During 2016 I took part in a business mentorship program organized and facilitated by the wonderful folks who run the Young Agrarians. This program’s goal is “to support [new farmers] to grow a sustainable farm business! Through one-on-one mentorship and peer networks, we aim to nurture educational spaces that allow new farmers to work out how to overcome obstacles and achieve business goals. Ultimately we want to see [new farmers] produce an increase in: crop yields, revenues, and where possible, area of land in production.”
This Blog entry was originally published on the Young Agrarians web page.
Click HERE to see it on the YA page.
THANK YOU YA!!!!
Name, Farm, Location?
Graham Bradley, 40×40 Farm, the Gabriola Food Hub, and I have been very involved at Good Earth Farm. All of these businesses are on Gabriola Island, BC.
What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
My main goals take form in two mottos: ‘work to learn’ and ‘don’t stop’. ‘Work to learn’ comes from something I read from Curtis Stone (an urban farmer from Kelowna who played a role in inspiring me to become a farmer). The full quote is “Work to learn and not to earn.” Often businesses lose money in their first years due to impossible financial targets and unforeseen circumstances but there is so much more to take away during that time. Curtis’ motto was essential in helping me keep realistic expectations and focused on my learning goals.
‘Don’t stop’ is related to my motivation and determination. I can get bogged down in the trenches of the ‘mega idealist utopian dreamer that has a considerable dislike for the neo-liberal paradigm…’ thing and the motto really helped me commit. #foodforestseverywhere
While these goals are perhaps not entirely specific or easily measurable they are attainable and rewarding – these mottos will remain forever ingrained in my farm work ethos and have played a role in my successes this season.
Did you meet your goals / Did it work out?
Yes! The season has ended and I more than double my predicted sales for the Gabriola Food Hub. I survived the first season as a food hub and I see the GFH rolling along a little easier now. My plan forward is even clearer and I’m enjoying the momentum. It should be noted that there was a serious point in the season when we didn’t think we could sell all the veggies in our fields due to the low volume the grocery was purchasing. After considering my alternative sales channels I started a box program late in the season and that really helped move the produce.
What were your most profitable avenues of sales?
The commercial clients and our veggie box program were our main and most profitable sales channels. I had no intention of going to the farmers market which is an excellent market only it’s full. My primary focus was to gain entry into the Gabriola commercial market since it was underserved by the area’s farmers and I could offer consistency in quality and supply as well as a professional presence.
What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?
The Gabriola Food Hub represents the only collaboration of farms on the island and also offers a carbon free delivery service (via electric cargo bike). To some degree I am in competition with the other local farms but since my focus is in the commercial market I compete more on the level with Sysco, GFS and other large industrial food suppliers. It’s heartening to see the demand for local food increasing and hope to encourage this movement by collectively offering produce from a variety of island farmers.
How did the mentorship impact your business?
The Gabriola Food Hub is a sole proprietorship so I’m in this alone (though with many community allies). Having an intelligent, organized and experienced mentor involved was encouraging, helpful and totally necessary. Many minds are smarter than one; there are so many decisions to make in starting a new business and with the help of my Young Agrarians business mentor these decisions became much easier. I knew that as I launched my food hub it would be important to sweat the small stuff and Nikki, my mentor, had a complete understanding of the specific details of running this type of an organization. From designing a box program, creating spreadsheets to manage data, helping me review my invoices and tweak my ideas, her help was priceless and I believe my business and farm are better off as a result.
What business skills have you gained through the mentorship?
I feel I’m overall a better business person as a result of the mentorship. It is hard for me to give a precise skill that has improved as farming is such a multifaceted activity. I think I have more tact when making decisions and learned that it is not about reinventing the wheel with a miraculous new idea, rather mimicking successful operations and tweaking them for my specific conditions and needs. Though, if I come up with a miraculous farm invention I hope to go for it (at some point in the future after all of the crops are harvested…).
What was the most important information you gained from your mentor?
Understanding that the level organization and the attention to detail required for managing a farm and food hub involves a tremendous seasonal sacrifice of time – it’s huge, people. I actually have seasonal shifts in my friendships – in the summer it is easier to have farming friends than non-farming friends. It can be difficult for people to understand why you are never free during the farming season and a few of my personal relationships suffered which caused a lot of stress for me. With the support of a mentor I felt capable of saying, ‘I love you, but I’m not available right now.’ Aka: ‘No.’ Boundaries people!! Boundaries.
Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season?
Overall I am felling great about my season. I’d like to note though that I had a few weeks during September and October when my motivation dipped. I started to slip with my invoicing and lag times stretched a little too far. A friend talked to me about ‘the let down’ which is an experience many entrepreneurs go through. Once your business is rolling you ride this adrenaline kick for, you know, 6 months, and it can really start to wear you down; especially in farming. I managed to hang in there and just pulled a few late nights and early mornings to catch up. It made me feel better to get through my short term to do lists.
Did you learn any lessons the hard way?
I planned to use an electric cargo bike for my deliveries and when I was purchasing parts I got a great deal on a very strong electric hub motor. I was emailing with an amazing company in Vancouver (Grintech) who’s suggested build components were very different from what I ultimately purchased for my bike. Their suggestions were correct and once I had the bike operational it became clear that I didn’t have the range I needed despite being able to go really fast. I needed torque and instead I was blowing fuses on the steep hills of Gabriola. The bike couldn’t go the distance I needed and I ended up having to use my car to help with deliveries. The lesson for me is to research more thoroughly and once you identify experts, LISTEN TO THEM. It may cost more at the time but in the long run you’ll get more value from your asset if you spend more on quality up front. The other lesson is that an electric cargo bike loaded with veggies on a steep hill makes me drenched in sweat in seconds.
Do you have any big plans for future growth?
Yes. I hope to grow the Gabriola Food Hub considerably over the next few years. The first year has shown me that it can work here and that I want to be here. It truly is helping me do something that I believe in. Some ideas I have are to turn it into a social enterprise that will serve local food producers and processors on Gabriola. I hope to obtain another delivery vehicle and hire a rider so that we can deliver more local food. By connecting more local producers to local consumers we’ll continue to increase the food sovereignty of the islands. From there it could potentially become a business that helps other sustainable businesses succeed by facilitating their reach into the local market. #SUSTAINABLELOCALBUSINESSTAKEOVER #BOOM
Did anything silly sweet happen on your farm this season?
So even though I refer to the box program as a ‘BOX program’ it is not true, it’s more of a bag program (but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it). I used reusable bags to contain each week’s box. There are heaps of deer on Gabriola and I was worried that they would eat the produce before the customers could bring in their bags on delivery day. To help with this I would either tie the straps together or try and hang the bag on a door knob or something nearby. I really made me smile when customers started installing hooks in places where I dropped the box off. They were variations from a piece of bent wire or a strong brass loop with a carabineer or something like that. It was awesome to see people adjusting their space to facilitate the delivery. And once there was jam and a jar of peaches in the bag when I picked it up! Thanks again Danna.
What are you most looking forward to this winter?
Most List Winter 2016:
- Down time
- Taking the bike apart and putting back together.
- Watching a movie, maybe even a few.
- Hanging around with the old pals.
- Reading books.