By Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture
With five years of farming behind her, Kate Spring, Good Heart Farmstead, has the experience to respond to feedback from CSA members and to balance her job with her farmer partner and husband, Edge. After starting out their farm with livestock, Kate and Edge discovered that their CSA customers really liked their salad greens. Building this part of the farm business meant dropping the meat and eggs from their plan and becoming more specialized.
While focusing on the business of growing and selling greens, Kate describes how she and Edge divide what needs to be done, “Edge manages our wholesale accounts and talks to chefs, builds relationships with them and runs our Montpelier restaurant and CSA drop-offs. I do the marketing and communications, our farm’s website, and run our on-farm CSA pick-up.”
With one acre in production on a hillside with well-drained soils, Good Heart Farmstand has managed their production risks by identifying their best piece of land which is ideal for vegetable growing. Other parts of their property were too wet.
“We both work in the field, and we both make decisions about what to do. We’re thinking about eventually adding an employee. So far, we’ve had two folks do work for trade to help us out.”
Kate is now focusing on business planning with NOFA through the Farm Viability Enhancement Program to make the farm more sustainable. There are several eligibility requirements to the program including:
- at least 3 years of experience managing for working on a farm,
- producing at least $10,000 of gross farm income in the most recent tax year, and
- committed to the business of farming in the next year.
Building on the UVM whole farm planning course Kate completed back in 2013, the viability program provides help with cash flow projections and analysis to ensure the farm can pay its future bills.
Looking back, Kate remembers, “Our original idea was to have a full-diet CSA, and to produce everything for about 40 families. The scale we were at was more of a big homestead, and we found we weren’t able to produce meat at a competitive price at such a small scale.”
A key question was: How many people do we want to feed and can we feed?
“What’s been important is that we’ve learned to really engage with potential customers to know what they want and to better understand the market we’re in or trying to enter. Each year, we make financial projections, which we break down into where we thought we’d be and where we actually are. While last year, we didn’t end up where we’d hope, some years we have met our targets.”
Over the past couple years, Good Heart Farmstead has shifted more production to wholesale than the CSA from 75-80% CSA and 20-25% wholesale to a roughly even split. While Kate does work in a non-farm customer service job during winter months, her goal is for any off-farm work to be a choice based on her interests, not out of economic necessity. The intention is for both Kate and Edge to work 100% on the farm, and not require any additional off-farm income to be sustainable.
Going into season six, Good Heart Farmstead is still in the growth phase and over the next two years, plans to be on operating on a more sustainable basis for their business.
Kate’s advice for young people considering farming
- It’s important to have hands-on farming experience, whether crop growing or livestock and to work on a couple different farms at different scales and in different markets;
- It’s just as important to learn how to run a business, as you need business skills;
- Invest in education such as a whole-farm planning class; and
- Attend conferences and join organizations like NOFA-VT and the Veg & Berry Association.
Kate also has some go-to books for inspiration, practical advice and a reality check. They are The Organic Farmers Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff – and Making a Profit by Richard Wiswell, and The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber.
Over the years, Kate and Edge have realized that in building a sustainable farm, they’re doing more than farming work and have taken on many roles; they’ve become customer service specialists, local food advocates, the CFO, and the CEO.
Read more on how working your way on farms can be a great way to gain experience, expertise and insight into what it takes to succeed as a farmer.