Recently I stumbled upon an old pile of ledgers that had been buried under years of papers on my old desk. As often happens, I’ve been putting off cleaning that particular corner of my desk for some time. (Ask Judy about my relationship with procrastination.) Turns out that pile had been started in 2009 and added to every year since. When I finally got to the bottom of it, I was rewarded with the ledger for Rain Drop Farms in the year 2009.
Thinking back to that year, I was a relatively new mom (if only I knew then what I know now) and was wrangling a 2-year-old through a summer season while pregnant with his little brother. I remember being exhausted, which is par for the course, but I also remember that this was the year that a bold new idea began to take hold. Until this point the 10 years that we had been growing products for sale had mostly been as a way to fund our vacations and justify our buying a rural piece of property, and, let’s be honest, my husband’s way of placating me.
At this point I had been at home full time for two years with our son, farming when I could and enjoying the time together. With a new little one on the way and the ever-increasing cost of daycare, a new thought occurred to me. Maybe I could just keep doing this and never go back to work for someone else. Is that too out there? Could that possibly be a thing? I didn’t know. I knew I could grow things well, I knew that I loved it, and I knew that I didn’t want to have to work for someone else. So I sowed the seeds of a plan. I would make this “farm” a viable business by the time my new arrival went off to kindergarten, and then I wouldn’t have to go off to work somewhere else. That gave me five years to make it happen.
At the time our markets consisted of a local farmers’ market, Wednesday and Saturday, as well as two local grocery stores and a self-serve flower stand at the bottom of our driveway. We dabbled in weddings, but I can’t say that we even “did” any in those first few seasons. The line item total for weddings in that 2009 ledger? $411. Yup. In fact, the bottom line total for our income in the 2009 season was a whopping $4700. When I saw those numbers I had to pause and think back. How is that even possible? I remember distinctly how exhausted I was that summer, and it wasn’t just because I was pregnant and chasing a toddler. I know for a fact that I was covered in dirt and sweat most days, on a dead hustle to weed, harvest, design, and get everything else done, too. So how could all of that effort resulted in only $4700? I don’t feel like I work any harder now and our farm brings in six figures. What’s changed? Well, that’s exactly what I started reflecting on. What had changed? What lessons have we learned? Are you maybe in a similar place with your farm? Does this sound familiar to you? Have you also stared at a long-lost ledger and realized how far you’ve come?
There are a handful of things that I can identify as game-changing moments for us and our farm.
1. The year we rented a tractor to expand our first field, taking us from 3 plots of 100 x 50, to a solid acre of land. Until this point we had done all our cultivation with either a shovel or an 8hp hand-me-down Honda tiller. Using the right equipment for a job makes the job not only easier, but dare I say enjoyable. Now, this doesn’t mean that buying a tractor or a box truck or taking out a lease on 100 new acres is what you need to do for your farm, but if it is, make it happen. Once we realized how much time and energy we were expending on jobs we could do in half or a quarter of the time if we had a tractor, the hurdle of buying one was so much lower and we could clearly see a need. The same is true of other aspects of the business. Things like payroll, web development, bookkeeping, marketing, seed starting—all tasks that may not be the best use of our time, we found other ways to get them done. We used the best equipment for the job, so that we could free ourselves up to do what we do really well, even better.
2. Hiring help. This was probably the single biggest step that we took in making my farm dream come true. It was hard, and still is, to find someone or someones to help build this dream. People to entrust with this baby that we’ve nurtured and toiled over. But, and I want you to read this out loud to yourself: YOU CAN’T DO IT ALL. And, when you try, you’re doing a whole buncha stuff half-assed instead of what you do well with your full ass.
3. Getting out there and making connections. You’re doing it right now, so you’re on the right track. Finding the other people in this world who had the same wild dreams that I had was an amazing moment. I can honestly marvel at the naivete with which I assumed that I was a unique flower in the world, the only person who had thought to do this. It’s adorable. Once I got over myself and realized that there were hundreds and hundreds of other flower farmers in the U.S., I got busy networking with them. These connections led me to the ASCFG, which led me to meet some of the best flower friends and colleagues I could imagine.
4. Investing in myself. If you had asked me that summer in 2009 if I knew about, let alone would attend, a flower farming conference, I probably would have glared at you and told you to stop wasting my time. But, here I am, telling you that conferences have been one of the best things I’ve done to invest in myself and my farm. Not only have I gained valuable information and resources from conferences, I have made some of the aforementioned connections at them. Friendships and business partnerships have been formed in the bland hotel bars at many conferences. I also would like to point out here that investing in yourself goes far beyond education and gaining resources. I also mean simple things, like investing in a pair of really good work shoes. Yes, you can wear your old running shoes out to the field—I mean they’re trashed anyway—but don’t. Get yourself a good pair of shoes that are comfortable and make you feel like you could walk in them for days, through wind, rain or snow. Because you will. You will pay more than you ever thought you would for a pair of field boots and have them covered in mud within hours of taking them out of the box, and it will be great. Because you are investing in yourself, in your comfort, in your ability to do your job well, in your longevity to maintain your body in an incredibly physical job. Give yourself permission to invest in yourself.
5. Taking wild leaps into markets that I never would have imagined. A few years before I joined the ASCFG I started investigating wholesale markets in my area. We live just outside a fairly small town, population 57,000. The closest big city is 100 miles away from us. So, that’s where I looked for wholesale opportunities. Oof, it was scary. So many big farms, selling beautiful products, and you had to pay to sell there?! I swiftly tucked my tail and ran back to my comfort zone of selling $5 bouquets from our farmstand. Two years later I was headed to my first conference and ended up on a plane with another grower from my region. She was selling almost everything she grew through wholesale and she wasn’t scary, like the markets had seemed. In fact, she helped me to join said wholesale market and showed me that it was actually a pretty great place to be. She praised my product and assured me that people would want to buy it. I took a leap and gave it a shot, and guess what? She was right. Turns out that the only person keeping me from selling at that wholesale market for the past two years was me.
I’ll be delving deeper into some of these topics in the next few Quarterlys, so stay tuned!