It has been way too long since I've cracked open the blog... In fact, the last post is from mid-July. The farm was chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming—shocking, it was July!
Now, it's the end of October, and we're about to complete our third successful year as market farmers. SO much has happened! We've come a long, long way over the last three years and we've come a super long way even just since July.
I find market farming to be a fascinating business to study and learn from because it is so seasonal. It is intense and contained in very clear cycles. Every year regular seasonal patterns emerge more clearly—February is cold, short, and full of silent days in the greenhouse, seeding and dreaming of spring. April is busy and exciting, full of new (often ill-advised) projects building toward the main season. June, July, and August are the hard months. Everything about those three months is intense and challenging; crops are waiting to be harvested everywhere, weeds consume entire fields overnight, the bugs and disease are thick—the whole job really feels impossible. Then September comes around (finally!) and we start the gradual process of rolling down the proverbial farm hill; the air suddenly starts to clear, we start to catch up with the weeds, harvests are big and exciting, and the long haul towards winter begins. Etc. Etc. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
October is often one of the best months. The weather is beautiful, the crops are still rolling, and all of the sudden there emerges just a tiny amount of relaxing flexibility—friends emerge, day hikes become possible again, the work fog begins to clear and reflections emerge. Looking back on it, the season feels like swimming out to sea—I set out full of strength and excitement, I'm strong and impulsive so we go too far—just as far as humanly possible—and it starts to feel hard, too hard, muscles ache and the shore is oh so far away. Finally, finally we turn around and it feels impossible to get home, but soon the shore rises on the horizon and my strength returns. By the time I flop down panting on the beach in the sunshine it feels like the whole trip was a great idea—I take a long nap in the sand and before you know it I'm up and ready to swim again...
Maybe it's masochism, or maybe it's just the entrepreneurial spirit combined with a real physical desire to work with the land. I don't know... but I do believe this cycle will be somewhat true every year; it seems to be the nature of the business. However, in order to not just survive, but "thrive" as they say, we do need to get to place where the swimming trip isn't so dramatic.
This year, for the first time, I think we might be heading in that direction. Here are a few reasons why:
- This year there were fewer peaks and valleys. Our peak summer sales were not as impressive this year as last year, but we did much better in the spring and fall. Thanks to some better planning and new crops, this spring we came out of the market gate with a lot of variety and high value options (strawberries!). Similarly, this fall (for the first year yet!!) we have plenty of storage crops to get us through the market season and into the winter (yay sweet potatoes!!).
- We're not reliant on any one crop or market venue. We had a bad tomato year. Last year, that would have significantly hurt our overall sales performance. This year, we had so many other strong crops that the loss of a key cash crop like tomatoes didn't have a huge impact on our overall financial success. Looking through the data, there is no one crop that makes up more than 8% of our total sales, and the overwhelming majority make up only 0-4% of sales. This means we have a really diverse portfolio which will protect us from major failures in any one area. Further, we are really evenly split between our farm share, wholesale, and market sales venues. This distribution provides even more protection from potential changes and challenges in the future.
- Winter growing helps spread the love. While winter growing is not my favorite—it's too cold for me out there!—it has proven an incredibly helpful tool for invigorating spring sales and carrying out a stronger fall. Keeping customers in the habit of buying from us all year (even at a significantly reduced rate) really helps mitigate loss in the spring. Without winter growing, it takes several weeks if not a full month to get customers back into the habit of buying veggies every week.
All of these things help me to believe that we may be able to (eventually) find a sustainable path for this farm. I don't think we're there yet (it's still way too hard and we really aren't making any money...) but we might be learning something; we might be on a path that could work.