One minute, Tim Young was a corporate star, flying to Europe on one of his every-six-week business trips. The next, he was a fledgling farmer, struggling to move cows on his 100-acre property in rural Georgia.
Okay, it didn’t happen quite that quickly. But close.
Young grew up in Georgia. While he’d never lived on a farm or had much exposure to animals outside a petting zoo, he was surrounded by a strong homesteading culture. In high school, he wrote for Foxfire, a magazine dedicated to preserving and helping people develop an appreciation for traditional regional culture, including “lost skills,” like trapping and canning.
After graduation, he left that all behind and moved to Massachusetts to pursue a career in corporate America. He was there for 25 years, working in various roles, including as president of a division of a Fortune 500 company. In his mid-30s, he decided to start his own business, and five years later found himself living what he calls a “rat race life always on an airplane.”
Then, around 2004-2005, Young and his wife, Liz, had an awakening. “Like a lot of people at the time, we became aware of how completely unaware we were of where our food came from and how disconnected we were from everything,” he says. “When I wanted my car washed, I got someone to wash it for me. When I wanted my house cleaned, someone did that. When I was hungry, I went to a restaurant, and when I wanted coffee, I went to Starbucks.”
They started thinking about all of the things they didn’t know how to do, and it bothered them to a point where they decided to do something about it.
What they did was dramatic.
“A sensible person would have reconnected to where their food came from by going to a farmers market and meeting local producers,” Young says. “Instead, we sold our house and moved out to the country. We didn’t intend to start farming. We just wanted to be closer to nature and to how our food was produced.”
On 100 acres he had no idea what to do with, Young started teaching himself through books. He learned that land needs livestock to return fertility to the soil. So he got a herd of cows, 800 chickens, and 150 Ossabaw Island pigs and decided to go into the farming business (you certainly can’t accuse him of doing anything halfway!).
That’s where the knowledge Young had acquired in corporate America came in handy. “I learned then that direct-market farming is about 20% growing and 80% marketing. Especially when you’re working with rare or heritage breed animals like Ossabaw Island pigs. First you have to create a market. It’s the same for any kind of farming enterprise, even a vegetable CSA box. You have to be able to get people to prepare and cook vegetables when they might not even know what those vegetables are.”
Young’s entrepreneurial approach worked. The farm started getting exposure, and he ventured into the artisan cheese business, winning several awards for his products.
That was when Young started using a CoolBot. Their property was about 1 hour and 20 minutes from a decent-sized town, meaning where he could find a repair technician for his walk-in coolers. He had three 28’ walk-in units — two for meat and eggs, and one for his cheese cave — that he’d purchased used. The coolers broke frequently, and Young found himself forking out $500 to $1200 every time repair was required.
When he read about the CoolBot in a farming publication, he decided to retrofit the coolers. “The worst case scenario was that the air conditioner would go out, and I’d have to get a new one at Walmart. But I’ve never had a problem,” he says.
To support his expanding cheese operation, Young built an 800 sq. ft. cheese cave with four rooms for different types of cheese and installed four CoolBot/AC combos. He wanted to bring in more milk to make more cheese, so he used another CoolBot to build a cooler on a 14’ box trailer he could tow behind his truck. Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture came out to make sure the cooler was able to maintain the low temperature required for transporting raw milk. It was.
“The CoolBot is a great solution,” Young says. “It makes cold storage as simple as building a room the size you want and then putting in an air conditioner and a CoolBot.”
In 2015, Young decided to change directions once again. He and Liz realized that they valued privacy above all, so they sold the cheese business, retired from farming, and moved to a smaller property to pursue homesteading instead. The still grow crops, have fruit trees, raise cows, and make cheese, but just for themselves. He’s planning to build a new walk-in cooler, this time for storing meat so he can dry age it.
Astute readers will have picked up on the fact that only 10 years passed between Young’s awakening and his retirement from commercial farming. In that time, he ran a grass-fed beef business, a heritage breed pig business, and an award-winning artisan cheese business. His farm was featured on both Fox & Friends and MSNBC’s Morning Joe — an accomplishment in itself!
“It does sound strange when you repeat it,” he says. “But my DNA is entrepreneurial. As an entrepreneur it’s just another business. Every business I’ve been involved in comes down to how you market your business and build your brand. So I had confidence that I could do it.”
But, it couldn’t have been that easy. There must have been some major challenges, right? Indeed, there were. The trick is that Young wasn’t afraid of the challenges — he viewed them as learning opportunities. “We had to learn everything. We started out being very naive and very stupid about it, but what’s wrong with that? In any business, you may not know it all. So, you go out and learn it.”
As an example, one of the things he had to learn was how to move cows. “When we first got our herd of cows, I didn’t know how to move them,” he says. “My neighbor sent his 5-year-old son out to help me. I was an idiot out there calling the cows, and the kid got behind them and pushed. So, I started reading books by Temple Grandin, and within 6 months I became an expert in moving and handling livestock.” (In case you’re wondering, moving and catching pigs is very different from cows, Young says.)
Young needed help learning a lot of farming basics, and people like his neighbor were there for him. He also relied heavily on the knowledge of experts like Grandin.
But a lot of his success was due to the skills he had learned as an entrepreneur, like how to build a brand, grow an email list, and choose the right go-to-market strategy. Farmers need these skills as much as they need to know how to grow crops and raise livestock. That’s why Young built Small Farm Nation, a website with an online academy, a blog and podcast, and a community where farmers can connect and help one another answer questions and solve problems.
One of the most important lessons Young helps people learn is how to build their farm brand and market their business. He recommends starting your marketing efforts at least a year before you have products to sell, with a blog.
“In farming, you do have something to sell because the secret to marketing a farm business, for the most part, is sharing your story,” he says. “People get behind Joel Salatin because of his convictions and beliefs and how he expresses them. That’s the kind of thing others can do as well. Even if you’re still living in the city, if you want to start a farm, start writing about it now. You’ll build a community of people who will be there to support you later.”
All of this content will also provide other benefits. For example, it will give you a year to build your SEO juice, so that when you do have something to sell, your website is the one that shows up on Google. You’ll also get free market research — people will tell you what they’re looking for, so you can tailor your products to meet their needs.
But above all, don’t be afraid to dive in and do it.
“Most of the time, what’s holding people back is fear of failure,” Young says. “But you’ll only fail if you don’t try. So don’t worry about failure. Just take the first step, and then take the next step, and all of a sudden you’ll realize you’re moving. Are you going in the wrong direction? Probably! But successful entrepreneurs don’t go Ready – Aim – Fire, they go Ready – Fire – Aim.”
For more farm business advice, check out the Small Farm Nation Academy. Membership is $25/month, and there’s no commitment — you can sign up for 1 month, absorb all of the current content, and be on your way; or you can stay around and be part of the community. You can also follow SFN on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.