Choosing the Right Crops (and Customers) for Your Farm (FSFS178)

 

Introduction

This episode is all about crop selection and picking the most profitable crops within the context of your farm. We discuss not only the most profitable crops Ben has found during his many years of experience, but also how to tailor those crops to fit the right customers. This interview is for beginners but also experienced farmers looking to lean up their crop selections.

 

There’s a lot of crops out there. How do you get farmers you work with to think about making the right selections from both a growing and profitability standpoint?

 

Tomatoes (2:30) The first crop you should grow is tomatoes. They have the highest profitability and farmer’s market sales across the US. All with a low cost of production. There are a lot of types of tomatoes and a lot of markets that will take them.

Beginning with artisan type tomatoes or heirloom tomatoes – but your better pick would be a hybrid type tomato bred with the characteristics of an heirloom tomato called heritage tomatoes. Johnny’s has a heritage (or specialty) collection from which we grow Margold and Marnero – we sell lots of those tomatoes to chefs. At markets, we can get $3-5lb.

Tomatoes are very lucrative per hour invested and the #1 trend in restaurants in 2017 was hyper-local sourcing. You can also sell at farmer’s markets and co-ops. Big likes to sell to big and small to small so these are your best sales outlets.

 

Greens (8:00) From microgreens to kale. We have a high turn around time of 5 hours harvesting to shipping, so we don’t even keep them in the cooler. First grow a spring mix; kale, mustards, mizunas and a bit of lettuce. Tender romaine and red salad bowl go in during the spring. We grow Muir as a head during the summer as a head. In the cooler season add Red Russian kale and mustard.

Second, we grow spinach. It’s the king of winter and will not grow in the heat. We put it in our mix and also grow it as stand-alone, just like kale. I use the Jang seeder with #11 sprockets in the front and the back and the F24 roller to do all of these crops, sometimes I need to raise the brush to accommodate larger spinach seed. We grow on 36” beds, 7 rows per bed. We seed x1 week all year.

 

What value are you expecting out of a crop per hour to determine it’s a high-value crop? (11:50)

For most crops, the investment for bed prep and planting is the same, but things change at harvest. A harvester needs to be picking $100/hr. From field to cooler. It’s an important metric to make sure you are profitable.

 

These crops are popular so there’s a lot of competition. How do you make them stand out for your customers? (13:45)

Close and personal observation of product development. You should thoroughly understand how your customer is using your product. Be more specific in these conversations than your competition and that will give you the edge.

Every winter we use an evaluation sheet with each of our customers. We put the name of the account and ask – 

  1. What is your preferred way of communicating? Not everyone just wants an email once a week with the fresh sheet.
  2. What do you want? You want specific answers here; not just I want bulb fennel but how much of the top do you want left on?
  3. When do you want it? Delivering when they want it makes a huge difference – we deliver up to three times a week since we are 1.5m from them. We charge x2 the amount for our tomatoes than the competition and the only way we are getting away with it is because we will deliver when people want it.
  4. How much? We package the way the customers want it. Smaller quantities than many other growers will supply it.

 

Should farmers who already have restaurant accounts try and ask their customers these questions? (20:30)

 

In the lean system, you want to practice continuous improvement. Every year you get more waste off of the farm. Every year you should get to know your customers better.

At our co-op where we sell mixed greens we’ve gone to matching the packaging of the competition to make it look professional, going from plastic bags to clamshells, and color-coding our labels so the customers associate the color with what’s inside, and the weight we sell from 1/2lb to 5oz. All these changes make it easier for the customer to simply choose our fresher product and we got there by making observations of what we were up against. We’re also putting sell-by dates on these products. As we add each of these steps we are adding value to the product so we are increasing prices. We’re charging $1 more a quarter lb. now from $1.85 to $2.85 and that’s all without changing production much, just the packaging.

 

Circling back to the greens – do you mix in arugula and kale most of the time? (24:30)

We focus on producing those crops that go into the spring mix as seasonally as possible to keep down labor costs. During the winter months, we just sprinkle in 20-30% lettuce and the rest is spinach and mizuna. In mid-summer, it’s basically an all lettuce mix. 

 

Could Clay Bottom Farm stop there – just growing greens and tomatoes and be earning enough? (26:30)

There are farms that just grow greens or just grow tomatoes or some combination of the two. So sure, you could make a living just growing them. There are also other crops that are highly profitable…

 

Full-sized Kale. Unlike a big broccoli or cabbage, you can keep harvesting from the plant and that makes it more valuable. You only have to transplant it once.

Carrots. For wholesale accounts who you want to produce for year-round, you can store carrots and always have them which is valuable. And they’re very popular.

 

When do we start to hit the point of inefficiency – when there are too many crops being produced on a diverse farm? (32:30)

To have a lean farm you want to always want to peel away the layers of waste. There are a limited number of value-adding activities like harvesting and everything else like running around looking for tools which is waste. If you have fewer crops you will inevitably have less waste. You want to match low production cost crops with high price-point customers. 

To figure this out you don’t want to spend too much time on complex spreadsheets, but you do want some good metrics. Take the example of a $100/hr harvesting goal from earlier. Another is crops should be $2.50/sq.ft. per year or we’re not going to grow it. 

 

We get $70k from tomatoes and $30k from greens a year. If we were juggling dozens of crops we wouldn’t be earning as much per sq.ft. from them and those tomato and greens would suffer and not be earning as much. One example of what we don’t grow is green beans. We grow one crop in the spring when we can charge full price, and after that we leave them up to others to compete over them since the price becomes half as much in a flooded market.

 

You cover these crops in detail in your online course, correct? (38:30)

Yes, and I’m truly excited about the course because it’s the class I wish I’d had when I started farming. It’s unique in that everything is framed in the lean system, which is the most powerful production and management system in the world. Another option is every year we do a two-day intensive on our farm, which is discounted if you take the online course. We usually do it during the summer in high production.

 

Can you use lean to winnow out the crops on an existing farm to make it more profitable? (41:15)

One of the best things a small farm can do is often drop crops and drop customers. Ask which crops and which customers are dead-weight. It’s very hard to do, but if the numbers aren’t working out, often what you need is to do less, not more. 

There are seven different types of waste. One of them is the waste of defect. When did your crops have the most defect? When did you salad mix look the worst? Train yourself during your off time to remove this defect. This is what we still do to keep learning. It’s a yearly task. Examples of crops we stopped growing are potatoes, watermelons and butternut squash – we simply don’t have the equipment to grow them efficiently and it’s not worth the investment.

 

Conclusion

Ben said it best; to have a lean farm you always want to peel away layers of waste. What crops are you growing and how do they rank in terms of profit? What about customers – do you have sales outlets that aren’t paying enough, or simply not paying at all? Ben covers these topics in detail in his online course which you can find here. Until next time, be nice, be thankful, and do the work.

 

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