Say you have a good market stream, but you’re considering of adding one or two more. Maybe you thought about selling to independent grocery stores in your area. If it’s something on your mind, then this episode is for you.
Today, we’re talking to Bob Close who has a history of working as a produce manager in a grocery store, and that lends him a unique view of selling his own produce to grocery stores. We’ll talk about that in this episode.
Today’s Guest: Bob Close
Bob Close is the founder and farmer of Stafford River Farms. Formerly a produce manager in a grocery store, he now works are Caltrans full-time while also managing a farm on the side. Because of his background, he has really helpful insights about how he can sell and market his own produce to grocery stores.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Diego introduces the episode’s guest, Bob Close (00:25)
- The transition from hobby growing to market gardening (01:48)
- The realities of switching from gardening to production (03:12)
- What made succession planning a little easier (04:08)
- Comparing the daily work at Caltrans and farming (05:02)
- Farming on the side and how well it fits into Bob’s context (06:45)
- The longer term plan for farming (07:42)
- Aggregating the different income streams (09:35)
- Approaching the business and the finances on the time scale (10:52)
- Given Bob’s context, are multiple streams of income needed or can vegetables be scaled enough to not need anything else? (13:10)
- Why only vegetables will not work in Bob’s context (14:42)
- Bob’s current market outlets (17:46)
- Are you still fine-tuning your market? (19:49)
- From the perspective of a produce manager, what do grocery stores look for in local growers? (20:32)
- Advice for farmers who want to approach grocery selling (22:36)
- The approach of giving the product for free (24:52)
- Improving displays to improve product visibility (26:43)
- Standing out in the shelves (27:46)
- Being physically visible with your produce (29:34)
- Customers’ warm responses (30:48)
- Approaching prices at grocery stores compared to cheaper imported products (32:48)
- Seasonality of product variations and offerings (36:45)
- Selling to grocery stores and guaranteed sales (37:44)
- De-risking a model that credits back unbought products (36:16)
- Stick with the independent stores or go to the big stores? (41:50)
- Approaching food safety as a local grower selling to grocery stores (43:56)
- Expectations of income stream when it comes to selling to grocery stores (45:52)
- Reaching to people who you can potentially sell to (48:48)
- Looking back at the leap into farming (50:32)
- Doing something you love and doing something you enjoy (51:46)
- Artificial lighting to keep up with the production (53:46)
- Closing remarks and where to find Bob and Stafford River Farms (55:38)
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Diego: [00:00:00] Say you want to sell your product to a local grocery store. What do they value? What do they find important? Who better to ask than somebody who used to be a produce manager at a local grocery store. And they're now a farmer. Stay tuned to get their perspective on selling the grocery stores. Coming up.
Welcome to the world of farming small and farming smart. I'm your host, Diego. Today, we're going to Northern California up near Humboldt to talk to Bob close, who runs Stafford river farm. Farming's a side hustle for Bob. It's something that he does in addition to working his full-time job with Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation.
Bob got into farming because he enjoys the lifestyle. And it's something that he's looking to do on more of a full-time basis in the long term. But in the meantime, he has to balance both the farm and the full-time job. So today, in this episode, he's going to talk a lot about that, what it's like to do both. And he's also going to talk about his experience selling to local grocery stores up in the Stafford River Valley.
And he has a really unique perspective in selling to grocery stores because he used to be the produce manager at a grocery store. And he's been able to use that experience as a produce manager to help him now as a farmer. when he sells to those same types of stores that he used to work at. The farmer-produce manager perspectives are really unique ones, so if you're interested in selling to grocery stores or if you've tried in the past but haven't had great results, there's probably some good information in this one to help you out.
Let's jump right into it. With Bob close of Stafford River farm.
Bob, you sent me an email and you talked about transitioning from growing food yourself into the market gardening model. Can you take me back to the time during that process when you guys decided let's do this for production, let's do this for money. Let's turn this into something that we can cash flow.
Bob Close: [00:02:09] What had happened was, we have a little bit less than an acre here. And, we've been growing our own fruits and vegetables and raising chickens here for ourself for years. And then, in 2016, the neighboring property came up for sell and it has an acre and a quarter. One of the challenges that we have is we have very small air pockets of sunshine, where we're fighting Redwood trees and mountains and the other property, had nice open areas, a nice orchard and two rentals on it.
And so when that came up for sale, we decided, we'd probably better acquire it. We've lived here for 27 years and had never been on the market before. So then after we had it, we were trying to figure out what do we do with it? And, as I started listening to your podcasts, the wheels started spinning and the next thing I thought, I was looking at grocery stores here locally and are independent, and didn't see anybody selling any local greens. So we thought, Hey, let's try giving that a try. And that was how we ended up into the green side of things.
Diego: [00:03:06] Now doing it for production and coming from a production for yourselves, call it a gardening model, what was the reality like of making that switch from gardening to production? I'm always fascinated by what people think it's going to be like and then what it actually turns out to be like for them.
Bob Close: [00:03:23] The big one was getting down succession planning and ensuring that you could have product on a weekly basis so that you could provide some type of consistency for your customers.
At the beginning, we were hitting this, we'd have a week and then you'd have a week that you wouldn't have anything you needed to have people asking. And, just knowing that something important is being able to have that product there on a weekly basis for the entire season. And that one, when we were going for ourselves, you just plant things up in your harvest and when they're ready and maybe a plant some more in the middle that you're not worried about ensuring that production. That was probably our biggest challenge.
Diego: [00:04:00] Has there been anything that's really helped you get better at succession planning? Is there anything that just suddenly clicked? And it's Oh, if we think about it this way, or if we do things this way, it tends to work better than a more haphazard approach?
Bob Close: [00:04:13] Starting out, I ended up listening or reading a Curtis Stone's book and he has some, spreadsheets that were helpful.
And then once you, by having that initial tool and that information, and then starting to plan it out so that you can be sure that you're planting consistently. The one thing you start realizing is that you can't take a day off because. If you work, you don't do today, you don't necessarily notice the consequences of not doing that work four weeks from now, you're not going to have products that you need to have.
Diego: [00:04:51] If I think about if I ever did this, one thing I know I'd have a struggle with is just dealing with the succession planning and constantly staying on top of stuff. You came out of a different field before you got into farming, you were working with Caltrans, which is the California Department of Transportation. Coming out of that world into the farming world, how has that been if you compare the two doing that work with the day-to-day tasks of farming?
Bob Close: [00:05:19] I'm still working at Caltrans, so this is something that we do in addition to that. So I have a commute it's about 45 minutes from where I live. When I get home in the evening times, I work here on the farm. My wife helps it also, and then we spend our time on the weekends. Initially, my background was working in a grocery store. I was a butcher and I helped run the produce department in my family's grocery store for 20 years and decided to go back to college, finished college and the opportunity with Caltrans came up and I've been working there for 12 years now.
So it's one of those things that we're doing in addition to that. One thing that I find very rewarding with the farming side of things is to finally get to be outside. My whole life has been spent underneath fluorescent lights, whether it was in the grocery store or in an office. And you don't stay in touch with everything that�s going around you outside where now you start noticing everything like right now we've got the peach trees and the plum tree starting to bloom. And you can see the bees are starting to head North, but the grass is starting to grow quick. It's nice being in touch with what's going on outside around you.
Diego: [00:06:28] How have you managed farming on the side? Doing it nights and weekends. Has it been challenging or have you found that it works out well for the context of your life?
Bob Close: [00:06:42] It's been pretty challenging. My main job consumes about, between 50 and 55 hours a week from the time I leave till the time I get home. And the farm is probably another 20 hours. When you get tis time of the season, it's pushing probably up closer to 30 hours.
So your weeks get really long, but you just have to have that plan, and as you get tired and find it more difficult to keep moving, pushing forward, you just have that plan in front of you to keep reminding what it is that you've got to do. And eventually, the seasons change and things slow down and you get a rest and you start planning to get ready to do it over again.
Diego: [00:07:22] How do you view the farm in comparison to the work you do for Caltrans? Is that a job that. You want to be done with, and this is a transition plan. Is this a pure part-time thing and you're okay with that? What's the bigger picture goal, because this is another place I think a lot of people find themselves in. They work at one job, start farming on the side. And if you're not really clear about what you're trying to do with that thing on the side, it can make life really tough. What's your plan for all this?
Bob Close: [00:07:55] When I turned 50, I started realizing that the road ahead of me�s shorter than the road behind me and that it's probably important to start focusing my energy on doing the things that I really want to do and be in the place that I really want to be.
And here in Stafford, it's, a pretty unique area. We have a nice little microclimate we're on the river. For me, it's just a place that makes me extremely happy. I got thinking, I gotta try to figure out how I can spend more time here now. With the other piece of property we're looking at, trying to figure out based on the resources that it has, what can we do to generate income?
It's a smaller piece of property being an acre and a quarter. So we know that we're going to need to do something else besides just being able to farm it, to generate income. And so we're looking at a few different streams of income being, doing the farming. It also has an orchard with about 30 trees. So we're looking at doing something with the work side of things, as we get the farming more settled in, and then it has two rentals.
And so between the incomes from all of them, we see that as being able to combine with the pension that we get from my state job, to be able to combine those, to make the switch, to be able to work here full time.
Diego: [00:09:09] I�ve talked to a few farmers who have had rental properties on their farm or where they live. And I think it really helps because it's all an aggregation of income streams to make one total income to support everything.
And is that one of the main motivations for getting that property? Was that an extra bonus of purchasing it, the fact that it did have those rentals?
Bob Close: [00:09:30] So rentals were definitely a bonus and financially, makes everything work. The initial the big thing was that we just needed to be able to tell our neighbors we're going to be the last, the, there had been people that lived there for years and then the wife passed away and their nephew bought the house from them and turned it into a rental.
And we had renters there that we just wanted to control who was going to be our neighbors the next time. And so this was one way we thought of doing it. And then on top of that, the idea of the rentals being able to finance it, us having the extra space. And that side of the property gets lots of sunshine where our side of the property, as I said, is, tends to be a little bit more shaded.
And so it just provided us a lot of opportunity and it was the only direction that we could expand our property of any kind of size.
Diego: [00:10:23] So knowing that you have that property, your property, you have the pension, you have the rental income, the farm's going to make up the difference. How do you approach or have you thought about time as a factor of this, meaning, you can try and accelerate the growth of the farm very quickly and bring the farm up to income to close that I'll call it the income gap fast, but that requires maybe a lot of capital expenditure, maybe a lot of extra time on the farm, or you could have a five-year plan where it's okay, we're going to start here, but by the year X, we want to be at a certain point with this income stream.
Given that you have to develop these other streams, the orchard, and then what you're doing with the vege. How have you approached those enterprises on a timescale?
Bob Close: [00:11:21] What we're looking at, ultimately as three to five years, we're looking at three years, we want to have the farm fully built out. And, within five years, start utilizing the orchard and have all the pieces of the puzzle produce in between the rentals and the farm and the orchard.
Last year we, things took off really quickly for us. So this year I started out initially thinking that, we just need to double what we did last year. And then I just found out that my oldest daughter is going to have a baby. So we're going to be first time grandparents. And all of a sudden that kind of put a shift a little bit on how fast we're going to expand this year.
I know we're still going to expand at least by 50%, but I'm thinking that maybe I need to not push it so hard since it is something we do in addition to a regular, a full-time job and, maybe slow it down a little bit. And the other piece that we're looking at is we're doing a remodel on one of the houses.
And so I'm thinking that I need to focus a little bit more attention this year onto the one rental because of the chunk of change that it'll generate on a monthly basis and expand the farm on a little bit slower basis. And then I think that by next year, we'll have the farm fully built out.
Diego: [00:12:34] When you look at what you have to work with, you have an acre and a half, so there's some orchard on there. So there's obviously less than that for vege. That could be a potentially a lot and provide a full-time income in certain areas. Given that you're in Northern California, you're near Humboldt. What do you think is the potential for the land that you have to work with in terms of vegetable production? Do you need the multiple streams of income to make it work, or could you potentially scale the vegetables enough given your local market to have the vegetables be the one and only thing?
Bob Close: [00:13:14] I don't think the vegetables could be the one thing for us based on the amount of space we have I think when everything's done, we're going to have about 80 25 foot beds. And so that's what we're going to have to basically work with to generate. farm production.
The orchard we've got to work on that and figure out how it is that we plan on doing that. It's mostly apples. And so I don't know, the best way to utilize that is just going to be selling apples. I think it's going to have to be something that we can find to add value to whether it ends up being ciders or a cottage kitchen license, and also doing baked goods with it. But I think it is going to cover things on a small enough scale that it's going to take a few different income streams to make the whole thing work.
Diego: [00:13:59] Why don't you think you could do it off just vege? And I ask because I think there's maybe something there and a lot of people might want to force the issue and do it all off of veg when they might not be able to given their context, their market. Why don't you think veggie would work for you?
Bob Close: [00:14:20] Just the basic numbers. If you take 80 beds and you multiply that out by how much you think you could generate per bed per year, I just think the money wise we need to turn more dollars than that with generates.
Diego: [00:14:32] Got it. And you can only probably push so much into the local market too, I'm assuming that's a factor?
Bob Close: [00:14:39] I don't know if that's so much a factor as it is the amount that we can produce. One thing I noticed last year was we started out and I would plant some arugula and I'd plant some red Russian kale and some lettuce and spinach and then we'd go and we'd mix it with, get our orders and start packaging up what we had.
And then when it comes time to mix the salad greens, we would have things that would be ratios would be out of balance. So like maybe you've got a few pounds, five pounds too much mizuna this week. And you're not going to do anything with it except we'll feed it to the chickens because you didn't need that much.
I was watching on Instagram and Connor Crickmore had a photograph on there of this basket he had with little containers that had seeds in it, and some of them were marked L some were M, and there was S and K. And I was thinking initially that the M had to be mizuna, but there was far too many of them in the ratio that he had there.
And I got looking and it was a mix of seeds I thought, Oh, that makes complete sense. So we ended up going and focusing on kind of reducing the amount of which products we are offering, being packaged. Arugula is a slow seller for us, and so I thought, maybe that's a good one to drop off.
So we stopped doing packaged arugula, and I started mixing up the seeds and the ratio that we would need to get us to the mix that we wanted in terms of arugula, kale, a mizuna. And tap soil and the seed side at all. They're all very similar in seed size and growth patterns. So we just go in, we would plant, a bed of in these ratios and you can just scale it from there would be a bed of spinach, a bed that was half spinach and half kale, and then a bed of a mesclun mix and two beds of lettuce. And that combination would give me about 50 pounds.
And so if we want to double that, then you could double bat to start to increase the production. What was important for us is not having a large area, is that we had to be very efficient and everything that we're producing. That way, we're trying to eliminate waste as much as possible so that we can sell all of the products that we generate.
Diego: [00:16:53] And what are your current outlets right now in terms of moving that product?
Bob Close: [00:16:56] We finished off last season with five grocery stores, local independent stores, and selling direct to people. We were able to produce until the third week of November this year. And then regeneration growth was in growth rates just slowed down so much that it, we weren't able to supply product on a weekly basis.
So we just told everybody we're going to take a break. And we just started back up the second week of January. Right now, production is not at where we were at the last summer, but it's very close now. And so I started out with two grocery stores. And the stores have commented that they're willing to carry only our product and to get rid of the product off the market that they normally purchase. So I'm starting to think that we may not have to do as many do all five of those grocery stores this year. That may be a couple of the slower ones, we can not deliver to and focus our energies on these other stores that are just carrying our product.
And then we're looking at expanding out direct sells in a couple of different ways. One thing we're looking at is starting up home delivery andwe're gonna deliver product straight to people's houses. And the other one is looking at the idea of working with businesses and having a drop.
For example, the business that my brother works at, he was talking to people in the office about it, and there's a number of people that, are interested in. So we're looking at the idea of, if you can get a group of a dozen people or something together, then you send out the list to them on a weekly basis or maybe do some type of a monthly subscription, like a month-long CSA and then drop product off to those people businesses as compared to going to the grocery stores.
Diego: [00:18:45] What would you say at this point you're still really fine tuning your market streams between selling to individuals, doing the business model, selling to grocery stores.
Bob Close: [00:18:55] Yeah. Everything's everything has to consistent, constantly be fine tuning. Last year we were delivering and harvesting twice a week. This year, right now, what we're doing is we're trying to harvest once a week. And so we're harvesting on Sundays. we have a walk-in cooler where we put the product in. We're able to wash and pack on Mondays and then deliver on Tuesdays. And we're going to see how that works out, doing once a week deliveries instead of twice a week, deliveries.
Diego: [00:19:22] What would you say based on your experience as a produce manager, grocery stores are looking for when they deal with a local producer and I mean, independent grocery store. So not a mega chain, not a Walmart, but somebody smaller?
Bob Close: [00:19:40] I think when I was in the grocery store, It was nice to see local product come in because people get excited about it. But it's gotta be something that's gotta be comparable. It's gotta be clean. It's got to look appealing to the eye. However, the price can be super crazy above anything else on the market.
One of the things that, we worked through with the grocery store was we started out with putting the selling the product in plastic bags. And what we found was with the plastic bags, being in the produce cases and getting handled, the air starts letting out of them and the bag gets compressed and it doesn't look attractive to your eye.
And then you see the product starts sitting. So we decided to try a clam shell. So we started out with a 32 ounce clam shell, which was too small on the greens, which is packed into it, increased to a 48 ounce. And we're now at a 64 ounce. And that seems like that's been what works out really well, as the product holds up nice.
And the other thing that we consistently get comments on is the length of time that the product lasts, where people make comments, where they, run to Costco and get a tub of greens and, within the week it's already starting to deteriorate and break down where they caught that when they buy grains from us, they forget a bag in the refrigerator and two weeks later it's still looks wonderful.
And you hear comments that people get up to three weeks with product. So they liked that idea of something being priced, comparable or even willing to pay a little bit higher price for it, but have something that's fresh, local and is going to last for them.
Diego: [00:21:16] So you've been on both sides of the coin here. You've been the person growing, selling into grocery store and you've been the manager. What advice would you have for farmers that want to approach a local independent about their product, given what you said, they value comparable quality. They value shelf life. If you're the farmer, how do you communicate that to an independent and how do you work with them using their system, terms they understand, things they want to hear, that type of thing?
Bob Close: [00:21:54] One thing that was really a big help for us was taking the product in there. It's got a very nice-looking label on it. We were using a label printer designer on labels. The labels look very attractive. The packaging looks very good and I would bring him in a case.
I had one of the stores, the guy was hemming and hawing. I said, what I typically do is I give you the first case for free. If it doesn't sell, I'll pick it up and be on my way, but if it does work out and the product sells, then we can move forward doing business. His comment was, I really wasn't going to do it, but since you're going to give me the product for free anyways, I'll give it a try.
And so that was what enabled us to get into the door. And so everybody was happy to bring the product in when they don't have to pay for it. After that, I think the something that's extremely important is to, be consistent on a weekly basis. You can't go and have a grocery store expecting to have product come in and then.
You go in there and say, Oh, sorry, I'm short this week I'm not going to have products for you because then they've got a hole in their case. That's not generating income from them for them. And so they're just going to have to put something in there that happens a few times. You're going to find yourself in a position to where they're going to find, where they can get to the product consistently.
Diego: [00:23:07] for the bringing the product in and just giving that to them initially, is it, they just want to test it out and see how it works on their shelves, like actually really throw it out there, see how customers respond and then make a decision based off of that. Because otherwise they're trying to make a decision guessing how customers might respond and if you're selling it to them well, there's some financial risks.
Bob Close: [00:23:33] Yeah. And, because if they were to buy the case from you right off and it doesn't sell well, they're out the money and if it's, even if the $25 case of greens and you sold half of them, you've got to make a lot of profit to cover up for the loss on that.
If it's something that they get to try and then find out if they like it or not. If it didn't work out, I got lucky and every time we sell a product and they're sold and you'd come back in and they're like, Oh my gosh, people were like, excited about this. So that was real helpful.
But I think that that big thing is, giving them the opportunity to try it out without really any kind of risk for them. It's just a matter of, they've got to get up a little bit of space for you to be able to get it in the difficulty at the beginning is, sometimes the spaces aren't that great.
I had one store, I got a very small space in the back of a row of other pre-packaged solids. And so it was really small there. I noticed it in that section, they didn't have any kind of produce signs up there. The product was all packaged, but they didn't have signs. So coming out of the grocery store and I made the signs for a grocery store.
So I started making sure that I had signs on all of the displays and all of the stores. And so that way, at least it's drawing the attention to your product a little bit better, even if you're placing is not the best. And then once people get customers, get trying it, and then pretty soon things start changing and you're selling out of that and they started giving you more space and more space, and then starting to complain because they're at a, product's not selling and they're having to get rid of that. So it's nice how it, it consistently grew within the shelf space they had there.
Diego: [00:25:09] When you say you set up a display for your product, can you elaborate on what you did?
Bob Close: [00:25:13] So in terms of setting up the display, it's just a matter of the rows and the place, not on the shelf. What I did the first season, because I knew that the big goal was to be able to get product out there and find out how, receptive the public was to it.
And so I was offering the first year I offered guaranteed sale. And delivery twice a week. So I would come in on Tuesdays and see if there was anything that didn't look right. I would pull it out because I knew I wanted to have fresh product in the case. And if I was doing it myself, I knew that I was going to be able to control it and make sure that it always looked good.
If it's something that's in the back room, maybe the shelf didn't get filled out. And then, so just before you get there, they put it out and I wanted to be able to ensure that consistency for the customer, and that was one way I thought I could control it. So it's a matter of putting the rows in a way that they're visually attractive and fit nice within the area that you're provided.
Diego: [00:26:09] So you have so much linear space on the shelf. How do you stand out against a Earthbound, Taylor farms, somebody like that that's got a lot of money packages when you're the small farm, trying to convey that you're local and tell your story.
Bob Close: [00:26:25] Yeah. I think that making a product that looks professional and packaging, the clam shells. As I said, we've progressed through a variety of clam shells. We ended up on one that we're just getting ready to start using now this compostable but having a package that looks good. And then the labeling on it, also something that looks good. I make sure that was the areas of Humboldt that we live in is in New York called the old river Valley.
And so sure all the signs and on the labels, it says grown in the yellow river Valley and to help draw attention to it. I found these little round stickers that say locally grown that are fluorescent green. The labels that we generate are the it's the same label machine that Curtis is using. So it puts out those black and white labels that look very nice, but they don't have any kind of color in the pots. And so those little round green stickers is something that's very small that costs a fraction of a penny a piece, but they really make the product stand out and look nice.
Diego: [00:27:26] Do you have it labeled on your clamshells in such a way that if I'm looking at the shelf I see the labels looking back at me?
Bob Close: [00:27:36] Yeah. Everything with the clamshells that we're using. they typically get stacked too high and the rails going back might be four 60. And, so the client, the label was all facing up. And so you have a very good view of both of looking straight at the label.
Diego: [00:27:51] Got it. Have you found any stores that allow�I'll call it a postcard or like a three by five card that tells a little bit about your farm that people put on that little metal strip. I've seen it with eggs. I've seen it with some different meat products. Does that come into play in any of the stores you work with or when you were a produce manager? Did you guys ever did that?
Bob Close: [00:28:12] I never had anything like that from the locals when I was running the produce department, and I haven't noticed much of that for locals, but that is something that I've been thinking about it. And some type of�.to go out there with the sign to just convey that message, it's surprising how people start picking up on it.
And there's little things that I would do just to make sure that you're seen in the public. Like I would park a little bit further away from the store and then carry the product down the street to it. So that you're just having your you're being visible with the product on the street.
And it's funny, one of the small towns here. As I'm walking down the street, people say, Oh, you're that lettuce guy. I just want to say, thank you for bringing this product or a grocery store. And it's been really, exciting to see how happy people are, to be able to have the product available.
Diego: [00:29:00] Yeah, that's cool to hear. So it's really just fill out the shelf space. You have, make sure what you're putting on the shelf looks nice that includes. What's outside of the product and the product itself and just keep it regularly stocked and faced pull forward. So it's always there. And then from that point, it's just results will dictate your longevity in that store because if customers are buying it and they're buying less of something else, then theoretically, the manager of that department is going to want to add more of you and less of the other comp the other competitor.
Bob Close: [00:29:39] Exactly. I never expected the kind of people to respond the way that they responded. When I'd be filling up the produce case on the salads and the produce case. It's funny, you get people come up and start telling you a little stories. One lady was telling me that, she got her grandson to eat vegetables with her for the first time when they saw the greens there and they bought the greens and some vegetables and made up a salad and he ate it and liked it and, it's just I, it was stuff that I wasn't expected. You hear little stories, quite often almost on a weekly basis. And these kinds of things were also being communicated to the grocery store owners. And so when they see the customers happy and excited about that, then that's a huge help. At the end of last season when I had to go in and at the end of the season, I wrote out, thank you cards to the grocery stores to say, thanks for giving me the opportunity to supply their store and our customers a product.
And this is when we expect to be back in production again, and hopefully we can continue working together. And when I was handing those out, the common comment from the stores was we knew this was coming. We just didn't. We knew that you weren't going to be able to prove it produce all winter and we were dreading this happening, as soon as you get up and go in again, let us know.
Diego: [00:30:54] What have you found selling the grocery stores, and again, from your experience working as a manager, when it comes to price that a grocery store manager can pay for a product? How much above, let's say a cheaper mass-produced imported product, do you really think they can go to support local or better?
Is there a lot of wiggle room in there or do you still have to be pretty close to that other product I'll say regardless of quantity, because regardless of quality, because while the other product may not be as great, it's not terrible.
Bob Close: [00:31:35] Yeah. I think, last year we started out with the product practicing at two 99. That was basically off of, Curtis's model of four-ounce bags for $3 each or two for five. And so that kind of made it at the, basically that $3 mark. And that was what I had started out with. The problem that we had was that when we started, that was based off of using the plastic bag, which, cost you a few cents.
When we started moving into clamshell, those clamshells don't cost you 3 cents. They get very extensive. And all of a sudden you start looking at, for your package and labeling, you can get into 40, 50 cents. And so that took a huge chunk of took a big bite out of profit. This year, one of the things that I looked at was the idea of moving from a four ounce package to a five ounce package, which is more of the standard for the market.
And we increased the pricing to three 99 for a five ounce. That we came up with by looking at what some of the health food stores we seen charging for cent. There's another farm North of us. That's raising products. And, we saw one store. Their product was four 99 and it was four 29 and the other.
And so it seemed reasonable at the three 99. It seemed like a very fair price, both for us, for the grocery store and for the customer. And then from the grocery store perspective, we looked at. what we figured that they needed to be able to generate a profit wise and then made sure that worked out for a selling price. And they're running about, we have them run at about 38% markup on the product that we sell to them.
Diego: [00:33:10] And where does that put you in terms of your markup? Are you able to get that 38% or more?
Bob Close: [00:33:15] Yeah, so well for us, we sell packages to them and then we Mark it up 38% and then that makes three 99 retail for them.
Yeah. One of the other things that we noticed was market-wise, you have, within the grocery stores. I think you have a little bit different clientele than what you're going to have at the farmer's market. And I noticed the farmer's markets. You might have a mix of greens within there that have stronger flavors.
And one of the things that we're focusing on is, customers that aren't necessarily going to the farmer's market. Because I think there's a lot of people that either don't go for whatever reason or because they're working at that time. and so we're targeting that market, but along with that, we needed to find a blend of greens that had more of a balanced flavor so that you didn't have things that were, maybe too spicy or too bitter, too strong in flavoring.
And so we've narrowed that down to where we have, Restricted the number of greens that we have in there. And then we do the greens. I, we call it the salad greens, and then we have a lettuce blend. That's a mix of just the lettuces, because even the salad greens, for some people, they find the flavoring too strong.
But when with the lettuce blend, they're very happy with that. And then we just spinach and a smoothie blend, which is a mix of blend, a mix of Kevin spinach.
Diego: [00:34:37] Do you vary that at all? Seasonally? One given, let's say consumer demand and two, based upon what you can produce at a given time of year?
Bob Close: [00:34:47] Yeah. starting out right now. let, germination on spinach for us right now is not been very good. That's the one thing that's not hitting right now. So we're not selling smoothie blend. And we're right now just doing a lot of Splenda and, salad greens. And then as production increases, then we'll be able to add on those other products.
The one thing I noticed in the beds being that we plant a variety of seeds. all at one time for the greens that, different times a year, you might get something growing faster. Like maybe say the Amazon or the Cal might grow up faster and shade out the tap flow a little bit more. And maybe there's not as much tat soy, but when it's cooler, maybe that, the taps away is growing up nicer
Diego: [00:35:31] When it comes to grocery stores and the guaranteed sale, can you talk about that and how that's worked out for you? I'm assuming by that you mean you'll buy back product that they don't sell.
Bob Close: [00:35:44] Yeah. So what I would do is say it's Tuesday and I go into the grocery store and they've got some product on the shelf. Maybe a couple of the packages have started to wilt.
So I, pull those two packages and I deliver them, say, if I'm going to deliver them 24 packages on the invoice, I'd write it out 24 packages. And then I would have a credit of two packages. And then I would pick up those two and take them with me. And, I just wanted to do that because I knew getting in there for the first time I needed to get product out in front of the people.
And any liability that I could reduce for the grocery store would increase my opportunities for them being willing to let me bring the product in to get a feel for it. What started happening as time goes on is you just don't, the product turns really well and, you don't get very much rotation or, I don't have to pick up very many credits.
I had one store that their case, the temperature wasn't quite right, was starting to warm up because they were having issues with that. And all of a sudden, that starts making product melt within the packages. And so it's a matter of you guys would talk to the store and see their find a place where either to have them get there, the temperatures in the case, in a cooler space within the case, or just tell them it's not working out and you need to move on.
Diego: [00:37:01] If somebody was listening to this and they wanted to sell to grocery stores and they had to make the decision from day one, am I going to buy back product or not? The long term risk, or the big risk here is you're consistently buying back a bunch of product and that's going to cost you a lot of money because a small business isn't going to have, you're losing a lot of income doing that.
How do you try and de-risk that model as much as possible? I was talking to somebody else when it came to microgreens and they were doing something similar and they basically got a really good idea of how much each store was going to be using on a weekly basis and made sure to supply around that amount.
So if they know 20 cases are moving a week, they're giving them 20, not 40. What advice would you have? So somebody doesn't get really hurt going down this model of. Crediting back or buying back.
Bob Close: [00:37:59] Yeah, I think, being very, keeping records each week of, and knowing how much product are selling at each store is really important because you can't just go and fill the case full knowing that store is not going to sell that much product.
sometimes you can adjust how you have the packaging on the shelf to make it look like there's more product there than there actually is. If you know that store is not going to quite move enough to where with the space being completely stuffed full. other stores, they're going to sell almost everything that you put out there and they have made comments that they want more product, but at the same time, there's gotta be a balance with how much you're going to leave, because the more product you leave them, then the more credits are going to have to pick up.
If you're, willing to pick up the credits, then the store is going to want to try to push it to say, I don't want to ever have it. I want the cake full all the time. But, it's a matter of just having to commute, communicate with them, the idea that we've got to find a balance here, if I'm going to be picking up products, or if you want to have everything, stuffed full like that, then maybe we can work something out where we just do it by the case.
But, in terms of being able to, cover for yourself and make sure you're not picking something up, I think records are very important and, Making sure that you're rotating the product within the shelf when you're, whenever you're working it. sometimes, if you're bringing a new product in, you gotta make sure that goes to the back of the oldest product is up in the front where people are most likely to pick it up first.
Diego: [00:39:25] How do you think this model works with a larger grocery store, Albertsons Vons. Trader Joe. I know trader does it doesn't buy local, but whole foods, somebody like that, do you think a small farmer has an Inn at any of these or do you think you have to stick with the independence?
Bob Close: [00:39:44] I initially went with the independence because I knew I had, a better chance of getting into them.
and if I went to a big store the first year, I just didn't know where I was going to be with production. And. Not knowing if I would be able to provide them the service that they would want. I figured I needed to work on a smaller scale and get it under my belt. And then we can figure out where we're going to go from there.
We've looked at the idea of moving up into, larger stores now. And if that's to happen, I think what is necessary is that you just do a drop ship where, they want five cases of product you bring in five cases of product, and then that's their product. And, Maybe you end up having to work a little bit better on price, because there's, if you're gonna be picking stuff up, you're adding a little bit extra price to cover for that, but, yeah, I don't think that a guaranteed sale on a big slot would be the way to go.
And I think that there is a market, in the larger stores for small farms. It's just a matter of that. I think when you get into some of the bigger stores, if you got into a Safeway or something like that, they, may have, certifications that are, maybe after the gap certified or have some type of certification, to be able to sell in their stores for the bigger chains.
And I think that if you got maybe into a larger store, that's a small, maybe, a larger independent store, then you might have a, they wouldn't have those same types of expectations. If the large chains would.
Diego: [00:41:08] Yeah, that food safety issues. One, I was actually going to ask you about next. So I'm glad you brought it up. With how you currently sell, what do you have to do in terms of food safety when it comes to handling the product and, or labeling on the product?
Bob Close: [00:41:24] we have, California has Apple labeling requirements and so you have to design your labels around those requirements. being that we're on the smaller side, there's, Are no types of inspections that we're having to do, but we treat everything like we would at the grocery store. And my wife also had a restaurant for 10 years.
And so we've always had a background in food safety. So we, built a walk-in cooler. and so when we harvest the product, we take it from the seal, weigh it on the scales and put it straight into the walk-in cooler. So that you're not keeping the product outside for any length of time, doing our best to get it called as soon as possible.
From there we go in, wash the product in the processing room and package it, and it goes back into the cooler, everybody's using, rubber plastic gloves when they're handling the product. we're utilizing stainless steel equipment. one of the looking around it, trying to find local sources for things, One of the great ones for, stainless steel tables within Costco.
I was just in there the other day and they've got tables in there for $119 and they're very nice stainless steel tables. So we use those for, for that for counter space. And we're also using stainless steel sink for the brain's bubbler and just to keep everything, like it would be if we were in the grocery store with the expectation would be and how we handle product.
Diego: [00:42:45] In terms of the labeling requirements, do you have to label the greens is something like, please wash before consuming or something like that?
Bob Close: [00:42:53] We haven't put, please wash before consuming, but we also don't say that the greens have been washed, we're washing the product that it's not like we're, Even though they have been washed the, here at the house, we still rent them off.
Diego: [00:43:05] it sounds like it's been a good experience for you and if you think long-term, what percentage do you think of your income stream is going to be made up a grocery store?
Bob Close: [00:43:14] That's the place that I'm comfortable. And, I like the idea because you can drop off product and you can hit a lot of people with one stop.
So in terms of with it being a side hustle that we have going on right now, It works out really good for us because it minimizes the amount of time that you're having to spend. If you were at a farmer's market, I really don't have the time that I could spend, dedicated day to a farmer's market. And so we had to try to figure out what's going to work with us. The grocery stores make that possible because. What's the five stores I could deliver that route in about an hour and a half. From the time I leave the house till the time I get back. And you just make a quick loop and take care of everybody and you move a lot of products that way.
Diego: [00:43:57] Is that another reason you're looking at this business model, it just works in your context where if you could find a business that has multiple customers at that business, it's one drop twice a week, maybe twice a week. It fits better with your context of life at this point?
Bob Close: [00:44:14] Exactly. Yeah. That's why we're looking at the idea of, going to other businesses and taking product into the end to the businesses. I have a couple that I'm doing with that with now, and that works out really well. And so we just want to expand on that idea and. Find those places where you can make one drop for a large number of customers.
One of the things, I keep trying to figure out is how to do connect direct, sells with the product because. The more, the grocery stores are selling it at a discount. And if you have a small area that the best thing you can do is try to, generate the most you can for per package. And that's definitely by selling it directly to customers, but then it's gotta be a way that you can move the product and have it work and work starting to put together the idea of how we're going to make that happen.
And looking at that from a perspective of. doing like a monthly subscription where people pay you for the month of the product that they want, and you deliver that to their house on a weekly basis for a small delivery fee on a weekly basis, they can pay you at one time for the month that would include the delivery fee for that month, a weekly delivery.
And that way you're only having to collect the money the one time. And then we're looking at how is it that you make the delivery system? You don't want to have it to where you're having to stop and greet somebody every time, because you got to make it as fast as you can. And so it's a matter of finding the spot where the people, where you can deliver the product to where you can just drop it and take off.
Diego: [00:45:46] Now, one of the easiest things to do is to come up with these models of how you can sell it, but the hard part is often reaching the people to enter these models and to sell to. How do you plan on reaching the people? that's always the challenge for people. Is it just people in your network? Do you have other ways, like you think you can get your word about this out there in the community?
Bob Close: [00:46:10] We're approaching that from multiple angles. I recently read an article. I, this is fiction too, growing from market. And they last month tradition, they had, an article on marketing your farm and they were talking about Facebook, Instagram, a website, and various other ways they'll go about marketing your farm.
And so right now we're in the process of, working on all of those different avenues, starting to start it up an Instagram account and starting to put stuff out on there. So little by little, you start getting a few more followers. we're in the process of, setting up a webpage that will allow for payments so that if people want to be able to make the payments directly through the website, they can do it with their debit card or credit card.
And for some people that might work out better. And then just within the network of people that we have is how we're looking at things right now.
Diego: [00:47:02] Yeah. It's what I it's just ever evolving. Always something new to take on, always something new to try. When you think about the average day now farming versus probably what's more of a routine at Caltrans. Are you glad you took this step when you did?
Bob Close: [00:47:18] I'm really happy with it. It's been, a great move. The other thing is it's something that my wife and I are getting to work on together. When, she had a restaurant, we worked on that together, but my gig was, my job. And then she had that and they were both day kind of thing.
So I didn't get as much time with her. There, here, we're able to work together and it's nice looking at something that we're creating together as a team and knowing that, down the road, all the work we're doing now, we're going to be able to appreciate all of this later on in terms of not just the.
Being able to sustain ourselves from the property, but also, in the process of doing this, you're working with the landscaping of your property, how everything is laid out. It makes it a place that everybody's excited to come down to. I had, three of my godsons down here to come stay the night with me.
And, it was excited and they were all out there in the field with me harvesting and helped me process. And, one of them was telling me how excited he was, how much he liked to work. And if I need help to give him a call and these are boys that are 12 years old, but it's good to get them out there working and to get to see where their food's coming from.
Diego: [00:48:29] Yeah. It's awesome to hear. And that's one of the great things about pursuing opportunities like this farming or otherwise doing something that you love with the people that you love and enjoy, and having it pay at the end of the day, it's the best of all worlds. So the fact that you can do this on your property, advance your property, do it with your wife, involve other family members. It's probably a great thing to come home to after a long day at work and something you look forward to. I'm sure.
Bob Close: [00:48:59] Most definitely. And the, just being able to be outside is something that even if it here in Humboldt, we've got different types of weather, it's a lot of, can be wet a lot.
but it's not like we have the, where it's terrible cold or it's terrible hot. you can always do something a little bit cool out there. You throw a sweatshirt on at the top or you're going to be awkward working in shorts and a t-shirt, but we don't have the extremes. And I think that, moving forward, we're going to be able to produce product for most of the year.
It's just a matter of working that in with, how we're going to get it through that last, that last month of December and January. One thing we did this year that, was interesting was around October, we were noticing that the production starting to slow, and I also noticed it. our, the amount of daylight that we have was reducing substantially.
And so I ended up running strings of lights up in the greenhouses and turn them on at six in the morning until eight, and then have them go on again in the evening time from five to seven. So that way I'm have 13 hours of light within the greenhouses and. As we started doing that, then we started seeing production coming on.
So I think this winter, I think it's one of those or this coming fall is going to be a matter of hit October. When you start getting down below 12 hours of light a day, that it's going to be worth running the lights inside the greenhouses to trick the plants into thinking the days are longer than they really are.
Diego: [00:50:24] What type of lights were you using? One thing I think a lot of growers would like to use, but it's costly.
Bob Close: [00:50:31] Yeah. I'm just using, 10 watt led bulbs. And so here we call them, Christmas lights, but they're not like Christmas lights you will decorate with. It would be what you would see if you were at, one of those places selling Christmas trees and they have the lights with all the sockets on them, strung up all around. And so it's just a matter of running the string of those down the center of the greenhouse. And then using 10 watt led bulbs. And so it's not like they use a whole terrible amount of electricity.
Diego: [00:50:57] Okay. And you find those actually you get noticeably good results just from using those.
Bob Close: [00:51:01] Yeah. we had this year, that was, as I started using them, there was definitely, an increase in the growth rate of growth.
But one thing that, you know, this has been a little bit different, winter where we, we've had some more sunshine days. It was very cold earlier on, but it's been very dry this year. And I don't know if in another year that, a different year, if there was more overcast and more rain, if it would have a different end act, there was definitely an increasing in the rate of growth.
Diego: [00:51:33] And what do you think you spend on those lights?
Bob Close: [00:51:35] Yeah, it was like a hundred dollars for the socket. That was a hundred, the string of sockets. It's a hundred feet long. And then I was able to get the light bulbs at the local hardware store for a buck, a piece. They had a deal going on them and, yeah, there must be about every two feet and the one greenhouse is 80 feet long. And then we have two of them that are 30 feet long.
Diego: [00:51:58] That's a great little tip there for people that want to try to extend their season cheaply, love the idea of that. I love a lot of the other tips that you shared about selling to grocery stores. You mentioned that you're on Instagram, where can people find you there? And is there any place else they can go to follow along with what you're doing?
Bob Close: [00:52:16] So on Instagram, it's a Stafford River Farm. And it's also Stafford River Farm on Facebook. And, coming up soon, we're going to have the website going that is Staffordriverfarm.com.
Diego: [00:52:27] I really want to thank you Bob, for taking the time to chat tonight. Appreciate it. Keep doing what you're doing up there in Northern California and enjoy it.
Bob Close: [00:52:35] Hey, thank you very much, Diego. I appreciate everything you do for.
Diego: [00:52:41] There you have it, Bob Close of Stafford River Farm. If you want to learn more about Bob and see everything that he's doing on his farm, probably including some pictures of those led lights that he mentioned at the end of the episode. Be sure to check them out on Instagram. There's a link to that in the show description below.
And if you want to learn more from other growers like Bob who are making a goal of the small-scale farming thing, be sure to check out the archives at paper, pot.co/podcast, or you can find the show on iTunes, which you probably already have. I'm continuing to transition. More and more of the very old episodes over to the new feed.
So slowly but surely you'll see all of the old episodes, including the old urban farmer episodes on this feed. And if you want to contribute to a future episode in eventually make your way into those archives, send me an email Diego at. Permaculture voices.com. I'd love to talk to you whether you're a starting farmer or somebody who's seasoned in the farming, whether it's micro rains or growing a mixed vege on a few acres, if you want to do a show, reach out and give me a shout email@example.com.
Thanks for listening to this one today. Next week, I'll be back with another small scale farmer making a go of it. Between now and then keep hustling and crushing it until the next episode where it's all about farming, small in farming. Smart.
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