City Grown Seattle’s first “real” year in business included a lot of learning, adapting, and improving. As the year nears its close, I am left thinking about the things we did well and the things we can adjust and further improve in 2013.
Starting up this year was a huge challenge. It took a lot of time and mental and physical energy from all three of us running the business when everything was new and untested. It’s incredible to think about how much easier it will be this coming winter when we don’t have to triple our land area and clear all that sod. We don’t have to spend time designing and building infrastructure — our tiny greenhouse and collapsible bean trellis system will last at least another couple seasons. We have established our basic markets, so we don’t have to deal with those nagging worries about whether folks will come to our farmstand or whether we will look ridiculous with only a tiny amount of produce at the farmers’ market. Seemingly, all we have to do is order seed and plant, and we will be off and rolling on another successful season.
But, of course, we want to do it better next time around. We want to be able to grow more produce, higher quality produce, and be able to pay ourselves better for our work next year. We want to get more people involved on the farm and get more people eating our food. We want to have food available earlier and later in the season, and grow more of the things that sell well and earn us a high value per square foot. This season is barely winding down and I’m already getting excited thinking about ways to push and challenge ourselves to do better next season.
There are plenty of things I know we can do better based on what we learned this year. There were so many points in time throughout the summer that Noe or Scott and I would say to each other, “well, chalk that one up in the know-for-next-year column!” I’m sure every farmer feels this way after every season — “If only I’d known back in April what I know now!” But we will know it for next April. Next year, we will plant three rows of carrots per bed instead of two. Our method of planting salad mix will change too. I’ll seed the fall cauliflower a couple weeks earlier, and churn out more lettuce successions closer together in the height of summer. Our processing area could improve a lot with the acquisition of a certified scale and a salad spinner — things we will actually have the money to buy next year.
But those ideas are just the easy, obvious ones. There are more that we can come up with by examining the planting, harvest and sales data that we did a pretty good job of collecting over the season. Some number crunching will reveal which crops made us the most and least profit, and hopefully by combining that info with data about how long the plants were in the ground and how much space they took up, we can determine which crops to eliminate and which to grow more of for next year. Of course some of these decisions could be made based on feel (we were there all season, we can guess who was a best seller and who took too much work to grow with measly return on investment) but I think it’s important to look at the hard numbers to back up our gut feelings.
And then even after we’re done with the math and the spreadsheets, I want to take some time with my farming partners to brainstorm for even more creative ideas. It would be great if we could outreach to other urban or small-scale or SPIN farmers on this too. Intercropping, making better use of vertical space, and who knows what other ideas are out there to be explored. Any tiny improvements we can make could add up to big gains in efficiency and productivity. When you’re running a market farm on 8 plots totalling a quarter acre, every little bit helps.
We are thankful for the weather we got this season. While the rest of the country was suffering under drought, we actually got some relief from our standard too much rain. It was far better overall than the past two years in which I’d done apprenticeships and seen farmers stress over the late spring cold and early fall rains. It was warm and dry enough this year to ripen our tomatoes with no protective greenhouse, although I did go conservative based on the apprenticeship experiences and chose only varieties I felt fairly sure about. We are also thankful for our amazing, supportive, Seattlite-locavore-foodie neighbors and friends who became our CSA members and regulars at our farmstand. We recognize that we live in a spot where the “climate” can be said to favor our endeavor in multiple ways. Through many bits of luck and our own hard work, we feel we had a successful enough first season to give it another go, and hopefully find plenty of room for improvement, next year.
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.
With our really small land area (1/4 acre total, spread among eight plots), we are able to grow enough produce to supply our two weekly markets, but just barely. This leads to a different type of harvest procedure than I remember from the farms I interned on. On a City Grown harvest day, we go out and get everything that’s ready. We generally keep the plants very well harvested, because we have to in order to have enough to sell! There aren’t very many overripe tomatoes falling onto the ground or baseball-bat sized, got-away-from-us zucchini. However, the month of August brought our first crop that’s really too much to keep up with: beans! We planted six 25-foot beds with pole beans in two different varieties. For our tiny farm, this is a lot! And during the last two weeks of August they came on hard and fast, producing a bounty of gorgeous, delicious beans all at once. Luckily, the beans hold over well in the fridge compared to other crops, so we can save them for the next market when we pick more than we can sell. But they’re also pretty much impossible to keep fully picked the way we’ve been getting used to doing with our other crops. It was kind of a revelation for Noe and me to be out in the field and realize that it would take all day for the two of us to thoroughly harvest the beans. Wow! Now this is what it was like on my internship farm, where our instructions were often to go out and get a certain amount of something or to harvest for a certain amount of time, not to completely clean the crop of all the ready fruits.
Noe and I decided to spend an hour on the beans and get what we could. In that amount of time we were able to harvest plenty enough to sell. There were still plenty of tiny baby beans indicating a plethora of fresh tender ones next time we came to pick. The beans that we had to leave on the vine will get over-mature, but they can be saved for next year’s seed. Maybe we can find time in here to can some dilly beans, too. So the upshot is that it is great to be able to harvest most of our crops thoroughly with very little wasted food. But it is also great to be able to adapt our harvest strategy to fit the needs of each crop.
This adaptability to the requirements of the present moment is really what farming is all about. This is far from being a job in which every day is the same old routine. You are always changing and modifiying based on the season, the weather, pest pressures, available markets, and a million other factors.
To take the beans for example again: This time of year, I go to pick beans twice a week. I walk into the leafy, shady hallway created by the pole bean trellises to pick handfuls of succulent, slightly fuzzy purple pods to fill my harvest bin. As I crunch on the flavorful fruits, I can sort of remember planting the seeds for these beans back in May. I know that I must have watered them and watched for germination, but I’ve forgotten most of the details of those springtime days. And back then when I planted, I didn’t really have a fully formed idea of what the beans would be like now. I knew theoretically that they’d be ready for harvest in August, but I wasn’t visualizing the details of trellis building, climbing tendrils, and laden vines. This is what farming does for me: it keeps me in the now, dealing with each day, week, and season as it presents itself. I do have a general overview picture in my head about crop planning and such, but I also have to just keep showing up at each plot and looking around and having the plants tell me what they need from me today.
I have to adapt my daily rituals to the seasons in a continual flow of gradual changes from April through October. Certain crops can only be planted at one very specific time. Others can be grown during a longer window, but they behave differently and need different care in the spring and fall versus the summer. I rarely have to water seedlings for several months in the spring, but then in August it feels like I’m spending half my time with a hose in my hand.
I love to farm and I am grateful for the opportunity it gives me to spend my days outside, feeling the change of the seasons, watching and reacting to the behavior of the plants. As the days now get noticeably shorter around here and the feel of fall enters the air, I don’t feel sad at the passing of summer. I feel excited for the crispness of fall, apple cider pressings, and the natural slowing down of production that gives us overworked farmers a chance to rest. I am already looking forward to a winter filled with seed ordering, new plot development, and a little more sleep. And then we’ll be ready to start all over again!
July at City Grown Seattle has seen a huge explosion of growing and producing plants. Looking back at photos from the beginning of the month, I was amazed at how things have changed: Sunflowers now in bloom were just little sprouts at the end of June, and the beans currently reaching off the tops of their eight-foot trellis hadn’t even begun climbing 30 days ago. I marvel at the plants’ vigor and appreciate that their health shows we’ve been tending them properly.
At the same time, though, the past few weeks have turned up more than a few crop shortages. I have an increasing admiration for the farmers I’ve worked for in the past, who were able to keep various crops in constant supply by careful succession planning. As our City Grown season has progressed, more and more divergences from the original planting plan have occurred. A single planting of head lettuce, for example, gave us only enough heads to last through three weeks of markets, instead of the four weeks we’d hoped for, and the following succession wasn’t ready as early as our paper plan had predicted. This meant a disappointing two-week gap in our head lettuce. Many customers were excited about our romaine and would be buying a head a week if we had it available for them, but it’s not the end of the world: We still have salad mix with baby lettuces, and plenty of other veggie options.
That’s what’s been important for our market stand: having a wide variety. We often get comments from shoppers that our display is the most diverse at the farmers’ market. Because we can’t bring large quantities, it’s nice that we can set ourselves apart by bringing a little bit of a lot of things. There are lots of veggies growing out in the fields, giving us plenty of items to bring to market, even some unexpected items. We have been learning to make use of whatever is ready as we harvest each week, and a healthy mix of creativity and neglected plants has led to some fun farmstand additions. Mustard greens, for example, were not in our planting plan. Then a succession of spicy salad mix grew beyond its baby state when we didn’t have time to till it in during the spring rush. The larger leaves were still lush and edible, so we got a couple weeks of extra harvest from the bed and had some nice looking–and unexpected–bunches of mustard greens to bulk up the market stand display. And people loved them! Harvesting and marketing whatever is growing well, instead of trying to stick to an exact pre-planned harvest goal, is teaching us a lot about consumer tastes. Why do people love radishes and parsley so much? I don’t know, but it’s lucky they do. We had a lot of them this spring.
Creativity has also necessary in planning our space use. I spend a lot of mental energy deciding what to plant where, and when. I am getting to know all the little quirks of each of our eight plots. Jon and Katie’s yard has the sandiest soil and needs more frequent watering, so it’s best not to sow seeds there in the summertime. Use transplanted crops instead. The Bonds’ place has a lot of snail and slug pests, so we put tomatoes there instead of lettuce. Half of Bryan’s place is quite a bit shadier than the rest, so how do we use that to our advantage? It’s like fitting together puzzle pieces. Or more like playing chess, really, because there is a time dimension involved too: If I seed these brassicas in the greenhouse now, which beds will be available in a month when they’re ready to be transplanted? What should we plan to put in after the peas? How long can we keep harvesting a single planting of kale? I know that, over time, many of these things will become second-nature to me. I could tell by watching my mentors during my apprenticeships that they were doing many things based on feel and experience that they couldn’t fully explain. It is exciting to realize how much my own intuition has grown over just a few months of running my own farm, and I am already very much looking forward to next season.
We made our first restaurant connection this month, with a fantastic vegan restaurant and yoga studio in our neighborhood. The chef bought a couple things from us at the farmers’ market, then we exchanged contact information and he has called us a couple times to order more. He came and picked up the veggies from our plot, which is about five minutes away from his restaurant, and we are already discussing growing some crops specifically for him next season. This immediate proximity is what sets our farm apart. We may not have much growing space, but we have enough, and it’s right here. We travel only 10 minutes to and from the farmers’ market where we sell. One of us can quickly go harvest extra and bring it to the market if we run low on something. On Saturdays, when we open up our farmstand, we wake up, walk out the back door, process vegetables, and then set up our tent in our front yard to wait for our neighbors to come to us to buy food. Sure, we could grow more and make more money if we had more land. But our expenses are few and the degree of success that we’ve been having with City Grown so far makes me very excited about the possibilities of urban farming as a viable commercial farming model. I hope to continue expanding and improving our business, becoming more creative, efficient, and involved in our community as we go.
I think anyone who knows me would agree with me here: I am a bit of a control freak. I try to keep it in check, but the tendency is there to want to do everything all by myself to make sure that it’s done “right.”
As it turns out, this can be troublesome when one is starting a business with two partners! It also tends to be a problem when trying to farm, an occupation that comes with an overwhelming amount of work on even the smallest scale.
This year–my first season of working for myself–I have been even more focused than usual on knowing every detail of everything going on with the farm. Noe and Scott, my dear, dear business partners, have been wonderfully accepting of my throwing myself into the venture so wholeheartedly. But they might secretly be a teensy bit sick of my micromanagement at times!
Scott and Noe started City Grown last season, but the nature of their other jobs meant that they had very limited time to devote to it last year. The idea this season was that I would join with a larger time commitment than either of them, and, as a trio, we would be able to be the equivalent of one full-time farmer. Because I am devoting so much more time, I have taken on more responsibility than I might otherwise have done as a newcomer. I am grateful that my business partners have been willing for me to come in and make changes and take the reins so quickly, but I need to remember that we three are all equal partners.
I have been frustrated with myself for trying to take too much control. Until recently, however, it seemed too hard to let go. I wanted this business to succeed with every fiber of my being. Of course I was going to be constantly thinking about it and trying to plan every detail.
But now that harvest season is really ramping up around here, there is suddenly too little time for me to have a finger in every pie. With two harvest days and two market days every week on top of all the seeding, transplanting, watering, and weeding that still needs to get done, the scope of the work is certainly well beyond what can be accomplished by the two hands of one person.
- I know from my apprenticeship experiences that a farm organism can be a wonderfully collaborative, synergistic thing, with many pieces and parts coming together, tasks getting done by different people, and responsibilities divided up and independently taken care of. I am finally being forced to put myself into a different role within this organism. I am no longer a recipient of instructions from a boss like when I was an intern. Now I am a decision-maker and implementer, but I am not the only one. My new role has to be that of one participant in this whole organism, and one of the directors of the other participants. I can direct the flow of the farm without actually being there to do all the work myself.
City Grown was the beneficiary of a much-needed “crop mob” work party a couple weeks ago, organized by our Washington Young Farmers’ Coalition. We are extremely grateful for the transformation of one of our farm plots, brought by the magic of many hands making light work. Organizing and directing that work party was a chance for me to step back and understand that I have to trust others to help me make this farm all it can be.
Now that I have made a conscious effort to I let go of some of my anxiety around farming details, it seems help is showing up from all corners to assist us. The work party was great, and City Grown will also take on our first work-trade volunteer, now that we actually have plenty of vegetables to trade for her work! During this past week alone a few spontaneous happenings helped lighten my workload: One of my best farmer friends dropped by for a fun hour of pruning tomato plants with me, I roped (pun intended) my boyfriend into hanging pole bean string with me, and Noe changed up her usual routine to work a farmers’ market so I could take an afternoon off.
The month of June has been great: full of hard work and wonderful successes for City Grown. To fully appreciate these moments as they flow by, I am learning to relax a bit in my need for control and instead allow myself to nurture and grow all the interdependent people and pieces that will continue to come together to make it happen.
I was so busy with spring farming tasks, I didn’t notice that it was May until May 19th. That day I realized it was considerably past time to flip to the next page on my Nikki McClure calendar. This local artist (she’s from Olympia, Washington) pairs each lovely paper-cutting image in her calendars with a single word. Sometimes the word is clearly related to the picture; sometimes it takes a little bit of thinking to make the connection.
On May 19, seeing this word and this image made me stop and catch my breath.
“Persist” is a good word to keep in mind as a new farmer. My mid-May had been full of ups and downs with our new multi-plot urban farming business, City Grown Seattle. Half of the time I was on cloud nine, wallowing in the beauty of healthy growing plants and a new farm enterprise with a high potential for success. But the other half of the time I was feeling extraordinarily stressed out by things going wrong, and by the feeling that I was making many mistakes.
For example, the summer squash starts I had so lovingly raised from seed got transplanted out at exactly the right moment: just when the weather was ready for them to be planted out, they had reached that perfect stage of two true leaves and a root system that was visible but not overgrown when I popped one out of the tray to take a peek. My heart felt happy as I nestled them into newly-tilled soil and looked back over the straight rows.
When I returned to the plot a couple days later, I was dismayed to find the squash plants wilted and dying. I had left them under a blanket of floating row cover, thinking it would provide them a comfortable enclosure for their first few days. Instead I had left my carefully tended seedlings to bake and smother in the captured heat of a too-insulated environment.
That same week of unexpectedly hot, dry weather (where’s the Seattle rain this year?), combined with our inability to get around to all of our plots to water often enough, resulted in poor germination on the spinach, carrot, and lettuce seeds we had sown at the beginning of May. Arriving at a plot to discover that seeds are sprouting is a glorious thing. Arriving to find a bed only half-germinated and spotted with weeds where spinach should be leads to dismal thoughts of lost sales and missing items in the expected farmstand offerings next month.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the negative. Instead of seeing all the plants that are growing beautifully with no problems, I can focus only on the bits that are struggling.
Who was it that said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”? There is always going to be something less than perfect; on the farm there are so many ways that things can go wrong. But it turns out that there are many ways that things can go right, and many ways to make things right. This is what we have to do as new farmers: learn to make lemonade of lemons and persist in finding ways to overcome mistakes, failures, acts of God, surprises, and challenges. It is important to have a good plan, but it may be more important to be able to accept and adapt to divergences from that plan.
We replanted the fried squash (only maybe seven out of the 36 actually died). Luckily we had sown more seed than the number of transplants we actually needed, so we had extras to plant in their place. As I poked more spinach seed into the ground to fill in the gaps in those beds, I realized that now I am doing two successions in one, and perhaps this staggered sowing will enable me to get a longer harvest from the same bed. Since we are farming on such a small scale, with space at a premium, this seems like a fairly smart way to make the best out of it.
So let us persist in overcoming each challenge as it arrives, and also let us persist in an ability to see the bigger picture and all the good that is happening in spite of the challenges.
June second will mark our first day of farmstand for City Grown’s 2012 season. June sixth will be our first farmers’ market. I am feeling excited, and also nervous, worrying about all the little details and hoping that our first day goes well. But as I finished up writing this post and realized that it is almost June, I peeked forward one more page in the Nikki McClure calendar to get a little preview of what next month has in store:
I’m Becky Warner from Seattle Washington, and my farm is called City Grown Seattle. City Grown is a multi-plot urban farm. We are growing vegetables on a quarter acre (10,000 square feet) of growing space within northwest Seattle. Our land is distributed among 8 different plots, of which 7 are in the yards of private homeowners and one is at a community center. These land partners offer us the use of their space in exchange for a portion of our harvest. We are growing a variety of vegetable crops for sale within our neighborhood of Seattle. My two farming partners, Noe and Scott, started City Grown a couple of seasons ago to experiment with the model.
I joined the farm in 2012 and helped with the initial work of tripling our land area and expanding our market reach. 2012 is going to be the first year of City Grown’s CSA (11 members!) and our first time trying out a farmers’ market. We will also be holding a weekly farmstand at our house to bring our neighbors the unique opportunity to buy food grown in their own neighborhood.
Starting City Grown is my first venture into self-employment as well as my first time farming on my own after two seasons of apprenticeship. I came to farming as an experiment with a new lifestyle in 2009 when I was feeling like my former career as a software developer was not really the direction I wanted to go with my life. I have learned and grown an amazing amount over these two years as I discovered a true passion for the work as well as the societal importance of small-scale organic farming. I feel extremely lucky to have gotten a feel for the practice of growing vegetables as I watched and worked alongside several amazing mentor farmers. Now with City Grown, I am ready to apply that knowledge and extrapolate it to my own particular farming situation.
I am excited about our long-term goals and vision for our urban farm and also about the daily work and all the small steps that it will take to get us there. My dream is to someday make my living by growing vegetables, and this year is an important one in my journey of figuring out how to make that happen. I’m pleased to have this blog as a forum to get my ideas, joys, frustrations, and questions out of my head and shared with a wider audience. Thanks for reading! Here’s to a great 2012!