(For Part I, click here.)
About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.
On the topic of marketing, I ask about whether they are still doing the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program, which is a kind of cousin to Certified Organic. It encourages similar ecologically friendly farming practices, but it’s implemented differently, with members establishing the rules and monitoring each other’s compliance with site visits, instead of having a government-backed legal definition and non-member inspectors. Ruthie says that they’re not. So few people knew what CNG was that they found themselves spending a lot of time explaining it, which indicated that it wasn’t actually doing much as a marketing tool for them. There’s more public understanding of Certified Organic, however, so they see some potential benefits to bringing their farm under that banner. Already, Trent says, “we practice organic all the way, every year, buy organic seed when it’s available, use crop rotation; we use organic fertilizers, use organic sprays, we’re doing everything the organic way.” So the question is whether to get the official certification, and for that to make sense there has to be a noticeable financial benefit – an opportunity to boost sales to overcome the hit to both time (detailed record-keeping) and money (a percentage of gross – not net – sales) that comes with it. Surveys of their current customers, however, didn’t show a desire for Organic certification. Ruthie notes that current customers “trust what we’re doing, and we have an open door policy, so it wouldn’t really make a difference to them, and we might almost maybe lose some people.” I ask about that, and Trent says that “some people are afraid of organic around here, they think organic means buggy or low quality,” and he adds that, in any case, “in general this area is not prioritizing organic.” This strikes me as right. At the Bank St. Market, the last 3-4 years have seen several new small organic-ish farms (organic practices, with or without certification), but the conventional growers are doing better than ever, no doubt in part because people don’t see the reason to pay the higher prices that are inevitably a part of organic production. Green Garden’s prices are, based on my shopping experience, somewhere in between the big conventional farms like Scobey’s and Visser (now Crisp Country Acres) and some of the smaller organic growers, but they’ve got variety and quality, and evidently this is enough to keep people coming back (it is for me). Trent is worried that the costs of certification would be a kind of “tax on his customers” who wouldn’t get a different product but would probably have to pay a little more for it. So the question is then whether they could increase their base of individual customers or gain new or expanded wholesale options, and like all the decisions they face, it’s not obvious what the right path to follow is.
Organic certification is something they can choose to pursue or not, but coming down the pike are new food safety regulations, compliance with which won’t be voluntary. Thanks to the Tester-Hagan amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, most of these regulations don’t kick in until gross sales of a farm pass $500K. That might sound like a lot, but once you realize that’s gross sales and that profit margins are by no means huge for small farms, especially those relying on hired help, it starts to seem like a much smaller number. Green Gardens isn’t there yet, but future growth could get them to that point. Trent is pretty sanguine about the added burdens of regulation, though. Even though it means “you really have to get serious about passing GAPs [Good Agricultural Practice standards],” as well as “putting in a lot of new infrastructure and a lot more record keeping,” he says “it’s probably good,” since “the bad stuff happens” and it’s a way of protecting against it and being prepared to deal with it when it does. Also, more records means more data to help with planning, so it can be beneficial to the farmer for reasons going beyond safety concerns.
Though a small farm by any normal standard, Green Gardens produces so much from their six acres of vegetables that hired hands are a necessity. Managing workers requires skills very different from those that go into growing vegetables (or marketing them for that matter), and as we’re out walking I ask Trent how it is being a manager. He’s clearly a little ambivalent, not because he doesn’t like dealing with people, but because he’s had to learn, as he says with a laugh, “how to be an asshole” when he needs to. He had to fire someone for the first time this summer, and it clearly bothers him. He’s also frank about the fact that he expects hard work from his employees, and in farming that means tough and often repetitive physical labor. But it’s evident from a number of things that come up in our conversation that he’s genuinely committed to his workers’ well-being, even as he demands a lot from them. Paying a reasonable wage is a big part of that, and the numbers he mentions sound pretty good to me, given what I know of the industry. He’s also trying to make one or two positions year-round rather than seasonal, not just because having consistent labor makes for a much more efficient operation for him, but also so his workers aren’t left scrambling to fill the cold months when Michigan has little else to offer in terms of temporary employment. Wages aside, Trent remarks a number of times about the toll farming takes on the body and ways he’s tried to reduce that, noting that one benefit of the machinery for cultivating and harvesting mentioned in the previous post is that it reduces the strain from some of the more difficult tasks that have to be done. I haven’t spoken with any of his current or previous employees, but I take it to be a good sign that several who have left him have done so in order to start their own farms. Evidently, Trent helped them gain enough know-how and appreciation for the work to want to do it for themselves!
Growing in size and complexity, relying on workers, the demands of certification, the need to conform to regulations – you can see how problem solving and critical thinking are essential to farming. To make all this work, Ruthie notes, “you have to have systems,” and Trent wholeheartedly agrees: “yes, systems are everything!” “I’m finally getting to the point,” he says, “where I’m starting to institute systems,” because if you don’t, he laughs, “you’ll go crazy and then you’ll go out of business.” Words to live by.
Our conversation ends with a tour of the part of the barn they’re about to renovate to make it easier to do the washing and packing for the CSA. Right next to their storage coolers (insulated rooms cooled by window AC units, linked to an alarm that sends a text if temperatures start to rise past where they should be) they’ll put in a concrete floor and shelving so that they can move a cart past the share boxes and load each from it, saving a huge amount of back-breaking lifting each week and over the course of the season – another place good design will ease bodily stress on workers. They’ll also put in stainless steel sinks, as well as other improvements that ensure they’ll be compliant with whatever food safety regulations they become subject to. The renovation is funded by a 0% APR, crowd-sourced loan through Kiva Zip, with eighty lenders chipping in, and they’ll start work soon on the improvements. This is the first time they’ve done this particular form of borrowing, but in the past they’ve crowd-sourced loans with reasonable interest rates for infrastructure improvements from “local investors that were all long-time-customers.” There is also low-interest government loan money available, but Trent and Ruthie say they opted not to pursue it, partly because of the bewilderingly complex instructions and conditions that it comes with, but also because it wouldn’t have brought with it the connections and sense of community that have come with crowd-sourcing.
Though I’ve seen Green Gardens on a cold day in mid-December, when the farm is as much at rest as it ever is, and though our conversation is relaxed, as we’re walking around I can still feel the energy in Trent and the land and buildings around him. Stuff is growing. Trent mentions the idea that it takes 10 years to get really good at something. They’re at year 8. Which means even given all I’ve seen and heard about, this is still just the practice phase, and the growth is going to go on for a long time to come. Keep your eye on that table at the market – it’s only going to get better.