Young Agrarians is celebrating the seventh year of the Business Mentorship Network (BMN) program. The BMN offers business mentorships to a diverse array of new and young farmers across BC. Through one-on-one mentorship and peer networks, young farmers develop the skills necessary to operate ecologically sustainable and financially viable farm businesses.
We are wrapping up with our 2020 Mentee Cohort and are thrilled to profile them and celebrate their efforts!
Megan Henwood and Callum Bottrell are the owners of Digable Roots in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and are participants in the 2020 Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Program.
What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
Our goal was to start our farm from the ground up and also start our food-cart. We started with 1.5 acres of hay field and no infrastructure. To achieve our goal of being a farm it required a lot of planning, a lot of organizing and a lot of work. We had volunteers come this summer to help with plantings and harvests. We had the help of a tractor to spade the grass up and from there we started planting. We put on our sheet composting layers, utilizing chickens and ducks for weed and pest control and planted our cover crops for the season.
We also wanted to receive some financial help so applying for a loan was very important. With the help of our business mentor we were able to put together our business plan and organize all requirements to receive the loan.
Did you meet your goals / did it work out?
We now have a functioning and ever growing, ever changing farm space. We have the majority of our infrastructure in place and will continue working on these over the winter. We also successfully received a loan to help us through the season.
A goal we did not achieve was our food-cart. However, that did not stop us from feeding people yummy sandwiches. We catered a Land Social that was held on our land and always fed our volunteers a nutritious garden lunch for all of their hard work.
What effect did Covid19 have on your business?
The biggest effect Covid19 had on our business was the uncertainty that came with it. Some of our local farmers markets closed for the season while others were limiting their vendor capacity and not bringing in new vendors. Our plan to be a market business with a food cart did not start out as planned. We had to make decisions quickly and chose to create a CSA instead and preserve what we could for the following season. Another challenge, was finding the right resources when we needed them, such as irrigation components, canning lids and seeds. For example, by the time the irrigation components were in stock, it was already rain season and by the time canning lids were in stock our tomatoes had been frozen for a few months. So, the uncertainty of knowing what to do in those circumstances when plans have to change was challenging.
What resources did you find most valuable to support your business to navigate the changes?
We relied on each other for support and had many discussions on the different directions we could go. We also reached out to our family and friends. They were our reliable and hard-working volunteers, but also our biggest supporters when it came to purchasing our vegetables and preserves.
What were your best sales channels/avenues?
During the summer we sold duck eggs weekly and worked on preserving our crops and turning them into things like bread and butter pickles, duck egg mayo, sauerkraut, pickled beans, giardiniera, salsa verde and tomato sauce. We catered a few local events using the flavours of the farm and we created a small CSA for a few weeks in September and October.
Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)?
We believe our customers bought from us because they wanted to support us, but they also appreciated the veggie boxes that we created. They were unique because they would have a loaf of home-made sourdough bread, 2 types of preserves, vegetables, herbs and flowers.
People seemed to have enjoyed receiving the preserves and bread addition to the box. We wanted the boxes to still have a taste of what will come when the food-cart starts up and allow everyone to create their own tasty meals at home with our preserves.
What was the most important information or idea(s) you gained from the mentorship?
Dream big… and then make the dreams more realistic to what we are capable of doing in a season. We loved that our mentor encouraged us to keep our big dreams. When we first started the business program we were in our first month of starting so we had dreams of all sorts. What was helpful was having someone experienced remind us that although we should always have this drive and passion, we will need to look at our business from a more realistic view point of how much time we actually have to achieve it all.
What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?
Our mentor helped us narrow down what goals were most important to us and helped us focus on receiving our loan. We received many valuable lessons on developing our business plan and preparing ourselves to start record keeping. We also received valuable information on crop planning and using tools that can help us in the years to come for developing records of our progress and changes from year to year in our business.
How did mentorship impact your business overall?
Overall, it helped us get organized and fully commit to the business ideas we had been dreaming up for several years. It allowed us to start the season with more concrete ideas and it built up our confidence that we did indeed have a unique and viable business. We also learned that it requires a lot more than just the farm work to have a successful farm business. We will be spending a lot of our winter recording and organizing our finances, as well as creating crop plans and animal rotation plans.
What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?
Starting a farm with just two people is challenging and a lot of work. If we could go back to the start we would have lowered our expectations on ourselves and started smaller. We felt because we had leased 1.5 acres that we needed to use the entire space in the first year, but the reality is it takes years years of hard work and good soil/crop management to even have a small garden. We are now happy to be settling into our half acre and using the other acre for cover crops, animal rotation, drying beans, corn (one day) and chickpeas.
What plans do you have for future farm growth (where would you like your business to go)?
We will continue to expand our growing space and crop diversity. We hope to plant fruit trees and have an ongoing rotation of perennials and cover crops. We hope to transition into a no-till garden and use only sheet composting, animals and cover crops to nourish the land and the vegetables. We also plan on asking for help in the upcoming season and perhaps having an employee or two, woofers or apprentices.
We hope to start the food-cart up this spring and offer full-circle farm to table dinners on the land this summer. It is very important to us to show people where their food is coming from and we cannot think of a better way then to have people of our community visiting and interacting with the land, the animals and their vegetables.
Share anything funny/weird that happened on your farm this season.
This summer we decided to go for a walk in the shady forest near our home to cool down. Callum picked the path this particular day and decided to take the path about a 30 minute hike up the mountain near our home. As we hiked, Lita (our dog) bolted away into the forest after something. Meg being used to this dropped her belongings and ran in after her and found that Lita had found a kitten in a maple stump. The kitten bit us both as we were getting her wrapped in a scarf, but we still named her Maple and brought her home with us. She was very feral and it has taken several weeks to get her to warm up to us, we hope she will make a great farm cat.
What are you most looking forward to this winter?
Relaxing nights by the fire, snow adventures with our dog and well deserved rest…and more farm work (we really do love it 🙂 )
Find out more about the Business Mentorship Program here.
This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.