Say you’re a small farm looking for more market streams. Have you ever considered selling to wholesalers? Maybe you have, thinking you’re not quite at the scale where you could keep the wholesaler happy and interested. Well, guess what? You might actually be wrong there.
Today we’re talking to farmer and farm manager Luke Carneal who grows at a small land base, and has captured the hearts of a few wholesalers. We’ll get into the how’s and why’s of it in this episode.
Today’s Guest: Luke Carneal
Luke Carneal is a farmer and farm manager in The Sonoma Farm in Sonoma, California. He has previous farm experience, having worked at farms since high school. Now, he manages the farm as well as ramping up production of microgreens.
The Sonoma Farm – Website
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Initial interest in farming and the introduction to microgreens (02:30)
- The draw to microgreens (04:00)
- Approaching testing the market for new products (06:10)
- The experience of selling to wholesalers as a new grower (10:15)
- What the farm grows and what the end-users want (12:40)
- Labelling the products and branding (16:55)
- The production and the number of trays per week for microgreens (18:05)
- Choosing and handling which varieties to grow (19:30)
- The more funky varieties of microgreens that sell (23:15)
- Gem marigold
- Red toon (Chinese toon)
- Garden cress
- From overhead irrigation to growing microgreens in flood tables (26:55)
- How well flood irrigation fits for most of the farm’s crops (35:30)
- The pros and cons of using hemp mats (38:10)
- The cost of hemp mat per tray vs. the cost of soil per tray (44:05)
- Advantages and disadvantages to selling to wholesale distributors (46:10)
- Comparing retail prices and wholesale prices (53:05)
- Advice for niche, small-scale growers planning to approach wholesalers: consistency, effort, and communication (57:45)
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Diego: [00:00:00] If you're a small farm, you might think that selling the wholesalers is beyond your reach. You might think that you're not able to produce enough product off of your farm to keep a wholesaler happy and interested. Well, if you think that you might be wrong, because today I'm talking to somebody who's selling a lot of product to a wholesaler off a very small land base, stay tuned to find out his tips and tricks for selling the wholesalers coming up.
Welcome to Farm Small, Farm Smart. I'm your host Diego, DIEGO. Farm Small, Farm Smart is a free resource brought to you by my company, Paper Pot, Co., your number one source for all things, paper pot transplanter-related, and soon to be your number one source for all things related to farm efficiency, because we're starting to add more and more tools to the mix. The whole idea is to make you more efficient on your farm so you can spend less time working and more time on the other important things in life. Learn more at paperpot.co.
Today, I'm going up to Sonoma, California to talk to farmer and farm manager of the Sonoma farm. Luke Carneal. Luke�s story's a very interesting one because up in Sonoma, They're farming in an urban environment on a very small land base.
They have one production greenhouse, and about a quarter acre of field production. And using that production, they've been able to sell to wholesalers very successfully. So successfully that the majority of the product leaving their farm goes to wholesalers. This fact contradicts. I think the image that a lot, all of us have in our mind about small farms and wholesalers, and that image is probably well, wholesalers don't care about my farm because my farm is too small.
Well, Luke's experience will show you that it's not true. And you might want to start thinking about your farm and the ability to supply wholesalers in a different way. Especially if you're growing crops like microgreens. Let's jump right into it with Luke Corneal of the Sonoma farm.
So Luke, how did you initially get interested in farming and then how did that go to microgreens or did it start out with microgreens?
Luke Carneal: [00:02:32] Yeah, I had been farming for a number of years, before I actually started at this current job. I'm originally from the East coast and I actually grew up in a rural area in Maryland. And so my first job in high school was on a farm, but it was a large scale, not organic or anything kind of farm, but I still got my, feet wet in farming back all the way in high school. And then after college, I kept farming, but obviously I got more interested in this is small scale, sustainable farming models. And so I worked at a couple of farms after school. And then, a few years back, I moved out here to California and took the job, at Sonoma farm where I am right now.
And the far, the previous farm manager had just started microgreens. So this was back in 2015 and, I pretty much picked up where she had left off, and then just saw a market opportunity basically, and expanded the microgreens production pretty substantially, from there. and yeah, so basically, I hadn't ever grown microgreens up until a couple of years ago and then just dove into it and still grow a lot of edge as well out in the field. But definitely was drawn to the micros and ran with it.
Diego: [00:03:59] For the microgreen side of things, what really told you like, that is where I'm drawn to? Was it the ability to do a bunch on small land? Was it the diversity that you could do there? The economic potential?
Luke Carneal: [00:04:14] Kind of all of the above, we were on a small plot of land. It's about a quarter of an acre field of edge. And then another main driver for me, deciding to grow the microgreens operation was�there was, and there still is an, a really nice greenhouse that was onsite. And it was fairly large and was being underutilized. It was put in place, for our starts to go out into the field and for growing plants for plant sales and things like that. And then obviously the previous farm manager had just started on growing, maybe about 10 or 15 trays of micros a week. But it was still hugely underutilized considering the size of it.
And some of the, it's not super high tech or anything like that, but it's a well-built greenhouse. And so to justify the upfront cost of that greenhouse. and just to not let it go to waste. I decided that micros were a good use of the space. And, so that in combination with the small land base, and then also the fact that I just tested the market a little bit and, saw that there was some, there was interest, in the Bay area for the micros, all kind of those three, factors led me to decide to ramp things up.
Diego: [00:05:40] How did you test the market? Because this is something I see in a lot of emails that I get, or I see it posted is somebody will say, I don't want to grow a whole bunch of stuff and nobody can, nobody will want to buy it. You tested, what did you do to test and how did it go?
Luke Carneal: [00:05:58] So it was almost, I don't want to say accidental, but hat I had happened was that I actually had a bumper crop of tomatoes and I was not able to sell them all even though I'm on a quarter of an acre, you can pump out a lot of tomatoes on a few hundred under feet of rows. And so I was coming up short in being able to sell those tomatoes. So I floated the word out to�there's a good farming community. And, the North Bay, North of San Francisco. And, some folks said, have you tried to sell them to this food hub that we have here in Sonoma? That's called Feed Sonoma. And, I hadn't.
And so I asked if they could buy my tomatoes. And so they're a traditional or, one of these new food hubs that are starting to pop up around the country where they aggregate food and distribute it. So they were able to buy my tomatoes, but I had start just started to grow more micros. And I thought, why don't I see if they might want to buy some microgreens and then just by, good fortune they had noticed that they were getting more of a demand for micros on there and from their customers.
And one of the main producers that had been growing for them had just gone under. And so I started growing and selling a lot more micro greens pretty quickly. I took a bit of a risk, but once I saw that there was an opening there and I could actually move weight through them because they were a food hub, distributor aggregator, and actually could sell quite a lot of basically wholesale amounts. I started ramping up production and then I said, huh, I liked this model. I like not having to do all the marketing myself. And I liked doing the farming and I do like doing some of the marketing, but I don't want to be spending most of my week marketing.
I want to be spending most of my week honing my skills in farming. And so I was like, I liked the model of selling to wholesalers and distributors. And so once I broke in to with Feed Sonoma, I just started looking elsewhere in the County and eventually a little bit outside of the County, other food hubs and wholesale distributors and just started knocking on doors, figuratively and, emailing and calling people off the hook and, found that actually there was demand even in some of the more kind of conventional, wholesale markets. So Feed Sonoma is definitely geared towards small scale, sustainable ecologically-minded growers in Sonoma County.
And maybe a little outside of Sonoma County, but definitely mostly Sonoma County, which is great. And I love selling to them, but I wondered if there were other, more traditional, conventional wholesalers in the area as well, who could have a demand for that kind of thing. And so I tried, I tested the waters and, it was pleased to find out that I found some more customers in the wholesale market arena. Yeah, that's pretty much how it happened.
Diego: [00:09:04] What's your experience been like selling to a wholesaler as a new grower? So you said when you first started selling to them, their previous supplier had gone under, so you're stepping right in. Did they expect a lot of production right away, or were you able to ease into it as your experience and your knowledge grew?
Luke Carneal: [00:09:26] I found that, with my first, wholesale customer feed, who you were just referencing there, they were very willing to work slow. As pretty slowly with me, they're patient. We'd been growing micros on a small scale for, probably I'd been doing it for pretty much a year by then, but it was, maybe it was basically continuing what the previous farm manager had grown, so maybe about 10 to 15 trades a week, maybe a little more. I started to ramp it up. I still had a fair amount of learning to do, in order to do it consistently and at scale. And, thankfully they were pretty patient, with the model that this whole Feed Sonoma used and still uses is basically whatever I had two week, I would send them my availability and then they put the word out to their customers, mostly, restaurants in the Bay area.
And then they sold, they, and then they basically bought from me whatever they could sell to their customers. And so there, wasn't a huge pressure from the beginning to provide like a standing order to Feed Sonoma every week. And what that allowed me to do was I'm not overly stressed about absolutely perfect, consistency at the beginning.
And then continue to hone our, to hone my skills, to the point where once we did bring on other wholesale customers that do require pretty much a standing order and really do rely on consistency, we have our systems down, enough to meet that demand.
Diego: [00:11:14] And you're selling to a wholesale or like that, given that they have their own customers. Does the wholesaler determine the specs of what they want or does it flow through to the end user? I guess in one way, the end buyer is telling the wholesale or what they want, but you just provide it to the wholesaler and then they deal with flowing it through to the end user.
Luke Carneal: [00:11:37] Yeah, it's a good question. There's definitely�it depends on the customer, but I would say, with some of the wholesale customers that I sell to, I am pretty much replacing, not replacing, augmenting some microgreens that they're already buying from like huge producers. Like there are a couple huge names in California and they are, you have set the standard basically for clamshell size.
And kind of the varieties that are popular, for better or worse, that's the that's that seems to be the case. And so there's not a whole lot of play as far as, me being like, Oh, I really just want to grow. I don't know, like something super funky, like I just want to grow hibiscus microgreens or something really, left field.
So there's not a whole lot of play with that without saying the more conventional wholesale markets. Now with feed Sonoma, which is a food hub. And, I sell to one other food hub that both of which kind of specialize and work very closely with the farmers and those tend to sell to restaurants that are always looking for new things.
I'm able to grow some really funky, interesting things. I would say that it's gotten to the point where it's probably about 60% of our production is our kind of like your standards, bull's blood, what we call rainbow mix, which is just a mix of the in a lot of brassicas and amaranth mixed in usually.
And even now we're starting to do pea shoots, sunflower shoots, things like that. And then the remaining 40%, we are able to push the limits on and test out the market. And because we do sell to those two food hubs that work more with kind of, chefs that are willing to experiment, are usually able to find a home for them.
And that seems that kind of division between the more conventional and out there stuff, seems to be a good mix so that we're not relying solely on trying to sell like exclusively rainbow mix or something or exclusively high-end funky stuff. Like we do both. And for us anyway, that's worked out to be a good balance.
And then as far as how things are displayed and everything like that. I do get feedback from wholesalers and they get, cause they get feedback from their customers, as far as how they want things to be packaged and it really just tweaking it though. It's nothing like we have to, we sell them basically two clamshell sizes of 24 ounce volume clamshell to 48 ounce volume clamshell. And of course I try not to basically change our systems and packaging around too much to cater to folks and people seem to be pretty happy with just a standard 24 ounce or 48 ounce volume clamshell, with a label stuck on it. So they know what it is and it looks good and it's fresh and, yeah, that's pretty much it.
Diego: [00:14:48] With the hub like that you're dealing with, and this may be different everywhere. Are you putting a label on that? Has the Hub's branding or is your branding on there? And the hub wants the farm to flow through?
Luke Carneal: [00:15:00] Yeah, that's a good question. Right now all of the distributors that I sell to, we have our own label on there, which I prefer. The last two, we have been asked if that's okay to do, eventually, if they wanted us to send down let's say a box of 30, 30, or 40 clamshells of rainbow mixed with no label.
And then they would slap the label on like their own. I would consider it, potentially, but I like having our label on there because it obviously helps with our visibility, and our branding. So right now it is, basically all of the micro greens that we sell to distributors it's traceable back to the farm, which is what I prefer.
Diego: [00:15:48] So in some of these smaller, more dainty grabs, a 24-ounce clam shell, 48-ounce clamshells microgreens, that's a lot of microgreens. What are you doing in terms of production per week for a number of trays?
Luke Carneal: [00:15:57] It varies, that during the time of year, and we've been at scale, at this scale for about. Almost two years. About a year and a half. At the peak, we were doing between 120 140 10, 20 trays a week. And now we're at about between a hundred and 120 going into the summer, we're going to be ramping up and I have a feeling this summer just because we've taken on a couple of new customers that we're going to be consistently at around 140, especially since we're starting to do, like pea shoots that we're actually selling by the pound as opposed to the clamshell.
And then we could even potentially move up past there, but at that point we're running out of space in our greenhouse. And we did just get a farmer's friend, Caterpillar tunnel, which we're mostly using for. For the tomatoes and cucumbers and whatnot out in the field. But if we need to, we might have to expand into the cat tunnel for that. But yeah, so to answer your question right now, it's, I would say between a hundred and 140.
Diego: [00:17:05] With a food hub involved, and then knowing that you can push or pull crops, meaning varieties that might be funkier, and then you have your staples that you sell. Do you have a set list of basically here's what we grow every week. And how do you handle the more unique varieties? Because, on one hand, I'm thinking from a production level, you want some consistency, like this is what we're always going to have, but then you maybe want to scratch that growing or the creative edge and try something different.
So how do you handle the temptation to grow infinitely many varieties, knowing that it sounds like you could move those trays if you want it?
Luke Carneal: [00:17:46] So we do have, we have a list that we pretty much go off of every week and some of those things really don't change, making sure that we have enough or growing enough of, mustard mix mizuna, red kale, amaranth, et cetera, for our rainbow mix. And, growing enough, bull's blood growing enough, pea shoots some of the more standards don't change. And then we basically have it set up. So I'm just conceptualizing the spreadsheet that we use. And one column is the, fixed more traditional varieties.
And then the other column are the more experimental left field stuff and those, you're right. It can absolutely be tempting to grow things, but sometimes if they are too funky, they won't sell or, like we'll sell, we'll grow a few trays of something one week and sell out of them cause some chefs try them and was super excited, then I'm like, Oh, cool. Let's do it again. and then the next week, it's, they sit there and it's hard for us to sell them. And so with the new funky stuff, we always start small, so literally a tray we'll do one, one tray of, some something funky and then see how it does and maybe seed one more tray the following week, if it does sell, we won't immediately step things up and then once we notice a trend and I've looked at our numbers and done some number crunching, then I can see, okay, consistently people are enjoying the gem Marigold or something like that. And so we'll keep production up on that.
The funky stuff, like I said, it'll never surpass the standards, but it's good to always have even on your availability list to show a diversity of availability, I think is definitely helpful to just show off just the scale of your production and the fact that you're not just growing kind of the standards that you can get anywhere. So it, it is always tempting to try and, it's one of those things, the good thing about, we buy small amounts of seed at a time, when we're trying out the new stuff and, if it doesn't sell well, we maybe spent $10 or less on the smallest quantity of seed we could possibly get for that variety. And I guess it's $10 down the drain, but when you're doing it at such a small scale, as far as the funky stuff goes, it's not a huge deal.
Diego: [00:20:18] What are some of the more offbeat types of microgreens that you don't hear about a lot of growers growing, or maybe you haven't heard a lot of on the show that you've had good, I'll say sustainable success with their, not just a one hit wonder, you can consistently move at least a few trays of them all the time?
Luke Carneal: [00:20:39] I did just mention it, but, some of the more floral varieties, they're actually literally flowers, like Marigold we've had success with it. We buy a decent amount of our seed from Johnny's and they sell it I think they call it gem marigold. And we do shungiku, which is actually, I think it's chrysanthemum and that has been popular. Super tender has a nice floral taste, easy to grow.
Another, litmus test for us is it going to be too much of a pain to grow? And so the ones I'm mentioning are fairly easy to grow, at least in our system. And so those two are popular. We just got our hands on some seed that is really weird. It's called, red toon or also known as Chinese toon.
And, it's actually technically I think a tree if you grow it to maturity, and it's used in Chinese culinary context, I think as an herb, it has a very funky kind of oniony, earthy taste. It's definitely an acquired taste. And when I grow it in the greenhouse, you know I'm growing it, because it actually smells. It's not like terrible, it's not a bad smell. It's just very distinct.
So those are a few here. I'm looking at, I'm trying to pull up my spreadsheet so that I can�We just, I'm a hibiscus that they're sold as Asian sour leaf. There's a seed company up in Oakland called Kitazawa, which I'm sure people use who are growing microgreens all across the country. So they've got a lot of awesome stuff. And so we've done a fair number of the more Asian varieties that, you might not typically see.
But nasturtiums shoots are popular. Celery has been pretty popular. I think this isn't too weird, but, crest in that's a pretty standard one, I guess now, but that's super easy to grow and we don't grow watercress seed for that is ridiculously expensive. I haven't found cheap watercress seed. That�s like $170 for a pound or something ludicrous like that. So we grow garden crest, which has a pretty similar taste. It's actually easier to grow. Has been pretty popular, which has a kind of cucumber flavor to it. Those are some.
Carrot. Let's see�dill. So yeah, I would say that kind of herbal and floral ones are a pretty popular and some of them are actually pretty easy to grow, so they're not prohibitive.
Diego: [00:23:16] And you're growing these in a unique way from checking out your Instagram, you're growing these on flood tables. Can you talk a little bit about that growth system and how you came about growing it that way and how it's worked?
Luke Carneal: [00:23:29] Yeah, that I developed probably about this time last year, we'd been growing them exclusively using overhead MREs and that's fine. But in our context, We were getting a decent amount of disease pressure just because, when you do water from overhead, obviously you're going to be getting the foliage wet.
Especially on overcast days, and in the winter here in California, when it's a rainy and humid, that's when the disease pressure goes up. The other issue that I had with overhead irrigation and relying on, it was really hard for me to get away from the farm and it�s just hard for me to basically have a social life to have to cause you know, with overhead irrigation, you, at least in our setting, sometimes you would get dry spots where, I would leave the farm for half a day and then come back in the evening and I'd see that trend wilted�cause we have misters on a timer and a mister might've gotten clogged or there was just a weird, it wasn't overlapping right with the next mister. And we would lose trays that way.
And at least on the weekend, I want it to be able to get away for at least half a day, if not a whole day maybe eventually. And so I was trying to think about ways to skirt around that issue. What we do now is�we a traditional way of seeding them, we fill trays with soil, and we use, we don't make our own soil or anything. We get an organic potting mix from a local soil company. That's a really great mix. It's not cheap, but it grows amazing microgreens.
But it�s a certified organic mix and we fill our trays with that, tamp them down with a wooden block. Water the soil and seed the seed, put the seeds down, then again, miss them in a stack them. and then when they're, when they germinate and put some weight, put a lot of weight on the stacks using, basically what are they called pavers?
Basically cinderblock pavers, concrete pavers, and then we unstack them. And then we actually, what we do is we unstack them and mist them in by hand to make sure they get some water on them. We might hit them with a little bit of very diluted hydrogen peroxide, using a backpack sprayer, which is just a safe way to mitigate any potential disease.
then what we do is we let them sit on the tables where they're going to get misted for a couple of days, because at that stage I haven't formed really enough roots to be put on the flood tables. If you put them on the flood tables, when they're, you're looking like that, when they're, just germinated, it might work, but they're still gonna, there are still some seeds that are just germinated and they really want overhead water on them.
In the same way that when you're growing salad mix on the field, at least in my experience, I get much better determination using overheads than I didn't. And so we, let them sit on the MREs, which are, like I said on timers. I get at this time of year, they get missed at three times a day, pretty heavily for two minutes at a time. Two minute intervals.
And after sitting on those tables, getting missed it for a couple of days and forming roots, we moved them over to a flood system, which is also on a timer. And these are the flood system that I made. I bought all just�I pretty much got the parts from greenhouse Megastore, which obviously anyone can easily go on and buy stuff.
GreenhouseMegastore.com. I didn't buy a fancy hydroponic, ebb and flow system or anything like that and basically what it is are these, pays that almost look like a huge 10 20 tray and they hold, for 10 20 trays in them and the 10. So the 10 20 trays actually sit on the lip of the tray so that they're not sitting directly, it's not like the bottom of the 10 20 trays is, touching the bottom of the little large flood tray.
What I did is I drilled very small holes in the trays that I got from Greenhouse Megastore, so that they're actually able to drain out. And what happens is the microgreen trays sit on those flood trays. And I have an overhead, irrigation tube over each table.
And each of those flood trays have its own irrigation tube that comes different the top of your ship. And, basically floods the flood tray. and. it floods and then it sits there while, and then the holes slowly let the water out, but I've made sure that, and it took some tweaking by, got it.
So that the, trays that a slow enough pace so that the water stays in long enough to actually, flood the, to saturate the microgreen trays. And so it's not a perfect system. right now we are dripping a fair amount of water, obviously just onto the ground. we have, a gravel floor to our greenhouse, but it, we don't really get any pooling or anything like that.
And the good thing about the flood system is that we're able to irrigate, once it's on the flood system, during the winter, as soon as I can get away with only flooding three times a week, And then during the summer, it's we usually do it five mornings out of the week. but, I haven't done a test, but would be curious to see if I'm using more or less water now that, we have switched over to the flood system, because we've cut down on the actual days per week that we do it.
But the great thing about that is the foliage is dry for harvest. it still gets a little bit wet because the waters, flooding and flooding up and, the microgreens and we're floating in the water. the soil absorbs it, but still a little bit of moisture creeps up the stems.
And so the way that we get away with cutting nice and dry, foliage is we just, right now we're mostly harvesting on Mondays. And so I'll have the irrigation go. On Saturday and Sunday, and then it won't go on Monday. And so basically by harvest time on Monday morning at, let's say 10:00 AM it, hasn't gotten irrigated and over 24 hours, and the full agent is nice and dry.
And then the same, we do the same thing for Thursday. We just don't run irrigation on Thursday. We don't really get any wilting from that. The soil is saturated enough, but we get nice and dry foliage. And we get really great shelf life and they're just not a pain to harvest.
It's besides the fact that your shelf life is diminished with wet foliage. Any microgreen grower out there knows it's a pain in the butt to harvest wet migraines. or, and just because, there will be sticking to your fingers and things just get messy. I. I can't really imagine it doing it any other way now.
I think flood irrigation is like the way to go on microgreens for disease control for getting dry crops. and then also, Oh yeah. The other thing is I can, now I can go away. I can leave the farm for two days and know that they're going to get flooded. I guess I could have a pipe burst or something, but that has yet to happen. It�s more of a hands-off and efficient system for sure.
Diego: [00:30:41] Do you find that flood irrigation works more or less universally for all the crops you're growing? Because you're growing a wide variety of stuff from pea shoots that are one type of crop to some of these flowers that are very different. Does the flood irrigation tend to fit all of them pretty well?
Luke Carneal: [00:30:58] Yes. More or less. And the other thing is we try to, Not all crops might be able to grow well on it, but we try to choose crops that will, because we like the system so much and it is okay. A workable for a wide variety of crops that we haven't found it to be really restrictive.
The only things that sometimes don't do well on it is I, so we print, we grow like 98% of our crops on soil. We grow two varieties on organic hemp mats. We grow basil on him mats. The reason for that is because the soil sticks to the seeds and it makes it hard to harvest it clean.
And so we've switched over to hem mats for those. And sometimes the hemp mats. I don't think like the flood irrigation, I think we could figure out a way. I think sometimes they just get you're getting too much because they're on the same timer as the. soil, get that's getting flooded. And if we switched over, I think I could tweak it, to work for those.
Then the other thing is, so for instance, pea shoots, we grow and I do grow them on the flood trays, but. Usually in a week, I'll try to hit them a couple times with a wand because of the pea shoes. Just love a lot of water. And even if they're, even if the soil is getting saturated, I find that the greens really like to get hit with, a shower and same with the sunflowers.
So the bigger stuff I might. Grow on the flood trays. And then if I remember too, I'll hit them with a wand, but if I don't, if I forget to, it's not the end of the world, really. but they might just be a little more, juicy, if I do remember to hit them with the overhead and it's easy enough to remember, cause I'll just be walking through the greenhouse and I've got the wand right there.
And so I'll throw some water down on them, but yeah, pretty much everything that we grow, all the micro greens we grow. We moved over to the flood system.
Diego: [00:32:54] Oyour Instagram hemp mats too. And that's something I wanted to ask about. So I'm glad you brought it up. What would your thoughts be on you? Using those universally, what do you like about them? You mentioned one thing and that was the soil. There's no soil to stick to the seed.
So you get really clean crops, but beyond that, is there stuff you like about them or stuff you don't like about those mats? Because it's something that actually has never came up really on the show before is growing in some of these non-soil media.
Luke Carneal: [00:33:22] Yeah. I'll start with what I like about them. what I like about them, the main thing that I like about them is that, the labor is significantly less. cause we, we get the, math sent to us they're precut so that they perfectly fit a 10 20 tray. And so you open up the box and then you stick them on a tray and then ready to go.
You don't have to shovel soil in and then smooth the soil out and then tamp the soil down. So that's probably the primary thing that I like about them. what else do I like about them? while they can be, they can make harvest easy if you do it right. Because what you can do is actually just pull the whole thing out of the tray.
and then you just, basically what I do is we'll pull it out of the tray, and then just lay it down on a flat table. Or sometimes we'll just invert a 10, 20 tray. And just lay it on top of that. And so that you can just, cut there's no lip or anything like that to get in the way of you harvesting with a knife.
Although I haven't tried to do that. We also, we have a quick cut greens harvester that we use on a lot of our micros now. and I haven't tried to do that with the harvester, although I don't see why it wouldn't work. I guess I would just get a little worried that it might, hit the him out and chip it, basically throw in a hemp straw or whatever you call it into the mix, which is obviously not desirable.
but so yeah, then the main thing I like is just saving on labor, but the main reason that we don't use them at any kind of scale, yeah, we really only use them on the basil and Oh, the other one is arugula and that's for the same reason is because the arugula seed and basil seed. I think they�re called mucilaginous I think that's the word I could be. Yeah. So they like form this kind of jelly when you water them in and then they, what happens is. When you grow them on soil and in our experience, they, stick the leaves. we'll actually stick to the plant and to the seed hole, that's still on the little microgreen.
And so it's hard to get a perfectly clean product. That's why we've done the arugula and the basil on the hem mats. And I guess you could say that's another general benefit of the hemp mat is if you do it right, you are going to get us a very clean product because you're not hard.
There's no chance of you harvesting any soil into the mix. We don't currently wash our microgreens. We cut we're using, sanitized everything and it goes right into clamshells or we harvest with the group quick, cut greens, harvester, and if we're doing a rainbow mix and it goes into a tote, it gets mixed and it goes right into the clamshells.
So we do like a clean product. so yeah, those are the things I like about it as far as what I don't like about it the main thing is we haven't been able to grow the microgreens do not get as big as and robust as they do on the soil. For the arugula, it's not a very demanding crop, so they don't it's okay for them basically to grow in the hemp.
The basil, we could grow bigger, but the hemp doesn't really let us, so we've grown, we harvested very micro size, but a lot of the other things, I do like to grow them out to size just because your yield improves. And a lot of people do like what we call petite greens, which are just a little bigger than the micros. And you really can't grow my, at least in our experience.
If you're growing it on a flood system and then you are like, fertigating, you're like pumping, fertilizer into your, water system, but I don't want to do that. It's just another step. Even if I could find good organic water soluble fertilizer, I just would rather avoid that. So with the soil that we use, it has not even very much fertility in it, but there is some compost that's mixed into it, at the time facility where we get it delivered from and we're able to grow huge, big microgreens on them. Not even necessarily big, but they just look much. They just more vibrant. I think they taste better. We're still able to grow them fairly clean, like we're able to harvest them clean even though it's on soil, just because, we don't cover the seeds with any soil or anything like that.
So the micro is just pretty much grow. Up off of the soil, if that makes sense. Overall I think soil grows a better microgreen. Now maybe there's some, maybe if someone got like a thicker head at, I know that there are different thicknesses and if they got a thicker hemp mat, maybe there would be more room for the roots of the micro green to go down and they'd be able to grow bigger, better looking micros on those.
I know some operations are like fully mats or some kind of substrate that doesn't have any fertility but into it. I know it's possible, but I have a feeling that a lot of those peoples would rather use fertilizers.
Diego: [00:38:05] What's your cost on a mat per tray versus the soil you get per tray?
Luke Carneal: [00:38:08] Yeah, it's more expensive to buy the mats. I can't remember the prices on them. I think that they are about a dollar 50 a mat when we buy them. But then with the shipping and everything it's I think it might be, yeah, it's like a dollar 50 or $2 a mat. And then the soil. Is more like a dollar per tray. so it's definitely more expensive and that adds up.
It's definitely more expensive to do the mats. Now. I know you can also buy hemp in rolls and you can cut it yourself. And so you probably would be able to cut down on your costs, but, we don't really have the time nor the desire to take a paper cutter or whatever they're called and cut up a bunch of, hem mats. That's not really what we were doing. it is more expensive to use the headmaster. So that's another drawback.
Diego: [00:39:01] And where do you get them from? Somebody is going to ask that. I already know that.
Luke Carneal: [00:39:04] We, right now we get them from Harris seeds, and the, which is not a West coast company. So if I could find maybe someone could write something in the show notes or something, if there's a good West coast company, that has these hemp mats. It has, for us, we're not certified organic, but we're thinking about getting certification. So all of our inputs right now are certified. and that's also just like in line with our ethics.
And we has to be an organic certified him that, and those can be a little hard to find. And this one is, I believe it's called a Growtech hemp mat and it's an East coast company. I maybe from me, I could be wrong on that, but I think they're from Maine. And so I think most of the distributions is on the East coast. The shipping is actually not too bad. and so we get it from Harris fees, we usually just get like a 50 pack of them.
Diego: [00:39:48] You're doing some really interesting things here with your production, with all the crops that you're growing. And one thing you mentioned to me in the email that you sent about doing this episode was, the bulk of your product is being moved to wholesale distributors right now, 80%. And that's where we started out this episode.
For other growers out there who might want to consider selling to wholesalers beyond just having them take a whole bunch in one bite. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of selling to a wholesale distributor?
Luke Carneal: [00:40:27] Advantages are that, you're able to offload a lot of micro greens in one fell swoop, usually because they are buying bulk. You can drop off an order of, 50, 60 clamshells and an invoice, somebody for 500 bucks and that's that. And for us, we have a number of distributors that are in Sonoma County where we farm.
And we're driving the same distance as you would to a restaurant, but instead of going to a restaurant and selling them $50, we�re selling them $500 worth of claims shells. So that's pretty obvious advantage. Another advantage, I think is I guess probably. Half of our wholesale customers now they have basically standing orders that there's a little wiggle room on and they change things here and there, but it's pretty much a standing order week to week. And so that helps that definitely makes your, growing schedule a lot easier. And now that can also be true for restaurants, but I, I sell just on restaurants and I've sold some more in the past and, chefs are always changing their menus around and everything.
And you don't really it's I've never had a restaurant where I've. had a standing order for a year for micro greens, for instance, maybe I'll have a standing order for a couple of months. but with the wholesalers you do, you can get a standing order for a year or more.
And, they might eventually change it a little bit once they, they notice that something's not selling as well, or if they're getting more demand for something else, but it's more consistent. With the fact that you're dumping off a lot of�you're able to cover, let's say you're shooting to gross $1,500 a week or something like that.
And if you're able to hit that hit most of that target in a couple, a day of making it just two or three deliveries, that's preferable to me over running to 15 restaurants, even if they're close by, even if they're in, like in a city, that's within a couple square miles, like it's just, it's hard getting in and out of your truck and going to point a to point B to point C blah, blah, blah.
So I would rather much, I'm happy to drop off to just a fewer number of customers and, get close to our, revenue goals pretty quickly. And then, so once that, then that frees up more time for you to do, more farming. Now I know obviously some farmers out there, they love the chef circuit and running around to a bunch of restaurants.
And I liked that too. I do I wouldn't want to sell 100% exclusively to wholesalers. I do like working with people who are passionate about food. And, so I'm glad that I still do have some restaurant accounts, but it's not something that I want to spend a ton of time doing. And so I like being on the farm and doing the farm work.
Now the disadvantages, there are some for sure, one is, if say you hook up with four wholesale distributors and that you're able to sell, yeah, let's say your weekly revenue goals are $1,500 a week and you're able to pretty much consistently do that through those four distributors.
Now, if one of those distributors goes under or are they just, they want to move on and they don't, they found, another. A grower who's selling it cheaper or something. Cause there it's like a huge grower somewhere else and they're just shipping them in, then, you could lose a significant chunk of your revenue just right there in one.
And once we have that, thankfully hasn't happened to us, but I'm not naive enough to think that it couldn't. It certainly could. And so we're, we're never resting on our laurels. You run the risk of, putting too many eggs in one basket, but the truth, the same can be said for farmer or a farm that relies heavily on is on a couple of farmer's markets or even, farms that rely heavily on a couple of big restaurant accounts if they're doing like salad mix or something.
That's one disadvantage. Another one I would say is, let's see. When you do work with a chef, you get the advantage of a direct line of communication. If they're a good wholesale distributor, they're going to be doing, marketing on your behalf. That's basically why you're selling to them and you're not selling it at a retail price is because, that's reflected in the fact that they're doing the distribution for you basically, they're doing the marketing for you.
With a chef or a caterer or something like that, you can talk one on one with them and if they want you to grow more of X, Y, or Z, you can pretty, they'll tell you straight directly and you can start doing that. and sometimes some wholesale distributors are probably better at that than others, of actually communicating with their chefs and customers and taking down notes and, actually conveying that information to the grower, i.e., me, which thankfully the wholesale customers I work with are pretty good at that. They want to move more product to obviously, and it's mutually beneficial for them to pay attention to what the, what their customers want. And they tell me that.
Another pretty obvious disadvantage is, you, aren't going to be getting retail price. So thankfully, for me selling in the Bay area, I�m still able to get a pretty good price on my clamshell microgreens.
Diego: [00:53:07] If retail, is $5 for a unit, where does that get you?
Luke Carneal: [00:53:14] If it retails for $5, it�s probably $3.50, $4 depending on the retailers. So it's a chunk off of it, for sure. But when you're moving weight, it makes sense for us. And I can't speak so much, so much to trying to sell other product through a wholesaler. Like I haven't really sold like tomatoes to a wholesaler or something like that. I probably wouldn't want, I think there is a good retail market for small-scale producers of veg.
I've done some vege through the food hubs, which are, they are wholesale, they are distributors, but they, really make an effort to give the growers a good price. And and they're, they're selling to chefs who are looking for small scales, or if not small scale than at least sustainable, organically grown produce. And the veg, I'm able to sell through the food hubs, but I don't know if I'd want to sell vege through the more conventional wholesale distributors, because I don't think the margin would make sense there.
Diego: [00:47:01] given your experience selling to these wholesalers. And they you're a small farm, in the big scheme of things, you're tiny compared to probably some of the other farms that these wholesalers are buying from.
What advice would you have for growers that are small, but maybe really niche like this microgreens when you're approaching or talking to wholesalers?
Luke Carneal: [00:47:26] I would say that, wholesalers are, they're definitely looking for consistency of both quality and just the quantity. If you say you're going to have 30 rainbow mix, 30 clamshells of rainbow mix every week, then you really want to know that you're at a point where you can produce that and you're not going to get a crop. That's going to be half-diseased and you're only going to be able to cut 20.
At the beginning, hopefully they would be. understanding and the customers I've worked with have been pretty understanding, but I haven't really tested them too much on it because we do grow consistently because we've worked our system to the point where we can grow consistently.
but they definitely want consistency because it's for them. if you're not producing a consistently, at least in California, there are a couple of big producers that, they do grow consistent. I think that small scale, I think that the way that you can compete against the really big warehouse producers of microgreens is that those microgreens are getting shipped all over the state and all over the country.
So by the time they get to the distributor, they might have gone through like a couple other handlers. And, it might not be very fresh by the time it gets to them. Whereas, you can still provide them with that freshness. You can provide them with some of the, with a few of the funky stuff, more funky things that the big producers are probably aren't interested in growing.
and you can communicate very directly with them with the wholesale customers because you're both the grower and the seller. So they appreciate that. But if you aren't growing consistently for if you're not able to produce consistently, then they. Probably won't have any qualms, just, going back to whoever they were buying from before now with the food hubs, with who are really, that are starting to pop up around the country, that really are a support system for farmers, in my experience, they are more patient and forgiving.
I wish everyone was like that. And I love the food hubs. I don�t want to play favorite favorites, but they are my favorite customers to sell to because it can be a little more patient and forgiving, but when you're trying to sell into the conventional marketplace, it is competitive and they, the other, wholesale customers, if your product isn't meeting their standards of consistency, that they, I imagine they could drop you. So you want to be at a place where you are producing consistently and you want to, prove that to them. And so that might, I, with a few of the customers, I did bring down a lot of free samples.
and that's always hard to do because it's, stuff that you're not making money on, but if you're serious about developing these relationships, you obviously have to sacrifice a little bit at the beginning. And so they obviously appreciate you making the effort to come down and give them free samples.
I think as far as I mostly made cold calls, it's not like with some restaurants I've in the past, I've shown up with just samples and that can work. I don't, I would not recommend that with, wholesale distributor. if you show up at one of these like loading docks, just with a bunch of stuff, they're probably going to be confused, and be like, I don't really know what we're supposed to do with it.
you'd be lucky to find the right person you need to talk to. So I would call ahead and it might take a few phone calls before you actually get to somebody who. Is the right person to talk to. And then in my experience, so a couple of the wholesale distributors like the more, quote, unquote, lower hanging fruit, like the food hubs who really wanted to work with me, it was easy to start selling to them quick.
Whereas with the conventional growers, they're not you or sorry, the conventional wholesalers, they're not used to, buying from a lot of small scale farms. And so they're probably used to, a representative from. I don't know, one of the large scale, like Earthbound organics or something, like getting in touch with them and everything.
They're not used to probably the farmer themselves getting in touch with them. And so it took me a couple months to establish relationships with a couple of my new customers and it can be disheartening cause you're just like, Oh man, like I've been calling them off the hook and obviously you don't want to call them every day. You don't want to annoy them cause you have to toe the line between, being an annoying, but also you don't want to do that, but you do want to be, persistent.
They're not ignoring you because they want you to get lost. It's well, maybe they are, and you have to, I don't know, you have to be the judge of that, but usually I think it's because, they're just insanely busy, like dealing with so many sales and ithey just might not have the time of the day. So I would say, be consistent, be persistent and, bring down free samples and we listened to their feedback.
cause they're gonna want a standardized product. For instance, I just got a new customer that I brought them a good number of free samples, and it wasn't easy to drop off so many free samples, but they, they sold, they moved them really fast. They love the stuff. And then they wanted me to tweak a little bit like the label and the size of the label and this and that.
And we did that and then their cells went up even more. And listen to the feed yeah. Back and be willing to, To, change your presentation of the micros and how you package them, et cetera.
Diego: [00:52:49] Yeah. A lot of great advice. I sit there and I love what you're doing up there in Northern California, for people that want to find out more about what you're doing on your farm. Either if they're local to potentially purchase that product or just to follow along from afar and see how you're growing some of these unique varieties, you're on Instagram, you have a website where the best places for people to go?
Luke Carneal: [00:53:11] Yeah. for Instagram, you can follow us at TheSonomaFarm is our handle. And so if you just look that up, the Sonoma farm, just one word, you'll find us. And then, our, website is, Sweetwaterspectrum.org. And then if you go to there, you'll see a side banner on the right that says Sonoma farm, and you can click that and it'll take you to the, section about the farm. You can get some more information there.
Diego: [00:53:41] There you have it, Luke corneal of the Sonoma farm. If you want to follow along with everything that Luke's doing, be sure to check out his information in the show notes for this episode. Later this year or early next year, I'll also have a nice in-depth YouTube video showing what Luke is doing on his farm.
I was up there this summer and I filmed a lot of content specifically around how they grow and harvest microgreens. I think if you're doing micro greens, you'll find that really interesting. They run a very professional dialed in operation up there. One update. I do want to give you that. I learned from talking to Luke when I was there.
And since then is on hemp mats. In this episode, Luke talked about using hemp mats in his microgreen production. Will they have, since I moved away from using hemp mats, the reason being it's really hard to get a big, a robust crop off of hemp mats. There just isn't enough hemp in the mat. Compared to growing microgreens from soil.
And those are results that I've also seen. And we've also seen at paper pot co because after recording this episode with Luke, I got really interested in these hemp mats. And I thought, they're a unique product. That might be something that is worth selling Curtis. And I, we did a bunch of trials using the hemp mats in results.
We're just They're not great because you can't get a big crop off of them that maps themselves. And given what you're paying for the maths, you want to get a good yield out of each tray. And we found that yield suffered growing on hemp versus growing in soil. Now, hemp does have its applications.
If you want a nice clean crop, hemp makes a lot of sense if you're looking for convenience and it makes a lot of sense, you don't have to fuss with soil. But if you're looking for a yield or potentially a better product, I think you still are going to be using soil for your micro-grants. That's why Luke stopped using them.
And that's why we aren't selling them. If you're somebody that's hearing this on hemp mats and you disagree with what I'm saying, you're seeing different results. Shoot me an email and let me know. I'd be really curious to hear your experience on them. There are a product that I really wanted to work.
But they just never quite worked out for us. You won't find them for sale at . one thing I'm trying to do. Everything that we sell on that site is test it and test it to the nth degree. I want to make sure that anything that we're selling to you or people like you is tried and true, and it works. I'm not looking just to make a sale and sell you some sort of shake, weight, infomercial, garbage that you're going to buy, try and never use.
Again. I want to sell you something that will truly make your farm more productive, more efficient. In more profitable. So when it comes time for us to find new products like hemp mats, we test them and we have other growers that we know and work with, test the products and give us their results. And if those products don't hold their weights or
Luke Carneal: [00:57:04] produce their weight,
Diego: [00:57:06] then they don't make it onto our website.
So next time you're looking to buy something from our store at paper, pot.co. No, that everything has been tried and tested extensively. Learn more about all of our paper, pot products and any new products that we might be email@example.com. Thanks for listening to the episode this week. I want to leave you with one parting thought.
Think about what Luke was doing in this episode, selling the wholesalers, and then think about who you're selling product to.
Luke Carneal: [00:57:43] Are you
Diego: [00:57:43] happy with your customer base? Are you happy with your customer mix? Maybe it's a blend of CSA, farmers, markets, and restaurants. Does it feel good to you? If not, what can you do between now and next spring to change it?
What could it mean? You better start thinking about questions like that now, so you can put the pieces in place to hit the ground running next brain. Thanks for listening today until next time. Be nice. Be thankful. And do the work.
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