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 begin the match process with our new cohort of farmers for the BMN 2022 program. For more information please see our YA Business Page.
My name is Hannah Lewis and I farm at Grounded Acres Organic Farm, on unceded ancestral Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory in Gibsons, BC on the Sunshine Coast.
What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
We set a lot of goals! Most of them were what you’d expect for the first year of a new farm business: build a customer base, grow food for our community, establish key infrastructure and sales channels, and start a financially viable farming operation. We also set a goal to contribute to the health of our ecosystem and mitigate ecosystem impacts of our operation (through joining the BC Organic Program and creating an Environmental Farm Plan). The groundwork for these was laid in the winter/spring when we were working on a business plan, financial plan, and marketing plan. Once the growing season took off it was mostly about carrying those plans out and adjusting (a LOT of adjusting!) as new challenges or opportunities came up.
Did you meet your goals / did it work out? (Explain a bit)
While the specifics shifted a bit, we did meet all our goals! We secured the loan we needed to make the big investments that were central to our success this year. We passed our target for gross sales for the year which was a big thing to celebrate, and helped because some infrastructure costs were higher than we expected, especially with the pandemic’s impact on supply chains and the price of materials like steel (our hoop houses) and wood (our nursery). We got lucky with two apprentices whose skill sets and investment in the farm were above and beyond what we’d hoped for, and who reminded us of the joy of farming when we were feeling run down.
We had some crop damage, crop failures, and made lots of notes about better timing for certain successions of crops to fill gaps at market or avoid having oversupply at certain times of the year. For example, we learned that in this rural area where most folks have a garden, no one wants to buy a head of lettuce in June when they have it in their garden, but by August everyone is looking for our lettuce because most gardeners weren’t doing as many successions as us! We also had some crop successes that weren’t expected, like getting 6 months of continuous harvest off of our broccoli plantings, which were a big hit at market, and selling lots of cases of tomatoes for canning so we didn’t have much go to waste.
What were the major challenges in the season ?
In the second week of August, the drought took our region into severe water restrictions that did not allow us to irrigate our crops at all. These water restrictions were in place for 41 consecutive days at the time of year our fields were the most full with mature and maturing crops. This was a risk we knew moving to this region, but it came earlier and lasted longer than expected and it was a big stress as we drew down the water in our rainwater storage tanks quickly.
Thankfully a combination of water truck donations, community support, a short-term exemption for commercial farms, and sporadic September rains helped us get through the season without losing crops to the water restrictions but it took a huge amount of our time coordinating solutions and irrigating as little as possible at the prime burn-out time of year.
What resources did you find most valuable to support your business to navigate these?
The water crisis really inspired an outpouring of community support, and the support of local organizations One Straw Society and the Southern Sunshine Coast Farmers’ Institute got us the water we needed and helped secure our short-term exemption from the water restrictions. Our regional district also provided a rainwater harvesting rebate that helped cover some of the costs of establishing our rainwater storage tanks.
What were your best sales channels/avenues?
The Sechelt Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market by far! We were not expecting to do as well there as we did, and it ended up representing more than 50% of our total sales for the year. We were seeing above-average revenues for a small mixed vegetable farm compared to the farmers’ markets in Vancouver I had worked at in the past, which really shows the need for locally grown food in our region! It was great to know that despite the crop failures and water issues we faced, mostly everything we grew we could sell. Our farm stand was slow to pick up but really took off this fall and we’re hopeful it will continue to grow as locals get familiar with it!
Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)?
One of the most common questions I get every market is “you really grew all of this? Right here on the coast?”. So honestly, just providing product diversity and season extension to grow as much local food as we can across the year really seems to be drawing customers to us and turning them into regulars! We also got a lot of comments from folks appreciating that we were in the BC Organic Program and that we self-identified as a “queer family farm”, which clearly aligned with the values and identities of a lot of our customers.
What was the most important information or idea(s) you gained from the mentorship?
Securing our loan (which was a big ask!) was a big hurdle, and getting a strong business and financial plan in place challenged us both hugely; neither of us love that type of work, we’d rather be on the farm growing food! The support of our mentors and the workshops with Chris Bodnar through the mentorship were central to us being able to create the business and financial plan that secured our loan.
It was a big lesson in the importance of having a plan and thinking our business through ahead of time; just because we had a lot of farming experience under our belt did not mean we were going to be able to run a financially viable business or meet our goals. The plans helped our investor feel secure enough to invest in us and provide us with a template and benchmark to work with every year as we review and revise our business plan. It also means any time we apply for a new grant or fund for something on our farm, we’ve got a strong business plan to help in our application!
What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?
How did mentorship impact your business overall?
It coached us through the business skills we were lacking, helping us make smarter decisions, while also enabling us to develop those skills for the years to come.
What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?
Be realistic about your personal and business costs and what you need to live the lifestyle you want with the values that you hold. For us, our dream is to be able to farm full-time without having to rely on off-farm income. That meant taking a leap with a big loan, a payment plan on a new tractor in year one, and opening a pretty large amount of land right away so we could make the sales targets we needed to pay ourselves and secure key infrastructure for future years.
It’s hard to admit you don’t have expertise, but in acknowledging where our skill gaps were we were able to get support, mentorship, and seek out learning opportunities! Oh, and don’t cut corners with soil amendments; we thought we could get away without amending for boron and lost an entire bed of rutabaga because of it!
What plans do you have for future farm growth (where would you like your business to go)?
We’re excited to establish perennials as soon as we can afford it: likely fruit trees and berries, as well as hedgerows with native plants. On our last farm, Mel had a wide variety of seed crops integrated into mixed vegetable cropping and we would love to get to a place where we can do that again, to be more active in providing BC-grown seed for local farmers and gardeners. But for 2022, we’re hoping to mostly do again what we did this year, with lots of tweaks to crops and timing based on what we learned from year one!
(Bonus) Share anything funny/weird that happened on your farm this season.
In June, right after we had laid the mulch for our entire squash field and our tunnel crops, an emergency medical helicopter attempted to land in the middle of our field at midnight! The field used to be in livestock pasture for so long, the emergency crews had it marked as a safe spot to land (most of our region is heavily forested). By the time they realized it wasn’t pasture anymore and lifted back up, they’d ripped up a bunch of mulched beds, coated the leaves of our transplants in soil, and ripped half the roof off our wash station. Waking up to the house shaking and floodlights behind the curtains was like being in an X-files episode!
(Bonus) What are you most looking forward to this winter?
Crop planning! I’m so excited to spend time with Mel going over our crop notes and reflections for the season to think about how we want to grow things next year. It’s a great chance to look back at the year from a bird’s-eye-view to really acknowledge the successes of certain crops and feel okay letting go of the ones that didn’t work out. Oh, and maybe going out for brunch when markets are finally over!
Find Hannah and Mel at www.groundedacresfarm.ca
This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.