Business Mentorship – Lessons Learned: Green Arrow Farm

Posted by Kristen Nammour on December 23, 2015

Name, Farm, Location? Robin Sturley, I run Green Arrow Farm and I’m a member of the Merville Organics Growers Co-op, in Courtenay, BC.

What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
This was my second year of farming full-time during the growing season. My goals were to increase my production of vegetables on the farm, and also to do my part as a member of the co-op to help get it off the ground.

Did you meet your goals / Did it work out? 
Yes, on both counts. I more than doubled my income from vegetable sales this year, and the co-op has gotten off to a great start with a solid foundation, which I feel proud to be a part of!

What were your most profitable avenues of sales? 
A majority of my sales were through the co-op. The CSA program generated the most income, followed by markets, restaurants and wholesale.

What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?
All the farmers in our co-op are either Certified Organic or in transition. We offer a great selection of produce, between us we grow over 30 kinds of vegetables. We have a summer and a fall CSA program, and we continue to go to markets in late fall and early spring, so we offer a connection between growers and eater for at least 9 months of the year.

How did the mentorship impact your business?
The mentorship was a huge boost for me in the spring. I moved my farm up to the Comox Valley in January 2015, so I really needed to get off to a running start. Having the advice and support of my mentor helped me to do that. I was able to make good decisions fairly quickly because I could ask my mentor for advice, or help in finding more information. This gave me the confidence to try a few new practices, like tailoring my soil amendment purchase and application based on soil test results, and using small plug trays for producing quick succession crops. Overall the mentorship was very positive, and I would recommend it to all new farmers!


What business skills have you gained through the mentorship? 
I think the most helpful piece of business advice my mentor shared with me was on how to decide which markets to pursue. There were multiple farmers markets to choose from, as well as new relationships with restaurants and retail stores. As a member of the co-op I had to help make decisions about which ones to put energy into. My mentor suggested we analyse new markets in terms of their long-term growth potential. What would they look like in 5 years? 10 years? Were they likely to keep growing, or plateau fairly quickly? How quickly was the customer base growing or changing in a given market. Using this advice I think we’ve made some good choices.

What was the most important information you gained from your mentor?
I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a mentor with such a wealth of experience. She was an employee on a commercial organic farm in California for many years, later ran her own farm, and recently studied soil science at UBC. The information she shared with me about getting to know my soil and interpreting soil test results was very important and will continue to be important to my success as a farmer in the future.

Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season?
Overall I am feeling positive, but a bit burnt out. The drought was a big challenge for my farm, and I ended up having to lease land on another farm in order to have better access to water. Helping to run the co-op, on top of managing two separate ¼ acre gardens was a lot to have on my plate. Long story short I have moved my farm to a new location in the Comox Valley, one that I hope will now be long-term, and that will allow me to improve each year instead of having to start from scratch. Water and land insecurity are huge barriers to success for small-scale veggie farmers, as I’ve experienced first hand in the past two year.

Merville Organics Cabbage

Did you learn any lessons the hard way?
Yes. Through repeated failed attempts at establishing crops in the hot and dry weather this year I learned how important soil quality is. Organic matter content and the ability to retain moisture make a huge difference. If in doubt, mulch! And if the conditions are too hot and dry, not to waste time, effort and resources trying to establish crops before conditions can be improved through mulch, or better irrigation, or a better location for the crops.

Do you have any big plans for future growth?
Yes, my aim is to make most of my yearly income from farming, so I plan to expand quite a bit in the next few years. I’m hoping to eventually grow an acre of vegetables, and hope to grow the co-op to be able to absorb this amount of production.

Did anything silly happen on your farm this season?
My housemate raised a batch of turkeys on the farm. They started off living in our living room, then moved to her office, then into our garage, before getting out onto pasture. No matter where they live, turkeys are always silly.

What are you most looking forward to this winter?
Planning for next year, obviously! But for now giving my brain a bit of a break from farming.

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.