B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Harvest Heart Farm

Posted by Melanie Buffel on November 28, 2022

Young Agrarians is celebrating the ninth 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, peer networks and online workshops young farmers develop the skills necessary to operate ecologically sustainable and financially viable farm businesses.

The 2022 Mentee Cohort have had a busy season managing a cool wet spring and a dry hot summer and we look forward to sharing their voices and experiences over the next few week.  If you would like to be considered for a seat in the program please  see our Business Mentorship Network page  for more information. Applications for the 2023 cohort are now closed, watch in the spring for blog introductions to our new group of farmers.

Our names are Alisha M’Lot & Evan Goh and we operate Harvest Heart Farm on
Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory on the Sunshine Coast, named by settlers as Gibsons, BC.

Who was your Mentor? 

Robin Tunicliffe, Sea Bluff Farm

What were your goals for this season and what did you do to try to achieve them?

Our formal goals of this season were to build a strong crop plan we felt was production focused, but maintained realistic expectations, to settle on what avenues to best sell our produce, and to build a strong foundation of processes around our site. To do this, we drew on our past records from our previous farm experience, talked with other farmers in our area about their crop & sales experiences, and deeply interviewed Robin about her experience growing on clay soil and for a farm stand. We brought our crop plan to Robin for her thoughts, as well as to our good farmer friends at Grounded Acres, nearby us in Gibsons, and adjusted from there. We used a lot of conversation with Robin to help us guide our expectations for different sales avenues. We used our crop plan to forecast how much production we’d be offering at each time of the year, and created a framework of how much we estimated we could sell from the farmstand for each crop (based on past experience, guess work, research, and fellow farmers in the area), to find the excess. From here we were able to decide how many shares we felt confident in taking on to a local collaborative farmer CSA.

Our remaining excess production we compiled into a forecast chart for restaurants, that we could give them an idea of what we had coming for the year, with the follow up of sending out weekly fresh sheets. This made us feel pretty secure in our ability to actually move the produce we sold, and give rough estimations of what our income could be looking like at different times of the year. Our last goal was essentially established by talking with Robin & other farmers at the beginning of the season about how they carry out their own processes, and mixing that with the infrastructure & landscape available to us at our own site. This included everything from the logistics of delivery, washing & packing, or how we built our harvest plans, to deciding on what accounting software to use (Wave) and how we wanted to send our weekly fresh sheet. A large number of systems we stuck with and perfected through the season, and some we altered as we went and learned (how we close our salad bags – staples or twist ties? Staples!).

Did you meet your goals / did it work out? 

Overall, I think we did. We of course altered our crop plan a bit as we moved through the season (and it didn’t stop raining), or as we entered drought and complete water shut-off in August, however it remained a solid framework to follow, and importantly, make notes on so that in planning another year’s crops, we can adjust with that learned site experience. Our crop plan and sales plan ended up meeting perfectly, with exceedingly few culls, and we were able to quickly come up with alternates when needed (ie, a few weeks of cucumber sales to our local IGA because we simply had more production than we could shift on our own). We had very positive reviews from our three main sales channels and felt each one was a foundation we could continue to build on in future years. We felt in that cozy place of, this worked, and was enough for us this year, and we see how we can also pull it tighter in places and see opportunities for growth in places.

In terms of our last goal, while we will not be returning to this same farm site next season, I still feel like we did work to create a stronger farm system for whoever may farm after us at this site. The fields are in better shape, the processing areas, nursery, toolshed, and infrastructure are organized, fixed, and labeled. There are now notes, records, and continuity for a future farmer of the nature of the site, pests to expect, wet vs. dry areas of the fields, crop rotations, sales expectations, and more. Though we may not directly benefit from this, I am glad to create a site that will be that much more supportive for the next farmer to come along. Additionally, working through these processes & systems is absolutely never lost on a farmer, and will all go into the knowledge & experience bank for building our next farm system!

In addition, my informal goal for the year was to a) not lose any personal savings, b) feel like our community felt connected to our farm, and c) want to do it again. In this more subjective evaluation, I feel really good about how we did – quite thrilled in fact!

What resources did you find most valuable to support your business during the season?

The human resources! And by that I do not mean your typical HR, but the farmer community who were just incredible to us this year. We knew our plan, we had our seeds, our dates, our basic tools and infrastructure. During the season, we really didn’t have a book or farm app that was our bible. We generally had the knowledge and experience to adjust on the fly, troubleshoot, and run a farm. We used email, google sheets for everything, and Wave for our accounting & invoicing. The real invaluable resource was the fact that we had a combination of new and old farmer friends nearby that we could collaborate with, share price sheets, tools, extra/not enough seeds, drop off each others’ restaurant orders, and share constant, ‘how’s it going?’ reassurance, that the terrible weather was affecting each of our farms the very same way – it wasn’t just us. That piece – the morale boost in shared pain, shared reassurance, shared failure and success – that’s irreplaceable. Having other farmers on the same street as you – it makes all the difference. Even when we were just too busy, I made sure to host a farmer potluck at our place early season. I offered whatever small bits of help I could to the others farmers in our area, knowing small scale farms can only exist well in community. Do everything you can to connect with other growers in your area – I started involving myself in the farm community here long before I had a farm. Don’t be shy! You wont regret it.  

What were your best sales channels/avenues?

We were in a fairly unique situation in that our farm stand off the bat was extremely popular. We planned that this would be our main sales outlet, and it stayed that way throughout the season. Our farm is on a larger site which has families coming and going every day, passing by the stand, as well as being in a well-known farming / farm stand area, beside a popular food truck, and on a well frequented back-road through-faire. We do not disregard the good fortune we have at this site for sales! Sales were quite perfect – our harvest was exactly the right amount to meet demand, we rarely had unsold culls, and the stand was able to be well stocked, reliable and diverse. This was our first priority, with our second priority being our CSA program.

We took part in a multi-farmer CSA organized by a local non-profit (One Straw Society), contributing 1 share of $5 value to a 30 person box, and a 2nd share of $5 value to a 40 person box. This was perfect for us, giving a good chunk of income to pay off early expenses, without putting too much strain on our ability to provide a large enough quantity of diversity through an entire season, if we were to do our own CSA.

Our other sales channel was restaurant. We hadn’t intended this to be very prominent, knowing we’d be saving the majority of our veg for the stand and CSA, however we met a chef early in the season who was just starting this year as well, and got along so marvelously we couldn’t help but want to support him. Anthony of La Bettolina in Secret Cove went out of his way to order from us every week, whatever we could offer, supplementing our smaller offer of carrots with additional amounts from larger farms in the area. When you have a chef who is dedicated to your cause, it can end up making a big difference in your year! We ended up having a few unique crops that another lovely chef (Jack, from Brassica Gibsons) who we had stayed in touch with throughout the season bought from us consistently throughout late summer and into fall. In the end we were glad that we had gone to the relatively low work but extra effort of sending out fresh sheets & making friends with local chefs, as it provided an unexpectedly good source of sales & enjoyment for me! 

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

The main answer is a combination between reliability, diversity, & location.
Our location is a big factor in initial contact – our farm stand is easily visible on a well-frequented road, beside a popular site & foodtruck. This grants tourists, ferry traffic, and locals very quick notice that we are there, as well as easy parking to invite them in. Compared with our friends who have farm stands that are less visible or just a bit up a road, it was much easier for us to get new customers.
What made folks love our farm stand though? Because the stand was our first priority, we had it stocked fully with 50+ types of veggies throughout the season. We were open 9am – 7pm, and folks were able to come essentially any time of their week to find a vast array of all the produce they wanted. Many farm stands in our area are either hobbies, with significantly less produce & unknown hours, or are supplementary to a farmers market, resulting in less reliable produce availability, and smaller hour windows. Folks continually told us how amazing this stand was for them.

We worked hard to build the farm stand out to let folks know we were invested in them, so that they would invest in us. Along with the structure of having good communication on our signage, a stocked stand, and well-displayed produce, we also put effort into creating artwork to hang around the stand, making a banner with our farm name, and putting up signage telling our story, who we were, and what we hoped to do for the community. Even these extras helped communicate to folks that we were a real, established location that they could rely on and be part of. 

What was the most important thing you gained from the mentorship? (information, perspective, ideas, solidarity etc….)

Confidence! There were a thousand and one decisions to make for our first year of farming, and while we had the two of us to share input back and forth, it was an incredible help to have Robin give her experienced opinion on our plans. Having someone with more experience than ourselves, with very relevant experience – we couldn’t stop exclaiming over how incredible it was to have a personalized farmer look over our plans, answer our questions, and share her own experiences and plans. While we do know quite a few of other farmers, you feel guilty eventually, asking too many questions of those around you, tied in with awareness of their own lack of time. Having someone you know is being fairly compensated for their time, who has offered to be there, and is able to address the specifics of your farm – what a gift!

What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?

Taking part in the lecture & workshop series at the beginning of the mentorship was incredibly helpful for rounding out our business knowledge and getting the detailed specifics that were exactly relevant to our situation. Advice & education on accounting, taxes, and financial options was very helpful in particular for us to feel a firmer footing on heading into our first season.

How did mentorship impact your business overall?

Mentorship added so much to our mental health, which in turn, allowed us to be so much better farmers! Having Robin’s support and knowledge was just incredible as we went into our first farm season. She helped refine our plans across the board, from production to sales and marketing, to a place where we could feel confident about our decisions and season. She and her partner Sasha were also pivotal in helping us solidify a stronger position in regards to our land-use arrangement with our landlords, landing us in a legal lease, established with the help of the B.C. Land Matching Program, and saving us, I’m sure, much complication throughout our season!

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

  1. Finding a meeting place between believing in relationship based, handshake style agreements & legally-binding, specific, structured agreements is difficult! The legal side feels inherently less kind. It can feel like you’re telling the other folks upfront that you don’t trust them, when you do. It can be against one or both parties wishes, to delve into what seems like endless details and what-ifs. There is a want to make it work, and at times, a ‘oh, it’ll work out’ tendency, which if you don’t really dig into each party’s goals, can hurt you later. We were so thankful all season to have had Darcy’s & the B.C. Land Matching Program’s support in building a proper lease for us, that better supported our landlords as well as ourselves, as incredibly stressful as the process was that it took for us to get there!
  2. We had a horrible wet spring that lasted until mid July, with heavy clay soils that flooded, and a field that wasn’t put to bed the season before, filled with perennial weeds & grasses (even some wetland rushes!). It was beautiful growing soil, but with the long, wet spring we had, it was truly terrible. One of the things I really had hammered home during this time was how grateful I was that both Evan and I had farmed for numerous years previously on another production farm. I kept thinking, if we were truly new farmers, I don’t think I’d be able to make myself keep going. If we didn’t know, really know from experience, that we were troubleshooting with good decisions, and that the season would eventually change and pan out – I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been! 

What were the victories, small or large that you had this season?

Honestly, so many! We by no means had an easy year. We had a ridiculous, awful ‘spring’ that lasted until the middle of July, that pushed the two of us to our very ends of ability, physically & mentally. Despite the environmental conditions, we managed to still pull an extremely productive season out of our remaining time. We met our financial goals, had production that met our sales channels perfectly, and really felt the love and gratitude of our community. We managed to host a few farmer potlucks, and support & share with our fellow farm community throughout the season, which was really important to us. We went on holiday!

An enormous goal of our farm life is to break down some (in our opinion) toxic farm stereotypes & ideas, including that of the impossible-to-leave-farm. We arranged with my sister who also owns a farm with her partner, to each look after the other’s farm for a week while the farmers went on holiday – I went to look after hers while Evan kept ours going, and she & her partner went camping. Later, my sister came to look after ours while we went kayaking in God’s Pocket for a week. It was a risky move, and a certain amount extra stress, but the rejuvenating magic of having a July holiday off the farm was incredible. Evan and I also took a few long weekends, having friends stay at our place to look after the stand, so that we could kayak or hike with friends. This was an enormous success for us, and we are so grateful to put this work-life balance priority to practice, especially after a spring that demanded 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Also, our springtime radishes we grew in our tunnel, were the best we’ve ever grown – *chef’s kiss*.

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

We would love Harvest Heart Farm to continue to grow, and plan on taking this next year to work on longer term plans for stronger land acquisition. Leasing land can be hard, and while we’re still open to it, we need to find a location really invested in the idea & reality of farming for production, that also has farm infrastructure. We are so glad to have grown our roots outwards on the Sunshine Coast this year, so that we feel much better able to talk with other farmers and folks about long term farm plans. In the meantime, we will be continuing to farm for our friends at Grounded Acres Farm part time in addition to engaging in farm education & seed growing.

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

Having an honesty box for cash always ends up a bit entertaining! Folks were wonderfully honorable about it, and we had no particular issues, however did tend to get entertaining notes from folks, unexpected currencies, and on one occasion, a mysteriously large bag of homegrown weed!

What are you most looking forward to this winter?

Lack of responsibility! Huzzah! No farm demands! Huzzah! The two of us are actually off to New Zealand for the winter, visiting old farm friends, hiking, sleeping in, and doing program development for Village Agrarians, a wonderful organization similar to Young Agrarians, helping support the needs & network of small farms in New Zealand. 

Where can we find you online?

Website: https://www.harvestheartfarm.ca/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harvestheartfarm/


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