Most people start farms because they love farming, not because they love running a business. Fortunately I enjoy running a business, and Jake loves chatting with customers. Unfortunately neither of us had any particular skill in gaining new customers.
In the beginning we courted restaurants then had frustrating relationships with their chefs, we had a dismal CSA retention rate (just over 20% from year 1 to 2, and that's counting Jake's parents!), and a "good" day at farmers market grossed about $200. Going into our fourth year I put most of my winter planning efforts into marketing and am so relieved to say that those original numbers have changed quite a bit. This year we opened our CSA to returning members on January 1 and sold out of our 100 member Spring share by January 2! We regularly have a 80% - 90% overall CSA retention rate, our farmers market stand grosses an average of $2,000 per week, and our wholesale customers are consistent, dedicated, and a joy to work with. These numbers are more than I could have hoped for when we started out, and I have a couple of key resources to thank for it.
Last winter I started writing about each step of Hippo Camp (our annual business review process), then lost steam as the pandemic hit Vermont. I'm picking up a year later with Step 7: Crop Plan, but rather than do a deep dive into crop planning (because there are so many great resources out there already), I'm going to give an overview of WHY the plan flows from review, to goals, to budget, to marketing plan, to crop plan and beyond. In case you are following along and creating a plan for your own business, I'll pop in a few resources (including links to the previous steps) and personal anecdotes along the way.
First I want to thank each of you for the support that you've shown me this year, both in this project and in life in general. It has meant a whole lot. I want to acknowledge that support, and fill you in on why I've been quieter lately, and how I'm feeling about moving forward.
This year I've had a hard time imagining how Habit Farming fit into my 2020 reality. I had a million ideas for what to write about/share, and yet none of it felt important enough to put into the world. I felt, instead, like I needed to spend the summer focused on keeping our business up and running, and keeping myself healthy, both physically and mentally. I also felt like this wasn't the summer to put my own voice into the world, opting instead to follow, listen, and support other voices in the farming community, specifically BIPOC and LGBTQ farming voices. In practice that meant tuning into podcasts and live Q and A's, learning about other farming models in our state, and donating 25% of each month of my Patreon income to a BIPOC farming/farm related business or individual. I will admit that I felt I should have been spending more time and money on these efforts, it just wasn't in the cards in a season where I was pregnant and catching up with/running a business that effectively doubled in size from March to May. That said, my hope is that maintaining that level of attention and support over time, rather than giving it one big shout out and donation while the topic is hot, will have a more lasting impact on the future of this conversation of equity, reparations, and the future of agriculture.
As I plan to continue to support those efforts, I also plan to bring Habit Farming back online. This effort may be rocky at first, as I am the proud new mother of a 5-week old baby, and as I am still unsure about including my voice in what feels like an important time to listen to and learn from other farmers. I'm hoping you all will continue to help guide this process, and keep me on track with what's helpful, important, and valuable to your farming careers. Please also let me know if I get off track, post or talk about something in an inappropriate or naïve way, or misrepresent people, places or facts in these posts.
Thank you so much and let's get back into it.
You know that feeling when you have a plan, and then something distracts you and all of a sudden it's six months later before you realize that you completely fell off course? That's sort of how this summer has felt.
It's been a minute since I've posted here, and I apologize for it. Now that we're here, how are you? How's your farm? Your family? Doing well, I hope. We're doing alright, but yeesh this is hard. I've been swinging back and forth between feeling terrified for our business's future to awed and humbled by the outpouring of support for local agriculture. Mostly I've been unsure and overwhelmed, but me feeling shitty isn't what I wanted to talk about today.
Most people who start farms do so because they enjoy growing food, working outside, or creating with their hands. Most aren't in it to sell stuff. The problem with that is that we need to sell stuff in order to create a business rather than a large, exhausting hobby. It takes a lot of bunches of kale to pay a mortgage, people!
Making a marketing plan to help sell those kale bunches can be an even harder ask on a farmer. It makes sense to build a budget and crop plan, but a marketing plan? When I read "Marketing Plan" it evokes thoughts of designing brochures, sending weekly emails that will get passed over or deleted, and giving away free things to convince people to sign up for my CSA. I've tried those things and they haven't worked for me, maybe because I did them halfheartedly and ineffectively. Or maybe because I was sending them to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way. Instead of telling you how to create an effective email marketing plan, today we're going to do an exercise like we did with our "Ideal Farm". In this step we're going to dream up our "Ideal Customer". Then we're going to sell them kale.
It's all fun and games until numbers get involved. So far we've dreamt up a gorgeous life for ourselves and we've figured out how much that gorgeous life is going to cost us. We have also thought up what our ideal farm looks like and why, and all those warm and fuzzies should be floating around inside all of us, waiting to motivate us to make it happen. Before we get going here, I want you to hold onto that feeling. This step is not about looking longingly at those goals as we progressively squash them to pieces under the weight of seed costs, limited markets, and employee wages. Instead this step is about fighting for our dream life and thinking creatively about our businesses until they mold themselves into and around our hopes for the future. Let's try to take that conventional doom and gloom feeling around the term "budgeting", and morph it into a tool like any other. It's not here to bite you, your budget is here to help you. I promise.
I started writing about Hippo Camp as a way to share our annual business review. As I've talked with farmers who are following along with Hippo Camp I've realized that for many people an annual review is a brand new exercise. (So exciting!) This process has been an essential piece of Jake's and my business, and acts as an annual check-in to see where we're at. However, that implies that we're checking in based on something that was previously defined. I feel I've done some of you a disservice in that I haven't shared more about the role of Hippo Camp in relation to our bigger goals, so let's get to that today.
This step is super simple, and super fun. Or should be anyway. In this step we're going to make a wish list for your coming season. You're going to write down every infrastructure, equipment, and tool investment that will help you address your Disappointments, and help you reach your Goals.
If you've read the intro to Step 4, you know I'm passionate about personal budgets. Which means that even though I'm not looking over your shoulder, I want you to imagine that I AM looking over your shoulder. I want you to take this step dangerously seriously. I want you to understand your finances, look your student loans in the eye, and tell the world how much money you spend on streaming subscriptions, or fancy chocolate bars, or that gym that you keep meaning to go to. I don't want you to stop buying that chocolate, but I do want to make sure you know how much money it costs, and I want you to decide if that's what you want to be spending your money on. Ready? Let's do it.