The Business of Farming

Like all businesses, our farm business faces many challenges. Making our outputs (total income) exceed our inputs (total expenses) on an annual basis is daunting. Farming must always deal with ever different seasonality and weather issues among other factors, which in Missouri, creates a fairly long period between growing seasons without any fresh produce or fruit sales. We are in that long stretch of winter right now, the time every year that can devastate a farm business that needs cash flow to pay the bills. Budgeting is critical of course, but spreading out income streams and generating “off season” sales and cash income is also vitally important to the success and survival of our farm business. 

There are a number of ways that we can generate income during the winter and early spring months when the days are short and cold, and nothing is growing.  Farming businesses can utilize season extension practices that add a few extra weeks of harvest on either side of the main growing season.  We mostly extend both the spring and fall seasons by utilizing our high tunnel structures. Paired with covering crops inside the high tunnel, these structures allow fall and spring crops (cold hardy varieties) to be maintained and harvested throughout the fall, winter and spring months when it is seasonably cold and there isn’t enough sunlight available for plants to actually grow. The protection they receive from us is passive, but typically that is enough. Financially, these structures pay for themselves with increased sales of very good quality produce throughout the year, especially in these “off seasons”.  This year, the bitter cold was too much and too long for many of our winter crops, primarily the greens, and we lost some of that produce this winter.  Season extension is always a risk, just like the rest of farming!

Another approach farm businesses can take advantage of is using their own fruit and produce to create “value added products” that can be sold any time of the year, and are especially appealing to customers during the winter when fresh local fruit is not available. Simple processing of fruits and vegetables into preserves and other shelf stable products means these items can be sold throughout the year. Our fruit preserves are all organic and from our own certified organically (ODAFF) grown fruits and berries. We’ve had very good response from our customers, and are likely to increase this area of production and potential sales.  As we expand our line of value-added products, we will have to make sure we are following the myriad of regulations associated with this business.  So far, we have stuck with Jams and Jellies because, thanks to Missouri’s Cottage Law, we are able to do this in our home kitchen.  

Farmers Markets are also a way that farmers can get a decent, retail equivalent price for their fruits and vegetables. Green Gate is a “Market Farm.”  We chose this business model based on the analysis of our specific strengths and weaknesses as a farm business. Initially our farm income was almost exclusively what we sold at the Farmers Market. The challenge here is to produce just the right amount of a diverse variety of quality fruits and vegetables every week. Not too much production, so that it goes un-sold (Donating food to our home town food pantry is great, but...), but hit the “just right” level of enough production so that all demand is met for the day. Planning is vital here. Knowledge and experience with the many 100s of different varieties of fruits and vegetables takes time and growing experience, and it is also critical for long term success. There is a lot to keep track of here: the names of all the varieties and their preferred growing conditions to minutest of detail; issues with their pests and diseases, as well as prevention and treatment of those diseases; specific harvesting and storage requirements; pricing and presentation to customers; and then finally how to take it home, store, wash, prepare, cook and eat any of it. We wish this an exaggeration.  It takes many years to get the hang of this and we learn something new and vital every year. (In fact, the USDA defines “Beginning Farmer/Rancher” as anyone with less than 10 years as a full time Farmer/Rancher; basically a 10 year full time apprenticeship of sorts to qualify as more than a beginner.)

Selling as a “Market Farm” obviously includes lots of interactions with our customers at every market, with so many conversations about how to cook eggplant! After several years of recipe and non-recipe conversations with them, we consider many of our customers to be people that we are friendly with, that we know something about, that we trust, that we enjoy and empathize with, and that are also our friends. This aspect of “Market Farming” offers human interactions on fun and interesting levels, and sometimes intimate and personal levels. We have seen families grow, customers go through healing and recovery from various issues, and even had to say goodbye to some customers while consoling the other half they left with us.  Food interacts with family and friends, holidays and health on these deeply human levels. We value these opportunities and responsibilities immensely. We love that our food and flowers can bring a smile to someone, help them during their healing, or just be a part of their daily lives.   

However, things in business and community change rapidly in our society. After a dramatic increase in the number of farmers markets nationally, a predictable decline has been occurring in the face of the megacorporation embrace of “organic and local food dollars”. Large-scale sized dominance of the organic sector has allowed these behemoths to squeeze the competition drastically, and now they are proceeding with the buyouts of surviving organic food businesses. We have felt this impact in several ways, including a general decline in total customers, a decline in the volume of purchases per customer, and suggestions from some customers that they can get their fruit from “the supermarket” for less. About this final set of comments- we check with pricing in various KC supermarkets throughout the year. The organic options are comparably priced with our products and occasionally cheaper depending on the store, but their quality cannot be credibly called better than what we sell, or even as good. We stand by all of our farming outputs for both their quality and price.

Another option to help bring in financial resources early in the growing season that small farms have embraced is the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. Basically local people agree to buy CSA shares from a local farm, which entitles the shareholder to receive a weekly, biweekly or monthly “share” of that farm’s output. This is usually a box filled with whatever fruits and vegetables the farmer had produced that week, and typically the farmer would provide the farm’s best quality items to the folks that bought their CSA and invested in the farm. The CSA typically focuses on the production of a single “season”- 20 weeks that fully encompass summer for instance. There are also spring, fall, and winter CSAs offered by various farms across the country. The CSA shares are best bought before the season starts, enabling the farm to invest this money in seeds, equipment, farm workers, or whatever else is needed for that seasons production, at a time when no other income is typically available to the farm. The farm businesses selling these CSA shares must plan appropriately, so that all the CSA shares will have a good supply of fruits and vegetables available each and every week.

This system has several inherent challenges. Customers buy shares in the spring, and must wait until production begins sometime later in the year. Also, customers get a share of whatever is available. If there are a lot of any or all items harvested, the box is full-to-overflowing. If the harvest was light or variable in quality, the box may not be as full or as diverse in its offerings.  Some customers want more choices and want a lot of options and input as to what goes into their individual boxes each week. Dissatisfaction with this choice limitation is part of the decline of the CSA popularity and participation. The rise of companies that offer the convenience of home delivery of fresh food (like Blue Apron) has also been correlated with a decline in the number of people buying into CSA’s. 

In the CSA model, which has been around for many decades, it is implied that the customers and farm have an understanding- farming has no guarantees and lots of risks! Being a good farm CSA customer means bearing some of the risks up front, and understanding that farmer will do everything possible to make the harvest happen, but they embrace the fact that farming has no guarantees.

The CSA style farming has been very successful for many farm businesses.  Some farm CSA’s have a farm work requirement so the customer has more connection with farming and the farm there are connect with; while others will even offer customers the opportunity to work on the farm for a reduced or “free” CSA share. This interactive feature is seen as helping bind the community to its farming businesses, and is vital to the survival of many small farm family businesses. Many customers seek out this opportunity to be on the farm again, or for the first time, so that they can play an important role in process of bringing home their family’s truly farm fresh food.

We’ve been planning the introduction of our own CSA for several years and we are finally ready to take the plunge. So here goes: Green Gate Family Farm is announcing its inaugural CSA offering!! Twenty weeks of glorious fruits, vegetables and more, all hand selected for quality and freshness, packed by the boxful every! Come and get your CSA share! Click here for more details.