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Discussion Starter #1
I have been pondering about this for a good year now. At the moment I am a furniture maker and an upholster. I have been doing this for over 30 years, started right out of high school. Well, actually I went to trade school first to learn the trade of upholstery, came home started my own business and went to college when business was slow and eventually earned a bachelors degree in business management. So here I am, not a spring chicken, but looking to do something different with the rest of my life.

I am seriously considering starting an organic market guarding business. I have a good plot of land, unfortunately it is all wooded at this point, but I have the equipment and two strong sons and a willing wife to get a couple of acres cleared to begin with. Right now I am working on getting my dump truck in working order so I can get a road put in, that is proving to be more difficult than anything at this point, but well get through it eventually.

I guess I have made the decision mentally, but have yet to do so emotionally. I really want to get to work clearing land, but I am struggling with turning down work in my shop so I have time to do it.
But I am going to do it anyway. Well thats my pondering, would be interesting to hear from others who have been in my shoes, or anyone who would like to send a word of advice my way would be appreciated.

Thanks
Mike.
 

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I would say the first thing to check out was whether there was a market reasonably handy for organic food.?
 

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Good point Red Kiwi: Local farmers markets are very busy here year round. Farm stands on the side of the road are also popular in season. There is a good mix of non organic and organic where vegetables are concerned, grass fed beef and raw milk tend to be mostly organic. Vermont, where I live, is famous for its maple syrup, so I am also considering producing that as well, but plan on starting small and growing into the maple syrup in time. We have a lot of foodies here and no shortage of restaurants to serve them which may offer good sales opportunity, but I think I would like to stick to the farmers market and a road side stand to begin with, maybe a small CSA list also.
 

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Sounds like an ideal area. Is there any problems with people not paying for their produce off the roadside stands.? I know it's quite a problem here.
 

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Are you going to put your upholstery shop nearer the road and sell the vege's on the side? Gotta have something to do when there are no customers. Yes diversification helps keep a business thriving.
 

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Discussion Starter #6 (Edited)
Sounds like an ideal area. Is there any problems with people not paying for their produce off the roadside stands.? I know it's quite a problem here.
I don't know, where I buy raw milk it is a serve your self honer system, I have often wondered if people were as honest as I am, my suspicion is probably not, but something worth looking into.

Are you going to put your upholstery shop nearer the road and sell the vege's on the side? Gotta have something to do when there are no customers. Yes diversification helps keep a business thriving.
I am totally undecided, right now. In Vermont I would have around six months of down time, if I dont get into off season growing, so maybe just a little tweaking of how I run the shop the two might compliment each other nicely. I also can see how off season growing with a green house and possibly maple sugaring thrown in could leave little time for running the upholstery and woodworking shop.

This summer I have been working on clearing some land on my property. I have a power line easement that runs through it, about 3 aches worth and that is where I have started. I can't build any structures in the easement, but I can grow crops their. There are no trees in the easement, but let me tell you about the rocks! There used to be an old stone wall where I am clearing, I also think when they put the easement in they bulldozed up to that stone wall, over the years sod has built up and brush grown over it all. What a mess. I started clearing the brush last fall and all this year I have been picking rock, mostly huge rock, stuff I can hardly lift and up. My wife, bless her soul has been ever at my side and my poor little Kubota. Now when I drive around Vermont and look at all those pretty meadows I have a new appreciation for the work that went into creating them.
 

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Time to get a bull dozer with a root rake?
 

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I guess I have made the decision mentally, but have yet to do so emotionally. I really want to get to work clearing land, but I am struggling with turning down work in my shop so I have time to do it.
But I am going to do it anyway. Well thats my pondering, would be interesting to hear from others who have been in my shoes, or anyone who would like to send a word of advice my way would be appreciated.

Thanks
Mike.
I have been part way down this road. My wife and I had an organic market garden operation from about 1996 - 2000. I don't claim to any special insight, but I'll share my experience if you would like. I started to just lay it all out, but it was getting very long, so I'll outline it and you can ask for more info or we can email offline, or whatever if you're interested.

Having said that, here are the things we ran into:

1. Markets. No point in growing what you can't sell. Markets have to come first, but they'll make you tear out whatever hair you have left.

2. Organic insanity. We started before the USDA got involved and were certified by OEFFA. We dropped it at that point. Much hassle and craziness.

3. Farmer's markets are fun, but I didn't find them profitable or even practical.

4. Infrastructure. There's a lot more to it than cleared land, you need all kinds of equipment, fences, water, processing/weighing/packing etc.

5. Transportation. Unless you're only going to sell right off your doorstep, you're going to have to move large volumes of relatively low margin goods. We started out with a pickup, added a trailer, built a kind of cap for the pickup, and still not enough capacity. I went back to the spreadsheet and figured out we were going to need to acquire a semi. It's like rocket engineering, the bigger the rocket the more fuel it can carry but the more fuel it takes...

OK, that's still pretty long, but you get the picture. You've got one big thing going for you: we started our family at the same time, and that does not work. It sounds like you're older and better set up, that should help.
 

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Discussion Starter #9 (Edited)
Thank you Random: I sure do know all about writhing long post only to go back and just outline it LOL. You make some really good points and I have thought about them as well.
1. Markets. No point in growing what you can't sell. Markets have to come first, but they'll make you tear out whatever hair you have left.
I have experience with markets, or trade shows for my woodworking, what sells today, is old news tomorrow, with no way to know what will be popular tomorrow. It's a roll of the dice, but woodworking products are not perishable, so you can hold on to them and hopefully sell at a later date, not so much with cucumbers!

2. Organic insanity. We started before the USDA got involved and were certified by OEFFA. We dropped it at that point. Much hassle and craziness.
Unfortunately USDA certification for organic is a joke. But I am sure you already know that. The stuff they allow to be used is unbelievable. I do not plan on being USDA certified, my standards are much higher that that, how the customer will perceive that I don't know, might be worth doing some research.

3. Farmer's markets are fun, but I didn't find them profitable or even practical.
That's not what I expected to hear, The farmers markets around here are very busy and the same farmers keep coming back. Could you give some reasons why?
4. Infrastructure. There's a lot more to it than cleared land, you need all kinds of equipment, fences, water, processing/weighing/packing etc.
Yea I know, one of the reason I'm thinking it all through and asking questions and looking for advice.
5. Transportation. Unless you're only going to sell right off your doorstep, you're going to have to move large volumes of relatively low margin goods. We started out with a pickup, added a trailer, built a kind of cap for the pickup, and still not enough capacity. I went back to the spreadsheet and figured out we were going to need to acquire a semi. It's like rocket engineering, the bigger the rocket the more fuel it can carry but the more fuel it takes...
Were you wholesaling? I couldn't imagining needing a semi! But then again I'm not even a nub yet.

OK, that's still pretty long, but you get the picture. You've got one big thing going for you: we started our family at the same time, and that does not work. It sounds like you're older and better set up, that should help.
Yea I'm on the older side, my kids are all grown, excited and willing to help, but you know how kids are, even grown ones, LOL. I think the huge factor is I don't have to live off the venture, and I'm not looking to borrow money to do it. That being said, I'm not looking for an expensive hobby either, so I would like it to be profitable enough to make it worth my while. I would be very interested in any other advice, if you would like to email I would be glad to hear from you.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Willy: A root ripper would be great. I have an international 175, be nice to find one for it. I have used it a little, unfortunately the spot I have been working on is a little small the the 175. The 175 is real good at wholesale destruction, kind of like using a sledgehammer to drive a finish nail. LOL.
 

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...or trade shows for my woodworking, what sells today, is old news tomorrow, with no way to know what will be popular tomorrow. It's a roll of the dice, but woodworking products are not perishable, so you can hold on to them and hopefully sell at a later date, not so much with cucumbers!
Ha! So true. One year I raised about a thousand pounds of cucumbers and sold about ten pounds. I fed them to the horses and chickens until even they wouldn't eat them anymore, gave them away to the neighbors, made pickles, and finally dumped hundreds of pounds over the hill by the wheel barrow load.

That's not what I expected to hear, The farmers markets around here are very busy and the same farmers keep coming back. Could you give some reasons why?
Yea I know, one of the reason I'm thinking it all through and asking questions and looking for advice.
Were you wholesaling? I couldn't imagining needing a semi! But then again I'm not even a nub yet.
One thing that may have changed in 20 years is that farmer's markets may have become more common and more popular -- or it might be different in Vermont.

Two most common remarks heard at the Farmer's Market: "That's a good tomato!" (samples! samples sell) "Heck, this stuff isn't that much cheaper than the grocery store!"

Let's see if I can kind of sum this up without getting into too much crazy detail.

We couldn't sell right off the farm because we weren't home enough and we were at the end of a long dead end road. You might be able to do that...

We never got around to trying CSA largely because we felt that we couldn't produce consistently enough to keep people happy. We discussed maybe getting a group of similar growers together to support a CSA. Also, most customers we talked to had never heard of the idea.

Farmer's markets were hard to get into and the customers were very price conscious. They required very large commitments of time (be there on time, all the time, every Saturday and Sunday, don't forget be up at 4am to pick and pack and drive and setup) Once we had divided our sales by our hours we were making sub-minimum wage for the time, and that didn't count anything to cover costs or time spent growing the stuff in the first place. (But it was fun and probably a good marketing exercise.)

Yes, we did sell wholesale on a small scale, and that was our best strategy. Unfortunately the big guys won't buy from you and the small ones tend to order inconsistently or go out of business and, of course, they would really prefer to have a year round source of consistent product. I don't blame them, but that's a tough trick in a temperate climate.

I guess this is the heart of it:

Your local conditions will dictate what you can do. I'd look for local advice and experiences. I'm pretty sure Vermont has some great organizations, something similar to OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association)

I think you're on the right track with a stand on your place and the CSA.

Balancing production and sales is a tricky game.

Try running some business cases. Even basic ones, say you want to make $10,000, how much can you sell, say tomatoes (our biggest crop) for, $2 a pound? $3. OK, So how much of that is net? (That part will be hard to figure out until you do it.) I'll make a wild guess and say 50 cents. OK, you need to sell twenty thousand pounds of tomatoes. To sell 20,000 pounds you'll need to grow more than that, since there are losses of various kinds so add another ten percent or so. (coincidentally our best year was right around that, 11 tons). Then start asking questions:

"how many plants of what varieties to grow that much?"
"If there are twenty pounds to a box, that's a thousand boxes, and my truck will hold how many boxes at a time?" (Mine held about 24 if I remember right.)
"How many does it need to hold since I'm spreading the harvest and sale over several weeks or even a month or two?"
"Where am I going to get boxes? And how much do they cost?"
"What will I do with the spoliage?"
"How many pounds does the typical customer buy? How many customers am I going to need then?"

and so on...

An idea I never got around to following through on; ask a farmer at one of the markets how many pounds of cucumbers or tomatoes or whatever they bring to the market each day. Or, sit and watch a prosperous looking vendor for an hour or two and make a note of how much of what they sell, how many pounds the average customer buys, etc.


I would be very interested in any other advice, if you would like to email I would be glad to hear from you.
I don't know if my ruminations amount to advice, but I'm happy to share my opinions and experience. Your mileage may vary. I'm not sure whether anyone else is interested or what the protocol / standard is in this neighborhood for "time to take it to email". Probably someone will tell me to desist.

-- John
 

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One must build a good relationship with customers and that requires patience. A seller can have politicies and practices but he must have some flexibility. Take time to get to know regular customers. One's best recommendations will be by word of mouth. We have seen lots of new vendors come and go over the last 12-15 years. Many quickly fault customers or the market itself for their lack of business and seek to change established practices governed by market rules. One has to find their own way and appeal to customers. It's not rocket science. It is almost easier to grow and gather the produce as long as the weather cooperates than often trying to sell the produce. Growing it only requires your experience. Selling requires other people to participate, and that is the unpredictable part.
 
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Thanks John: Actually I think the food market has changed considerably in the last 20 years. Today the people I know are more aware of what is in their food, especially Glyphosate and GMO's. The lack of labeling, or the fight against it is also driving peoples distrust in mass produced and processed foods. At the Farmers Market prices for raw milk are at least double whats in the grocery store, meats at least 30% more than the grocery store, vegetables, I'm not sure about since I grow all my own, I probably should look into that. It sounds like your operation was much larger than I plan on having, at least to start out. I plan on starting small and easing into it, letting the market tell me just what to produce and hopefully point me in the direction of unfulfilled niche markets. Things may be different here in Vermont, I'd like to think not, but it's certainly a possibility.

Jim: I agree 100% Vermont is just to small to operate any other way, word of mouth and good customer relations are a must, word spreads like wildfire and it had better good.
It's not rocket science. It is almost easier to grow and gather the produce as long as the weather cooperates than often trying to sell the produce. Growing it only requires your experience. Selling requires other people to participate, and that is the unpredictable part.
Vert much the same thing with building furniture, the easy part in building it, selling it is a whole different matter.
 
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