Starting Your Hobby Farm: Tips for Farming on the Side

Maybe you’ve been eyeballing that empty acre of your backyard, or maybe you’ve been thinking about pulling up stakes and moving out into the country. Either way, farming is on your mind. But what should you know before you get started on your backyard farm or hobby farm — especially if you’re still planning on keeping your day job?

Luckily for you, American Family Insurance has plenty of experts when it comes to balancing farming with full-time work! We’ve been insuring farmers for over 90 years and know a thing or two about what it takes to be a successful farmer. And we love having farmers on our team, too! Four of our agents and employees were happy to share their best tips, insights and advice for balancing life on the farm while keeping up with their work — and managing everything in between.

Why Start a Hobby Farm?

The benefits of farming are numerous. There is something deeply satisfying about bringing things to life and knowing your hard work is what helped them grow. Plus, farming can instill great life skills like hard work, discipline, patience and perseverance. Sometimes you can even earn a little extra cash on the side, too!

However, when we asked our experts why they chose life on the farm, they all had a similar answer — it’s all about family. Farming can be a priceless legacy that passes down from parent to child, strengthening family bonds and creating invaluable memories.

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That’s how it all started for Joe Kruse, an American Family Insurance agent and crop and hay farmer. “Farming was something I've always been around,” he explains. “I was a little kid playing with my tractors on the floor, farming the carpet, and I just grew up that way. It was just always something I loved.”

Kevin Lenzendorf, a senior underwriter at American Family and cow cattle farmer, also inherited a love of farming from his family. “My brother and I, we grew up on a dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin,” he shares. “And since then, when our parents retired, we actually purchased the farm. My brother is an American Family agent over in Watertown as well.”

Meanwhile, Lesley Halverson, another underwriter at American Family, is already getting to see the joy that a farming lifestyle sparks in her three children:

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“I've just really enjoyed watching the next generation. My kids fell in love with it, especially with the animals. And my son, I mean he's only two, but he loves the tractors and the combines and all of that. But my oldest loves the cattle. So anytime we go over to my parents, she's out of the car door running and ready to go into the pen and chase the cows down. It's just rewarding to watch that next generation love the same stuff that you enjoy doing so much.”

“Farming gets in your blood,” says Michael Banks, who has owned his own farms. As an American Family agent who also buys and sells farms, he’s seen many families fall in love with farming. “It’s something that truly feeds America.”

What Do You Need to Start a Hobby Farm or Backyard Farm?

Farming is more than just tools, crops and animals. It’s a way of life. So, before you ever pick up a shovel or milk pail, it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve found a way to fit farming in your overall lifestyle. Here are some key questions you’ll want to be able to answer before you embark on your farming adventure:

Do you have the flexibility needed to balance work, life and farming? Farming takes time — and many tasks, such as planting and harvest, need to be done at specific times of the year. If you want to be a farmer, you’ll need to find a way to get that big work project done and get home in time to milk the cows.

Working for a company that understands the importance of work-life balance can be a huge benefit if you’re also a farmer, explains Kevin:

“I mean, it boils down to having a great manager who understands this is a passion of mine and gives me the flexibility to handle both work and life on the farm. When I started here at American Family, they really stressed the importance of work-life balance, and it’s been really crucial for me to get things done when they need to be done.” Kevin went on to say, “Having a great team too, that’s important. I'm really fortunate that team members are more than willing to jump in whenever needed.”

Does your upper management recognize the importance of work-life balance? Consider having a conversation with your manager and team about your interest and see if there is a way to create a flexible work atmosphere that can accommodate your passions.

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Do you have the right support? Not only is it important to have a supportive work environment, but it’s important to have support at home too!

According to Lesley, it’s crucial to have a true partnership when it comes to parenting and life on the farm. As a full-time employee and mother of three whose husband is a crop farmer, she knows that teamwork is the key to success.

“It’s knowing at times one another is busier. I understand that he's busy during certain times of the year, and he also understands there are times in my job that I have to put in more time. We support each other.”

Her advice to other couples who want to take up farming together? “It’s challenging at times. Just remember to work together, and not against each other.”

However, if you don’t have a spouse or your spouse isn’t able to help out on the farm, that doesn’t mean farming is out of reach for you. Your support team could include your extended family, friends or employees. There’s also one more key source of support: a mentor.

Do you have a mentor? If you didn’t grow up in a farming family or it’s been a while, sometimes the best next step is getting acquainted to someone else’s farm.

Michael advises, “If you don’t have a lot of experience, immerse yourself into it. Volunteer to help on farms — anything from picking up rocks in the field to helping during busy times of the year especially. Find a local farmer and make yourself available and get to know them better. Farmers are willing to help each other. Find resources and soak it up.”

The knowledge you’ll gain from working with an expert farmer is invaluable. “When you learn how to do something on your own and succeed, it’s rewarding,” says Michael.

Even if you’ve got expert farming skills, a mentor can still be a valuable resource — even if all you need is an ear to listen when you’ve had a tough day. Although Michael is a seasoned farmer who can handle it on his own, being able to share his experiences (good and bad) with his father has really strengthened their bond:

“Most rewarding is doing things on your own while still having dad as someone to vent to.”

What Are Your Best Tips for Starting a Hobby Farm or Backyard Farm?

You’ve talked to your manager. You’ve built up your support team. You’ve found your mentor. In short: You’re ready to start farming! Here are the top tips from American Family agents and employees on how to be successful in your first year with a hobby farm or backyard farm.

Start small. Picking up farming on your own means you can go at your own pace.

Lesley advises to ease into farming saying, “Start small to make sure you can do it and it’s something you want to do. Do your research take your time and it’ll be good.”

Have a learning mindset. When it comes to farming or ranching, there’s always something new to learn, especially when you’re just starting out.

Kevin encourages those hoping to pick up farming to be open to learning new things. “Be willing to make mistakes. Be smart, start small and initially do something you're comfortable with,” Kevin says. “And lastly, be willing to learn as you go. I do that every day.”

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Do not procrastinate! Getting things done on time or ahead of schedule is crucial when it comes to farming, according to Michael. If you wait too long you might miss out on a big opportunity to help your farm succeed. Staying on top of your work and looking towards what’s next will be more beneficial in the long run.

Michael goes on to talk about how this life skill also relates to being an American Family agent saying, “Being timely in your response and having good follow through is everything. So, you know, being timely when it comes to be a farmer translates to owning a small business.”

Roll with the punches. Being a farmer means there are things out of your control — the weather especially! So when the weather doesn’t agree with your farming plans, you have to keep going anyways.

Joe says, “You can do all the research needed and go into the detail needed and if it doesn’t rain the right amount, none of it matters. You have to be overly optimistic as a farmer. No matter what happens.”

Find your unique selling point. If you’re hoping to make some extra cash from hobby farming, Joe urges you to get creative!

“The best way to make a hobby farm work is to not be afraid to think outside the box,” says Joe. “Try and find a niche that you can specialize in to increase cashflow.”

In addition, if your hobby farm will be a source of income for your family, be sure to protect it financially with hobby farm insurance.


What Are the Best Ways to Achieve Long-Term Success?

After you’ve conquered your first year, how do you keep your hobby farm or backyard farm going strong? Some of our American Family experts bring with them generations’ worth of wisdom and insight for keeping a farm going strong for decades or even centuries. Here’s what they have to say about building a farming legacy than can stand the test of time.

Prioritize family-time. Finding enough time for everything can be tricky when you need to balance life in the office with life on the farm, while still making time for family and friends.

Lesley stresses the importance quality time with the family. “Family time is so important — especially dinner — so you can talk to the kids and see what they’re up to.”

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Invest in farming technology. Technology can play a big role in managing time, whether it be emailing someone over the phone while you’re out on the farm or using the newest most innovative farming technology to cut down on long hours out on the land. Keeping up to date with cutting-edge agriculture technology can make maintaining a busy schedule more attainable.

Stay mentally tough. Joe later explains how when things get hard you have to push through, even when giving up might sound easier. “It’s a mentally tough game. Things still happen in work and you still gotta do it. The mental state of worrying ‘what if’ is the hard part.”

Michael reiterated this sentiment saying, “The best farmers are honest, hard-working and persevere. You gotta get it done, so sometimes you have to work until 1 or 2 am. You’ll have good years and bad years. Overcome hard times and push through.”

Take time to enjoy the magic of farming. Joe said, “My favorite thing about crop farming is one day I go out and I plant a bunch of seeds. Then I wake up and I drive to work, and I drive past that field and where the night before it was completely black dirt, now there are rows of corn. They're all there in a row together. And there's just something magical and inspiring about looking out there and where there used to be nothing now there's something. It's just crazy that's able to happen. And I love that. It goes back to it's a feeling of hope. A farmer is nothing if he doesn't have hope. You just have to hope for the best and roll with whatever happens.”

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If starting a farm or hobby farm is truly something you aspire to do, go out and make it happen! Like our employees and agents, if you have the drive to do it, you can make it happen. Remember, with the right support, any dream is possible. We’ve got a number of articles for supporting you dream that’ll help you along the way. And if you still have questions about hobby farming or questions for your unique needs, make sure to connect with your local agent for specialized assistance.


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Related Topics: Agent and Employee Stories , Community Involvement