. This is very different from shared-housing in college or roommates in the “real world”. 
  • Sustainability Education and Outreach: Rainwater catchment, compost, organic gardening, alternative energy, green building, chicken and livestock care, education in the community, aquaponics, etc. 
  • Workshops: wine making, music lessons, organic cooking, etc. 
  • Artist Residency Space: I allocated two private bedrooms in the hosue for visiting artists and began work on renovating the barn on the property so it could serve as a gallery and studio space. 
WILLING PARTICIPANTS 
OR, my target audience: These would include (but not be limited by) college students, local volunteers, and artists. 
CREDIBILITY IN the COMMUNITY 
Tricky in Redwood! Not a lot of incoming people, community is close-knit and has been here a long time. In addition to volunteering my time with the Redwood Neighborhood Association, I took a job working a few shifts a week at the Redwood Tavern in order to get to know the people living and working in the area, to create a rapport with local contractors, and make myself a knowable character. I made community service a major part of the work I did at Better Farm. Whether painting the post office in town, partnering with Watertown Hospice, running a compost workshop outside the Alexandria Bay library, the artists and interns and I got to know our neighbors. That in turn upped attendance at our workshops, gallery openings, concerts, and farm stand. 
MARKETING 
With just the name and a vague business plan, marketing might seem like a big, expensive challenge. BUT one thing I did understand: writing. Better Farm's blog, Facebook page, and website were easy to get going—and proved to be some of the most valuable assets I started with. All were free. 
* * * 
THE FIRST YEAR
While I got that list together, my friends and family took on roles as Better Farm's IT, community outreach, and publicity departments back in New Jersey and New York City. I can't underscore enough how valuable the expertise of my loved ones was. It saved me thousands of dollars in services, and nurtured those friendships.

The outpouring of support and the diversity of ideas pushed me.

As spring of 2010 rolled around and I got ready to celebrate my first year in the North Country, I also began the crucial work any small business must excel at in order to be successful: getting the word out.

I spent a few hundred dollars on printing up flyers about Better Farm. For the sustainability internship program, I e-mailed dozens of schools to let them know we had a new, experimental education program opening up near the Canadian border. I posted the “Better Farm Sustainability Internship” job description on college job boards across the country, on websites like idealist.org, and the application on our website at www.betterfarm.net.

For the artist residency program, I did the same thing but framed it as an opportunity for individuals to get away from their schools, cities, and homes to have the space and time to work on their craft. Every accepted artist would be required, at the conclusion of his or her residency, to present work to the public as a gallery show, performance, or reading.

I posted overnight lodging information on hostelworld.com, intentional communities.org, and on a bunch of tourism websites for the thousand islands region.

The first summer of programming brought with it six artists and interns; as well as dozens of overnight lodgers. I couldn't believe it was working, but it was. College students across the world began applying to work alongside me in this great experiment as we farmed organically, built and renovated in a green way, ate mostly local food, composted, and made a starting—but lasting—mark on this little hamlet along the United States-Canadian border. The following year, that number more than doubled.

With the increasing success, I needed more help and a better organization of my ideas. I bartered room and board for help. And instead of leaving the internships and residencies so open-ended, I honed the curriculum and the scheduling. With ever-increasing applications for artist residencies and the urging of those around me to offer arts- and music-specific workshops, I got together with some friends to create a non-profit subsidiary of Better Farm called betterArts. 

CREATING A NON-PROFIT 
This was much more difficult than just starting a for-profit business. It involved more of everything: more paperwork, more of a paper trail, more of an explanation, and more people. There were more personalities to deal with, more scheduling, and more communication. For betterArts, I couldn't just go out and get something done. Everything was a vote, everything was a meeting. But this design also meant I had the help I so greatly needed. As a non-profit, we would also be free to apply for grants, partner with fellow non-profits, and allow people make tax-deductible donations. 

betterArts, which functioned as an arts and music outreach initiative offering free and low-cost workshops, residencies, events, and community outreach out of its location at Better Farm. BetterArts residents today live and work alongside Better Farm's interns who farm and garden on the property.

The breakdown worked like this:

Better Farm as the facility: an organic farm that offers sustainability education.
BetterArts: an arts and music outreach initiative housed at Better Farm. 

SECOND YEAR OF PROGRAMMING 
By June of 2011, Better Farm was hosting individuals from all over the world who wanted a premier education in sustainability. Students from Singapore and Kenya showed up to learn about installing rainwater catchment bins and grow produce without any chemical fertilizers. We hosted six interns that summer a handful of farm volunteers, campers and visitors. In total, roughly 50 people came through our doors as guests. Many many more than that came through for events, from fundraisers to supper-club dinner parties to concerts.

Living and working alongside our resident farmers were artists from across the country who wanted the unique living situation only Better Farm could offer. They had open space, peace, and quiet in which to work; but they also had a communal living set-up and sustainability center to boot. Painters pulled weeds in the gardens alongside interns; guitarists opened up the chicken coops in the morning and helped build a greenhouse. And our farmers got to flex their creative muscles, as well; helping to curate art shows and play music with composers. A discarded piano was painted and turned into a planter outside. Trash was turned into robots. A visiting artist made sculpture out of a years' worth of plastic grocery bags. 

THIRD YEAR OF PROGRAMMING
This year, I brought in a woman who used to intern with us and had her run the intern program. With her working in the field with everyone, I was freed up to handle paperwork, networking, maintaining the farm's web presence, and overall management. We had almost a dozen interns, and an equal number of artists come through so far in 2012; which means every year we've been in business, our numbers have just about doubled. To handle the increasing number of visitors to the farm house, I've started spreading the programming out year-round instead of only during May through August.

With the help of the people living and working at Better Farm, I've also expanded our lodging options. Sleeper lofts tucked away throughout the house, as well as alternative outbuildings, have been built by the group. One of our favorite projects was a one-room cottage built to look like a giant birdhouse (complete with perch) and offered as a housing option for visiting artists. In 2013, we'll be completing an earth ship made out of tires and a hobbit house. 

MOVING FORWARD
I'm spending this winter further honing the curriculum for our internship program, and will begin contacting colleges in the area about creating a partnership for field study work at Better Farm. We recently created a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension's 4-H after-school program, and will hopefully also be partnering with JCC to offer ecology and science students hands-on experience. Those who complete Better Farm's internship program from here on out will also receive a certification in sustainability.

BetterArts will be pursuing grant monies for a summer concert series, further community outreach initiatives, and scholarship opportunities for promising artists. We partnered this year with Watertown Hospice, Watertown Evening Rotary, Bay House Artisans, and other local organizations for a variety of workshops and outreach initiatives.

TOP PIECES OF ADVICE FOR FUTURE BUSINESS OWNERS:

WORK WITH THE SKILLS AND GIFTS YOU HAVE
Whatever skills you have learned along the way, whatever your specialty at work today, it will likely be true that you will need to bring those to bear in your startup right from the very beginning. When you start, your resources and help are limited. You will wear a lot of hats. If you are good at accounting, great, that is one less thing you will need to pay for. If you have marketing skills, those will be vital to your startup. Sure you will be doing other new and fun and interesting things, but do not discount how important those old tried and true things will be as well.

Consider what you have at your disposal. Not everyone can be handed a farm mortgage-free; but you might have access to a space you haven't considered yet, or talented friends you've never worked with professionally before. I am lucky to have friends working in a variety of fields—but very likely, so are you. Utilize the experience around you and never be afraid to ask for help. The worst that happens is people will say no.

IF YOU ENLIST THE HELP OF FRIENDS, DRAW VERY CLEAR BOUNDARIES—Almost every friend I have has helped and supported me in one way or another as I built Better Farm up into a business. Many of those experiences were wonderful for everyone involved; in other cases, differences of opinions and methods of getting things done taxed the relationships. Looking back, I can see several instances where I needed to draw clear boundaries and neglected to do so; blurring lines of responsibility, ownership, and who was in charge. I can also see how it would have been wise for me to make sure every account (i.e. websites, blogs, merchandise, newsletters, et al) was opened with my name, and that gifts be accompanied by a signature defining the nature of the gift (i.e. a charitable contribution or donation so that later on down the road no one felt he or she was owed something). These may seem like excessive measures to make among friends; but your good friends won't care, and your acquaintances won't bat an eyelash at a business having defined standards.

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD—get well-versed on the needs of the people living and working in the neighborhood your business is in. special events, deals, sales, and programming should be in step with the world going on in your community. Any contribution you can make back to your neighborhood—monetary or otherwise—will benefit you a thousandfold. Lend a hand at the soup kitchen. Participate in the barn-raising. Go to local events and get to know your neighbors.

MAKE IT PERSONAL—put your face on your company from the getgo. As you gain success you can step back a bit, but the more people feel they know and trust you, the further you will get every time.

FIGURE OUT YOUR FINANCES
You will need more money than you think: One of the main issues any entrepreneur faces when creating a startup is that it does indeed take money to make money. The question of course is — where do I get that money? The usual suspects are yourself (savings, cashing out), friends and family,
and SBA loans. Lately other ways have arisen too —microfinance and crowdfunding to name just two. But an equally vexing issue is the amount of money you will need. The short answer is that you will need enough to launch the venture, buy product, get inventory, market the business, and pay yourself — for at least 6 months, because that is the minimum amount of time it takes to start, get the word out, get business, and start the money cycle. And also, things will go wrong, mistakes will be made, unforeseen problems will arise. That is why it will cost you more than you think, for probably longer than you anticipate.

UTILIZE SOCIAL MEDIA AND ONLINE NETWORKING

MAKE YOUR WEBSITE LOOK PROFESSIONAL

PROOFREAD!

BE WILLING TO TAKE CHANCES

For more information about the Introduction to Business course, visit JCC's website or contact Cheryl Ditch, Associate Professor of Business, at cditch@sunyjefferson.edu.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.