Business Mentorship – Lessons Learned: Umbella Farm

Posted by Kristen Nammour on February 29, 2016

Umbella Farm's Russell with Giant Organic Cabbage

Name, Farm, Location?

Russell Heitzmann and Calliope Gazetas, Umbella Farm, Courtenay BC

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

We had a financial goal that we set of gross sales just shy of $30,000. At the beginning of the season we said that our goal was ending the year with a positive balance in our bank account and having grown enough food to meet the targets that we committed to as part of the co-op. Calliope had a part time job and Russell worked on the farm full time. The farm was a founding member of Merville Organics Growers Co-op, and most of our marketing and sales used the infrastructure and systems created by the co-op.

Russell: My goal was to take advantage of the opportunity to run a farm business and learn everything that entails – business management, financials, employee management, crop planning, prioritizing, and on and on!

Calliope: I wanted to set up a basic system for raising chickens, that I could review and make more efficient over time. My goals were to practice raising livestock to be part of a farm ecology, and to understanding how they can fit in and compliment vegetable production. I was also really interested in how a natural ecology on an organic farm could support your goals, in terms of beneficial insects and birds for pest control, and encouraging owls to reside on the farm to control rodents. I wanted to see if I could integrate my experience as a designer into being a farmer, create packaging and promotional materials and using social media to sell our products.

Did you meet your goals? How did it work out? 

In terms of our financial goals we ended up with gross sales a little under $20000. We definitely spent much more than we made, although on the other hand we grew enough food to supply our share of sixty weekly CSA box customers vegetables.

Russell: I feel as though considering everything that went into this year, I’m happy with our final gross sales number. In terms of actually making a profit… Costs were much higher than I was expecting this year, and I made many mistakes that resulted in crop failures and reduced yields. It was a wonderful feeling to always have enough to put into the boxes, a result of both serendipity and planning. In terms of personal goals, I can’t even begin to express all of the things I learned this year. Everything that I mentioned above and much much more, this was truly a crash course in the whole grand experience of farming and life.

Calliope: I learned tons about poultry, from dressing small injuries to dealing with coccidiosis. How to catch, transport and pack processed birds. Which breeds I preferred to raise and which ones I liked to eat. Having the seconds from the veggie sales on hand to feed chickens and turkeys was a good way to compliment their organic grain diets. Especially when the pastures were parched during the summer, there wasn’t a lot of browsing. We had overripe or bruised veg in addition to orchard windfalls in the fall, lots went to the birds to give them tasty things to eat and make their days more interesting. Turkeys and chickens love overripe tomatoes and windfall apples. I had time to work on some design projects for Merville Organics, but never enough time to do our own farm logo! I didn’t have time to work on some of the other things I was interested in, like encouraging birds and beneficial insects, building habitat for pollinators. I got really good at catching rats in snap traps. Oh, the rats.

Inquisitive Look from Umbella Farm's Pastured Chickens

What were your most profitable avenues of sales?

Our CSA box, run with five farms as part of Merville Organics Growers Co-op was definitely our most profitable avenue. We also sold at local farmers markets: two run by the Comox Valley Farmers Market as well as the Campbell River Market. In addition, we also sold to the Tofino Ucluelet Chef’s Guild, who bought hundreds of pounds of kale from us over the summer, amongst other things! Direct sales via email newsletters to the Merville Organics customer list and friends and family, with some marketing on Twitter and Facebook  ended up being how we sold most of our meat chickens.

What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?

Quality first and foremost: fresh food is just so much better. By supporting our farm and Merville Organics our customers are also helping us create an organization that is providing infrastructure and marketing support to new farmers – there were three start-up farms in the co-op last year! One of our long term goals is to be able to support even more new farmers to start farming here in the Comox Valley.

Knowing that our chickens were treated well and could live life with room to move and bugs to eat, instead of growing up in a barn with thousands of other birds, that was one big reason to buy chicken from us.

How did the mentorship impact your business?

We were supported by our mentors physically, as they offered tips and provided us with information about tools that saved countless hours of labor over the course of the growing season. We were also supported psychologically, knowing that there were people out there who knew what we were doing, had gone through what we had gone through, and were there to answer our questions and wanted to see us succeed. They made our year a little easier and a lot more fun.

What business skills have you gained through the mentorship?

Too many to list here, but we can take a stab: bookkeeping, employee management, marketing skills, general management, crop planning, budgeting…

What was the most important information you gained from your mentor?

Hearing our mentors tell us that there was no right way to do things and hearing about all of the things they had tried to make things work was extremely helpful. It was great to see everything that went into our mentor’s business and use the pieces of their model that we could apply to our business.

Calliope: One thing that our mentor told us was that setting up a farm takes a really long time, five to ten years. That was a good perspective for me to remember, it’s not possible to have everything up and running in one year.

Russell: In terms of physical vegetable production I think it was turning us on to styrofoam plug trays from Beaver Plastics. They saved me many hours of work over the course of the year.

Umbella Farm Bees in Squash

Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season?

Umbella Farm will not exist next year as a business. Russell has gone on for more farming adventures in Merville, and although Calliope was planning on staying on in the same location, her lease wasn’t renewed.

Russell: When I look back at this past season as a whole it was an incredibly positive, fun, educational, and overwhelming experience. I was supported in so many ways by my family, friends, community, and organizations like Young Agrarians. There were so many people and opportunities that showed up exactly when they needed to, and I feel so lucky to have had the season that I did. This season has set me up with the infrastructure, confidence, and knowledge to make my next year of farming the best yet.

Did you learn any lessons the hard way?

Russell: I feel as though I learned almost all my lessons this year the hard way! I can’t count the number of ways I screwed up – transplanting, watering, weed control, harvesting, communication, I doubt there is a single aspect of this season that I did perfectly. And from my perspective this year was an incredibly successful one.  I don’t know how else I could have learned what I did this year, and I feel no shame in saying that I made a lot of mistakes this year.

Calliope: Yes, and certainly most often at the moments when I ran out of time and energy! Getting a farm set up and then producing at the same time is super difficult. Also, chickens will always find a hole in the fence right before you have to leave the farm to be somewhere on time.

Umbella Farm Fresh Till

Do you have any big plans for future growth?

Russell: My next season will be one of consolidation – trying to apply the things I’ve learned on a new piece of land, with new challenges and opportunities. There is still so much that I need to experiment and tinker with (including work/life balance in addition to what and how much to grow) before I decide to start scaling up considerably..

Calliope: Yes, I’m taking a break from farming for a bit while I work on finding somewhere that may be better suited for poultry. I’m not certain organic poultry on a small scale is feasible, unless you are also growing your own grain. So I’m going to take my time finding a place where I can live and farm, that makes more sense.

I love livestock though and would be interested in raising a few different kinds of animals, currently I’m fascinated by emus, goats and pigs.

(Bonus) Did anything silly happen on your farm this season?

Russell: Last winter, just before we moved onto our piece of land there were some muscovy ducks living in the pond at our place. They approached us, a female and a male, but when we got too close the male stepped in front of the female and started displaying towards us – wiggling his tail back and forth and hissing. Thinking that it was all bark and no bite (so to speak), I nudged him away with my foot, and he responded by full-on attacking my leg. He was biting, flapping his wings, scratching with his feet! I flung him away and we backed off, the drake hissing at us until we were gone. I think we were both relieved to be away from each other. Fortunately no one was hurt: sometimes the difference between scary and silly is pretty thin.

Calliope: One night the turkeys got out of their coop, and were attracted to the lights at our landlady’s place. They hung out in front of her patio, beeping and trilling away, quite content at 10 pm to be right in front of her house. We herded them back to their coop, two young girls, the farm cats, and two women, very slowly encouraging them to keep moving forward. Turkeys have terrible awareness of their own feet, and will trip over the smallest thing on the ground. Each bird tripped over the sill of their coop as they got back in, such dorky funny birds.

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

Russell: Having the space and time to plan my next season!

Funding for the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Pilot is provided in part by Salt Spring Coffee, Vancity, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the BC Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC. 

Umbella Farm - Market Stall

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