The Value of Mentorship

As ASCFG members, you’ve all already bought into the idea that we’ve much to learn from one another, particularly from those among us with more years of experience in our ever-growing field, more notches on the belt, bigger, gnarlier calluses on the hands, and honed-in muscle memory of how to run thriving farms season after season.

Last fall I wanted to jump back into education, and I embraced mentorship from both angles—as the mentor in one case and the mentee in another. Both experiences were hugely valuable and I want to share some thoughts on the process in the hopes that all of you out there will consider connecting with each other this winter in either offering assistance, asking for it, or both. After all, each of us is probably both more experienced than someone out there, and less than someone else. Am I right?

Part One: Learning at Love ‘n Fresh
In early October of last year I traveled to Jennie Love’s two-acre Philadelphia farm in order to spend the better part of the day learning from her—or, as she has referred to it since—to dive into a marathon Vulcan mind meld. I’d been wanting to do this for years, or more precisely, for two years, since the ASCFG 2014 National Conference in Delaware, when we visited Love ‘n Fresh in the pouring rain, and watched Jennie power through a low tunnel demonstration like a champ. As you probably know, Jennie is that rare combination of plantswoman (dare I say, affectionately, plant geek), savvy business mind, and talented designer. I wanted to learn her secrets, or at least gain some tips. I had of course creepily read through her entire blog archive years ago, long before we became friends and colleagues on the ASCFG board, so I was ready.

While the crux of this article centers on the actual process of mentorship and not the content, I’ll let you all in on some lessons I took home from Jennie as we go.

Lesson One: Find a plan for balance from the beginning.

My first lesson was one in self-care and general bad-assery, when I arrived at Jennie’s studio just as she rolled in on a motorcycle. I learned that this was a part of both a realization that life wasn’t getting any longer, and a plan to reclaim longstanding dreams and hobbies outside of the farm. Seven years in and after real sacrifices to her personal life and well-being, Jennie decided things needed to change. No doubt her success in her business was in part due to some of these sacrifices, but I think she wishes she had begun the quest for balance from the get-go when it would have been easier to re-claim. I was particularly ready to hear these words, and have been patting myself on the back ever since for striving for a more manageable workload.

Lesson Two: If you have a conversation (or email exchange) once, you’ll have it again. Use this to your advantage.

We broke our day into two main parts: wedding biz talk at the studio, and flower farming/design talk out at the gorgeous farm. Both were equally valuable to me. In terms of the wedding side of the business, I wanted to know what Jennie has implemented to help her streamline and manage inquiries, what language she uses to attract and book the right brides, how she screens for a sincere appreciation (or at least understanding) of local flowers, and how she set her wedding business up for growth. You can bet I scribbled tips on all of it, and asked questions until both of our heads hurt (sorry, Jennie!). One current running through all of the processes was a quest to set up systems that could almost manage themselves.

Lesson Three: Figure out what you want to provide and make sure that’s what you’re charging for.

I also left the studio thinking a lot about pricing. Jennie knows her market and how much it can bear, and she’s also honed in on exactly what level of service she’s providing. And she charges for it. This caused me to come back to my business and look at my prices and at what I provide, and to make some adjustments to both what I offer and what I’m charging (both adding in some categories and subtracting in others).

When I finally exhausted my office-oriented questions (or perhaps just forgot the rest with my swelling brain), we moved to the farm. This was of particular interest to me as I had spent 2015 setting up a successful flower farm, and 2016 launching a successful wedding business, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to do both. Jennie had long been my role model in keeping both aspects of Love ‘n Fresh running full speed ahead.

Lesson Four: Conduct smart trials and then know when to give up. Learn your climate and grow accordingly.

I wanted to know how she approached the mix of crops on her farm, and just as I suspected, each year she grew increasingly more of what grew well and almost effortlessly in her climate. You should check out her blog to see what some of these crops are; I love how she thinks outside of the box. This should be a no-brainer, but I find that so many of us struggle with certain crops year after year and don’t know when to give up. Meanwhile, we’re probably missing out on other crops that would grow like weeds for us if only we found them and gave them a chance.

Lesson Five: Know thyself (and own it).

When it came to floral design, I came away with some quite helpful snapped pictures, tips, and diagrams I scribbled, and have been struggling to decode ever since. I’ve got to work on my handwriting. It’s such a treat to watch someone describe their personal style while they design. One thing that really hit home was Jennie’s focus on her bridal bouquets. She admitted to me that she had to eventually give up on the idea of time limits for this task. To make a bouquet that she truly loves (which she does every time without fail), she’s learned that it just takes her a while. She wants it to. And rather than try to change this or reel herself in, she accepts it. And, you guessed it, she charges accordingly.

This was such a rich experience for me and I encourage you all to reach out to others for mentorship. Here are a few things I suggest in the process.

Tips for Being Mentored

●    Do your research. While there is no such thing as a stupid question and no mentors worth their weight will belittle you for asking it, treat your time together like gold (or, you know, high-value heated hoophouse space). Ask the questions that draw from an expert’s years of experience, not the ones you can learn from a book.
●    Be prepared. Send ahead a general list of topics you want to cover, and be reasonable about how many you will really get to. Two separate lists might be helpful—a “Must Cover”, and an “If Time Allows”. There is never enough time!
●    Pay generously for the service being provided to you. I’m all for barters and favors in life, but in this case, I think we need to place real value on the level of experience it takes in order to advise someone else. In my mind, these are the kinds of things you should be spending your precious dollars on. The money will come back around.

Part Two: Advising Others

Like many of you, I’ve been hosting small workshops on my farm. I love it. I went into farming so that I could teach and be outside at the same time (and as it turns out, I love growing things, too). As I left old positions where teaching was a formal part of my job description, I had to really think about how to keep flexing these muscles. Incorporating workshops into my plan seemed like the natural next step. Most of my workshops were small and rather general: a bit about gardening, a bit about design, and some time for strolling in the field. They were festive, experiential, and sent people home with a few new skills (and a lot of flowers).

When I started to get requests for more in-depth advice on flower farming, I decided to offer a few private and group consulting sessions where we could really dive into specifics on building a flower farming business. For my first session, I spent the better part of the afternoon with two awesome women who were exploring the world of flowers and wanted to sit down and hash it out.

It went swimmingly, but I was reminded of certain challenges inherent in any group setting. In this case, with such a small group I really wanted to be able to troubleshoot each farmer’s respective plans. But they were coming from completely different places: one was deep into planning her own little flower farm, had read all the books and blogs and catalogues, and needed some help putting all this information into a solid plan for year one. The second farmer, on the other hand, had recently taken a job with a community farm and wanted to learn more about incorporating flowers into their crop plan. There wasn’t much if any budget for this, and they would probably best succeed with simple flowers that volunteers could help to grow.

What different situations! We essentially switched back and forth from one farm plan to the other, and both participants hungrily scribbled notes on any valuable tidbits, even if they didn’t apply to their particular situation. Those are some great students. I can attribute the success of this session to both this flexibility on their part, as well as (more importantly) the fact that I was clear from the get-go as to what I would be offering.

I was reminded that there’s such value in being upfront, clear, and comprehensive when offering your services. I advertised that I would bring all my knowledge to the table (along with all sorts of reference material for us to paw through), and that I would follow up to track down answers that I couldn’t come up with on the spot. But I wouldn’t be developing a curriculum (read: formally preparing). I tried to set the price accordingly, and I pretty much was able to just show up (as I recall, it was after setting up a wedding). I have to say, it was a fun departure from more formal teaching, and a great way to help others, flex the mentorship muscles, and look into new ways of diversifying my income stream.

Tips for Beginning to Mentor Others

● Do a real assessment of your strengths and what you have to offer. The list is probably longer than you think. If you’re brand new to farming, sure, you’re probably not ready to really advise others in a formal way. But if you’ve been at it a while, and specifically if you’ve achieved some success through focused and sustained trial and error, chances are you’ve got something to give. Start with beginner farmers who are looking for tips on things you’ve already gone through.

● Start with a package, rather than an hourly consulting rate. This sets a realistic framework for how much time you will use and inspires your mentees to come with concrete goals rather than a list of questions with no beginning and no end. This is a tip I gleaned from Jennie.

● Put out the word. If people don’t know you’re got the goods and are willing to share them, how will they know to reach out to you?

For the next Quarterly  I’d like to present a survey of what’s going on with West Coast growers. So a call to my members: who’s out there? What’s going on with your farms? Where are you struggling? Where are you thriving? Be on the lookout for an email from me asking these questions!

Lennie Larkin

B-Side Farm

Lennie Larkin B-Side Farm Contact her at [email protected]