Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Four Figure Farmer - The 2014 Growing Season

Early Spring, 2014

*WARNING* This post is mostly about my experience as a grower and may be downright boring to almost everybody. I still really want people to read this, I just thought I should get that out there.

What a year! It was the first full season on this land, which I will call home for as long as I am able. It was the first year I had a BCS tractor and rotary plow, so I was well-equipped for the first time in my gardening career. What did $4k worth of equipment buy me? Well, I think it bought me the ability to effectively grow on raised beds. That might seem like a lot of money for something that isn't thought of as necessary by most gardeners, but I am a firm believer. Raised beds, or mounds of soil make it easier to manage water issues and gives the plants a deeper bed to dig their roots into. The rotary plow is also great because it doesn't make a hard pan like a regular tiller, and to whatever extent it does make one, it is doing so in-between the garden beds, in the path ways.

Show Me The Money

I named this post the Four Figure Farmer partially to poke fun at JM, The Market Gardener. He is a nice dude and a really good gardener that I agree with about tons of stuff, but for whatever reason, he decided to call himself "The Six-Figure Farmer" which I think is really gross. 

Local agriculture already has a price stigma - people have it in their heads that everything at the Farmer's Market is overpriced. I have even joked about it, saying that I sell overpriced vegetables to overprivileged white women. The thing is, I don't want that to be the case. I want my prices to be lower. I really do. I want to sell food for the price that people can afford to buy it at, and I want to be part of a local food economy (to whatever degree that can be a real thing) that also wants the same thing. Calling yourself a six-figure anything stinks like a midnight infomercial about some get rich quick scheme. 

Local ag isn't a get rich quick scheme. It usually isn't even a make-a-decent-living scheme. But, I didn't start growing vegetables because I wanted a good job or get rich. I started growing vegetables because I was disgusted with the way a good job alienated me from the rest of the world. I started growing vegetables because it is a simple activity that requires a direct relationship between the earth, the grower and the consumer. I started growing vegetables because, as another local grower once said, "it is the last profession available to everyone that fucks over no one."

That is a very long way of getting to the point that in 2014 I had about $7,600 in sales. That is four figures of pure success! So, how did I make so much money???

Restaurants and Grocery Stores

During the course of the season I sold about $1800 to restaurants and grocery stores mostly through a partnership with a local food cooperative that helped with marketing and delivery. It was a convenient relationship because I had one drop off point for multiple customers and didn't have to spend time chasing down invoices from different customers. Thanks to the ladies at Louisville Grows for making that possible.

Farmer's Markets

I had a stand at two short-season markets (one was 15 weeks, one was 17 weeks). Both markets resulted in total sales of around $4400. I really hate Saturday morning markets, and I won't participate in one again in the future. Sure, it is when everybody thinks about going to a market, but I don't like getting up super early in the morning and standing around for 5 hours. 

Community Supported Agriculture

I want to be primarily a community supported grower. Meaning, I want to provide produce to the same people all season. It is the backbone of most of the successful farms I have visited, and I think I have an interesting take on it that people will really enjoy once they find out about it. But, I am a pretty terrible salesman. I am trying to get better at it this year, it is so far from who I am that I really struggle with it. I am buttering the following number up as much as possible because it is the number I am proudest of, $1400. I started the season with two CSA share members and one of them moved away before she even got a tomato from me. Almost as soon as I lost her, I picked up three new members who stayed with me through the summer along with three more members that joined later in the summer for the last third of the season.

This wasn't how it was supposed to go, but I learned a lot about picking up share members from the process (I think) that I will take into the future. I want to increase my CSA membership to 20 paying members during the 2015 season, and I am off to a pretty good start.

Hitting a Wall of Heat and Weeds

It was early August and the garden was going great. Fall crops had been transplanted or direct seeded, summer crops were going strong and a pretty successful spring season was behind me. I ran into a fellow market grower and he looked exhausted. He told me he put his CSA on a one-week hiatus so that he could have a little bit of break and try to catch up on weeding his crops. As he talked, I could not relate at all. 

And then, I got it. A week of good rain and the weeds came on with a vengeance. I had a quarter acre of melons that turned into a quarter acre of 6 foot tall Johnson grass seemingly overnight. Summer plantings of carrots and beets that looked good the week before had been choked out by weeds before I had even planned to weed the bed again. Vine borers devoured a planting of summer squash, rabbits and ground hogs started taking a much larger share of tomatoes, peppers, carrots, turnips and beets than they had earlier in the season. And it got really hot. Like, I would rather work naked if it weren't for the bugs, hot. 

I was able to keep enough of everything going to keep going to market and keep pulling together nice CSA shares, but my sales through the cooperative basically dropped to zero. I didn't give up on some beds as quickly as I should have. I kept saying to myself, those weak-looking plants just need some more compost tea and they will be able to out-grow the weeds. I was fooling myself into thinking the weeds weren't also thriving from the nutrient bath that is compost tea. 

Falling Into a Good Harvest

The heat and weeds didn't get the best of me or lots of my crops, either. As the weather cooled, greens flourished again, eggplants and peppers kept producing and a late planting of paste tomatoes proved more than I could sell. Broccoli, turnips, peas, beans, summer and winter squashes, radishes and even a fall planting of potatoes turned out pretty well. I had hoped for a large harvest of sweep potatoes as well, but they seemed to really struggle below the ground in a no-till bed experiment that I tried. So much for that experiment...

The Frost Harvest

I don't remember the date of the first frost, at some point in November, but I spent that day and night picking everything in site. I picked green beans, snow peas, summer and winter squash, mustard greens, daikon and watermelon radishes, carrots, turnips and okra. I picked green tomatoes, tiny eggplants, and every pepper I could find. Red peppers, yellow peppers, purple peppers, chocolate peppers, jalapeƱo peppers and cayenne peppers. I picked until it was dark and I could see the frost forming on the leaves. It was great. There was only one problem, I didn't have a market left. The CSA season had been over for a few weeks, my markets had been over for a couple weeks more than that and I had not talked to the ladies at the coop in forever. So, I bagged and froze lots of stuff, I strung up peppers to dry, I ate SO MUCH roasted eggplant and I threw a couple hundred pounds of winter squash in the basement and hoped for the best.

I was happy to have all of the food, don't get me wrong, but the whole experience made me realize I really missed an opportunity for sales. So, this year, now that I have learned my lesson, I will be marketing a frost harvest basket to all of my CSA share members along with everyone else I can bother with the concept. It will probably be around $25 and geared toward local sides for a holiday dinner or stuff to fill up your freezers. It is an idea I have not really heard much about from other growers, but I think it is a good idea.

Bullet Lessons

The following is a list of lessons learned that I will be trying going forward:

- start fall beets in the greenhouse (head start on weeds)
- seed baby greens so thick and harvest them so fast that weeds don't have a chance to flourish
- grow more curly leaf kale - it is the kind of kale everybody prefers even though red russian is superior in flavor and grows better 
- grow more herbs - parsley, basil, sage, rosemary, thyme (all the thymes) and cilantro as well as sorrel, salad burnet, fennel, dill, chervil, lemon balm, mint, oregano and savory (these will keep the CSA spicy, but will also offer an add on purchase at markets
- start fall cabbage and cauliflower earlier and feed the hell out of it once its set out
- no more sweet corn (it takes so much space to get so little harvestable product and the worms beat me to maybe half of the ears
- more salad mix for more weeks (I am going to try to put a salad mix in every week of the CSA, maybe skipping a few weeks in the middle of the summer)
- weed carrot beds weekly until tops form a canopy (I completely lost a fall harvest to weeds)
- grow more garlic (and eat more, too)
- grow more flowers (call it workplace beautification, but I want more flowers next year, with more variety)
- be a better evangelist for my own business on social media and old fashioned media as well
- take more pictures, make more videos
- take naps, lots and lots of naps

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