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An early (and kinda sad) farmers market booth, from 2011

While I incorporated my business in 2010, I didn’t sell my first product until June 1st, 2011. So I recently passed my 10 year anniversary of being in business! I was fielding a question online from a new business woman about selling herbs and spice mixes, and it got me to thinking. What are the top ten things I’ve learned from being in business for 10 years?

In no particular order…

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Subtitle: So you want to build a greenhouse. Here’s what you need to know.

I built my first greenhouse in the mid 2000’s when we were living outside Durango Colorado. It was a DIY design based on using a wood frame, PVC pipe for the arches, and plastic sheeting to cover. It probably cost me less than $200 with new materials. I had wanted a greenhouse for almost 20 years at that point, but could not afford to buy a kit. When we got it up, it was early spring in Durango, an area that is almost 7,000 feet in elevation, and has a last frost date in early June! I had tomato seedlings started in my sunny laundry room, and was SO excited to now have a greenhouse I could transfer them to.

I lovingly put them all into the sunny warm greenhouse. The next morning, everything had frozen solid and all of my seedlings were very very dead.

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This is our system, from the app on my phone, at 10:32 in the morning on April 6, 2021. A sunny spring day. That dark you see on the right side is from the shade of a silver maple tree on that corner, which we do not want to remove, as it provides critical shade for our animals in the summer. By midday, the angle of the sun has changed enough that its no longer an issue.

Way back when I was about 20, I attended a few “alternative” building and energy lectures while I was at San Jose State. I probably still have a brochure on “rammed earth” building somewhere (and still have a deep interest in earthship building techniques (we’ve visited the ones in Taos New Mexico twice). But every time I looked at the price, there was just no way I could afford to go “off grid”.

With the advent of net metering, where the consumer installs a power generating system that is hooked into the electric grid, things started to seem more realistic. You don’t have to install a system that meets all of your needs all of the time, including banks of batteries. Instead, your system feeds back into the existing electrical grid. When you generate power, you get paid by your power company for that electricity, and if you are producing more than you need, someone else can use it. If your system doesn’t meet all of your needs, you’re not left hanging with no power.

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So, in 2019, I decided to put on my big girl panties and hire actual part-time help in the fall. You know, not paying someone “under the table in cash” but actually run payroll. Our business is small, and our gross revenues are under $50,000, but there’s only so much of me to go around. I’ve also reached a point where I can’t increase that gross revenue unless I have more help to grow and make more product.

Because I’m a control freak and like to understand my business from the ground up, I decided that to start, I’d do the paperwork around officially hiring an employee myself. I wanted to understand what percentage of money was going out in addition to what was going to the employee’s hourly wage, and where it was going as well. And because I only wanted to hire someone for about 10 hours a week it seemed ridiculous to hire a bookkeeper for what amounted to about $550 a month in payroll.

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You’ve probably heard the statistics or seen the memes. Something on the order of 40% of all food grown in the United States is wasted either before it reaches grocery shelves, or (mostly) after it is purchased. And stories early in the pandemic of farmers dumping milk or slaughtering animals that could not be processed, because the “get big and get out” global food system was an epic failure during a pandemic was enough to turn your stomach. Tight margins and a lack of the right infrastructure and storage when the school and restaurant sales suddenly dried up meant that a huge amount of food was wasted. The cracks in our national food system were exposed. Meanwhile, even before Covid-19, 1 in 7 people in this country are food insecure.

National Resources Defense Council Infographic
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It’s funny. On some level, I’ve been preparing for this current situation for more than 20 years. And I’m finding that, not surprisingly, its one thing to be intellectually prepared for people hoarding toilet paper. It’s another to weather the emotional fall out when people around you are frightened and you can’t even give them a hug.

Other than the persistent feeling of angst, watching small businesses (many of which are also friends) suffer, a fear of running out of chocolate, and the hypochondria of “is that a tickle in my throat” (news flash, so far its not), we’re fine. Heck, there’s still hot and cold running water and electricity to surf the internet. We’re MORE than fine. And we’re doing our best to facilitate old fashioned neighbor to neighbor communication and assistance. Reaching out to those near us. Working with a local church and sign maker to put up a bulletin board for actual physical notes from neighbors in need.

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Heads up. This is a LONG post. And if you are just here for cute animal pictures and recipes and aren’t interested in farming as a business, a pretty boring one. But this stuff IS important. If you make it through to the end, thanks for reading!

It’s funny how things just chug along in life, and then the collective unconsciousness bubbles up and you start hearing similar ideas from multiple directions.

Last year, I went to the Balancing Profitability and Access in Local Food Systems conference in Boise. During one of the talks, this graphic appeared on the screen.

It hit a chord with me, I photographed it from the Power Point screen, and tracked it down later. A friend with a masters in marketing taught me years ago that consumers choose to purchase for one of three reasons; price, quality or status. Competing with big box store prices is simply a race to the bottom (and how we ended up with things like Confined Animal Feeding Operations – CAFO’s – a disaster for the animals, the environment and our health). But just marketing to the tip of that preference pyramid isn’t enough either.

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I have an intern. A Whitman College intern. I have tried for several years to get this program to work for me without success, but this year, we finally managed to get all of the right pieces in place, and I HAVE AN INTERN. Squeeeee.

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Nick is very fond of Charlie. Charlie is very fond of Nick. Charlie may just decide to go home with Nick in September. Here we’re planting onions, one of Nick’s first on-farm tasks in mid May.

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HeirloomExpo

National Heirloom Expo Squash Mountain – Baker Creek Seeds photo credit.

Most small farmers (though the USDA defines small farms as earning less than $250,000 a year, and classifies 91% of all US farms as small farms) get into farming because they want to sell direct to the end consumer. Growing products for farmers markets, providing CSA boxes (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture) and stocking a farm stand is all about developing a personal relationship between the farmer and their local customer. About telling your own farm story. We small farmers, in general, have wholeheartedly rejected the large scale commodity model of farming that accounts for 85% of the value of crops grown in the United States. In many cases, we don’t come from a history of farming on a large scale. Read the rest of this entry »

Bullnose bell peppersSome time ago, on some Facebook group somewhere, the subject of organic certification of food came up. And someone chimed in with something along the lines of, “Organic certification is all big corporate BS anyway, and is meaningless. Don’t even bother.” Sigh. Got to love the negative Nellies who wait with self righteous anticipation for our impending doom. I did my best to educate the naysayer from a farmers perspective, but I’ve have been meaning to write a post about what organic certification really means ever since. My apologies up front. This post is LONG. Read the rest of this entry »

Jennifer Kleffner

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