Farm School Weeks Four and Five: The Best Fertilizer Is a Strong Marketing Plan

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What did I expect when I set off to farm for eight months in Washington’s Puget Sound? Let me paint you a picture. I imagined walking through the dewy fields at sunrise admiring the rapid growth of plants in their infancy. I imagined spending afternoons between rows of garlic and onions, hoe in my hand and straw hat on my head. I imagined loosening the ground with a garden fork and excitedly pulling carrots from the rich earth. What I didn’t imagine was this: long mornings spent sitting in a stuffy classroom crunching numbers, editing newsletters, and designing a marketing plan.

This is what the reality has been for the past two weeks. I had romanticized all of the wonders of working the land and growing food for a community of people, yet I hadn’t spent one moment daydreaming about all of the hours I would spend making sure that there was a way get that food to the people. Staring at a computer screen and doing office work was one of the last things I had imagined doing, but here I am: face to the screen with my fingers tapping on the keypad when they yearn to be digging in the dirt.

The reality is that farmers need to make money. Farming is a business, and even though there is not one drop of creativity or nurturing energy in an Excel spreadsheet, if you want to be successful farmer, it might be a good idea to learn how to use one. (Or hire someone to who knows how to use one; however, that in not in our budget.)

We are farming five acres at the Greenbank Farm. Three of those acres have been planted with a variety of cover crops, including red clover, vetch, oats, and rye grass. The other two acres are being planted with vegetables, mostly annuals. We are growing squash, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, beets, potatoes, and about twenty other tasty vegetables, along with some herbs and cut flowers, so we sure as heck better find someone to buy and eat them.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that we need a way to move our veggies. Our strategy is to sell our produce in a variety of ways. We have a 50 member CSA. However, I should clarify that we hope to have a 50 member CSA. When we started our program in March, we only had two members. As of now, we have a few more, but we are still several dozen members away from meeting our 50-member goal. We have also set up several wholesale accounts. The Goose and the Star Store, two grocery stores on Whidbey Island, have committed to buying head lettuce, along with a few other crops, from us to sell in their produce aisles. Whidbey General Hospital has committed to buy radishes and lettuce from us. (Isn’t is refreshing to think that a hospital is going to serve healthy, organically grown salad in its cafeteria – a revolution is beginning; down with the pudding cups!) And, of course, we always have the farmers’ market. We will be selling our produce at the Greenbank Farmers’ Market on Sundays from May through October. (As a side note: I love farmers’ markets. Not only are they an excellent way to interact with your community, but they also offer a wide array of choices for some of the freshest produce around.)

It is comforting to know we have set up a variety of markets for our produce, but the next pressing issue is customers. Who are they? Where do they live? What do they want? What can we offer them? And how do we get them to support us?

We are growing fresh, organically grown food. We are offering customers an opportunity to eat with the seasons. We are offering them the chance to support the agricultural heritage of Whidbey Island and support the growth of young farmers. (What could be better than this?!) These are the selling points that we have spilled hours of sweat and tears over. We know what we can offer customers. We know we will have a great product that should be able to sell itself. We know that there are people out there who would love the experience of being part of a CSA.

However, we also know that if we don’t find customers to support us, there won’t be bread on the table, and, more importantly, we won’t be on our way to becoming a self-sustaining farm and a financially stable training center.

Posters. Brochures. Tabling. Facebook. (Become a Fan!) T-shirts. Newspaper ads. And, hopefully soon, a website. This is where we hope to find our customers. This is what we have been doing for the past two weeks:

As I write this, the posters have all been tacked to community events boards, and the brochures have been distributed to local business. Our Facebook page is gaining fans. And we are waiting … in the greenhouse, and the field, and between the bed of spinach and peas, which are now coming up.

Although the past two weeks were not spent in a straw hat and overalls under the sun, and although I am still fifty-eight days (roughly) away from digging a fresh carrot from the earth, I know the indoor work will be worth it. I may not have been drawn to farming because of my desire to become an entrepreneur, but it’s part of the gig, and, for the time being, I am going to say it is worth it. I’ve armed myself with a hoe and a laptop, and let’s pray it’s worth it.