Farm Diversification Tips From Three Entrepreneurs

July 25, 2017 12:00 PM
Producers Chris Noble (left), Anna Brakefield and Jamie Walter talk about on-farm diversification during the 2017 Tomorrow's Top Producer conference July 20 in Nashville, Tenn.

The spirit of agricultural entrepreneurship is alive and well, embodied in the business ventures of hard-charging producers. Three such farmers are stepping back from a complete focus on bulk commodities and carving out personal brands to directly connect with consumers.

During the 2017 Tomorrow’s Top Producer conference in Nashville, Tenn., Anna Brakefield, Chris Noble and Jamie Walter detailed the drive and design behind their remarkable versions of agricultural diversification.

Brakefield is the founder and co-owner of Red Land Cotton. A red-dirt girl from Moulton, Ala., Brakefield is producing heirloom cotton linens from family farm to home and protecting the purity in every link of the production chain. Red Land Cotton is a marriage of farm and business, encompassing planting, growing, picking, ginning, spinning, weaving and blasting over social media.

Any producer considering a business move beyond the rows should note personal strengths and weaknesses from the start, says Brakefield, who works alongside her father, Mark.

“Recognize the areas where you lack proficiency,” Brakefield says. “I bring marketing and advertising expertise, and my father brings farming knowledge. Any farmer wanting to expand needs to take a look beforehand and fill in those blanks.”

Read more about Brakefield: Cotton Just Went Farm to Home

Noble is part owner of Noblehurst Farms, a seventh-generation operation in western New York that includes 1,750 dairy cows and 3,000 acres of alfalfa hay, corn, triticale and wheat. Yet Noble, the 2016 Tomorrow’s Top Producer Horizon Award winner, has expanded far beyond the farm’s traditional base. Noblehurst Green Energy is a complete-mix anaerobic digester system; Natural Upcycling is a fast-growing food waste collection business; and Craigs Station Creamery processes up to 1 million pounds of milk per day for Northeast distribution. The farm is also the site of a soon-to-open $58 million cheddar cheese facility in partnership with other local dairies, Dairy Farmers of America and Denmark-based Arla Foods.

The initial push is the hardest part of branching beyond traditional a farming business, Noble says.

“Farmers already know their core business and learned so much from their fathers and grandfathers,” Noble explains. “But once over the learning hump, diversified opportunities are similar to farming businesses, and it can be a natural fit. For anyone considering a farm-related business, I’d advise them to find something they are passionate about and match opportunity with talent.”

Read more about Noble: Dairy Innovator Powers Farm With Food Scraps

Walter is a fifth-generation producer from Dekalb, Ill., growing corn, rye, soybeans, wheat—and whiskey. He is the co-founder and CEO of Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., one of the only certified on-farm craft distilleries in the U.S. Located in Chicago’s backyard, Whiskey Acres distills year-round, crafting a unique product from “seed to spirit,” as the company’s tagline says.

“Know your core competencies and don’t chase a business opportunity beyond those,” Walter advises. “Don’t chase things that take away from a good farm. Instead, pick something that augments and strengthens your operation.”

Read more about Walter: Proof Positive

Brakefield, Noble and Walter all share a mindset based on customer connections. “As producers, we need to go direct to consumers and make emotional connections,” Walter says. “In the past, that’s something our agriculture industry hasn’t done particularly well.”

For complete coverage of the 2017 Tomorrow’s Top Producer conference, visit

Top Producer would like to thank the sponsors of the 2017 Tomorrow’s Top Producer conference.

Premier Sponsors: AgriGold, AgYield, Anuvia, Bayer, Case IH, Channel, CropZilla, Dow AgroSciences, Growmark, K-Coe Isom, Pioneer, PotashCorp, Top Third Ag Marketing, Verdesian.

Co-Sponsors: ADM, ESN Smart Nitrogen, AgroLiquid, Farm Credit Mid-America, Harvest Returns, Silveus Insurance Group,

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