Carrot Cashflow: Vannah Roddy – Weekly Veggie Box Success – Avoid CSA Overwhelm (CC02)

Listen to more episodes of Carrot Cashflow

Episode Summary

For many small-scale farmers, one of the strategies to sell produce is through CSA programs, and although there are a lot of pros to going down the CSA route, there are also a lot of cons, one of which is the sheer commitment to growing consistently for the entire season—and that can be daunting, especially for newer farmers just getting to know the ropes.

In this episode of Carrot Cashflow, first-generation farmer Vannah Roddy shares her subscription model that isn’t as daunting as the traditional CSA model, one that works particularly well with new customer acquisition.

Today’s Guest: Vannah Roddy

            Vannah Roddy is a permaculture designer and first-generation urban farmer who grows on multiple urban plots in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She also offers consulting services for home gardeners and off-grid homesteaders as Encompass Land Design.

            Encompass Farm Website | Instagram | Facebook

            Encompass Land Design Website | Instagram | Facebook

           

In this episode of Carrot Cashflow:

  • Diego introduces the episode’s guest, Vannah Roddy (00:28)
  • Entering a competitive market as a new farmer (02:07)
  • How Vannah built her initial customer base (03:18)
  • Generating customers from recipe-centric email lists (04:04)
  • How the recipe-centric emails work for Vannah (05:24) 
  • The difference between the veggie box and traditional CSAs (06:27)
  • Crop planning for different customers’ sign updates (07:45)
  • Veggie box customer breakdown (09:22)
  • One-box customer hook (10:17)
  • Veggie box logistics challenges (11:02)
  • Managing pickup locations to get the customers their produce (12:03)
  • Multiple pickup locations for a relatively small customer base (16:02)
  • How to get that customer base really sticky (16:53)
  • A growing business and the ideal customers (18:53)
  • Strategies for scaling up (19:52)
  • Purchasing more in addition to the veggie box (21:36)
  • Managing which crops to grow for the veggie box model to work (23:41)
  • Better cashflow with the veggie box model vs. traditional CSAs (25:50)
  • Where to find Vannah Roddy and Encompass Farm (27:28)

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CC02 - Vannah Roddy

[00:00:00] Diego Footer: Carrot Cashflow: profitable farm business starts here. And today we're talking getting the most money you can for your product with a unique sales model with farmer Vannah Roddy.

[00:00:17] Welcome to Carrot Cashflow. I'm your host Diego, DIEGO. And today's episode of Carrot Cashflow. I'm talking to farmer Vannah Roddy, and she's someone who's doing something interesting at her farm to get the most that she can for her products.

[00:00:49] In the competitive market of Asheville, North Carolina, Vannah�s had to try and find a way to stand out, build a deeper connection with her customers. What she's found that worked for her was a unique CSA model that she calls her veggie box. It's a curated way for her customers to experience seasonal local vegetables.

[00:01:04] It takes into account some of the good things of a CSA, but eliminate some of the bad things around the CSA. It's a really unique model that I think a lot of farms could apply to both meat and vegetables. Given that, I think there's a lot of tips and tricks that you can use in this one to help your farm business.

[00:01:31] As a side note, Vannah will also be featured in my new upcoming book, Ready Farmer One: the farmer's guide to create, design, and market and online farm store. That book will be dropping in a few weeks. Stay tuned for that. Now let's jump right into the episode. It's Carrot Cashflow with farmer Vannah Roddy.

[00:01:43] Vannah Roddy: I'm Vannah Roddy. I am a first-generation young farmer. My farm is called Encompass, and I'm in Black Mountain, North Carolina, which is about 20 minutes outside of Asheville. Most of my sales go into Asheville through a customizable veggie box. I do a single farmer's market where I mostly sell flowers, and I grow on a network of seven suburban front yards.

[00:02:07] Diego Footer: Getting your start in the Asheville area, I've always heard that's a competitive area for farming. What was your experience like going into that market?

[00:02:17] Vannah Roddy: When I first started farming, I definitely dreamed about the farmer's market. I loved being there as a customer. I assumed that I would do multiple markets and that would be my main sales outlet, but my first season was spring of when COVID first hit.

[00:02:32] And so not only was I struggling with competition against other established growers, I was really struggling with people not showing up to markets or market rules being constantly changing due to COVID. And so I think I'm one of those growers that benefited in one sense, but also dealt with a whole new host of challenges because of the pandemic.

[00:02:57] I definitely came up with the whole veggie box program as a response to COVID. So most of my sales shifted to my online store, which I had already had set up and yeah, almost a hundred percent of my revenue then started to become veggie boxes, which people ordered directly from me and picked up at different locations around Asheville.

[00:03:18] Diego Footer: With COVID, how did you start to build up that initial customer base for that veggie box program?

[00:03:26] Vannah Roddy: I would say that my email list is my most powerful subscriber generation tool. I do a weekly email that outlines a bunch of recipe ideas based on what's currently in season, so based on what I'm harvesting that week, and there's direct links after all those recipes to then purchase a veggie box. I have about almost 400 subscribers to that email list.

[00:03:49] And I generate new customers through that every day. People sign up for the email list directly on the homepage of my website, and I also collect emails at the farmer's market.

[00:04:04] Diego Footer: So the email list having recipes, is that primarily how you would describe that newsletter? It's an email series that goes out or is it farm-based but it has recipes in it or is it more recipe-centric?

[00:04:18] Vannah Roddy: I would say it's recipe-centric. Occasionally, I do farm updates, especially right now as I'm in kind of the middle of a big transition, but it's mostly there to provide value for potential customers, gain trust, get them engaged with the program. And then, yeah. I occasionally I'll do farm updates.

[00:04:39] Diego Footer: So you have a recipe in there and then it's after it, is it sign up for our or buy this produce? What's the verbiage you're using to communicate, Go here to buy?

[00:04:53] Vannah Roddy: Absolutely. There's about six to seven recipes in the email, but there's a link to purchase at the very top of the email. And then there's the recipes and then a secondary link at the bottom. So it's showing up twice for them.

[00:05:21] Also at the top of the email is just like, here's what's in veggie boxes this week, giving them an idea of what the harvest will look like, then the recipes provide even more ideas as to how to use it. And then they have multiple options to click and buy.

[00:05:24] Diego Footer: Got it. And how do you find recipes have worked as an email series? I don't know about the summit. I've never asked people. I could see some people say, yeah, it's played out. People don't need that as much now. They've seen it too much, but it seems like it's really working for you. What's been your experience to getting success out of a recipe centric letter?

[00:05:46] Vannah Roddy: Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the particular customers that I'm chasing. Like my ideal customers are urban professionals or parents, people who just want to grab the box and go at the farmer's market and then have a bunch of easy ways to prepare it.

[00:06:06] So I try to keep the recipes super simple. I want to keep their time and mind. They tend to be under 15, 20 minutes in preparation. And so I'm really catering to the family, the busy family who just wants to be able to pick up their veggies, make a couple easy meals for the week and do it all again next week.

[00:06:27] Diego Footer: Think about the veggie box. It's different than the CSA in your case, right? In what would you say makes it different than a CSA for somebody listening to this?

[00:06:39] Vannah Roddy: Yeah, I'd say the biggest thing is that it's not the whole season long commitment, so folks can choose their subscription length, and they can buy a single box, which is $28.

[00:06:52] They can buy a one-month subscription. So four boxes, which the price goes down to $25, and then a three-month subscription, 12 boxes. The price goes down to $23 per box. So they're being incentivized to subscribe for longer, but people have that flexibility.

[00:07:10] Diego Footer: I see how they can be advantageous for the customer because some people get that 25-week paralysis of, oh, I got to write a $900 check or whatever it comes out to right now. And I'm not going to collect on all of that for 25 weeks. So this makes it easier for customers to potentially dip their toe in the water, participate in the program. With having subscribers that have different terms and different sign up dates. How's that worked out in terms of crop planning?

[00:07:42] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. It's interesting for sure. I tend to� I'm at a pretty small scale. And so I'm always struggling with, can I accept the amount of customers that are interested this week? In the wintertime, that's a really true for me when the plant's slowed down, I'm always trying to fill a veggie boxes compared to the amount of demands that the program has.

[00:08:05] In the summertime, it flips, I have way more veggies than I have demand for the veggie box. And I imagine that's just because people have so many other options, and that's why I keep my one farmer's market. So I bring excess to the market. And then in the wintertime, when things slowed down, I have a cap I can only accept like, 20, 25 subscribers a week, and then the single box goes away. So in the wintertime, they only have the option to purchase one month or three months.

[00:08:41] Diego Footer: Got it. So you treat it as the longer subscribers in essence get priority or a locked in spot. And then you only have so many spots to offer if there's surplus spots.

[00:08:53] Okay, if for example, if you had 25 spots, if the three months filled up all 25, there's no one month there's no single. If there was room after three months, then it goes to the one month and then it goes down to the one that one week.

[00:09:21] Vannah Roddy: Exactly.

[00:09:22] Diego Footer: Got it. Where would you say your distribution is across those groups? If you had a hundred customers or let's say 24 customers or 25 customers like you do, where's that breakdown?

[00:09:22] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. So about a month ago, I just brought the single boxes back. Historically, that was always most popular, but I've found in recent months that the three-month subscription is the majority of my customer base.

[00:09:37] And again, I think a lot of that has to do with people just want to sign up and pick up their boxes for 12 weeks and then not have to think about it again for another three months. And so that also has to do with, I have a really great core of people that resubscribe every single month or every single three months.

[00:09:59] Diego Footer: With the one box product, have you found that's been useful as a hook to get people to try we're three months can be daunting up front and it's like, Hey, I'll try it for one box. If this works, then go back? How's that work?

[00:10:17] Vannah Roddy: That's been the most powerful tool I have. Again, small growers know that the quality of their produce is. When people try it, they want it again. And so with the single box, I allow people to customize it, and it's definitely a pain in the butt for me, but 75% of them end up turning into one month or three months subscribers.

[00:10:54] I also make little fridge magnets with QR codes. So every single new person who purchases a single box gets their veggies. They get the email list and they also get this little fridge magnet with a QR code, my logo�s on it, the websites on it, they can just scan it. And I just, yeah. Convenience is where I get people coming back.

[00:11:02] Diego Footer: I like that until it takes them right to the store and then they can re-up from there. What's made it successful for you to manage that in terms of logistics? You mentioned your small farm, relatively small customer base.

[00:11:15] So there's always going to be a limited amount of product. Does it just come down to your online platform and really dialing in your inventory, so you're not overselling what you have?

[00:11:27] Vannah Roddy: Definitely. And that there's a lot of challenges that come with this, but I'd say I have it relatively dialed in at this point. I use Square for my website and people customize at checkout.

[00:11:39] And what that looks like is I have the entire list of what I'm growing for that season. And they have the opportunity to opt out of three items so they can choose. I don't like tomatoes. I'm going to opt out of those. I don't like kale. I'll opt out of that, and I will then give them double of something else that they do like.

[00:12:03] Diego Footer: With having customers order boxes in advance. There's a few options you can do to get those to customers. There's delivery. There's picking up at a farmer's market. There's picking up it just another agreed upon location. What's have you found is worked best in terms of a model to one, make it convenient for customers, two, make it convenient for you, and three, make it so most people show up in a relatively tight window and show up.

[00:12:36] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. So I have four pickup locations currently. I'm looking to scale that as I also scale the farm, but right now, the main pickup location is at the farmer's market that I do. And that's really valuable for me because I'm already standing there.

[00:12:55] I already know I have say, $250 in sales on the coolers behind me, and I'm just selling the excess on the table. So that feels really good to just show up to the farmer's market and know what I have. But my particular market really struggled with parking. And so I know that it's likely stressful for my customers to be driving around in circles, trying to find a place to park.

[00:13:20] And that's why I started reaching out to mostly other local restaurants in the area. One of the main ones in west Asheville, it's an outdoor pickup location under a covered patio. So people don't even have to go in, they just park, they grab it and then they're gone. A second one is a distillery, and I'm a local distillery that makes really unique products, and the same story.

[00:13:45] They just there's great. Parking. They go in there, they grab it. They're gone. And then yeah, the third, the fourth location actually has cold storage. And so that's the biggest window that people have. Typically, they only have an hour at the restaurants to come pick it up because they're sitting in a relatively open area, but the fourth pickup location has cold storage. They have about four hours that they can come pick it up.

[00:14:11] Diego Footer: At that location with cold storage, do you stay at that location or is there just a cooler in the processes? Hey, they go in, they find their bag, and they go?

[00:14:20] Vannah Roddy: Yep. Because all the bags have names on them. They just let the staff know, Hey, I'm Cameron, I'm picking up my veggie box and the staff will go and grab it for them.

[00:14:29] Diego Footer: If you count the farmer's market is one day. Are you at the other two locations another day or another two days or those on different days? How's that work?

[00:14:39] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. Farmer's market is Friday. And then the two kind of self-serve pickup locations are on the same day. I don't hang out at either of them. I just drop the boxes and go, and they have different time windows to come pick them up.

[00:14:54] And then same story with the fourth pickup location with the cold storage, that's on a Monday and that's really close to where I live. That's in Black Mountain. And so I just drop them off, and I go. And I've never had a problem getting people to come to the pickup locations mostly because I've timed them so that people, as they're getting off work, can just stop and grab it and go home anyways.

[00:15:19] Diego Footer: Yeah. Okay. So that's cool. So you're not even at these pickup locations, you're not there waiting around for all the boxes to be claimed. They're just stacked or sorry, the bags to be claimed. They're just there. And then customers come get them during the window and then that's it.

[00:15:33] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. And I think that has been a challenge. Originally, the only pickup location was the farmer's market and then an in-person meeting in Black Mountain. And it was a very personal relationship because I have a small subscriber base of really, you know, consistent repeat customers. A lot of them have really missed that interaction as I've transitioned and as I've grown, but I don't really have a solution to that yet.

[00:16:02] Diego Footer: Yeah. What's the�with a limited number of subscribers, why so many pickup locations, are they just in different geographic areas, and you're trying to make it more convenient versus farmer's markets one and X location is pickup two? Why so many?

[00:16:25] Vannah Roddy: Yeah. Great question. I just created the additional two pickup locations like, two weeks ago. And so originally with 30 subscribers, I only had two pickup points, but this fall, I'm going from about 10,000 square feet in production to about over an acre. And yeah. So, before I even put crops in the ground, I want to make sure that I have the other locations in order to grow my subscriber base.

[00:16:53] Diego Footer: When you think about having that core subscriber base, the group that comes back week in and week out. How do you increase or build up that rapport? Is it just finding the right customer in the first place? I know that sounds, how do you even do that? But turnover in a lot of CSA programs is fairly large in some CSAs.

[00:17:21] And really, I think to be successful in a CSA model, really an online store model is you have 50 plus percent of your customer base that's just quote �regular,� and they come back all the time. Quality of produce gets you a little ways down the road to doing that packaging delivery. Price that helps along the way, but a lot of it is, Hey, I could go buy this produce somewhere else. What do you want to do to, what do you think that makes that core sticky?

[00:17:53] Vannah Roddy: Absolutely. I think the biggest benefit is just knowing who your ideal customer is. And at this point, I'm in my second season. And as soon as an order comes in, I can tell this person is high maintenance. They want all of the options to opt out and they're contacting me additionally, for more things.

[00:18:31] Whereas the orders that come in for three months, subscriptions, they've opted out of nothing. They show up on time every single week. Those are the customers that I'm touching more. I'm going out of my way to follow up with and get them coming back and create a relationship.

[00:18:35] And it comes back to, again, like what clients do I want to serve and finding your niche in that way is, yeah, I'm really catering to the busy people, the people that are working and just want to grab the bag and go and make a quick meal.

[00:18:53] Diego Footer: As a newer business, a growing business. And sometimes there's pressured it to say all customers are ones that I need to keep. I might not want to keep the mall, but I need to keep them all. How do you reconcile between, you know, growing and the higher maintenance customers that you know, in a perfect world, you'd rather replace with a more ideal customer?

[00:19:20] Vannah Roddy: Yeah, it's a hard lesson I had to learn. There are a lot of missteps and challenges, definitely. There are customers who no matter what you do, they're not going to be happy. And so there's really, to me, there's no point in pursuing that customer. Whereas the customer who wants what you have and will show up every week to get it, those are the people that I spend my time getting to know and making sure that their needs are met.

[00:19:51] Diego Footer: As you build up this core customer base. There's a couple of different ways to grow a business and a couple of different schools of thought on how to do it. One is you get more of those ideal customers. Say you're just selling more product to more customers. Another is these customers that I have are really loyal.

[00:20:09] They're the super fans and the strategy is I'm going to offer them more stuff. Maybe that's add ons to the bags, maybe that flowers like you have, maybe that's aggregating product as you grow and look forward to growing. You're obviously adding more land. So growth is in the future. How do you think about growing?

[00:20:31] Is it scaling up, getting more customers or is it about providing more to the customers that you already have?

[00:20:40] Vannah Roddy: That's a great question. And at the end of the day, I think it's going to be more about providing more to the customers I already have, because if I just wanted to move lots of product, I would be a wholesaler.

[00:20:56] But the veggie box program is super valuable to me because I get the highest dollar for what I'm putting in the boxes. And I�m providing a quality and I'm providing service to these people. And so I'm able to charge what I, what I want. And I think keeping that in mind as I grow is what's going to help me continue with the success because if I just start focusing on, okay, I've scaled up now, I just need to move all this product really quickly, I think the heart of what the veggie box would be a little diminished.

[00:21:36] Diego Footer: Okay. If somebody wanted to add on, get more of what you have, do you have a way to do that?

[00:21:44] Vannah Roddy: Similar to their options to opt out at checkout on Square, they have options to add on, and currently those options are flowers, so they can add on a bouquet, and they can add on seasoning blends.

[00:21:58] So I dehydrate like, green onions I dehydrate, poblano peppers, and blend them with sea salt. I have three different blends and people really love those because again, it's reinforcing the quick and easy meal model. So I'm bringing them one step closer to a complete meal if I'm also offering them a seasoning to put on their vegetables, which I make from essentially a waste products on-farm, like the trimmings from green onion tops are what get dehydrated and put in the green onion blend. That kind of thing.

[00:22:30] And I am adding on the new land where I'm getting laying hens this year. And so eggs will be an add on here in the future. In the past, I've added on other people's products like bread and local, locally made chocolate, and those things were less popular. It was more of a hassle for me to keep them in stock and communicate with the other producers than it was to offer them at my scale at that time.

[00:22:57] I may try it again once I have a better facility for storing that stuff. But yeah, it was very seasonal. So like around Valentine's day, the chocolates were popular and that kind of thing.

[00:23:14] Diego Footer: One of the things I'm thinking of knowing that you started on a smaller amount of land, for somebody doing a program like this, I think initially there might be the inherent perceived obligation to provide a lot of diversity in the box.

[00:23:48] So customers need to get 10 crops, eight crops each week. You didn't have a lot of land to grow on. And that land was even probably a little more challenging because it was split up against a bunch of urban plots. When you put these bags together, how did approach. Okay. I need, it's not just salad going into the mix. It's not a salad subscription, but it's a veggie box of, I need to grow enough to keep it interesting, but I also have to realize, Hey, I don't have a lot of land here, so I can't grow 50 different crops. How'd you end up at what you ended up with?

[00:24:14] Vannah Roddy: Yeah, that's something that I've changed up a lot as I've observed the customer demand. And most of my career as a farmer, whether that was working for other people's farms or even my first year as Encompass, I was a salad farmer. I was growing lettuce really intensively, mostly salanovas, and I realized that it wasn't.

[00:24:38] What I wanted to do, what wasn't, what I preferred to eat either. And so I've sreally, it's been such a gift to be able to transition to veggie boxes for me, because it allows me to grow more diversity. And again, you're right. There are some crops that just doesn't make sense to grow at a small scale. The cool thing about the veggie box is I can charge whatever I want for that crop because I'm putting it into a box with a set price.

[00:25:04] So I grow potatoes on a small scale, and I love it. I grew up broccoli and cabbages. I grow bulb onions and garlic and put them in veggie boxes. And those are all things that like traditionally small farmers have said that they can't make money on. I really enjoy it. I'm making a living. It's what I prefer to eat as well.

[00:25:26] And it's what my customers really want. And again, because I'm year round, it also feels like I'm more of a valuable part of a real local food system. When I can provide these higher nutrient value, higher calorie crops that you know, are actually supporting people. So yeah, I really, I enjoy that aspect and I've enjoyed figuring out how to make that work for me.

[00:25:50] Diego Footer: Given one other negative on CSAs, or long-term CSA is it's so much pressure to deliver on the farmer side. And I've heard people say things like you get paid upfront may be say in March. And by the time you get to September, you feel like you're working for free because you got paid so long ago with these shorter subscriptions three months.

[00:26:14] Do you feel like that solves some of those problems? One it's less than the pressure. And then at least every three months you're getting paid versus every well, that's not. What is that? Three months is 12 weeks versus six months later?

[00:26:27] Vannah Roddy: Definitely. I worked on a lot of CSA farms before I started my own farm and heard the same things over and over again, both from the customers and from the farmers and the farmers, especially like even the customer is everyone was ready for it to be done at the end of the season.

[00:26:45] Whereas this model, occasionally, especially during the cold months, three months, even feels like a long time, you know, I, when people end up resubscribing and there's that kind of turnover or the money starts coming in again, that feels great, obviously. But yeah. �Cause CSA is great for a lot of people and this is the exact opposite of a CSA in a lot of ways, just based on what I had observed from both farmer quality of life and the CSA customer.

[00:27:18] Diego Footer: Right on. I love what you're doing. I love the fact that here you growing and expanding and that it's working for you. For people that want to check out what you're doing and follow along with you on Instagram, you know, maybe model what you're doing, where's the best places to go?

[00:27:34] Vannah Roddy: Absolutely. So you can find my farm on Instagram at Encompass Farm. And if you're looking to grow in the same model, using urban sites, using front yards, I provide a lot of growing content through Encompass land design on Instagram and my website is encompassfarm.com.

[00:27:58] Diego Footer: Thanks for listening to this episode of Carrot Cashflow, you can learn more about Vannah and her veggie box program by checking the links to this episode. If you want to learn more about farm sales and marketing, stay tuned for my new book. Ready farmer one, the farmer's guide to create design and market an online farm.

[00:28:18] Which will be out in just a few weeks. Thanks for listening to this episode. I hope you enjoyed it, but more importantly, I hope you do something with the information in this episode to make a more profitable farm business. I'm Diego. And until next time, be nice. Be thankful and do the work.

 

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