Molly Rockamann of EarthDance Farms
This post is part of Farm Commons’ “farmer profile” series, where we highlight the stories of members of the Farm Commons community to help educate, inform, and inspire. If you have a story that you think others could benefit from hearing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thinking of starting a nonprofit farming venture? First focus on your mission, according to Molly Rockamann, founder EarthDance Farms in St. Louis. “For us, our mission was pretty clear. We wanted to have the educational aspect and community development as much in the forefront as production. The nonprofit structure made the most sense for that, but if your main mission isn’t education, forming a nonprofit might not be right fit.”
Molly came to that mission from a roundabout path, first going to school for environmental studies, and then working overseas alongside farmers in Fiji doing research. When Molly decided she wanted to get some more hands-on experience, she went to the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. There, she discovered that farming could allow her to pursue all of her passions: healthy food, sustainable agriculture, and community education. Although she originally intended to go back to Fiji after finishing the program (and did for a short while), Molly eventually came back to her home state of Missouri and started working to found EarthDance on one of the state’s oldest farm properties.
While beginning the process of forming EarthDance, Molly went to work for her family’s company in HR and finance to gain the skills she knew she would need to run a successful business. “I think one of the biggest challenges to beginning farmers is the lack of business experience and skills. They’re not necessarily in the habit of thinking in terms of ‘Okay, this is great to grow all this, but who is going to be buying it? How am I going to be able to make this work?’ You have to think through the money side right from the beginning. Getting some experience in a business environment helped me be able to do that.”
Even with that knowledge, founding a farming business and a nonprofit was not an easy process. Molly started by renting an acre of the land from the former owner. “I learned about being a tenant farmer the hard way! This was not someone who was interested in giving beginning farmers a break." While doing that, she began to pitch to a land trust organization the idea that this organic farmland could be preserved. When the previous farmer-owner passed away, her family was interested in just selling it to the highest bidder. With the help of the land trust and a few major donors, Molly was able to buy all 14 acres in 2012. Since then, EarthDance has grown to be a CSA, an artist-in-residence program, and an organic farmer training program with over 170 graduates as of the end of the 2014 season. 77% of the people who finish the program go on to work in sustainable agriculture.
Molly says that while a nonprofit structure worked well for the mission of EarthDance, another good option is to be fiscally sponsored by another nonprofit. “Especially if you’re still working other jobs, don’t have paid staff… it’s a lot of administrative time that goes into managing a business entity and tracking all the numbers and doing the paperwork. It makes a lot of sense to avoid that if you’re not in a huge rush to be independent! When your mission starts to be very different from your fiscal sponsor, or you get big enough that bookkeeping becomes complicated, that's when you might want to consider moving on.”
Her biggest piece of advice to other farmers? “Don’t be afraid to scale up your operation! But when you do, make sure that you’re not just increasing the amount of gross profit and upping the amount of work everyone is doing, but also increasing your net profit. Get your systems down. As much as you have your farming systems figured out, get your indoor administrative and tracking systems in place. That’s one thing I’m proud of -- that we’ve maintained really great records even with changes of farm managers and things like that. It’s made everything easier."
Farm Commons will be putting out a resource in the coming months to help farmers considering a nonprofit venture walk through the decision of choosing a business entity. Be sure that you are on our mailing list to get notified when that is released. In the meantime, you may be interested in our business entities and organization chart and the corresponding webinar.
Photo credit: Demond Meek, Feast Magazine