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. We will share their voices and experiences over the next few weeks as we recruit for our 2023 cohort of Mentees and Mentors. If you would like to be considered for a seat in the program please see our Business Mentorship Network page for more information.
My name is Forest Nergaard-Short (she/her) and my farm is Tomato Daily Half Acre located in Lake Country BC on the unceded territory of the Sylix/Okanagan Nation. My Mentor is Emma Sowiak from Bent Plow Farm.
What were your goals for this season and what did you do to try to achieve them?
My goals this season were to create a crop plan and follow it and be more precise with sales outlets.
Did you meet your goals / did it work out?
I tried a few different free crop planning platforms and ended up using Veggie Cropper. After a week I upgraded to their paid ‘Tasks’ software which costs $30 dollars a month and I used it throughout the spring regularly. I found that the ‘Tasks’ portion of the software was particularly useful. You basically input a crop plan into the software and it auto-generates your planting schedules. My usage of the software dwindled as spring turned to summer and I didn’t feel like I could continue to justify the monthly cost. At that point the gardens were full and the crop plan became more intuitive (but likely less productive). All that said, I do plan to use this platform again, especially now having gone through it once I can see the value in following the plan more closely to optimise yields.
Our first year of growing was really frantic – in the midst of building beds and focusing on production/learning it was really challenging to have any space to try and actually make any sales. Our plan this season was to regularly sell at the local farmers market, and to reach out to a local grocery store and also to have product at our neighbours roadside fruit stand.
We ended up being the main farmers at our local farmers market in Lake Country. The market itself is quite small, and there were a few other farmers that came most weeks but we were the only ones there every week. I’m really happy with the connections we made to the community this season – many customers became regulars throughout the season and have continued buying from us this fall after the market ended. I did reach out to the small local grocery store but they didn’t have a need for our crops. As for the fruit stand, that didn’t workout – not enough thought or planning went into it and it didn’t end up panning out. However we did connect to a local U-Pick orchard that has a market store. They were keen to be able to offer fresh produce at their market store and offered to sell our crops on our behalf and we would get 100% of the sales, and give the owners and staff 20% off. We would deliver once a week, twice in peak season. This ended up working out well, but we still had quite small sales through this outlet with lots of crops coming back.
What resources did you find most valuable to support your business during the season?
Having my mentor available was probably the best support when it came to my day-to-day worries. Emma was always quick to respond to my random texts and phone calls. Also the continued access to all of pre-recorded and live info sessions will be useful for me going forward.
What were your best sales channels/avenues?
Definitely the farmers market was the most profitable. Followed by the U-Pick orchard’s market, and then also direct sales from the farm. We’ve been continuing to make sales throughout the fall just by reaching out to our newsletter subscribers, neighbours and posting to Instagram.
Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)?
I feel we (my partner Graeme and I) present ourselves in a really welcoming and warm way. I am a passionate home cook and love to share my ways of cooking all of our crops with any customers who want to chat. Sharing recipes is a great way to not only sell more produce but connect you to the customer, and I find when they come back they’re always excited to share with me how the dish ended up. The compliments we receive on how much joy our crops bring to our customers is incredible.
What was the most important thing you gained from the mentorship? (information, perspective, ideas, solidarity etc….)
I think that the most important part of the mentorship for me was just having a group of other farmers around me who were at least dealing with similar challenges to mine. The occasional gesture of solidarity really is motivating when certain aspects of it feel out of control.
What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?
Mainly all the bureaucratic processes of business: registering, taxes, collecting data, cash flow analysis, crop planning. Whether or not I have a grasp on all those concepts is yet to be seen, but the program did provide me with a lot of valuable information that I will continue to reference as I complete this season.
How did mentorship impact your business overall?
This mentorship brought many critical pieces of the business to light. I have never started a business before and put it off for the first season to focus on building up some farm infrastructure and making sure crops would actually grow! We made some sales, but not at all enough to cover costs. After doing some numbers I could clearly see that I needed to focus on sales numbers to account for the time & cost going into the farm. I could not have begun that process without the guided framework of the Business Mentorship. I feel as though I’ve just scraped the surface of what the program offers and I look forward to this winter to reflect, and put some of this thinking into practice for next season.
What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?
Generally, just that once things in the farming season start moving, they don’t stop. It can be hard to not get hung up on what has or hasn’t worked, but you really need to just take notes and keep moving so as to not fall behind. For me personally, The growing season had actually just started (May) and my partner took a temporary job out of town. He would be back on weekends, but he supports me a lot with many components of the farm operation and I found that I really had to challenge myself to step up and take responsibility for the farm. My mom offered an incredible amount of help and more-or-less worked as a full time employee between May and August, but working regularly with a family member is never without its challenges. I had to learn how to be a boss when I didn’t expect to, and though it threw me off for the first month, I did get the hang of it and really am grateful for this experience of working so closely with my Mom, an opportunity that not many experience in adulthood.
Many other family and friends helped out throughout the season and I’m looking forward to hosting more folks at the farm next season!
What were the victories, small or large, that you had this season?
We got cold storage this season! “Got” as in: share a section in our neighbour’s cold storage. Cold storage was so crucial – no more same-day harvests straight to the farmers market! That and we had a great market set up this year using lots of lovely table linens from my Mom’s collection (it really added to the look).
What plans do you have for future farm growth (where would you like your business to go)?
Late into Spring we decided to take on another ~ acre plot that came available on the land we lease. We ended up only planting a ¼ of it with winter squash and although everything grew great the area was always kind of an afterthought and kind of messy. I wouldn’t advise taking on more land without a well thought out plan, as the few sales we made from those squash did not cover the extra cost of the lease.
I’ve realised that the ½ acre plot we started with is all we need for now. With a crop plan that reflects the data collected from this season we should be able to refine all parts of our operation to better manage yields, soil, sales, and ourselves. We are currently building a covered wash/pack/storage area at the farm so that we can keep all of our farm materials and gear in one place and out of our living spaces! We plan to continue selling at the Lake Country Farmers Market, facilitate direct sales from the farm, and to do drop in days at the Vernon Farmers Market.
What are you most looking forward to this winter?
I’ll be working full time on a film in Vancouver from December – March so time permitting I’m looking forward to some cross-country skiing, catching up with friends & family, eating good food and reflecting on the season.
Where can we find you online?
This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.