What Urban Farming is Really Like – Success and Challenges with Farmer AJ Zaycheck (FSFS 125)

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Today we have AJ Zaycheck of Spin Cities Farm, Minnesota to talk about his journey on starting a farming business and carving out his own niche.

We’ll cover everything from balancing time and budget to the ups and downs in that first year of farming.  

What is it like coming out your first season on your first year of farming compared to what you might hear from people who’ve been farming for several years? (2:45)

If you’re open to learning from your own mistakes, you’d basically be drinking from a firehose every day because you’ll be learning how to farm on your own context. Experienced farmers can only teach you so much, so don’t be afraid of taking other farmers’ playbooks and changing them to fit your own context.

Were you ever so sure of something, but after actually doing it, you realized that you were way off? (4:00)

There are a couple of things, mainly having to do with crop selection. For example, microgreens are just not a thing in my market. Hearing about Curtis talk about microgreens made me think that, yeah, this is going to be easy. But, no. I threw away almost as many microgreens I sold that it was kind of sad, to be honest. As for approaching restaurants, a lot of them don’t really use microgreens, and those who do use microgreens already have their suppliers locked in.

How did you choose which crops to grow this season? (6:00)

I’ve got to come clean for this, I literally just took Curtis’ entire playbook and ripped it off! There are only two things I grow that he doesn’t—sorrel, which is super popular here, and ruby red orache, which some people call red mountain spinach.

How do you compete in a market with other farmers, and how do you differentiate yourself as a farm known for one thing? (08:00)

In terms of making my mark, I try to do that with my crop selection. For example, I have baby kale and baby red Russian. Since nobody has seen those yet, they help me stand out. Which came as a bit of a surprise because I thought the more known crops like arugula would sell better. But it turns out that the things people haven’t seen before are the ones that would sell really well.

Another way to build my own brand is labeling myself as an urban farmer since there isn’t a lot of urban farmers in our area.

Did you always know or have a target market? (12:35)

I think knowing your market is something you should learn before you even start farming. I already scouted farmer’s markets ahead of time, asked them questions like their lot size, how and what kind of crops they grow. I soon realized that my salad mixes would not be able to compete with stands that have potatoes, green beans, and the like.

The thing is, I live right next to six restaurants. So, I thought, why drive back and forth to marketplaces and spend on tents and other farmer’s markets equipment when I don’t have that kind of budget, when I can ride my bike two blocks away to make a delivery.

Those restaurants might already have their own suppliers. How did you convince them to buy from you? (17:55)

First, I had pea shoots that I’ve been growing in an indoor nursery. I brought them in as my samples for the initial meet and greet. About a month and a half after that, I brought in a hefty box of around 6-8 kinds of produce. Some of the chefs were ripping the box open and started eating the produce right in front of me and placed orders on the spot. The produce almost sells itself.

To aid the sample in selling itself, you have to make sure that the produce is really clean. Never bring dirty produce to a chef who has a $50 entrée, and make sure they’re all really polished. Not just for samples, of course, you have to be consistent with how you deliver your produce. I also use clear containers because I want my chefs and my clients to see the food.

How important do you think ‘being local’ weighs into the reasons your clients buy from you? (22:40)

I actually thought that was going to be a bigger factor than it is. There are a couple of my chefs who are really into buying local, while a couple of other chefs are just satisfied they could get equal or better product for an equal or better price, which is perfectly fine. I mean, chefs are people, too, and they’re running their own businesses as well.

In the restaurants you’re supplying to, are you replacing a cisco-type service or are you replacing another local producer? (24:00)

I’m almost entirely replacing big box, panel-truck, delivered-with-a-dolly suppliers. There’s this one company in our area that source from local farmers as much as possible, but I took a look at their prices, and I think, “how are you treating your farmer?” Like, if they could offer produce at those prices, how much are you paying your farmers? The prices on their products kind of scares me, to be honest.

How are you able to compete with large scale companies and distributors? (25:10)

I’m a sole-owner operator, so I don’t have tiers of management, I don’t have people to pay who are directly involved in the farming process. I don’t have a giant website cost, and the pedal power saves an amazing amount of money. I use a pick-up truck, but that’s mostly for getting compost. I do almost all of my deliveries by bicycle, and I do most of my back and forth to the lots by bicycle. Because of that, I’m able to extend the low operational cost to the clients.

Do you think that after a few more seasons, you’d be able to scale the business enough that it could support you full-time? (28:05)

Oh, definitely. Looking at what we did this year and looking to easily grow that next year, it’s quite easy to do. Part of that is our context—we rent our house at an affordable price, and my partner runs a photography business from our house. It’s all about creating your own context where this type of thing could work. We live very frugally, we don’t go out much, heck, we don’t even own a television.

I think that’s a trap a lot of farmers fall into. Thinking, “I need to make X amount of money because I want to live a lifestyle that costs X amount of money.” Well, think about ways you can cut down your living expenses. Think about how the farm doesn’t have to make a lot of money, and you won’t have to be stressed out about it.

What did your time look like throughout the year? (35:55)

For me, this is the best part—I was playing disc golf, I was going to movies, I was hanging out with my kids. I didn’t necessarily track it, but if we averaged out, it would be about 25-ish hours a week including making deliveries and doing the books. Though, there will be days when you’re still washing up vegetables until 11p.m. because they need to be delivered the next day. Other days, you just have one task to do, like turning over beds, and that’s it.

I think this is possible because (a) I’ve already worked at a farm; (b) I have a pretty decent work ethic; and (c) I have the proper tools.

Did having a limited offering of crops give you the ability to manage your time more effectively? (40:30)

Yep! That’s another thing, you could start with a narrow selection so you could dial it in and do it well. You know, within the first two rotations of radishes, I had them dialed in—I knew which cultivars were going to work, which beds of which lots got the best sun and had the best soil for radishes, and then things kind of just spiraled in from there. After that, I could focus my attention on other crops, so by the end of the season, I’m pretty much a pro on my land under my context.

Were there things you learned this year that you initially thought were important but turned out not to be? (42:10)

I think the biggest answer to that question is irrigation. And again, that’s all on context. I initially thought I would be doing a lot of irrigation this year, but I just ended up grabbing a hose and hand-watering everything. Since we get enough rain consistently, I rarely had to do supplementary watering.

What’s the hardest part about being a one-person show? (44:45)

Getting up every day—haha! Some things aren’t necessarily related to farming, but there are days when I just don’t want to get up and turn beds over.

And just wearing all the hats, you know? You’re the CEO, you’re the COO, you’re the CFO, you’re the chief salesperson, you’re doing all the inventories, placing all the orders, doing deliveries. You’re the only person doing every, single thing. Obviously, there are advantages to that, but the disadvantage is figuring out what to prioritize when.

Things are going well in the business and production sides. How has it been learning and getting a handle on crop succession? (53:00)

If there was one field thing I struggled with, crop succession would be the biggest one.

Let’s say I have 3 beds of arugula, but I don’t have enough orders to cut that, so I don’t. That was one of my biggest mistakes. Cut it anyway. Even if you have to stream it into compost, or hold it for a week, or whatever, cut it anyway. Because if you don’t do that, it’s just going to get too big, and you’re not going to be able to cut it for a product the next week if you do have orders. If you leave it alone, it’s just going put out flowers and go to seed, and it’s going to take you thrice the amount of time to remove that crop when you actually do want to rotate it into something else.

That’s something I really want to tell first-year growers. Don’t hesitate to cut something anyway. Keep those crops in check because I learned that crops become weed really fast. They’ll turn from asset to liability in a week.

Are there any big lessons that really stand out, like things you wish you had known? (55:15)

I would really suggest that people know themselves. Know what you’re good at and what skills you can bring to the table. Are you a good salesperson? Can you build a good website for free? Can you build a social media presence? Are you good with your hands that you can DIY your own stuff? Also consider your work ethic.

Another big takeaway that I was really happy that I did was working on another farm. Like, I would not start a farm without working on another farm, which actually plays into knowing yourself. You won’t know if you’re going to like running your own farm until you’ve done it.

Having worked on a farm for a year, were there things you learned about yourself? (01:01:45)

I would say that you really have to be ready to accept that there are going to be setbacks. A couple things aren’t going to be a hundred percent smooth right away, but that’s okay—we’re going to ride it out, learn from it, and do better next time so we can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, that setback from coming up again.

Tying up with that is having reasonable goals. Don’t think that you’re going to do a hundred thousand in your first season. Make a reasonable goal that makes sense for the amount of land you have.

As a reflection for somebody finishing up their first year: There’s a ‘why’ behind starting farming. Looking at it now, has that ‘why’ been fulfilled? (01:09:45)

I had a lot of ‘why’s.’ For my kids and to hone my skillset. Eventually, we want to move out of the city, be a little more self-sufficient, and this is a sort of means to that end. I also just like being out there in the field and working hard.

“Because providing for yourself is a very empowering thing.”

The feeling of, “I grew this. I provided this basic need that I have to fulfill multiple times a day,” I don’t think there’s anything more powerful. Whether you do it for yourself or for other people, knowing you’re providing a basic need to somebody is one of the most amazing feelings.


Want to learn more about AJ and urban farming? Head on over to their Facebook page, or drop AJ a line over on his e-mail at aj@spincitiesfarm.com!

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