Fellow farmer, for the past three years I’ve been sharing my thoughts and ideas on farming with you in this blog series funded by a grant from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. I’ve enjoyed walking with you on this journey.
As the grant comes to an end, I’d like to sign off with some lessons I’ve learned as I enter my 20th year of farming.
Being flexible is key to being a successful businessperson. This year’s farm labor shortage forced me to rethink how I manage my farmers’ market stalls as well as my farm. I’ve been reminded that sometimes the best way forward is to do things differently.
Sometimes Simpler is Better
This season, I started working farmers’ markets again. For many years, I’d handed this job off to my staff. It was one of the tasks I passed on after my son was born. But this year, due to the labor shortage, I’ve returned to working markets. Attending farmers’ markets takes time that I typically spend on other farm tasks, but it also gives me fresh perspective on what sells well at the market.
My farm grows a huge variety of crops, from red kale to blueberries to purple snap peas and passion fruit. Recently, I noticed that when I take berries and avocados to the market, kale and collards barely sell. I find myself loading most of them back into the van at the end of the market. I’ve also noticed that during the summer, produce that can be eaten raw—like lettuce and snap peas—sells well. But things that need to be cooked—like bunched greens, summer squash, or cabbage—don’t bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of production.
Given that I’m short-staffed and time is money, I decided to run an experiment. The next week I simplified what I brought to the market. Instead of setting up my usual super-diverse produce display, I only brought blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, avocados, garlic, and chives. These are my popular, high-value crops. I also set up my market stall to enhance sales. I placed the tables across the front of the tents so people could shop from the front of the stall instead of having to enter. Having the produce right up front catches the eye of the customer as they walk by. It also makes it quick and easy to make a purchase, as customers can see everything you have without having to enter the stall. This setup is harder to do if you have a large variety of products because you need more table space.
My experiment was a success! By giving more space to my desirable, higher-dollar items, I made $1,000 more than I did the week before, with much less product.
Simplifying the Crop Plan Simplifies Everything
This got my wheels turning. I considered making some crop plan changes that would simplify my business. Given the labor shortage, I’m accepting the fact that I might need to continue to work markets myself. Streamlining my offerings would allow me to generate the same amount of money with less produce to load and unload. Also, if I had to do the market by myself in a pinch, I could still do well.
Simplifying my crop plan makes everything else simpler—the field management, the post-harvest handling and storage, the market stall setup, the relaying of information to customers, and the visual display. Focusing on what sells well also reduces the work involved in hauling unsold produce back from market. It saves money on seed, transplants, and recordkeeping. There is also strength in being known for specializing in a dozen items or fewer rather than trying to provide it all.
Letting Go, Moving Forward
I enjoy growing a diversity of produce—row crops, cane berries, blueberries, avocados and tree fruits, specialty herbs, and perennial flowers. But my experiment reminded me that sometimes the best way forward is to do things differently.
I’m in a different place in my life than I was 20 years ago when I started my farm. I have a son. My body isn’t as forgiving as it used to be. My priorities have changed. What I’ve realized is that to balance farming with personal needs and labor shortages I need to simplify my business.
There is no shame in doing things in a new way, even if that means downsizing significantly until you find your sweet spot. Doing what works for you will always be the right choice.
Getting Creative to Keep the Things You Love
A big part of why I grow a huge diversity of crops is that I love having the variety to play with in the kitchen. In the past, if the crops did not sell at the market, I turned them into value-added products. But since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the commercial kitchen I use has remained closed. My inability to process my extra produce into income-generating value-added products is yet another reason to minimize the crops that don’t sell well.
While I’ve decided not to grow as wide a variety of crops at my farm, I’m planning on planting all those varieties in my personal garden. That way I can still play in the kitchen!
Simplifying my business doesn’t mean I have to get rid of things that bring me joy; they may just show differently than they have in the past. By remaining flexible and getting creative, I can do what’s best for me and my business.
Farewell and Good Luck
It’s been an eventful three years. I started this project in mid-2019 before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been an honor to share my farming reflections with you though this unique time. I hope you learned a few things, or at least thought about things a little differently.
Thank you, fellow farmer. I hope you have a lucrative season!
This article was written by Jamie Collins.
About the Author: Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF-certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, California, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and farm and marketing consultant and writes about food and farming for various publications.
Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.