The street where I live is probably familiar to most people: rows of well-kept houses, manicured lawns, and pretty trees. While this may be an attractive picture to some, the only thing these yards produce is work for the homeowner, without much return. From my front yard, my house appears to be, more or less, a typical suburban house. (I promised this to my wife.) But I’ve managed to turn my residential lot into a suburban farm. Another world awaits those who enter the gate leading to my backyard.
Eight years ago, as my youngest child neared the end of high school, I decided to expand my love of gardening into a business. I started off small, with about a tenth of an acre in my backyard. I named my suburban farm “Pitspone Farm” from a Hebrew word meaning very small. Over the years, I’ve slowly expanded my business, and at this point I’ve more or less taken over the entire backyard, about a third of an acre.
My goal has always been to explore the model of a small-acreage suburban farm, both as an income-producing entity and as a contributor to the food supply. This model might be of interest to people in several types of circumstances:
- Not everyone has access to large, affordable acreage for farming. However, many of us living in the suburbs have easy access to enough land for a suburban farm.
- A suburban farm can be a useful way to transition into larger acreage, by establishing markets and experimenting with various crops.
- Being a suburban farmer doesn’t mean you have to do it full time. A small suburban farm allows one to work a farm while holding down an additional job.
My wife and I both have full-time jobs with benefits, so I am not dependent on my farming income to pay the mortgage or put the kids through college. This lack of pressure has enabled me to explore different models for growing and more effective ways to earn the supplemental income that the farm produces.
After the paperwork of creating my business, I needed to make some fundamental decisions. The most important were what would I grow and who would buy it. Because I live within 20 minutes of two midsize college towns with lots of restaurants, I decided to make restaurants my primary focus. I tried making some calls in the early spring before I planted my crops, but none of the chefs showed much interest. I was an unknown farmer with no track record, and they didn’t have a lot of time to devote to a newbie.
I did have one connection, though. For a couple of years previously, I had been selling small quantities of fresh figs to a local health-food store. At the time, fresh figs were hard to find, and the store bought all of what I could supply from my five trees. Since I already had a relationship with the produce buyer, it was relatively easy to ask him if he would like to try some of the other things I wanted to grow. When he said he would give them a try, I knew I had at least one market for my produce.
That was a strategy I would come to use for future business connections — lead with an unusual or hard to find item and then tack on other more conventional items once a relationship has been established.
At the time that I was starting my market garden, heirloom tomatoes were very popular and still not as widely available as they are now. I remember harvesting my heirlooms and cherry tomato mix and bringing samples to local chefs. I’d stop in during slow times, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, and ask to see the chef and leave some samples. This proved to be much more productive than my previous cold-calling method. I was usually able to exchange a few words with the chef and get an idea of what they needed, and they were able to see a real person. In many instances this resulted in future sales of not only heirloom tomatoes, but also other crops like basil or squash.
I’ve grown a number of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers over the years and continued targeting restaurants during this time. I’ve come to learn that there are a number of advantages and disadvantages with restaurant sales.
Eventually, I decided that growing vegetables wasn’t adhering enough to my farm’s guidelines, and I began transitioning to growing small fruit and berries. This is the crop mix I have favored for the last few years.
Why did I decide on berries? First of all, they adhere closely to all my guidelines. In addition, because it is not a single-harvest crop, I can continuously harvest throughout the growing season as the fruit and berries ripen. I’m never overwhelmed with too much produce, and I don’t need hired help. I begin with haskaps (Lonicera caerulea) and end with fall raspberries. Many berries can also be frozen, especially those used primarily for processing, such as elderberry and aronia. This allows for greater flexibility in sales and reduces waste. Lastly, by having relatively small harvests, I’m able to sell much of my crop retail, and I often easily sell out.
Advantages of Working with Restaurants
- If you can establish a trusting work relationship with a chef or restaurant owner, then you can work together to further both businesses’ goals.
- You can determine, to some degree, the quantities you will need for each restaurant.
- Chefs are often more apt to trying new products, and can therefore serve as a base if you want to try something new.
Disadvantages of Working with Restaurants
- Chefs move and restaurants close.
- Just because a chef asked for something doesn’t mean he or she will always follow through. Sometimes this is because of the whim of the chef, and sometimes it is out of his or her control. Price points change, menus change,
Reaching new customers
The restaurants I worked with tended to use relatively few berries, so I was obliged to explore other markets and paths to reach new consumers.
While I was servicing restaurants, I didn’t have a need for a website. I contacted chefs regularly via email, and we chatted when I made deliveries. However, once I decided to expand past the small circle of chefs with whom I corresponded regularly, I needed an internet site where potential customers can get an understanding of who I am and what I do. This has been useful for helping people find me. My website (Pitspone Farm) is certainly not at its full potential, but it is always on my “to-do” list, and it serves its purpose for the time being.
Though I did create a presence some time ago on Facebook, I don’t regularly update the profile, and it is not a part of my marketing plan. Because of the small size of my business, I don’t want to have too many customers because I won’t be able to accommodate them all — a good problem to have, obviously. If you’re in full-fledged expansion mode, you’ll want to explore the possibilities of social media.
This year I started a CSA for my berry crop. About half the customers consist of an add-on at another local farm, and the other half consists of a group of individuals who have organized into a buying club for healthy produce. I’m starting off small, about 30 shares, but this has been a useful vehicle for sales.
What are the costs of starting a suburban farm? Well, it differs depending on your circumstances and your goals, but it doesn’t have to be a lot, especially if you start small.
The initial registration of the business is not particularly expensive. I used Legal Zoom to create an LLC, and I also registered with the state and federal authorities.
I didn’t have insurance for the first couple of years, but eventually I thought it would be a good idea, especially once customers started coming onto my property to buy berries or plants.
My biggest expense was the cost to completely fence in my backyard growing area. Even though I live in a suburban development, we still have deer wandering around from time to time. I wanted peace of mind that a fence supplies, plus the privacy.
Though I did spend a few thousand dollars to put in an irrigation system, I stopped using it after one season. I didn’t feel comfortable with how it worked out, and the fact that I kept changing the layout of my planting area didn’t help. I now water with hoses from three separate bibs, and though it is not an ideal situation since I have almost all perennials at this point and also mulch heavily, my watering is manageable.
One of my most useful purchases was a small Toyota Tacoma truck. I use it almost exclusively for hauling and delivering plants. I’m a big proponent of improving my soil through the addition of organic matter, and I frequently use the truck to bring in horse manure, wood chips, or leaves.
Depending on what you decide to grow, seed or plant stock can add up. It pays to shop around and stay well-read on company reviews. I generally found Fedco to have good prices, good quantities, and varieties adapted to Northeastern climates. If the seed for the crops you are growing remains viable over a number of years, you can save a lot of money by buying larger quantities.
Another purchase I have found useful is a chest freezer and dedicated refrigerator. The chest freezer is great for freezing berries that I can’t immediately sell, and for freezing elderberry clusters so it is easier to strip them off the stems. A dedicated refrigerator is important so you have a place to keep your produce cool before you deliver it to your customers.
Another cost — again, depending on what you plan on growing — might be containers for picking and delivering your produce. When I sell my berries, I need to have them in plastic clamshells.
The bottom line
By starting small and expanding slowly, I’ve been able to consistently make a profit with my farm business. For the last several years, I’ve been able to achieve sales ranging from 15,000 to close to 20,000 dollars. This year I hope to approach low- to mid-20,000 dollars in total sales. Your revenue will depend on a number of factors, including the size of your growing area, the time you devote to the business, your markets, and your growing and marketing abilities.
As I’ve continued farming, I’ve tried to maximize the variety of markets I serve. When I first began selling produce, 50 percent of my sales were derived from one restaurant. This also happened to be the only restaurant I’ve dealt with that didn’t like to pay on time. With such a high percentage of my potential income dependent on one customer, it was an uncomfortable situation. I soon dropped this customer in favor of other, more promptly paying customers.
I’ve tried to derive the most profit from my crops by making sure I have no waste. By identifying multiple markets for each crop, I make sure it gets sold, preferably as close as possible to retail. For example, consider elderberries: I can sell the elderflowers at a good price to restaurants and bars. Whatever doesn’t get picked and sold will develop into berries. These berries can be sold to individuals, restaurants, and herbalists — also for a good price. I can also freeze some of the berries and wait until flu season when people will be thinking about elderberry syrup. If I have a serious glut, then I can also approach jam makers and other customers who would likely ask for a lower price.
My wife is my financial wizard — thank goodness! Though I use QuickBooks to record all my invoices, she is the one who keeps track of payments and deductions for tax purposes. Needless to say, once you have your business, keep every single receipt associated with the farm to use later on in preparing your taxes.
Onward and upward
I hope to create ties with other small growers and establish a confederation that allows us to exchange information and expertise, increase profits, and lower costs. Through cooperation, small suburban farms should be able to flourish and be viable businesses and contributors to the food supply.
Rules of (green) thumb
I follow four defining guidelines for my farm business:
- Time is money. I work alone, and although I enjoy the work, I need to grow products that demand a good price relative to my time. For example, there may be a demand for growing specialty beans, and they may fetch a good price, but the time it takes to pick a pound of beans doesn’t make it worthwhile in my situation.
- Do something special. Let’s face it: Dealing with a small-scale farmer can be more trouble than working with a large farm. My selection is limited, so the chef has to really want to work with me. I need to create a reason to develop this relationship.
- Search out niche markets or specialty crops. Multiple ethnic groups and people with varied backgrounds create possibilities for exploring new crops. Even a small niche can generate a good return.
- Short shelf life is my friend. Because my customers are nearby (up to an hour away, and often less), I can get my produce to them very quickly. Delicate items don’t sit in storage or travel long distances well, and they arrive in pristine condition.
Michael Brown splits his time between a full-time job as a school librarian and working on his farm. In his (rare) free time, he enjoys researching ancient and historic trees.