B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Farmer Cam’s Foods

Posted by Melanie Buffel on November 08, 2021

Young Agrarians is celebrating the eighth 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.

The 2021 Mentee Cohort are wrapping up their growing season and reflecting back on the lessons of the year.  We are thrilled to profile them and celebrate their efforts as we recruit a new cohort of farmers for our BMN 2022 program. For more information and to apply please see our YA Business Page. Deadline for applications has been extended to November 19th, 2021.

My name is Cameron Bell and I operate Farmer Cam’s Foods on rented land at Hidden Acres Farm, Terrace BC, Tsimshian Territory.

What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?

My main goal was to gross $65k of revenue, while maintaining soil health and the happiness of staff and customers. We grow a lot of baby greens and quick roots to generate consistent cash flow, and storage crops to extend revenue and local food availability into winter. I try to be flexible with staff needs and schedules, and we always take time after work on Fridays for a team meeting and cold beverage!

Did you meet your goals / did it work out? 

Once we finish sales for the year in December, our gross revenue will be at or just under the $65,000 goal. Due to a flood in the spring, we lost several successions of greens and the planting schedule was disrupted by a month, which cost us roughly $7,000. I reorganized the crop plan and prioritized crops with a short DTM, which helped us catch up on weekly revenue and CSA shares while the longer-term crops recovered or were replanted. Our customers and CSA members were very understanding, and appreciated our dedication to bringing produce to market, even though we only had microgreens for a few weeks. 

Normally I would allocate a quarter of our field space to cover crops per year, but after the flood we used all the space we had available to catch up. Next year I plan to plant more cover crops to build soil health, and continue annual soil testing to track our OM and fertility. Lastly, despite some injuries and long days in the field, staff generally seemed happy with the work and some are planning to return to the farm next season.

What were the major challenges in the season ?

The flood in early June was by far the largest challenge this year. With the help of 30 volunteers we built a sandbag wall around our “starter house” building where we grow seedlings and microgreens, so there was no major damage to farm infrastructure. However, our fields were saturated for over a week, and roughly half of our crops died or had to be terminated for food safety reasons. Other challenges included the heat waves, training new staff on vegetable production processes, and trying to harvest fall crops and cure onions and squash during an extremely cool and wet September.

What resources did you find most valuable to support your business to navigate these?

Falling back on my business plan and financial planning gave me some peace of mind and clear direction when recovering after the flood. Discussing the situation with my mentor was also helpful. Implementing Standard Operating Procedures for farm staff was also important, drawing on examples from other farms and agriculture ministries or extension organizations.

What were your best sales channels/avenues?

The farmers market still generates half of our revenue, although our CSA and wholesale channel (the grocery store Safeway) are growing every year. Our online store and Tuesday night farm stand generate a relatively small amount of revenue but create valuable connections with customers.

Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)?

We offer fresh, clean, high quality produce for as long as possible through the year. Our customers appreciate our attention to detail and consistency in providing healthy local food.

What was the most important information or idea(s) you gained from the mentorship?

Over the years Andrew has tried many different crops, business models, and marketing channels, and it was always interesting to discuss something I’m considering and hear how it worked for him. I really appreciated his encouragement in scaling up products and sales channels that are working for me, whether or not it worked for him.

What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?

The mentorship helped me make tough but necessary decisions in the best interest of my farm business. It’s hard to cut less profitable crops from the plan or scale back on labour intensive sales channels, but it’s essential to the long term success of new farmers.

How did mentorship impact your business overall?

The mentorship was a key part of moving my business from “small scale market garden” to “commercial vegetable producer”. Talking to someone who understands the challenge of trying to make a living from farming was very refreshing and insightful. While my business will continue to expand and evolve in the coming years, this season was an important step in guiding that growth.

What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?

Bad things are going to happen and you need to be prepared for them. Whether it’s a flood, drought, wildfire, illness, injury, crop failure, or unreliable sales channel, you should always have a backup plan to keep growing food and generating cash flow. If you’ve put some thought into potential issues in advance, and written it down, you have something to fall back on when the stressful situations compromise your decision-making ability.

What plans do you have for  future farm growth (where would you like your business to go)?

I’m going to continue increasing my acreage in production, and fine tuning my production systems both in the field and in the tunnels, greenhouse, and indoors. I plan to expand the CSA and wholesale channels, and potentially stop selling at the farmers market in a few years. Through increased efficiency in production processes, automation of simple tasks like irrigation and greenhouse ventilation, and simplifying our sales processes, I also hope to improve my salary and work-life balance! Lastly, I would love to push the limits of season extension, while still having some time off in the winter.

(Bonus) Share anything funny/weird that happened on your farm this season.

When you grow thousands of radishes, there are bound to be some weird ones, and we were thoroughly entertained by the double-rooted ones that looked like little snowmen.

(Bonus) What are you most looking forward to this winter?

Skiing deep pow with my friends, now that I can afford to only work part time in the winter!

Find out more about the Business Mentorship Program.

Apply for the BMN 2022 cohort. Deadline has been extended to Nov 19, 2021.

This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.