We’re checking back in with our B.C. Business Mentorship Network participants to see how their seasons have gone and how mentorship has benefitted them.
Name, Farm, Location? Sam Croome and Emily Anderson at Two Roads Farm on Denman Island.
What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
Goal 1: Increase our income (both gross and net, to allow us to pay ourselves more than a parking meter) – We worked with our mentor to identify low hanging fruit to increase efficiency and reduce expenses. We implemented some of these, like buying potting soil in bulk rather than mixing our own. For 2018, we’ve brought in raw chicken manure to make our own compost in bulk (compost is extremely expensive on Vancouver Island).
Goal 2: Expand our marketing. We added a farm stand this summer at our farm gate, and an additional restaurant and a supermarket client.
Goal 3: Improve shoulder season and winter growing. We put in trials of late spinach and asian cabbage, and over-wintered Walla Walla onions and purple sprouting broccoli. We seeded carrots and salad greens late into the fall to watch the growing patterns.
Goal 4: Improve farm/life balance. We had our son in daycare 3 days a week, and had a work-trade “employee” for one morning a week to see how we might use employees in our operation.
Did you meet your goals? How did it work out?
Goal 1: We are on track to increase our gross farm income by 10% over 2016, and our net income (prior to paying ourselves) to nearly 50% (up from 36% of gross last year). We did this despite reducing the number of pigs we raised this year, and despite a very late start to production and spending heavily on site work to clear a new field space and expand our irrigation pond.
Goal 2: Our new farm stand was a success, bringing in the equivalent of a second Denman market without a lot of additional work. We’re on the hunt for a larger fridge for the stand for next season, so that we’ll have to stock it less often. We became the primary supplier to the restaurant we supplied last year, and added a second restaurant, who increased their order consistently throughout the main season. We built a relationship with the supermarket on Hornby, and will be talking to them over the winter about how we can increase our sales to them next season. Because our production area was still quite small this year, we focused on maxing out our existing and hyper local markets before we expand into new and further away locations in the Comox Valley.
Goal 3: We got some trials in, but feel like there is still a lot to be done in this area, both in terms of our own learning and in terms of developing infrastructure. Our late plantings of spinach and salad were promising, but were short-lived due to some early snow and low temperatures. Low tunnels combined with row cover would likely provide easy season extension.
Goal 4: We still worked very long hours this summer. Farm/life balance is one that could use work again next season. We’re hoping that having Emily’s thesis done and having us both on the farm full time will make next season a little better. The work-trade worked out well, so we’re also planning to add some part-time workers to our team next season.
What were your most profitable avenues of sales? Our direct sales outlets – the Denman market and our farm stand.
What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?
We are the only grower on Denman who consistently has a large, high quality selection of vegetables. Our pork customers keep returning because of the quality of our pork. Our wholesale customers have told us they value the high quality of our produce, that we work with them to meet their needs, and our reliability.
How did the mentorship impact your business? It was immensely valuable to connect with more farmers and farm-connected people that have goals of both environmental and economic sustainability – who approach farming not only as a labour of love but also as a business. We have a broader support system to draw on, and we have many more examples to aspire to in terms of what a successful farm business can look like. From that, we are developing a continually clearer sense of what our successful farm business can/should look like.
What business skills have you gained through the mentorship? Probably our most important business learning was from the financial webinars. We got a much better handle on how to use our accounting software to not just track our spending and cash flow, but to also track our products and sales so that we can more efficiently learn and adjust our production and marketing from year to year. We gained a lot of important tips and tricks, which, while we haven’t managed to implement them all yet, have us feeling on track towards running a much more efficient business. The mentorship also connected us to a pile of business resources – recommended books, websites, etc. – and has connected us more closely to numerous different successful farm business models, which gives us a lot more to draw and and think about when we’re making decisions for our business.
What was the most important information you gained from your mentor? It’s hard to choose, we learned so much from our mentor… but probably the most valuable for us were discussions around soil health and amendments, and discussions about making investment decisions – both hearing how our mentor has made these decisions in the past, as well as just having a more experienced sounding board for some of the decisions on our plate.
Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season? We were happy with this season. Not blown away, as we had a really rough start to the season (see below), but we’re happy with how we did this year compared to last season (particularly comparing this year’s high season numbers to last year’s), and happy with the learning that we did, the relationships we built, and generally, the direction we’re headed.
Did you learn any lessons the hard way? Yes. Compost is very expensive here – almost $70/yard for organic tested fish compost. We tried to lower our input costs by going with another supplier (who didn’t provide test results, but who friends had used with success the previous season). The compost made a hard spring extra hard – we’re guessing the compost supplier wasn’t careful with their compost ingredients, and had created a compost with too much carbon, as it actively inhibited plant growth. We had to till in our first 3 plantings of lettuce, bok choi and kohlrabi, and all of our spring napa. We didn’t really start bringing veg to market until late June, which had us pretty worried that we might have to bail on the season and pick up alternate employment. Luckily, a market card program and pork sales kept us going until the veg started bringing in some money (yay for product diversity and community support).
Do you have any big plans for future growth? We are in the happy position of having much more demand than we can currently meet – there is scope to expand both our summer production, as well as our shoulder season and winter production. We’re planning to lease a bit more land across the road from us in 2018. This should allow us to put many of our “plant and ignore crops” like winter squash across the road, and open up a bit more space in our main area to increase high value crops like salad. We cleared another acre of land on our own property in 2017, which we’ll be cover cropping and digging ditches for water management in 2018, then putting into production in 2019. We’re also planning on putting up some more low tunnels in 2018, and are looking into investing in a large, heated greenhouse within 1-2 seasons.
Did anything silly happen on your farm this season? We recalculated our field area (more carefully this time) and realized we were actually on less land than we thought…
What are you most looking forward to this winter? We’re already enjoying the dark, slower mornings!
2015, 2016, & 2017 Funding for the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Pilot is provided in part by Vancity, Salt Spring Coffee, Rotary Hastings Sunrise, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada & the BC Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.