As a new farmer entering the market, one of the biggest challenges that presents itself is getting yourself out there and building your own customer base. It’s a tough challenge especially in an area where there’s already a lot of established farmers.
So, how do you approach that? In this episode, we have farmer Mark Chapman who managed to start building a customer base in an already-saturated market.
Today’s Guest: Mark Chapman
Mark Chapman is an urban farmer in North Portland, Oregon. Mark previously worked at a gourmet restaurant before starting farming. He and his farm will be entering his second season of growing along with growing his business with an online platform.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- The Why: the initial draw into urban farming (02:09)
- Takeaways from working in a business that’s applicable in farming (03:57)
- The importance of the story in marketing
- The importance of cash flow
- How vegetable farmers can engage customers with their stories (05:39)
- Be honest with yourself and be upfront with your customers (07:18)
- How can you tell what resonates with people and what doesn’t? (07:26)
- The experience as a new vendor and building up a customer base (08:53)
- How do you differentiate yourself and create a foothold? (10:44)
- Choosing which crops to grow that fits well into Mark’s context (12:35)
- Approaching variety and figuring out which ones grow well (16:03)
- Starting up the farm and where the capital came from (18:55)
- Pitting reality with the expectations (22:18)
- Is there enough land capacity to meet the demands? (24:43)
- Was the online sales always been part of the plan? (25:33)
- The website, the trends, and the sales model (27:12)
- Mark’s CSA model (30:20)
- Getting people to go on the website (30:58)
- The verbiage that catches people’s attention (33:22)
- The current farmer’s markets are in the neighborhood (34:42)
- Administering the site for online sales (35:53)
- The time commitment for deliveries (37:37)
- Balancing the inventory between the online sales and the farmer’s market (39:35)
- The finances: sales and managing the rest of life (42:10)
- Looking at how things have been going so far (44:32)
- The forecast for year two into farming (45:43)
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- The Urban Farmer Podcast
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Diego: [00:00:00] When you're a brand new farmer to an area, how do you establish yourself in that market? How do you differentiate yourself? Today, we're going to hear from a farmer up in Portland, Oregon. Who's doing just that. Find out how he's doing it and what he's doing coming up. Welcome to the world of farming, small and farming smart.
I'm your host Diego from where I sit. There's one trend that I can tell you that is for sure happening out there, small-scale farming is becoming more and more popular all across the country and in other countries. And while that popularity is great, it also has its downsides. And one of the downsides of this increased popularity of small-scale farming is you get increased competition. And in a lot of areas around the country, these markets are getting more and more saturated. Which presents challenges for new growers trying to enter the market. How do you establish yourself in a market that may be saturated or crowded? How do you start to differentiate yourself? Can you make it work?
It's real challenge that I think a lot of growers are facing and maybe many of you are facing those types of challenges in your market. Today, we're going to hear from a grower Mark Chapman up in Portland, Oregon. Who's working around that challenge right now. Portland's an area where small-scale, farming's a thing.
So Mark's facing some challenges, trying to get a foothold and establish himself in that market. Last year, 2017 was this first year trying to establish himself in 2018 will be year two. Today. We're going to find out what he did and how it worked. And what he's going to do and change for 2018, Mark's doing a few unique things to establish himself in that local market, including running a CSA style subscription through his website.
It's an interesting model that's enabled him to diversify his customer base away from just the standard farmer's market. So let's jump right into it with farmer Mark Chapman, Mark.
When you first started getting into farming, urban farming, what was really the draw for you or the why?
Mark Chapman: [00:02:16] The why for me was personal to begin with. I had been interested in farming or agriculture in the back of my mind since graduating college, and reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, where he has a couple chapters, talking with Joel South. And so that kind of got me interested kind of like a bug in my brain, and, but that was about, that was 2007. And then I worked in a gourmet food company here in Portland, before them, remotely for about seven years after graduating, and kind of rose in the ranks and help build a company. It was really good experience. To be able to help build a company from six employees to 30 and get a chance to do all different kinds of business.
But I was starting to feel pretty depressed and the standard sort of story, tired of the office work, and wanting to start my own business. So I started looking out for just farming and things that would engaged me physically. I actually discovered your season one, you were in, I think, toward the end of season one at that point with Curtis, on the original urban farmer podcasts. And that kinda set me on the path to where I am today.
Diego: [00:03:35] It's funny. That's the common path that a lot of people follow along. If you think about that time working for that startup and growing that company, what are some of the big takeaways that you think have really helped you grow your farm?
Because a lot of people I find who get into farming, they don't come from. an entrepreneurial minded business prior to getting into farming, they worked for a big company or they're coming straight out of school. What did you take away from growing that company and being around people who were trying to do the same thing, whether you,
Mark Chapman: [00:04:08] yeah, I think there are two big lessons that I took
One is just the importance of the story and marketing. the owner is like a gifted marketer. does really great work with video and television and just being in person in magazines. he's really good at that. so just the importance of telling the story and like in bite sized chunks.
so that was one thing I took away. And another thing was to the importance of cashflow, because I was basically. For the five, at least the five years toward the end of the, of that period, I was the main financial person and in charge of the cashflow and the business was buffeted by some things on the owner's personal side that made things challenging.
And so I, I got an appreciation for the importance of cashflow and making sure that there's going to be money in the bank. not just now, but six months from now, and being able to forecast that and know where things are going to go and make preparations before it's too late
Diego: [00:05:10] In thinking about the story marketing. This is one thing I think a lot of people in the farm space struggle with you sell at a farmer's market. You have an online sales platform and we'll get into both of those more later. How do you think veggie farmers can engage customers, their story.
Mark Chapman: [00:05:34] I think he, trying to boil down your story to a couple bite-size, pieces is the most important thing to start. You can have, cause I think we all have like our own personal background and our own story, and we want to tell the 20 minute version to every person that we meet. but I think it's really important to have, Four sentences, your L your classic elevator pitch almost. for me, I developed that, and what's been interesting is I've developed, is seeing what parts of it people react to and which ones they don't.
one of the things that was important to me, both operationally and personally starting out is, I'm 95% bike driven. and I thought that part of the story would be important, but most people don't seem to actually care that much. they are more into the local part, and me using people's yards.
so being able to really be honest with yourself as to what's resonating with your customers and also give making sure you're in front of customers and telling the story time and time again. and really practicing that.
Diego: [00:06:40] This might sound obvious, but I don't think it's as obvious as it sounds when you're telling the story practicing at time after time. How can you tell what's resonating and what isn't, what are you looking for?
Mark Chapman: [00:06:53] It's easiest at the farmer's market or in person? at least for me, I'm not as good at it. with other ways, I use a lot of social media marketing, for example, and would that, it's really hard to get a sense for what parts people resonate because you don't, the feedback is so incomplete.
but when I'm talking to someone in person, I watched most of their body language, what kind of follow-up questions they might have, but we'll see at what point they start to lose interest or drift away. farmer's market is really chaotic and busy place. It's real easy for them to get distracted.
Diego: [00:07:29] When you're interacting with those customers, you were at a farmer's market back in 2017 as a substitute vendor and selling plants starts, correct?
Mark Chapman: [00:07:39] Yeah. I, I applied to be a full vendor, but I was wait-listed. and, but then they gave me the opportunity to sell plant starts. and then the opportunity came up to substitute because they had a couple of farmers who were running quite behind. so yeah, and then I was at a different farmer's market, a much smaller one in, I'd say the last three months of the season as well.
Diego: [00:07:59] But what was your experiences as a new vendor going into both of those markets? You're having these conversations, you're watching the body language. How long do you think it took you or do you feel like you ever did start to build a solid repeat customer base? Because I think a lot of people think, Oh, I'll just go to the farmer's market. People will show up game over, but I think it takes time.
Mark Chapman: [00:08:25] the first market. So I was, I sold vegetables there for the first four weeks, the market. And by the second or third week, I was already getting some repeat customers. One lady was just absolutely in love with the hawker eye turnips. And I was the only one who had them. So she would just come and buy four or five bunches, at a time. so things like that, I was getting them right away, but there are also other customers who I could tell I was never even meeting because that market, most of the people had been there before.
I think there was only a one other first year grower there. Out of about seven, six or seven plus a couple of fruit vendors. and at the other market, I was coming in late later second half of the season. And there, I don't think I really ever got regular customers. That was one of the challenges of that market is that there were in one of the challenges of growing, where I grow in general. This is in Portland, Oregon. There's a lot of really great farmers already established here.
So making yourself noticed is definitely hard at the market, which is one of the reasons why I also do the online store and the deliveries, because I knew going into the farmer's market, it would take a while to even get into a market let alone. And then once I get there to establish myself.
Diego: [00:09:46] When you're in a saturated market like that, where there are already established vendors, there's a lot of them. And you're coming in as another new veg vendor. What do you do to try and differentiate yourself or to gain a foothold?
Mark Chapman: [00:10:02] So I took quite a long time. So I started, this is going into my second season right now. So 2016 or 2017 was my first full season. but I spent pretty much all of 2016, writing my business plan, doing my research. I did a kind of experimental vege garden, to try out some things. and even experiment with selling online that year.
I guess I had a little bit of sales that year. so my approach, was just to keep my mind open to different possibilities and to try to see where, what my strengths were, in my situation and where there might be opportunity. So what that ended up being for me is I could tell I think a really compelling story and differentiate myself with being an urban farmer going in people's yards.
In this part of Portland, I'm the only vendor I'm the only farmer in this neighborhood is doing that. There are other urban farmers in our neighborhoods, but I have 60,000 people in this area to myself and so identifying the market, and then just going from there and, Just trying things out and keeping an open mind. I've tried approaching restaurants the first year and they've been difficult, but also not it's ended up being my focus, but it's always in the back of my mind.
Diego: [00:11:26] About in terms of the crops that you grow? In an email that you sent me, you mentioned you've tried crops in some just didn't go over that well. And others like broccoli. You could sell it and they fit well in your system. And you're going to be trying different things this year, just to see what works well in your system. So on one side you have, can you grow it? Can you manage it in the field? And on the other side you have, do customers resonate with it?
At these first times that you were at the farmer's market? Did you vary the crops that you were bringing to see, to try and get a feel for this is working or this isn't, or just keeping mental notes of this, just this crop is not going to go here.
Mark Chapman: [00:12:06] Yeah. so the first season I basically took Curtis's farm, crop a selection from his book, which. Is has quite a bit more things that he's currently drawing, but it's mostly GRA it's specialty with a focus on restaurants and restaurants are gonna want for the most part, the same thing week after week, like retail customers on the other hand, don't they like variety for the most part.
some people want. Solid greens every week, like one bag, but, they don't, they often like it when, one week it's spinach the next week of spring next, the next week, it's arugula. so at the farmer's market for me for last season, I just basically brought everything that I had at that point.
But at that point it was only basically, The baby root vege, salinova baby kale, or arugula mix. And then some things I had thrown in his experiments. so broccoli, you mentioned I'd grow a non-heading variety, from Johnny's called happy rich. and I could tell that was taking, not just about selling, but then people would come back and comment the next week and buy more of it.
or give me other feedback. And so that provided me that kind of feedback. So I came to this point going into this season where I had to decide to double down on going the restaurant route, which would force me into a narrower crop selection or, try to at least keep the same variety if not expand it for the retail market and my farm right now.
Is looking like it's going to be a little over a quarter acre this year had a bit of uncertainty. This one's hard because one of my homeowners is selling. And so it was unclear whether I was going to go to stay at that house. but when I looked at my numbers last year, I, yeah, I noticed that, broccoli, as an example was.
Quite profitable for me given the amount of labor, which is a lot less than something like silent Nova that goes into it. that was able to get, and I, last year I remember I planted four or five beds of sound over that I barely harvested and there's had to be composted cause I didn't, I couldn't move that volume. Being able to move a variety is important too. In my context, at least.
Diego: [00:14:30] How do you go ahead then with that idea of, I need to have some variety of the farmer's market entering this season for 2018? Is it, make your best guess as to what you think you can sell and just try it and then see what do customers buy? And can I grow it? Do I like growing it? Does it grow well?
Mark Chapman: [00:14:49] Yeah. I have two to three categories in my head. I have the things that I'm growing that I grew well last year, so I know I can grow and I know it sells well. so spinach to happy rich, properly and sorry, and is, are profitable. I tried growing pole beans last year, for example, that were that sold well when I had them, but the yields I got with the labor of stringing them up and everything wasn't what it needed to be.
I charted Pearl onions for the same thing. Last year, I tried to better them and it just didn't work. So this year, I'm doing regular Bush beans. And, and they, yeah. So the process of that is first evaluating. Can I sell it or do I think there's going to be a demand? So I get that list and then I go through, and I try to find varieties that will fit in my system.
so my system is, I have a 20 foot bed, With some 25 foot beds just based on the lot sizes in Portland. That seems to be what fits best in my slots, 30 inch. And then I typically will do I have a lot of fabrics, for weed suppression that I have at three rows at 12 inch spacing or six or four rows at six inch spacing.
and so my main question is can I fit it in those fabrics? so for me, if something can't, say cabbage, I'm trying cabbage this year. And if I found two varieties that I think might have a chance of fitting in 12 inches, but if they don't work at that, then it's not gonna work for me.
so that's there's this feedback back and forth in my planning process of can I sell it and do I think I can grow it effectively? one thing that was like really popular last year, That I'm growing a lot more of this year is like smaller, small ish had lettuces.
They're a little bigger. I grow them a little bigger than gem lettuces, and I don't always stick the gem varieties, but my online customers, especially even the farmer's market customers don't really seem to care. I just do a big stack of really pretty lettuce heads and they just pop through and pick out ones, say and then I price it at a point where a better. Is quite can be quite profitable. So given how fast it grows. Yeah.
Diego: [00:17:00] So it's really a trial and error process to get to where maybe eventually arrive at in the longer term of these are the main crops I grow. And we were talking before we started recording, you're in a position where this has to work financially, but it doesn't necessarily have to work instantly financially. So that gives you a little bit of wiggle room to play around with this stuff. Can you talk about how you started up your farm and the money that you put into it, where it came from? Yeah.
Mark Chapman: [00:17:30] So the first, as I said before, I spent, about a year off and on for a year planning, the first season and just given my personality, I knew that I didn't want to try starting it in addition to a job. I'm someone who if I'm in something I want to really be doing at. Wow. And it takes up my did majority of my mind. so I, said about, basically writing a business plan and my original plan was to fund myself. I saved up about $10,000. For my contribution.
And then I was going to raise an additional 50,000 or a line of credit of 50,000 from various friends and family, crowdsourcing it, but without going through a website, but also with it being a repayable. So I set up financial terms, what ended up happening, which was, I was really lucky as my grandparents offered to basically loan me I guess inheritance, or my dad's inheritance. And he agreed to it for the full 50, which I haven't taken out so far. I've only taken out 40,000 of that. but knowing that I had that financial backing has really, I did that so that I would have the freedom to experiment in the first year or two years.
really, I gave my, I made sure that I would be able to. So at least two years on that, obviously selling, things as well. My first year sales were a bit lower than I wanted to because I didn't have the stable markets. So I only had about $12,000 in sales the first year. but as I said, there were so much that I could grow and not that I wasn't able to sell because I didn't have the markets established, I knew it would take, it's a kid.
Genetic thing, you need to be around for awhile to establish the markets, but if you can't sell and you don't have the cashflow, then you're not going to be sticking around long enough to establish the markets. and knowing that I was coming into a fairly saturated scene here, that was important to me.
So that's how I. Kind of planned it out. and so far, it's definitely not, if you go back and look at my business plan, it's not the same at all. how it turned out, but that's kind the Eisenhower rule is the, whatever he said, the plans never survive the first minute of the battle, but the planning is the important part.
Diego: [00:20:02] Where were you most off? Because that's interesting, I was interviewing somebody earlier today and they had the same exact experience. So what did you think? And then how did it actually play out?
Mark Chapman: [00:20:14] I've been pretty much perfect and discipline on, say my expenses. So what I've spent hasn't really, I wasn't off there. Because a lot of that's just, you researched, it was just how much tools cost so much seeds costs, and you budget and you stick to your budget. But on the sales side, I'm in quite a bit off. One of the big areas is on the microgreens. I've found. Pretty much, no risk, no real market for them here at least in my part of Portland and I that's an important part of my context is the part of, my identified market is a two mile radius from my house because I have, but I want to be able to bike and do deliveries on the bike.
And there really aren't that many restaurants here that would, that are kind of the higher end restaurants and the ones that are often are like, one of the more popular ones is a vegan barbecue place. So they're pretty much everything there is deep fried and they don't really use vegetables that much, or, but most places are like, small food carts. I have one food cart that was at a customer last year, but he.
No, it was a pizza place cart, and he didn't want microgreens. and then the retail side, some people like the radish shoots, and I can grow those pretty easily. So I still do those, but, my original business plan had thousands of dollars in revenue from microgreens that I didn't find a market for. so that's one thing that got the real early on.
but, and then we'll see this season, will be a real big task because I. Am in the farmer's market that I was subbing in last year. I'm going to be a full-time vendor there. And I know the four markets I was there before. I was doing $700 a market, for my first season with less variety this year. So I'm really trying to hit a good doing well at that markets, my main goal this year. but yeah, I'd say the microgreens, was the main. The main area that was off
Diego: [00:22:16] A market like that, 700 bucks a market, pretty good money if you're in there all season and that takes off. And then you also have the online sales, which we'll get into a little later. Do you have enough capacity on your current land base to grow enough for all those?
Mark Chapman: [00:22:35] Yeah. based on the yields that I got last year, combined with just approximate yields and allowing for crop failures. I do, as long as�I'm definitely pushing my own limits this year, on how much time it's going to take me and how much planting I can do, but yeah, in theory, I should be able to supply all those markets.
Diego: [00:22:58] When you were doing your initial business planning, thinking about the markets was the online sales something you had envisioned? Or if not, where did that idea come from to start doing that?
Mark Chapman: [00:23:10] My first year online sales, I was expecting that to take off more than it had. Initially it's slowly it's is starting to really grow as part of my business via that. That was actually, the main. Focal point of the business design, was, does online delivery. So Portland is very food conscious. there's a lot of people who are cooking here, being vegetarian and vegan, eating all vegetables is a cool thing in this part of Portland.
and so I knew there was a market, that I could see from going to the grocery stores. Wasn't. Really being filled very well. pretty much even, Oregon has a lot of small vegetable growers. We don't have any big ones, all the stuff, even in the organic section of our fancy, whole foods is all California produce.
which I thought that, so I saw that as a really good opportunity, as long as I could provide competitive pricing and free home delivery, which is what I offer in my delivery zone. yeah, the online business was definitely a key part of the business strategy as just having a market that I would have full control over and not being only at the mercy of farmer's market managers or restaurants, or chefs.
Diego: [00:24:29] So given that you have all the control, you can make it whatever you want it to be. Can you talk about what the current version of your website sales are, and maybe how that's evolved based on different trends or things you've seen with people interacting with a previous.
Mark Chapman: [00:24:52] So when I started off the website, I only use the gone order. I delivered twice a week last year. and you could go on and order whatever items you wanted. So if you only wanted one bunch of cilantro. I would deliver that to your house for free, but you could also order $20 worth of stuff or 40, if you really wanted like a bunch of stuff. I have a, I have a person who does pop up restaurants and she ordered and delivered to her house.
And so she'll order 50, $60 at a time. And that's probably the high end. and, but what I found, in part talking to some of my customers and from requests is that a lot of people wanted to order from me, but didn't want to be bothered to go on and, and to order every week. so they wanted more of a subscription base.
So I've added, Kind of a CSA weekly subscription model. but starting off at a really small size. So my smallest basket this year is $12. I'm going all the way up to 26. I don't go very high because I, don't not sure I'm going to go support the variety that would require to do a really good full basket,
Diego: [00:26:01] two choices for people. They can ala cart or one of these multiple size baskets.
Mark Chapman: [00:26:08] Exactly. And I also have people who will, who have a subscription, but will also order an addition. So they know they need something for, they know they went on a bunch of parsley and a salad next for, something they're making this week. But they also, and so looking at that in addition to their, to their basket.
and so my kind of my proposition and this will. I'll know in a couple of weeks, actually, how accurate this is? Is that because of the density in my distribution, the cost of delivery, what will be acceptable once I get up to a certain scale? So last year I probably, yeah, it wasn't, I probably wasted, or I didn't make that much money if you consider my time.
last year biking around delivering when I only had four or five deliveries a week or per delivery run. but this year. I have, I think, 14 CSA subscribers at this point, plus, I'll get maybe another eight to 10 a week at my current rate of Al carte purchasers. And so at that point, it becomes a lot more effective when I'm out because people live three doors down from each other. And then, so that time to deliver is minimal.
Diego: [00:27:26] So it�s a CSA-style. Can you talk about the term that somebody is in this for and when they're paying, are they paying all upfront? They do it week by week?
Mark Chapman: [00:27:33] it's w it's week by week. And they can pause with, they want to go on vacation or cancel. So there's no risk. It's just, I use Stripe, through my websites on WordPress with WooCommerce and I use Stripe to do recurring subscriptions. So they get charged, their credit card gets charged once a week for the amount. And then I drop off the vegetables.
Diego: [00:27:58] I like the idea of diversifying online and having that option out there. But like anything, you can build it, but it doesn't mean people are going to show up. So for people who are wanting to maybe do this in different locations, they could put the website together.
How do you get people to find the website to go to the website, to participate in the commerce on the website versus just coming to the farmer's market?
Mark Chapman: [00:28:23] I'm still learning. And that's been a challenge. I, my initial marketing was through next door. So as a social media neighborhood based app, and I got my initial batch of customers there.
I tried advertising at some local gyms. I tried advertising in the local paper, which gotten, net Mia, a customer or two, and. then I discovered there was a Facebook group for our neighborhood that has 12,000 people on it. I posted there and I got a lot of good feedback there. so it was just trying to get the word out a lot, but one thing I've learned, and this goes back to what I was saying before is it just takes time.
I had a lady order for me, and order again this spring. So she's become a regular customer this year. And I asked her where she heard about me and she referenced a post that I put on Nextdoor a year ago. So it took her a year just thinking about it. I asked to four, she finally put her first order and then that's happened time and time again.
Or a neighbor of one of the places I deliver, I've talked to them a couple of times and they finally decided to order. so I think it just. It just takes patience and just getting repetition. I think that's what I've learned from marketing as often. It's like why car companies advertise, even though you're not usually in the market for our cars to make sure you're in the customer's mind so that when that moment for them, when they're interested in it, they think of you.
It's much more of a brand marketing, I think, approach than a strictly sales approach. Which in retrospect, I'm not sure. The jury is still out on how successful that part of my farm is going to be.
Diego: [00:30:07] Do you have a sense yet of when you're posting online about your online store, what type of verbiage resonates? I know you mentioned earlier that, you've done some social media marketing. It's harder to really find out. What people resonate with, but do you have some idea of this is working better than this?
Mark Chapman: [00:30:31] The stuff that catches people's eye is that I use local, that I use yards. and then I'm in their neighborhood.
That's by far the thing that they, that people in this neighborhood find attractive. there I've never had anyone ask me. I, I say use organic methods and, I can talk for a long time. I'm like, how does that's important to me is like how I grow things. But for the most part, people kinda just see does assumed facts. They really just liked the fact that I'm right around the corner. This neighborhood has a fairly strong identity. I think playing into that identity and helping people reinforce the identity as strong. So if you can figure out what your customer's like identity is. And be part of participate in that.
Diego: [00:31:19] What about the farmer's markets that you're at, are those in your neighborhood or are they far enough out of range where you couldn't try and deflect farmer's market customers to your online?
Mark Chapman: [00:31:31] they're in my neighborhood. The one that I'm the main one I'm doing is the St. John's farmer's market. St. John's is the name of the largest neighborhood in this part of Portland. and even the parts, if you don't technically live in St. John's you tell people in Portland. Oh, I live in St. John's cause it's part it's close to there.
and so I, yeah, that was one of the big things I've tried, going to the farmer's market and I had pretty limited success deflecting, most people who wanted stuff. went to the farmer's market and that's what they bought. I'd say one or two customers that have, since the farmer's market stopped and I'm still delivering vegetables now they're ordering more from me. But in general, those are pretty segmented customer groups. From what I can tell people who want to go to farmer's market or people who don't
Diego: [00:32:21] For the online sales, how much work do you think you're putting into that on a weekly basis? Not including anything related to veg prep, packing delivery, just administering the site, dealing with customer service around the site,
Mark Chapman: [00:32:41] 30 minutes.
Diego: [00:32:42] So not very much at all.
Mark Chapman: [00:32:44] Yeah, not much. And I write a newsletter. that's probably the biggest part. And so if I'm having writer's block. that can take, to write my little paragraph or two that I always try to write. That takes a little while. but I, one of the big things that I did, at my previous job was administer their e-commerce sites.
That's something I have a background in. So I don't know if that would be the case for people, but, it is one, one advantage I had noted of the online stores is how it fits into your production. so especially this time of year where a crop can sit out for months, just fine, like spinach or something. Being able to harvest exactly what you've already sold is really makes you pretty stole a lot further. so I get my orders in and like right now, when I don't have that much available, I usually just harvest the day before, even the morning of a delivery. And I'm just so they're actually saves time. In other ways.
Diego: [00:33:45] I think it's one big advantage is that's open year round, or as long as you want it to be versus the farmer's market, which is going to have some seasonality to it.
Mark Chapman: [00:33:54] Yeah. I only took six weeks off of the deliveries this year.
Diego: [00:33:58] On a delivery day, or do you do it multiple times a week? what's a typical delivery day look like in terms of time commitment?
Mark Chapman: [00:34:06] So the way I like to think about it is to compare it to the farmer's market. because that's like how I think about it, is it's my second farmer's market. so for a farmer's market, let's assume that the prep for the vegetables is the same for either though it's actually less for the delivery because I already know what I've sold.
So I'd never overpriced whereas farmer's market, I'm always bringing home at least some stuff. so in the farmer's market, I get up, I load my car. Luckily I really close. So it's not very far, but I usually actually have to make wo trips in the morning to get there to, since I can't fit that much in my car, and then I'd stand there for five hours and then I come back and I unload.
To answer being close to an eight hour day. for the farmer's market, which is worth it when I sell off, but not when I was at the secondary market, it wasn't very good. but for the delivery, I usually have pretty much everything harvested, for the big days before the morning.
so I'll get up. I'll often just pack the orders that morning and then. I can load pretty much everything on my trailer. I haven't come close to maxing out my trailer for a delivery. and then I bike and usually if I have to go to the outskirts on both ends of my 10 delivery territory, it's about an hour and a half of biking time. A big delivery morning can be just three or four hours total.
Diego: [00:35:45] With these two different market streams, farmer's market and the online sales, is there one that you developed product priority to. Lucky. If you sell it so much online, you don't have enough to bring to the farmer's market and vice versa, you sell it all at the farmer's market.
You can fulfill your online orders. How have you balanced between the two or are you treating one, as more than the surplus catch for what the other one doesn't sell.
Mark Chapman: [00:36:16] So typically I'll, I have my inventory listed, and it's never, it's often not what I have on my cooler, but what I accommodated to what I have in the floor and what I know I can harvest in the field.
and so I'll have that, like I sent out a newsletter on Wednesday in orders will come in Thursday, Wednesday night, Thursday, Friday. and so by Friday I'll have done most of my most or all my harvesting and I'll have my stock in the cooler. there are some products that I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to harvest it, or I'm not sure it will be ready, or I don't know how much I'm going to have.
I don't list those in the websites. So websites. The stuff that I'm like really sure about. I only had, I think I've only had one instance where I had to tell someone that I don't have the product that they wanted, for all the years. So that's a really important, I think that's a really important thing to pay attention to.
and then the morning I'm packing for the market. If something's going to be. If I'm not sure I'm going to be able to provide it. If I sell it at market, then I take it off the website. so I guess the overflow can go both ways I think is where that ends up. so especially mid season, when crops don't hold in the field for very long, the farmer's market is definitely more of the dumping area, where the website orders.
So get the first cut. but then I have also have the, when I have the subscriptions, which I'm last year, I didn't really have the subscriptions that much. It was all our cart this year with the mercy essay style. I'm would assume that some more quote, unquote dumping, even though it's the same, just as fresh product. I guess the marginal product is a better way to describe it. product that you harvest at the margins that will go toward my baskets.
Diego: [00:38:05] While you're developing both of these markets streams, the farmer's market and the online sales, how do you manage the rest of life? Sales are $12,000 in 2017, is it your living expenses are really low. You use part of that initial $50,000 that you raised and some savings to get through it all? This is another big challenge that a lot of people have when they're starting out on a farm is sales may be low or lower than expected initially, but fixed expenses like rent, mortgage, electricity, they are always going to be there.
Mark Chapman: [00:38:44] So my wife works. she doesn't make a huge amount of money, but she brings home a full-time income with benefits. so I have, that's really important to help associates for rent. and then I. I took out the, of the money that I, raised or saved. I basically guaranteed somewhat guaranteed myself, a $2,000 a month, salary.
so just, I gave my, it was really important to me to give myself that security, for the first two years. and sometimes I don't, if I don't need it, I don't take all of it. and then I also, over this last winter, I been working some side jobs, so I made some more money off the farm and that's not included in that $12,000.
so yeah. And so balancing the financials, that's kinda what I did is I that's, I put that front and center when I developed the business plan. And that's partly why I think a lot of people just to give context of that total, my savings and what I end up. Amount of money that I major would be available as 60,000, only 12,000 of that was for the initial, like equipment like long-term assets.
and then maybe an additional eight to 10,000 for all the operating expenses. So insurance and seed and fertilizer and soil mix and all that, per season. and then I also always take a day off every week, at least one that's a really important thing
Diego: [00:40:15] I mean at this point. How do you view how things have gone so far? Do you feel like it's been successful?
Mark Chapman: [00:40:22] Yeah. my main gauge of success is that I'm been feeling good. I've lost weight, I'm in better shape. And so like my quality of life, which I think is the most important thing has been a success. I can always. I have content that I can always go get a job if I needed a job. So I'm not, unless I became really injured or something horrible happened. I'm not, I don't feel threatened in that way. We don't have children, so that's not a worry. So far, I think I'm on track to hit my sales goal for this year is 30,000, which now that I know I'm in the farmer's market and having commitments for CSA subscriptions, I think I can hit. and that brings me pretty close to being what I think of as sustainable with a long time off in the winter, which is one of my other life lifestyle goals is I want to be able to have time to do writing or other projects in the winter.
Diego: [00:41:19] After going through a year one where you started building some social capital, trying crops, getting the markets going�How would you describe year two? I think year two is going to be�blank.
Mark Chapman: [00:41:37] it's going to be busier, I think, than your one, honestly, because I didn't, it wasn't selling enough last year. I didn't have to harvest that much and I skipped plantings. last year two's going to be, it'd be real busy.
but I also think it's going to be a lot more satisfying. I really enjoy it. It's much. More fun for me to be out planting. And it really pushes me through the long days to know that I'm going to have the opportunity to sell things as opposed to last year where I w I would be planting things. I don't know if I'm actually know how to sell any of this, or maybe, or only a small fraction of it.
But knowing that I had to plant it anyways, because if I didn't, then that would, there, obviously I wouldn't be selling anything, so I wouldn't be planting it.
Diego: [00:42:23] Yeah, it's a really cool model. I love what you're doing. For people that are listening to this, and they want to follow along with everything that you are doing. What's the best place for them to go?
Mark Chapman: [00:42:33] Instagram is fantastic for kind of farmer to farmer support group, and advice. So I met at Mark's market garden. on Instagram and I also have a newsletter that you can subscribe to on my website, Marksmarketgarden.com.
Diego: [00:42:53] I really want to thank you for taking the time to come on in today and chat Mark. I really appreciate it.
Mark Chapman: [00:42:57] Thanks again. I really want to thank you for. Everything that you do. And for being part of my story and how I got here.
Diego: [00:43:08] There, you have it. Farmer Mark Chapman. If you want to follow along with everything that Mark's doing, be sure to check him out on Instagram at Mark's market garden.
And if you want to learn more about Mark CSA style, vegetable subscription box, that he runs off of his website, check out his website at Mark's market garden.com links to his website and his Instagram in the show description below. I really want to thank Mark for coming on today and sharing his story as a brand new farmer.
If you're a new farmer or a not so new farmer and you want to come on the show and share your story. I'd love to chat. Just send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you're doing and where are you doing it? And maybe I'll get you on the show. That's all for this one. Thanks for listening.
Next week, I'll be back with another small-scale farmer, making a go of it. Stay tuned for that in between now and then keep hustling and crushing it for the next episode where it's all about farming. Small in farming. Smart.
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