5 Startup Lessons I Learned from a Farmer

Several weeks ago I spend a few days on Nakagomi Orchard (facebook page) WWOOFing. The idea was to get away from city life and spend time away from technology by volunteering on a farm in exchange for food and board. I never expected to see entrepreneurial spirit in full force. Our host, Nakagomi Kazumasa was not your typical farmer. Armed with a masters degree in literature from an American university, he was well-read and passionate about farming. Farming in Japan is a declining industry even as the country is fully dependent on imports (Japan’s self-sufficiency is around 40%) and real income for farmers is around half of what it used to be in the immediate post war era (hence why his parents could afford to send him to the states for college despite the wider economic gap with the United States at the time). When you combine this with Japan’s aging population and the ongoing migration of young people to the city for jobs and other opportunities the picture is quite bleak. In fact, many farmers in the area are going out of business due to financial difficulties, the lack of a heir or a combination of both. The fact that Nakagomi Orchard can weather this storm in a declining industry shows that they are doing something quite right. Here’s a short list of things that I saw at the farm that any startup should take heed.


Be passionate


Within 10 minutes of arriving on the farm I was whisked away to the orchard, dressed in overalls with tools in hand. After a small break and introduction I was weeding around a variety of trees. Kazu told us that weeding is an important part of farming because the weeds suffocate the roots and steal nutrients that should go to the trees. You have to get the root of the weeds otherwise it would grow back stronger but not damage the roots. Lazy farmers with badly tended orchards suffered lower yields and low quality crops.


Kazu was very friendly but laser-focused on farming. He never told anyone to work harder or faster but his passion was contagious and it kept an assortment of volunteers focused on work. While weeding he would go into details about the process of farming and the work involved as the season progressed.


It wasn’t just him either, everyone in the family was passionate about the family business, something I’ll go into more depth.


Everyone is an entrepreneur


Another striking feature of the orchard was how everyone in the family was essentially an entrepreneur. The family spanned several generations from grandmother, sons and wife, and grandchild. Everyone had their own role. Grandmother tended to the house, making lunch or readying snacks for the tea breaks that punctuated farm work. The daughter-in-law cooked dinner for the volunteers. Kazu oversaw work on the farm and the nephew helped out.


However, at a moment’s notice the daughter-in-law would be driving a van to the orchard busing volunteers and giving them directions. You could ask any member of the family what tomorrow’s weather forecast was and they would tell you including the highs and lows. At one point a shipping company visited us during lunch break and it turned into an impromptu business meeting where they compared shipping costs with the competitor and discussed the pros and cons in detail. It was amazing how quickly family members would switch between roles and adjust to the environment. They were very sensitive to the business and political climate in addition to the weather. Grandma read the newspaper daily and the daughter-in-law always watched the news. Everyone had a stake in keeping the orchard running and it showed.


Innovate, innovate, innovate


One thing that came up over and over again during our stay is how the orchard continued to innovate. Nakagomi Orchard pioneered a variety of new farming techniques in the area that significantly increased yield (Kazu’s brother is head of agricultural research at one of the prefecture’s labs). Not only that, the orchard constantly innovated by opening up direct sales channels and experiment with a variety of marketing strategies. They were always searching for newer and better ways to increase their yield or sales (either increasing profit margins or cutting costs). It was crucial to their survival because other orchards in the area would quickly copy any innovative technique they saw as successful. Even nature kept them on their toes, a technique that worked on keeping birds away one season rarely worked after a couple months. This lead Kazu to seek a competitive advantage that other orchards in the area couldn’t easily replicate.


Marketing


One thing Kazu was quick to incorporate was internet technology. Whether it be social media, SEO, blogging or international volunteers (via WWOOF), Kazu put his English skills to good work to take advantage of this. While the Orchard’s website might not win any design awards, it places highly in search engines for a variety of terms that ensure a constant flow of customers and volunteers. Neighboring farms might imitate any old school marketing technique but none of them can match Kazu’s web savy. Through a combination of these skills he was able to sell his orchard’s products directly (better margins than going through the local agricultural association), have a steady flow of volunteers to help with the labor shortage, and ensure that his orchard got a steady flow of attention.


Stay open


How does Kazu keep up with all this? For one he is always open to suggestions. Many volunteers who come and go give him suggestions and information regarding social media. In fact, the facebook page was something I suggested with the other volunteers that were there. He simply said, “thanks for the suggestion, lets do it”.


While, getting away from the city and the internet in general was refreshing, seeing a real entrepreneur in action was probably the best thing about the trip (not to mention a breath-taking view of Mt. Fuji). When you’re knee deep in tech blogs it’s easy to forget that there is a whole wealth of knowledge that startups can learn from by stepping outside and talking with people doing their thing in traditional industry. You never know what you might learn.