My post from October 2012

W­hat I Am Learning: Running a Business

Original post:


We want to farm because we love it.  We are somehow energized by the work even though it is physically and mentally demanding.  There is something in our nature that is instinctually drawn to planting, tending, and harvesting.  But we also want to farm to make our living.  We don’t get paid by the hour – our earnings are a direct measure of the fruits of our labors, in the most literal possible way.  Last winter, the three of us had no illusions that City Grown’s first season was going to allow us to quit our day jobs or fund a European winter vacation.  But we wanted to farm as a business, not a non-profit educational or social-justice organization.  We like those organizations, just as we like the businesses that exist around Seattle which make money by maintaining peoples’ edible gardens.  But those niches have already been filled.  We wanted to be a production farm, implementing techniques that we’ve learned from “real” farmers, making money by selling at farmers’ markets.  We just wanted to do it in the city.

For this to make sense, we needed to think about our venture as a business and not just do it because it’s what we wanted to spend our time doing.  We knew that we may not make much money from it, especially not our first season.  But if a certain amount of profit is not a major goal and plan, our enthusiasm to commit many hours per week to the farm will soon run out.  We knew that we needed to come up with some numbers, be realistic, and understand at least a little of the dry business aspects as well as the “fun” (for us) farming aspects of this endeavor.

We took a fantastic class over the winter last year, called “Cultivating Success,” which is run by the Washington State University Extension service.  It covered a variety of aspects of agricultural entrepreneurship: writing a business plan, choosing the right type of business entity, various regulations, financial documents, record-keeping, and the like.  It was an invaluable class and it came at the perfect time for our budding business.

Over the course of the season, we’ve come a long way in developing various systems and routines for our farming operation.  Documentation has been a really important aspect: this coming winter we want to go back and evaluate things like the dollars-per-square-footage yields of each of our crops, and how well each of them sold over the course of our two markets.  The book that we used as a textbook for the Cultivating Success class, The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook by Richard Wiswall, helped us hone our documentation systems.  A class we took with Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farm in Portland was where we originally learned the concept of using Excel spreadsheets for crop planning and tracking.  We spent a lot of time in the early spring drawing up versions of his sheets to fit our own farm.  Maybe it is the inner nerd in me, but I find it pretty fun to document seeding dates, map successions in numbered beds, and record market sales using the different spreadsheets.  Finding time to do this stuff during July and August is another matter, but if the spreadsheet is created over the winter, it doesn’t usually take too much time to add a row of data each time I plant or get home from a market.

We hope to use these tools and our experience gained from running the farm in this first season to create a plan for an increasingly productive and efficient second season in 2013.  There were many start-up costs and once-only time expenditures that were hurdles in 2012 which we won’t have to jump again next year.  Our skills have also been built up and routines established that weren’t there at the beginning of this season.  I can’t think about too many details for next year quite yet – it feels a little too overwhelming as we are just starting to wind down from the summer.  We did get our garlic and cover crop seed purchased…. Just waiting to get some RAIN  before we plant those!… so the important first steps for 2013 have already been taken.  Other than that, for the next few months it will be good enough to have a general sense of excitement about continuing with City Grown next year.  And then when the time becomes right we will again be feeling ready to start the whole beautiful cycle over again, one more time.