My favorite podcast to listen to is Permaculture Voices, hosted by Diego Footer. Diego brings a variety of small-scale, permaculture-based farmers on the show. To quote from his website, his show covers:
"Honest, hard conversations about farming, business, and life with those trying to make a living doing something that they love and dealing with life in the process.
You’ll hear from experts who are far down their respective paths and people just like you who are starting out and making a go of it and learning as they go.
I’ll dive deep into each story, looking at the why and the how, leaving you with practical tools, tips, and techniques that you can put into use right away to be part of the change by doing your work.
Remember… though you may not be able to change the world, you can change your world, so go for it.."
A few months ago, Vancouver Microgreens grower Chris Thoreau called to ask if I would join him for an episode with Diego on microgreens. We ended up recording two episodes, one on microgreens and the other on our produce webstore business. The webstore episode went live this week, and part 2 featuring the microgreens will be published next week. I'm posting a link here, and following up with my comments and afterthoughts on the interview. The episode starts out with the story of how we started farming, and then goes into greater detail on the inner workings of the webstore business and how it compliments out farm.
The interview process was a lot of fun, and Diego is a great podcast host. I was honored to be on the show, especially after listening and learning so much from past episodes. I owe Diego a real debt of gratitude for the amazing archive of shows he has compiled, and I constantly refer aspiring farmers to his site. Diego's insightful questions helped me to go back and think over our whole business, and having to explain it all to someone else help clarify the business in my own mind. I hope you enjoy the show, and if this is your first time listening, definitely check out his impressive list of past shows.
Listen to the Show here
My comments on the interview:
A few more thoughts on Diego's question of why I wanted to farm in the first place:
A huge part of it was that I wanted to follow my own dreams and forge my own path. I hated the idea of getting a job and working for someone else. I wanted a platform for creativity, and a farm sounded like the right place for that. This was something Deirdre and I really connected over -- we did NOT want to live life the conventional way. Not that we think it's wrong to do it that way, but we felt called to do something different. We both preferred putting up with the hardships and relative financial insecurity of getting a farm off the ground, to going and spending our hours working a job we weren't passionate about. We see our farm and farm business as a springboard for all kinds of ideas and plans, most of which are still in the incubation stage.
Also, something I didn't mention explicitly in the episode was the family aspect: we wanted to raise our kids on a farm. We wanted them to grow up with that lifestyle, and learn a good work ethic, and be connected with nature. A farm sounded like the natural place to cultivate those values. When we were kids, we both pined for a farm-style life, and now we want to create it and hand it to our children. Of course, we want to offer it with humility, and we will let them choose their own paths in life. But I really hope at least one of them catches the "farming bug" like we did.
Further thoughts on why I volunteered for free on a farm for several months straight.
Joel Salatin says in numerous places that anybody who is truly willing work will always be able to find a job. On page 44 of You Can Farm, he challenges anyone who says they want to farm to go out and work for a farmer for free. He asks whether you want to do that more than watch movies and hang out at the mall. If you don't want to do that, you probably son't have the desire to see it through on a farm.
When I volunteered, there were multiple motives. One obvious motive I mention in the show is that I wanted experience. But another motive was that I wanted to put myself in a place where I knew opportunity was bound to come up. I think this is key, and is a vital step for anyone wanting to start farming. Put yourself out there where opportunities are likely to come your way. Also, I knew, partially thanks to Joel, that if I was willing to work my butt off day in and day out, I would gain two things: stamina / self discipline, and I would stand out from the crowd. Working hard is not just something you do for your boss. Working hard benefits YOU, because you are building habits and virtues that will stay with you wherever you go, and whatever you get paid, if anything. I knew I would need that stamina and virtue on my own farm, so I was more than willing to put in the hours on someone else's farm FOR FREE, because money was not what I was after. Deirdre and I were both working part time, and that covered the bills, which gave me the luxury of being able to volunteer three mornings a week of my time.
Just as important though, was making myself stand out from the crowd. I made a goal that I was going to push myself to the limit, and show the farmer that I was more serious than the rest of the crew. I tried to weed faster, harvest faster, show up early, stay late, offer to come on other days etc... I knew that if I did that, opportunities would be more likely to come my way. I didn't know what they would be at the time, but multiple opportunities did arise as a direct or indirect consequence of my volunteer time.
Further thoughts on a loyal customer base:
I mention in the episode that while starting the webstore, the most valuable component we were building was the customer base. Our customers are just AWESOME, and Deirdre and I have a real relationship with them that most businesses don't get. Having that personal touch not only makes the whole exchange far more pleasant, but it has even come back to benefit us financially too.
One amazing example from earlier this year:
We needed to borrow around $6000 this past spring for production expenses. We had just gotten a big increase in customers for the webstore, so we needed to buy a lot more packing bins for delivering orders. On top of that, we needed to get lots of plants in the ground, including our summer stuff like tomatoes, eggplant and squash. We needed to buy fertilizer, seeds, compost, and other supplies. We turned to our customers, and asked them if any were willing to pre-pay us for webstore credit, which they could redeem weekly as the season went on. Within 2 weeks, we had $6000 sent to us, and we never had to knock on a bank door. No interest, no forms, nothing but friends coming through for us. It warmed our hearts, and you better believe that when we get really successful as this, those customers are getting a special thank-you. Their money went straight into local production in their own community, and we were spared the hassle of getting a loan. We were able to pay them back over time with product, rather than cash! Incredible. And it was only possible because our customers knew us personally, and trusted us with their money up-front.
Regarding our software choices:
I didn't mention this on the show, but we have been considering lately using a more standard web store service, rather than one of those ones tailored to small farmers like Member Assembler or Farmigo. The main reason is that most of the "farm-specific" features are catered toward a CSA farmer. We started out with a CSA side of our business, but are leaning more and more toward a more "store" based business. We are beginning to think that a standard store host like Shopify might serve our needs better, but that remains to be seen. More on that later! ...
A few changes to how we run the store:
Even in the few months since recording the show, we have switched gears on a few things in the store. We got a third driver, so I am doing very little of the actual deliveries myself. Eventually, I don't want to do it at all, because I think my time could be better spent on other aspects of the business, and on the farm itself.
We also no longer use the spreadsheet system I mentioned. Having switched the way we pack orders, that spreadsheet is no longer necessary -- a great benefit to that system over and above the other improvements I mentioned in the show.
We also no longer go to the Tuesday Farmers market to buy product, and we don't pack at night any more. Both were a huge stress on me and the whole family and crew. We didn't finish some evenings until 10 pm, and that was after being up at 5:00 am to start. As the number of orders grew, it became harder and harder to pull my cart through the busy market to collect items. The market's afternoon schedule was what required us to pack at night, and if I was delayed at all at the market, or in traffic coming home, the whole evening got pushed back. Very stressful!
NOW, we only pick up directly from farms, and that is a lot faster. We also start picking up items on Monday, and store them in our home-built walk in cooler over night, to take some of Tuesday's work off our shoulders a day early. The downside is that I have to order more items by the case, which can be tricky sometimes, and I also had to drop a few items we were carrying. It's not perfect, but for the time being at least, it's a way better system for us. If we get burned out doing it, the whole business will suffer.
I may come back later with more after-thoughts, but that's it for now. Enjoy the show, and check back next week for part 2.
Here's the show link again
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!