Reflecting on 2020 --- as a small start-up urban farm
2020 has been a year. First things first, I’m so sorry to anyone who has lost loved ones, suffered from illness, lost jobs and faced hard times in 2020. I see you and I feel for you. I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves and finding safe ways to support each other. Lots of big things happened this year and I’m not qualified to tackle any of those topics here. So I won’t. Nope. I’m just going to quickly look-back on my first year in business and see what I can learn from it, and take you along for the ride. Here we go!
A little background: I have been planning this urban farm since October 2018 when I first toured the house that is now my home. Generally, my trajectory has been farming for much longer, but in December 2018 I purchased this house largely because it has a yard suitable to support my dream urban farm. I spent one year getting settled and in January 2020 I quit my job (on my birthday!) as a TSA officer at the local airport to pursue the farm dream for realz. (Happy Birthday me!)
I drafted a thorough business plan before quitting the airport and had saved a few thousand dollars for start-up costs. One of my main objectives was to keep overhead costs as low as possible and not take on any more debt. (It’s worthwhile to note that I had and still have another off-farm job to cover my basic needs and bills.)
Winter and early spring were comprised largely of planning, ordering seeds and supplies, and starting my plants indoors. I even squeezed in a trip to New Orleans with my boyfriend before the world imploded on itself (i.e. COVID hit).
Given that I quit a stable job and started a brand new business with no entrepreneurial experience what-so-ever during an unprecedented global pandemic… this year went really well. I think it helped that I was emotionally prepared for this year to suck. Obviously, I didn’t anticipate a pandemic, but I did anticipate working my butt off, not being able to socialize, and money being tight. Since I never thought 2020 was going to be a “fun” year, I was pretty happy whenever things weren’t awful, and mostly, they weren’t. I feel very lucky.
The garden season, specifically the farmers market season, felt like a marathon. Juggling the day-job; farmers markets and harvests; and my basic human needs like eating and sleeping was a challenge, but I felt like I kept up. One thing frustrating about running a farm (and probably any business) is that the day-to-day (usually harvesting, selling, and weeding) takes up SO much time, but you’re always thinking big picture about ways to improve the business. It’s nearly impossible to find time to build infrastructure, research and secure new sales channels, spiff up your marketing strategies, and update your growing methods. The only way to keep sane is to chip away at what you can while appreciating that everything doesn’t have to (and can’t) happen right now. It’s a long slow process and that’s okay. Just put those awesome plans on the list and trust you’ll get to them when you can.
The Minnesota government allowed for Farmers Markets, so I had the pleasure of selling at the Duluth Farmers Market and the Lincoln Park Farmers Market. If there hadn’t been a pandemic would I probably have been able to sell more? Probably. Am I grateful I was able to sell at all? Absolutely! Similarly, I had hoped to sell to restaurants, but didn’t bother pursuing those venues given the circumstance and shutdowns. I did get to sell to Love Creamery and Mama Roots food truck (both businesses ran by AWESOME ladies).
Looking back at my business plan, I see where I was over-ambitious with what I could achieve for infrastructure development. I had hoped to receive some more grants, but I wouldn’t have had time to execute the projects I wanted the grants for. The proposed tree-removal, PV solar array, and passive solar dehydrator have not happened, but I have built a wash/pack shelter and am working on building a walk-in cooler in my basement. Shockingly, a lot of the other things in my plan weren’t too far off. I would consider myself generally… wait for it... on track. I’m pleasantly surprised since when I was writing the plan I felt like I was making up everything as I went. Thanks for the help Northeast SBDC.
Here’s some bullets in case the paragraphs are too much:
I sold over $6000 of product!
I had a fantastic write up in our local paper mid-season
I received a Value Added Cost-Share Grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture helping me install that basement cooler.
I received a small amount Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 funding
I WAS A FARMER! I ran my own business and spent lots of time outside with my dog.
"Be in the black" (make profit) without the help of grants
Finish the basement cooler
Expand the garden area including straightening and re-building the garden rows
Build and produce in vertical growing spaces
Offer some kind of CSA
Improve my time and stress management
Implement more and improved season extension (hoophouse baby!)
If you’re wanting more details on what’s next for Saltless Sea, stay tuned. More blog posts soon to come with plans for 2021. Thank you for your support! I am eager to continue to learn and grow so I can bring you more awesome products in the coming years.