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.
Applications are now open for our BMN 2021 Mentee Cohort. Find more information and an application form here. Deadline to apply is November 6th, 2020.
We are wrapping up with our 2020 Mentee Cohort and are thrilled to profile them and celebrate their efforts!
Ariella Falkowski is the owner of Sweet Acres Farm in Langford, BC and is a participant in the 2020 Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Program.
What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
My goals were to have a better work/life balance on the farm, to develop better soil management practices for improved soil biology, and to have consistent hired help through the season with the aim of delegating certain tasks to that person as the season progressed. Unfortunately, I feel as though Covid-19 threw a pretty big wrench into these goals, and much of what I worked towards in the spring did not happen, based on having to swivel and adjust my business in unexpected ways.
I did succeed on having consistent hired help – and had one 2-4 day/week employee from May-October. This was a huge help in terms of consistency and ability to get the work done. However, because of Covid, the planning I did on setting down a realistic weekly schedule (which included a day off per week!) with certain tasks (i.e. harvest, delivery, or field work) and my labour needs did not go as planned because I developed a brand new marketing channel in a large-ish CSA, and was busier than ever managing that with much increased administration tasks associated. All this to say I had most likely the worst work/life balance I’ve had in my farming career to date!
My interest in experimenting with and improving on soil health management was pretty much nil too, as because of being much busier than expected, I spent most of my time doing things the way I am familiar, and using tillage for weed control more than I would like due to opening up a new area which had some pretty bad weed pressure.
What effect did Covid19 have on your business?
In March, it was looking as though neither of the farmers markets that I have traditionally attended were going to run, and all the restaurants I sold to were closed down. This, needless to say, was very stressful! I was suddenly looking at needing to replace approximately 90-95% of my revenue. I ended up deciding to run a Flexible Choice CSA program, using a Farm Credit model and the Local Line platform. This was quite successful, I’m pleased to say, though as mentioned, brought a high volume of unexpected administrative tasks, and the need to develop and learn a new system right in the thick of the spring! In early summer when many restaurants began re-opening, and our Farmers Markets chose to run, this again, was a good thing, but meant I was now much busier than I thought I would be, and than I had staffed for.
What resources did you find most valuable to support your business to navigate the changes?
Honestly, as is usually the case, I found support from my peers and colleagues the most helpful. Through them I was able to learn about Local Line, and brainstorm how others were navigating the changes too.
What were your best sales channels/avenues?
They were the Goldstream Farmers Market, my Flexible Choice CSA, and sales to restaurants.
Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)?
I think Sweet Acres Farm is known for consistent high quality produce, and good variety but also consistency of certain staples over the season. In addition, our unique and very flexible CSA program sets us apart.
What was the most important information or idea(s) you gained from the mentorship?
More guidance and advice on pest and disease management for common pest/disease issues in our region.
What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?
The mentorship helped me to look more at my book keeping system (which I would like to improve to help with time management in order to improve work/life balance) however I have not had much of a chance to implement many of these good ideas because of, of course, farming through a pandemic.
How did mentorship impact your business overall?
It was a good experience, and I very much valued having someone more experienced to go over ideas and plans with in the spring, especially as I was doing the “pandemic swivel” and developing my new CSA program. I also really appreciated being able to reach out to my mentor during the season with even small, or quick questions when in the thick of the things. This is hard to quantify, but I often find this kind of more informal type of “mentoring” the most useful.
What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?
Work/life balance really is important! 3 years in, I’m realizing I can’t keep up the pace I have been setting for the first 3 years, and so need to work harder/smarter next year to actually implement changes.
What plans do you have for the future of your farm (where would you like your business to go)?
Right now I need more time to rest and reflect before being able to properly answer that question. I would like to farm smarter, not harder, and either hone in my most profitable marketing channels, so streamline things, or hire more staff/staff for more days of the week, or a combination of both. I would like my business to profitably support me throughout the year (no or minimal supplemental winter work needed), but also become more fun again! I.e. I would like to go swimming next summer, at least once (there’s that elusive work/life balance again).
Share anything funny/weird that happened on your farm this season.
It was the season of huge carrots – and we have been commonly pulling forearm length (or longer) carrots!
What are you most looking forward to this winter?
Reading books by the fire and hikes in the rain or winter sun with friends and family! Oh yeah, and combing the seed catalogues in order to get pumped for next year again too!
Find out more about the Business Mentorship Program and fill out an application here. Deadline for submissions is November 6, 2020.
This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.