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BroadBand: Emily Ann Bonci – Chaos Farm

Emily Ann of Chaos Farms on BroadBand the Blog

I launched a special blog series to honor and champion other women in business. This is a companion service to a podcast that launched in 2020.

My intention is to share insights of lessons learned by businesswomen and also elevate their services to the greater community. The goal is to inform and inspire other women with ideas in order to empower them to grow their own business ventures.

Emily Ann Bonci is a co-owner of a micro farm located in Rhode Island. It is home to her family and many a creature, too.

1. What is your business?

I run and own a small fiber farm – Chaos Farm

2. How many years have you been in business?

Two for sales or five if we are going to count owning, raising and mastering the animals. 

3. Why did you pick this trade in particular?

In the beginning my husband wanted alpacas because they were really wonderful animals for people with sensory sensitivities or who are on the spectrum. Then we wanted our daughter, who we thought was going to be an only child, to have another sense of purpose and responsibility. We wanted her to understand and feel what it was like to care for something larger than yourself – something that wasn’t just the usual ease of cats and dogs. After some research and sheer luck- alpacas fit the bill. 

4. What are the top three reasons why a business owner should invest in your service/product?

So many things flood my mind when it comes to “tell me why you?”. I guess the first thing is that we are small, from our farm to our mill to our markets – we are small. Supporting small and local really – doesn’t get any smaller than me. When you place an order – it’s with me. I am the only employee, so you get a really personal connection with the farmer, which is what I love about our farm. You can head to other places and when you get there there’s usually farm hands or help and staff, store clerks and what have you – but when you come to Chaos – it’s me. I do all the marketing, the sales, animal care, daily barn chores, egg washing and packing, grain runs, hay pulls, answer calls, all Etsy sales, mill pick up and drop offs, dying the fiber, making the soap, deliveries, farmers markets – it’s me. You should always know your farmer and with Chaos you do. I love the relationships I make whether it’s just one purchase or a weekly delivery. It’s really special and turns into a great experience for the customers. 

The next is that alpaca is a very eco friendly and responsible livestock, actually, it is the most eco friendly livestock in the world. It has a lot to do with their diet and their teeth and  feet – they don’t rip up grass or churn the earth – their manure is pretty special – and I’ll save you the details on all of that but they’re a fabulous animal for the earth to support on a farm versus other natural fibers. 

Lastly I guess if I had to pick it, and it’s hard to, I would say I’m pretty proud that we specialize in USA made alpaca gear. Our tiny family run mill is right here in Fall River Mass, I work with the owner and employees there, I know who makes what and can go in anytime and see, for instance, our socks being made. I think that’s so special rather than selling something I bought online and imported in. It’s not that that’s lesser quality by any means, but I like how close we are and that I know where my customers money goes and who it stands behind besides myself and my animals and family. We are proud to be local and support local. It’s a wonderful feeling. 

5. If you could go back to your younger self, what kind of advice would you give yourself about your pursuit to create your own business?

Don’t doubt yourself and Do it sooner. For years we struggled making ends meet on the farm and it was because I doubted myself and my ability to do sales. We didn’t have to struggle. 

6. If you could go 5 years in the future, what do you think your future self would share with you?

Probably a combination of yelling at me for being so busy and not taking time to enjoy the moment but also, again, self doubt. 

7. Who influenced you – professionally?

That’s going to be my mentors. I have several – they are supportive to the moon and back and I could absolutely not do anything that I have done without them. Keith and Debbie from Plainview Farm in Hubbardston MA, Faith and Tony from Alpaca-lipps Farm in Rutland MA and then Evan from Overpass Farm

In Uxbridge. They each own their own farms and businesses – much larger than mine- and have guided me tremendously. I simply couldn’t be without them. 

8. When was your moment of realizing, “you know what, I got this!”?

I’m waiting for it…. haha. Everyday with farming there are blunders and things happen out of your control  with animals and you never really feel like “I mastered this”, in fact if you get to that point you’re probably going to say “I know so little” because you realize how much there is to know. It’s like a if you say you know everything then really you know nothing kinda thing I feel. 

I still think on my own head that I don’t own a farm, I still have trouble saying “I own my own business, I’m a farmer”. I guess at some point it will sink in and feel real but I’m waiting on it. I feel best when I get to talk about the animals or our process. That’s when I feel like “ya I’m doing ok”. 

9. How do you keep your momentum going to keep a healthy pace as a business owner?

Well, with this specific kind of business, each season brings something different on the farm. Summer is our slow season – so I enjoy it with my young kids, and simply restock the shelves for the coming season. Fall is ramp up, I prepare for it through the summer – sept through January I basically don’t know what healthy is. You just push hard. Between – because remember I’m a parent and the caregiver to my toddler and 7 year old ontop of  this – I don’t have daycare or family out here and my husband works full time – I work 7 days a week, 18 hour days for weeks on end. Animals, kids, orders and markets are all I do. It’s intense. It gets chaotic. I am grateful for my ADHD – it keeps me going. Healthy isn’t a word I would use for the fall to winter market lol. But I also think that we got really big for our britches this past year and we’re going to have to make a few changes for this year. The 

Other farms I watch – they have helpers, and their children are adults. Then Theres me… running around with orders and alpacas and chickens with a baby on my hip like some mad woman. Mama needs some help, we didn’t expect the incredible support we get from our customers – we will have changes to better support us this year. 

10. How do you celebrate your wins?

With my family. Pre-pandemic – after our first successful fall  season, we hosted Thanksgiving at our home. We come from large families – it’s no small task – and we did it and it was amazing. That was the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. It was like Norman Rockwell with 25 people. After our first amazing winter season, I brought us on a weekend trip to NH the ice castles. When I tell you that we struggled before the farm took off – that’s putting it mildly. As with most young families in my age group – it’s tough in the beginning – now add a farm – mark down that I’m was a stay at home Mother so that’s a list income (I’m a speech therapist on Paper) – and put yourself 60-90 minutes from any of your own family – it was really hard. So for us to first off, leave the farm (which you have to pay a lot of money to do), and stay in a hotel and do something really cool – it was awesome. I remember crying because I was so proud. So my wins – we celebrate with beautiful stress free Christmas’s, horseback riding lessons for my daughter, getting museum or zoo memberships, a day to the aquarium, getting special treats from other local businesses here. No worrying about groceries and getting myself a nice pair of work gloves or boots – that’s winning here, yea, we get real excited about good sturdy boots. 

11. What advice would you share with someone who is thinking about, or just beginning, managing their own business?

Keep your receipts and learn how to network! Dive into your community – be open and excited – it’ll catch on. 

12. What surprised you the most as a business owner?

I’m really really awful at math but I’m still rocking it. I thought that would be a huge downfall, like when your 5th grade math teacher says “you will always need math so get used to it” and it just cycles through you like some horrible hex every time you have to figure out tax – nah- use square and you’ll be fine. There are ways around it. I’m doing fine. 

13. How do you describe your entrepreneurial spirit?

I have ADHD, so that’s going to be a 500 mph tornado of excitement and ideas. I love the freedom this job afford me to do that. See if something I thought of is going to fly or fail – without answering to anyone but myself – that’s really working for me. 

14. How do you feel about the word ambition?

That’s a critical word for owning your own business and running it alone. 

15. Are you more of a every little bit counts kind of person or an all-or-nothing kind of person?

That’s a tough one. It changes on the setting. Like with sales – every little bit counts – I am answering orders at 2 am about eggs for a nurse that just got off her 12 hour round – because she matters and her order matters to me. I’m an all or nothing person with quality of products. I test every one of my things on myself first – if it doesn’t please me or survive whatever I put it through – I won’t offer it. So I guess I run on both sides! 

16. Can you share a ‘messy middle’ story of us?  A time when things were not looking or feeling good and how did you move through it?

Well, to be honest, I’m only two years in. Haha. I guess, this winter my mill literally ran out of colored survival socks. Our most popular socks disappeared weeks before Christmas due to the shut down. I had a subscription box deal I was filling orders for, two in store presences I was filling for, my ETSY store AND the virtual farm store and here I am running out of our most popular item. We banded together with the other local farms and supported each other with “do you have ….” “ok I have these here I’ll give you some” kinda thing, but when it came to spring market we still didn’t have these socks in colors. It takes them months to restock colors and styles at the mill. So…I was taught how to dye my own by my wonderful mentor Debbie. Never thought I’d be huddled over a huge pot, making my dye color and stirring a batch of socks but There I was – a color witch with a new brew.  Now I know how to, I bought dyes, I did it, I wore them and played them hard and was pleased with their performance – and now I can sell a sock in whatever color I want to Make and won’t have that problem again.  

17. Using a scale of 1 (scaredy cat) and 10 (*) as far as taking risks, where would you put yourself?

For farming – 6 – You’ve gotta be a little brave to do what we do I think. Maybe crazy – which really boosts brave; but also remember that you have animals to answer to. I can’t blow the grain budget because I wanted to try and sell something new that flopped. If I fail – I still have to feed the 100+ animals we have. That was painfully clear in the start of the shutdown. That was scary. 

(*) Debbie Lawler – often called the ‘female version of Evel Knievel since she broke his motorcycle record: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debbie_Lawler

Debbie Lawler (born December 13, 1952) is an American motorcyclist. Lawler is most noted as the first female motorcyclist to beat Evel Knievel’s record.[1][2]

18. How much time do you devote to professional development/learning each week or month?

I learn every day. I would say I learn more about animals and their care, medicine and methods than I do sales and such. I don’t really have the time or ability to sit down and do classes or lessons at this point in my life. It’s gotta be moving and fast for me. 

19. Any suggestions on resources: books, podcasts, online learning, blogs + tools?

I would say get a mentor. You must have multiple mentors in this field. They are worth more than gold in farming. 

20. What is your personal / professional vision?

I’d love to have my own farm store on my farm. My life would be so much easier if I didn’t have to do markets and run around crazy. If I could just have my items here and open for people when they needed me, have set hours, and tend to my kids and animals at the same time, have the community enjoy that set up, man, that would be everything. It can’t happen here in Lincoln, the town has given us a really hard time about being a brick & mortar retail spot, despite being zoned for agriculture, but we do plan to relocate because of this and when we do it will be wonderful for not only us, but the community. The things we could give back with education, experiences and opportunities to our community, if we were allowed to be what we know we can, would be seemingly endless. 

21. What question did I not ask you and should have?

You were pretty thorough. I answered most questions for a sales/business perspective, not from a salt of the earth farmers perspective. Maybe – what part of your job fulfills you the most? I would answer community outreach. We do field trips here, we offer volunteer learning work here and I can’t imagine a better thing on this planet that I could do for myself and others than that. It feeds my soul. 

22. Five things to know about you:

a. How did you come up with the business name? We were having a hell of a time picking up our alpacas, it was an insane day where it was a calamity of crazy, and I was in our grain store in Uxbridge (we stay small and local whenever possible) – The Mane Place – and they asked me so what’s the name of your farm going to be? I blurted out “Chaos! We are just Chaos Farm. That is apparently what we farm – Chaos” and it was born and fits perfectly. 

b. What is your favorite flower? Sunflower 

c. Coffee or tea? Tea – English black and stain -your-teeth strong. 

d. Tahiti or Paris? Neither – ones too hot the others a city. But if I could spend the day in a garden in either then that’s fine. 

e. Are you an intention setter or goal setter? Ooooo. Good one. That’s tough. I want to say intentions. It’s always chaos – goal are nice but chaos will derail you; it’s best to accept the work ya did through whatever tornado whipped by that day and try again tomorrow. Working with animals is like that – you can’t ignore an injury or a sickness to reach a sales goal. While at the same time You can’t be too tired from doing a 9 hour market to shut the barn down and do nightly barn chores. 

f. Favorite quote? “What if I fall? But my dear, what if you fly?” I don’t know who said it – or what about – but often when I am scared making a business choice I will hear that echo in the back of my head. 

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