Is Small the New Big?
Coincidentally, from an altitude of 32,000 feet, I am reading about marketing Guru Seth Godin’s forthcoming book, Small is the New Big, and looking down at the Mississippi River.  The ideas described in the book are as vast and wide as the river below me, and the combination of these two stimuli compels me to once again think out of the box. What is also interesting and equally compelling is the sight of the farmland around the river that appears to go on forever, all fed from this seemingly endless source of water.   I am somewhere over Missouri, on my way to Stillwater, Oklahoma for an ASCFG Board Meeting.
What strikes me most about seeing the Mississippi from this vantage point is the enormity of the river itself.  It is difficult to imagine a world where water is not one of a grower’s primary challenges.  Water is a resource that is on the minds of farmers everywhere.  We either have too much, or more frequently these past years, too little.  As I enter the 2006 growing season in this the month of April, central Virginia is already nearing a six-inch deficit for rainfall.  It simply hasn’t rained more than a tenth of an inch here or a fifth of an inch there over the past several months.  And, quite often, local meteorologists go so far as to report that “it rained 1/400th of an inch last night” —one four-hundredth of an inch!  Central Virginia is beginning to feel desperate.
Of course I’ll use drip irrigation, but there is always the concern of our well running dry.  We have only one well, the one we use for our house.  So drilling a new well may become a priority this summer.  It’s all about cause and effect: one action creating its own set of reactions.  One action I do know I plan to take this season is to make my business smaller.  Yes, that’s right, I said smaller.
For as long as I’ve been growing cut flowers on my own farm, and before that, as a restaurateur, I thought the natural thing to do was to grow my business, make it bigger.  If I grew more flowers I can sell more flowers.  So each year for the past five I have doubled production and sales.  But during the winter, as I reviewed the last year and planned for the next, I started wondering if getting bigger was the way to go.  Looking forward to another drought cost me more than a few nights of sleep.  The thought of paying for fuel at nearly $3.00 a gallon, increased shipping charges for plugs and shrubs, and writing checks to a staff that couldn’t wait to get out of the sun and go home was daunting.  And so, over the winter, I plotted my course toward a smaller Charlotte’s Garden.
At first planning to get smaller felt as if I had failed, but now I’m finding that I’m working smarter and more efficiently.  Last year I grew nearly 3 acres of cut flowers, marketing them to three farmers’ markets, two specialty supermarkets, and a handful of florists and garden centers.  Last year sales had easily doubled from the year before, but with that, costs doubled as well.  I had two full-time employees working on the farm, as well as myself, and three part-timers helping with markets on the weekends.  I had two trucks on the road three days a week.
It’s only the beginning of the season, but so far, I think my business is doing better.  Part of the plan to scale back is participating in only one very popular farmers’ market, dropping all but one of the florists, and keeping one of the supermarket accounts.  I have found that focusing on servicing just these businesses has actually been financially beneficial.  I am now able to provide them with all of the product they want when they want it.  And my costs have been reduced exponentially.  For example, last year at this time, for the month of April, I spent about $400 on gas and diesel for my truck and van.  This year I filled my van with diesel a month ago and haven’t had to refill it yet.  That cost $75.  I don’t use my gas-guzzling truck at all for deliveries anymore.  And, being smaller means I require less help.  I’ll hire a part-time person, but that’s it.  My wife Charlotte helps me with the farmers’ market.
What does all of this mean?  Hopefully it means I can continue growing flowers on my own terms.  At least that is my vision for the future of Charlotte’s Garden.  It seems, after all, that life, like the Mississippi, is long, wide, and full of lots of winding turns.  And around each corner who knows what will be waiting.   
So, is Small really the New Big?  That remains to be seen.  Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing how the new, smaller business works out.  What about your business?  Could small be your new big?  This is, as with everything I write in this space, expressed with the hope that this is the beginning of a dialogue. As always, I’d love to know your  thoughts and ideas.