The Business Of Farming: Five Big Lessons From My First Two Years As A Market Grower
Sometimes I am surprised by how much I have in common with my readers. I love engaging with you all through social media and hearing the questions you bring to in-person events. One of the most common questions I heard from you this year was, “How can I leave my day job and become a farmer too?” I don’t have a good answer for this yet. I worked in the technology industry for fourteen years in order to prepare myself financially for farm life. It was a long, difficult journey for me and it’s not accessible to everyone. I and many others are working on clearing a better path for you and for the next generation. The world needs you, your community needs you, and the earth needs you! We all need farmers and land stewards, and if this is your calling, I will do all I can to help you get there. One way I feel I can help right now is to share my own mistakes, triumphs, and lessons from my first two years as a market grower. Here I have distilled all that life experience into one smooth blog post with five great tips to help you start your farm business right!
Lesson #1: Dive In Deep
In my first year as a market grower, I had it in mind to dip my toe into the well and test the water. In some ways, this was smart. I didn’t spend more than my (small) operating budget, I didn’t invest in huge quantities of supplies that didn’t work out, and I didn’t generate significant waste by producing larger quantities of perishable products than the market could consume. However, I also didn’t bring enough products or enough kinds of products to the market to cover my costs of being there. Sit down with your calculator and figure out all your costs of vending at a market. Add in your desired revenue and divide that total by the cost of producing your main product. That will give you an idea of how much you need to produce and sell. If that’s a high number, you may need to consider offering more than one kind of product to reach your goal.
Lesson #2: Diversify
In that first year, I specialized in microgreens. I also brought tomatoes and fresh leafy greens from my garden when I could, but I hadn’t yet expanded my garden to a large enough size to reliably meet demand for garden produce. I’ve grown microgreens for my own family for years so I felt proficient in that type of growing, and they seemed like a relatively accessible candidate to scale up as a market crop. However, there wasn’t enough demand for microgreens at my market to break even on that product alone. Many people stopped by my booth to chat, and they told me that they’d love to buy something from me to support my farm, but sadly they don’t like to eat microgreens. Others really enjoyed the microgreens, and came back every week to replenish their stash. Still, on a really good day at my local market, I can earn a maximum of about $60 in revenue from my microgreens. Keep in mind, that isn’t my profit. I still have to pay for seeds, potting soil, packaging, etc to produce that product, and to produce all the boxes of microgreens that I produce but can’t sell. I also have to pay vendor fees and farmers market insurance. This experience taught me that I would need to offer a wider variety of products the next year if I hoped to succeed as a market grower.
Lesson #3: Prepare To Be Flexible
I first saw myself strictly as a food vendor. So between year one and year two, when I envisioned diversification, I was only considering new kinds of produce to offer. I thought about offering prepared foods, but that turned out to be more difficult than I realized due to health codes, licensing, commercial kitchen rental fees, and other red tape. So in my second year, I went all-in on expanding my garden. I invested months of work, thousands of dollars, and all my hopes on this one project. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed. By June I realized my new garden location had not been suitably prepared, and my investment would not pay off this year. I would still have my microgreens, I would have a goodly amount of kale and collard greens from my raised beds, and I would have a small amount of fresh herbs. The great and diverse bounty of vegetables I had envisioned, however, would not come to pass.
The metaphorical wind blew hard. It was my choice to bend with this wind, or allow it to break me. I chose to bend. Diversification was needed, and it was too late to retry vegetables for the year. I needed to consider what value-added products I could offer to my community. I wasn’t prepared with the proper licenses and other resources that are needed to begin selling prepared food items, so I decided to call in my artistic skills and begin creating handmade art and craft items from things I have available on my farm. This was a very natural pivot for me, because I’ve actually been an artist longer than I’ve been a farmer or even a gardener. However, even if you aren’t an artist, there is probably some type of craft you are drawn to and can become skilled at making. I’ve had great success with this effort so far, and I hope for even greater success on this path next year, when I will be able to show up at the first market day well prepared and ready in a way that only a winter’s incubation can provide. I would encourage you to think about backups for your backups well in advance of your first market season, so that if your primary strategy is thwarted, you’ll be ready to roll with it.
Lesson #4: Hit The Ground Running
The beginning of the farmers market season is much more profitable than the rest of it. In spring, the whole community is excited that the weather is finally warm and the market is finally open again, and they show up in large numbers eager to support their local producers and artisans. This part of the season is great for everyone including craft vendors and baked goods vendors, but it’s especially good for produce vendors. Since most other produce vendors won’t have their veggies ready until later in the season, anything you can bring early is likely to sell well. I sell many times more bunches of kale, microgreens, and fresh herbs on the first three market days than I sell later in the summer. Do everything you can to be ready before the market starts so that your success in these early days will be great enough to sustain you through the hot days and the rainy days to come when none but the most dedicated and loyal customers visit the market.
Lesson #5: Strategize and Prioritize
I can see how it would be very easy to burn out in this business. I work more hours than I have ever worked before, and for less money. Especially this year, when my business strategy was to try everything, find out what works and what doesn’t, and forge a path towards success, I was spread very thin and not only did I not have time to enjoy my own garden and my life, but there were days when I didn’t have time to eat meals, didn’t sleep enough, and didn’t have clean clothes to wear because I hadn’t had time to wash any. I’ve been through this phase twice before, when I started my first business in 2008 (Reflected Spectrum Photography), and another time when I was renovating an investment house (which currently helps generate income for me while I build this farm). I think it’s a necessary phase to pass through when starting up a new business, at least for me. Nobody wants to linger in this phase- or worse, to remain in it permanently. It’s important to strategize and to prioritize the things that are most important to you. Make a vision board or even just a list of your real goals for your life, and keep checking in with them. Make sure you’re still on track towards the life you really want. For me, this means time to work with my land, healthy food and products for myself and my community, and enough income to fund my ecological restoration projects and educational outreach efforts. Notice how I didn’t say “all the money in the world”, “one million followers”, or “corporate ad sponsors”. Those are not the kind of goals I am talking about. What do you want your life to be? I’m building a life around my values. That is my priority and my ultimate goal. Everything I do needs to be in service of my path towards those goals.
This year, one of the things I tried was adding a second market day every week. I loved my second market, located in a neighboring town called Bargersville. The timing seemed perfect, with Franklin Market on Saturday mornings and Bargersville Market every Wednesday evening. I really loved being part of that second market! It has a beautifully chill vibe, the people are totally lovable, and they have an amazing band that shows up every single week to play all my favorite 60s era songs. I learned lots of great tips for success from talking to the other vendors there, and many of them generously shared their extra products with me after our market hours ended. However, I found that doing two markets every single week took up about four full work days every week. I was too busy doing markets to keep up with my land management chores or to tend my own garden. I hope to remain a part of both markets in some capacity going forward, but now I realize that I can’t do two markets every single week. I started an Event Calendar so that my customers can easily find out where I will be and when, even when my schedule isn’t the same every single week.
I hope this article helps somebody experience greater and faster success with their new farm business. Local food farmers and producers are extremely valuable and extremely needed. It’s a hard business, but a rewarding one. Through my first two years as a market grower, other farmers have aided me, collaborated with me, mentored me, and supported me. The other vendors at my markets are not my competition, they are my coworkers, allies, and friends. I hope that by sharing my experiences here, I can extend some of the kindness I have received to beginning farmers wherever they may be. Best of luck, I’m rooting for you!