The Journey Towards the Regenerative Vegetable Farm – Learning, Selling, and Growing More Product Over Time with Shawn Kuhn of Vitruvian Farms (FSFS117)

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In the world of regenerative farming, there are very few examples of farms that do it all well… growing vegetables, tree crops, livestock, and regenerating the land in the process – all while running a sustainable business, meaning, making a profit.

Why is that?

Most of the time, it’s a lack of a clear business model, trying to make all of those different types of operations pay can be complex.

Another reason is the skill and time commitment required to run multiple types of businesses on the same farm. I don’t want to say it’s not possible to run a profitable vegetable operation and a profitable livestock operation on the same farm, but it’s not possible if run by the same person. Too much time, skill and knowledge are required, and that typically will exceed most of our potential.

Today, I am talking to a farm who’s taking it all on, but taking it all on in a very smart and strategic way. In fact, they are probably one of the best examples of a farm seeking to be more regenerative, and function as a sustainable business, anywhere in the world.

This farm is Vitruvian Farm outside Madison WI.

Today, you’ll hear how they doing it, and why they’re doing, from one of their founders Shawn Kuhn.

Connect with Shawn and Vitruvian:

Vitruvian on Instagram

Vitruvian’s Website

Notes from the conversation with Shawn:

  • With Agriculture, it really takes a full season to learn from mistakes.  Your learning curved in time frame of years. It’s taken a number of years of mistakes to understand some concepts. One of the other thing is none of us has started with agriculture background or horticulture background. We had a good business framework we don’t really have the underline Agricultural principles. The first couple of years were about learning, about soil and how plant interacts with all the Agricultural practices that we are getting into.
  • The hardest thing on first approach was we had a trial by fire, we jump into it without really knowing what we are getting ourselves into and that was probably a good thing.  How difficult starting a farm from scratch is? We may have had some second thought but our idea would be mostly vegetables and we are going to market the majority of our stock to restaurant because restaurant radically has a steadier supply and higher volume of demand versus retail market even thought we got to play in lower price. We sell organic vegetables to just over 40 restaurants in downtown Madison and around and Madison is a City of around 300,000 people. We know that starting off in Madison and going up to restaurant would be a good idea. We didn’t exactly know what were going to grow with this kind of plant that we are getting from the beginning and figured it out as we went.
  • We are a little bit naive at the beginning and also very hopeful of what the finances were going to look like, at the very beginning when we are doing the finances we are actually geared to be an aquaponics farm which we move the way from various reasons but definitely had an idea that we making a lot of money in a short amount of time. That might driven us a little bit but over time we love to learn what we are doing and why we are doing than looking for financial return.
  • At the very beginning, we raised a small amount of capital through family and friends. Mostly from us and some of our parents and that got us enough money to build less than 10,000 sq.ft. of space and start renting the land the we currently are, buy some seeds and some small equipment. After that we quickly moves towards the micro loan and this help people in small time farming and we go up to $40,000 or so and that allowed us to get a tractor and some implements which we wanted to move the tractor direction. I get some machinery because it helps the efficiency.
  • The rationale was, if we can build the season extension and start selling whatever produce we are growing before other growers have their produce available for the year. Then we can potential squeeze in to the market and grab new customers before the established growers can get in there and to certain extent that did work but at the same time season extension like hoop houses are significant time investment for putting them off. Financial investment doesn’t pay off super fast and we went from the hoop houses rather than a tractor or rota tiller or small machinery.
  • This is the first year that we are fully utilizing the hoop houses in winter, spring, summer or fall. When we originally built them, the main idea was to utilize them for early spring, winter and fall. We worked for utilizing the covered space more efficiently at an earlier time.
  • We started off the Eliot Coleman hoop house model where you have the cold houses and the crew house. The cold house means that it’s a single layer of pulley. Mid November in our region we have an additional layer of wooden roll covers over the crops inside of the house to make it through the coldest months. The cold house is a double layer of pulley with the heater in it which uses to heat the crops above freezing. We utilize that for the less cold tolerant, cold hardy greens like lettuces and spinach. The idea was to utilize the little pass of fuel energy as possible and produce the small amount of food possible. Originally we are trying to grow green straight to the winter which is possible but over the years we move actually taking up break from Mid December through the end of January because things got to be tough and slow during those cold part of the year.
  • We are doing this winter is we will have nothing in the ground. We will have this bedding for early spring which starts around Mid February. We maintain one smaller greenhouse type structure which we do heat to both 55 degree Fahrenheit, we grow micro greens in that greenhouse throughout the year. The only things that were doing mid winter are we are growing micro greens and oyster mushroom in an indoor facility.
  • On hoop houses… At some point, they are worth it in our climate because they allow us start selling the greens by the beginning of April versus outside starting early to mid May at the earliest. With growing the organic tomatoes outside us might get fungus. But with the hoop houses we don’t have to basically spray tomatoes with anything. The hoop houses are great investment at some point, you just need to figure out if this is the first investment you got to make.
  • On starting out… Two acre is a way too much. It’s really easy to overestimate how much land you can maintain and fit in good condition. If we had a two acre plot, we could have started with quarter to half an acre and then much better off. If you can have less land under your control and a more pointed focuses that could be a better result for you.
  • When first came to the piece of land where we at here now, we build the hoop houses. When we move outside we did cut back the amount. We are only actively managing a quarter of an acre outside, our first growing season at the current piece of land in 2012. Start with the amount of land that you can manage that you don’t see weeds over taking your property then scale up when you feel like you can.
  • We everything on raised bed, we have about 45 inch raised bed that we make in our tractor and the bed shaper and we tried to make those beds about three weeks in advance of their planting. We start watering them after they are shape for about 2 to 3 weeks and that allows any weeds from the top two inches of the soil to germinate. After that period, we come through our rota tiller and we shallow cultivate hopefully 2 more inches down. We are killing the top growing weeds and hopefully not bringing any weeds from the lower layer of the soil. After we plant and irrigate, we do a very meticulous hand weeding. Then the day of harvest, we do final pre-weeding.
  • Some of the land that we manage, it took us the couple of years on top of managing the perimeter weed. The concept of managing the perimeter weed is a mistake that we made early on.  We weren’t managing weeds in the vicinity of our field. We didn’t think about that at the beginning. In the greenhouse, we can see the weed pressure.
  • On getting into restaurants… It was a slow start been taking up phase, it started with knocking on the front door of every restaurant. I learn the way of getting in the restaurant. We don’t realize that first that when you call the front of the house of the restaurant, we end up talking with the hostess and when you ask if you can speak to the chef that confuses most restaurants  and most of the time you will end up not talking with the chef. The technique is to bring samples.
  • I guess it’s 3 to 3.5 acres are in greens and we are looking to extend a little bit more. We do actually not need more space, I have some vacant beds. I think we are dealing 12 hundred pounds or so in a week for baby greens as low as 2 acre or so. We put a 50 ft section; we are harvesting about 20 ft section twice a week every week.  You can fit more bed space into the field if the field is wider into the field walk path.
  • The harvester is one of my favourite tools in the farm. It is a battery powered push harvester with a conveyor belt and a bend soft blade. It’s an amazing time saver; it can harvest 2 hundred pounds an hour. We also had quick grain harvester, I would say 700 pounds a week make sense. We do a re-cutting but in some things, we only cut once. There are a couple of nuances with utilizing the harvester for re-cutting. No matter what, we are looking in our labor or half for the harvest, so the machine can pay for itself over 4 or 5 years at that rate. The other thing is that, as we grow we are trying to better fit some of the equipment to our bed width. You just to figure out your labor rate is versus the financing requirement and how long it will going to take you paid it off if you rather continuing pay a lot of labor. One the main goals of our farm are to continue and increase the use of technology so that we can better compensate the people working.
  • If you are already producing a lot of greens, it might be risky. I wouldn’t advice to people getting the equipment before they have the market established. As to say Loans with a very low interest rate, they can be a good idea if can already have the established product you can sell.
  • We realize that greens could be fragile and we are trying to do to influent ourselves from that is to develop systems to combat all of the different nuances that can happen from weather throughout the year. The goal is to produce enough week to week bases and to have a level of crop availability is high enough that is heavy rains comes and destroy the harvest. Trying to be profitable enough expecting a number of environmental loses throughout the year. We use harvester for the hoop houses, we use 24 x 96 and 30 x 96 foot long green houses.
  • We have a lot of custom designed equipment to help us process the greens. We have a stainless steel salad washer and we also had a stainless steel greens dryer belt to be use for post harvesting. There some room for automation but in the short term we are trying to push the efficiency of ultramax by utilizing them for a longer period of time throughout the week. I don’t see a medium scale salad processing machine in the market. There are available machines but small farmers cannot afford.
  • The freshness is one of the biggest things my customer chooses me over other. This is also the reason why salad greens are so easy for small scale growers to find the products with restaurants because you don’t have to tell them the difference. One of the big things that set us apart from other local producers of greens is the care that we put into drying the grain.
  • The mix has evolved before we started but definitely took inspiration from Eliot Coleman’s salad mix. We started off communicating people that were professional and knew what they are doing. In terms of getting feedback from the restaurants we try to take care of customers told to us. We are certified organic and we tried to minimize the use of any even organic pesticides.
  • In order to have a good practice of keeping up with organic matter and soil we applied, have the amount of compost that we buy into the farm and that help us keep a good level of organic matter that we monitor with soil casting. Integrating rows of trees into our salad mix production almost kind of like alley cropping where you have rows of trees integrating into the salad mix production. This will serve as buffer strips against soil erosion and provide habitat for beneficial insects and that would be our plan as we move forward, we will combine organic vegetable with permaculture aspiration.
  • Ideally on a tree crops, if you are leasing you have the consideration that you might not use this land in the long term. With amount of trees that we have right now in our permaculture orchard, I view it more in the learning experience. This is the most valuable aspects that we are learning. In our case, we value the experimentation because we are in trial by fire farm. We do hope that purchasing a piece of land is possible in the future.
  • As of right now, 95-98% of my time is spent more on the short term and the cash flow and permaculture orchard is we got the trees in and there is a small amount of trees around them to got water and not competing with the grass. The idea is, if we can find a short term profitable aspects like salad mix and continue to grow that so that the farm is more profitable overall, so that we can take the people that are working here. Hopefully, we will also have more capital to experiment with almost long term project because I think salad mix is a great short term project to our farm and potentially one might fuel a lot of our medium long term growth. Growth into long term venture is to have short term cash income coming in through vegetables.
  • We are building soil and I think baby greens are a hard one because they just require fine seed bed in order to grow them. I don’t know if you grow baby greens in a minimal tillage situation and that would need a goal in any vegetable.
  • Longer term we will start utilizing a large amount of land so that we can rest land for a longer period of time. We need 5 acres for vegetable.  I would prefer to have 10 acres and be resting half of that land for year in between cash cropping it and part of that resting would be growing forages and putting pasture to help regenerate the land as well.  In a short term it’s kind of difficult to move our animals through our vegetable land because of the restrictions we have with organic certification of food safety.
  • In a small farmer, you will consider efficiency and profitability. But you will also think about interest. The CSA were just started last year, we like it because it gives us some cash flow immediately. At this point, the most challenging thing that I ever done is the community aspects is and turning point that we are getting into now especially if we get more into the CSA. One of the things we didn’t like working with restaurant is we didn’t interact into the customers receiving the food.

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