As many of you are aware, last year was a terrible year for Frijolito Farm. Because of a combination of extended bad weather, rising costs, mechanical malfunctions, supply interruptions, and inadequate infrastructure, we ended up thousands of dollars in the hole despite having the highest gross sales in our four-year history. Sales were higher than they’ve ever been…but the broilers were underweight because I couldn’t afford enough feed to bulk them up. Hundreds of eggs had to be discarded because I simply couldn’t clean them fast enough. Over half the hens got killed by wildlife because I didn’t have materials to repair hen houses and build adequately protected runs. Early planting didn’t get done because the soil was too wet. Later plantings were mostly overrun by weeds, because spending so much time trying to mitigate the other problems caused me to largely neglect the gardens.
Failure is not an option, though. Several people have balances on gift cards they purchased last year. I owe them product. I couldn’t go out of business even if I wanted to. The challenge in front of me is how to overcome last year’s problems and succeed this year…while starting out with a negative balance.
To that end, I’m making some big changes.
This spring, we’ll be moving into the house on our Woodland Avenue property. When we do so, I’m converting the front room of the house into a store. The Frijolito Farm Market, projected to open in May, will sell chicken, eggs, several kinds of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and fresh, homemade bread. We hope to have turkeys ready by Thanksgiving. Once we’ve raised some money and jumped through all the necessary bureaucratic hoops, we’re considering also carrying dairy products from other Ohio farms. In future years, we may branch out into other kinds of meats and poultry as well as soap, candles, fiber arts, woodwork, handmade toys, and herbal teas–all made on the farm. This store will be open year round (though obviously our offerings will vary as the seasons change) and will be our principal point of sale from now on.
Given that we’re only about four miles from both the Easton Farmers Market and the Clintonville Farmers Market, I expect this will be a convenient location for our regular customers. We’re also three miles from the Clintonville Community Market and four miles from Bexley Natural Foods. (Six miles from Greener Grocer, 3.5 miles from Weiland’s, Eight miles south of the Raisin Rack.) No need to wait for a farmers market or drive out to Amish country. We’ll have it right here in town at a store with regular hours.
To avoid the expense of extra equipment and licenses (beyond what we need for the store), we won’t be selling chicken or eggs at farmers markets–just produce and cut flowers. In fact, I don’t know whether we’ll even do any farmers markets in 2013. I’ve submitted my application for the 2012 Clintonville Farmers Market. I’ll find out in February whether we’ve been approved. Once we raise the funds for the market fee, I’d like to also apply to the Worthington Farmers Market. I’m undecided whether we’ll do any other farmers markets this year.
Since one of the major problems last year was coming up with enough money to feed multiple flocks of chickens at once, I’m scaling back the number we’ll have at one time–at least initially. Rather than getting a new flock of chicks every two weeks right at the beginning of the season, I’ll raise one flock eight weeks to slaughter, then wait until we start making some money selling them before I order more chicks. From there, I’ll make adjustments as necessary depending on how fast the chicken sells. The point here is to insure a steady positive cash flow rather than going into debt trying desperately to stay well stocked. I’d rather sell half as much chicken and be profitable at it than sell twice as much and finish the year with nothing but a pile of debts.
If I’m not raising as many chickens, though, (at least at first) that means I’ll be relying much more heavily on sales of vegetables and fruit. And for the past couple years, vegetable production has been…disappointing. Right? There’s a reason everyone at the farmers markets knows me as “the chicken guy.” Last year, other than greens, pawpaws, and mulberries, I hardly had any produce. The two years before that when I ran a CSA, the veggie shares were pretty skimpy for most of the season. I’ve had a few vegetarians buy CSA shares or gift cards only to later demand their money back because they didn’t get as much as they’d hoped. So why would I pin so much of my business this year on vegetable production when previous years’ growing has been mediocre at best?
I’m taking on an apprentice this year who’s a former OSU instructor in Sustainable Horticulture. She’s finishing up her Master’s degree this quarter. She has extensive experience with plants and is skilled at grafting, propagation, seed saving, and plant breeding. It looks like she’ll likely be living just a couple blocks from the farm and, as she said, “I’m anal about weeds.” Since the idea is to teach her to run her own farm, I’m involving her heavily in planning and marketing instead of just doing what she already knows. She’ll really be more of a partner than an intern. She’ll be mentoring me in gardening as much as I’ll be mentoring her in marketing and navigating regulations. And she has her own tiller and hand tools.
More than that, we’re drastically expanding the gardens at Woodland. I’ve found that the closer a garden is, the more attention it gets, and thus the better it does. We’ll still have gardens at Maize Road, too, but we’ll be growing things there that can tolerate a little more neglect. Also, I’ve arranged to have some of my community gardeners tend our market gardens there to keep on top of the weeding and watering. In the next few weeks, I’m going to be building a small greenhouse at Woodland to get our seedlings started, and my apprentice has talked about using tunnels and row covers to extend our growing season.
Additionally, I’ve been in correspondence with a team of design students who custom-built an egg washer for the school farm at the University of British Columbia. Once some details get worked out, they’re going to help me build an egg washing machine to improve our egg packing efficiency.
In other words, this year has the potential to be a phenomenal one…except for one thing. Remember I said I finished last year with a loss? Well, it wasn’t the first year that happened. My credit is maxed out, and I absolutely refuse to borrow against our home without a guaranteed way to pay it back. As such, the money I have for operating expenses right now is well under $100. I have land, tools, plenty of leftover seeds, expert help, a couple yards of compost, some fence material, three usable chicken houses, and about fifty hens who are presently giving me about 1-2 dozen eggs a day. I can sell some eggs and whatever vegetables we can manage to grow with what we have on hand. Beyond that, we’re going to need money.
That’s where you come in, dear reader. Do you want us to always have boneless chicken breast in stock? Want us to have several varieties of chicken sausage, or never run out of chorizo? Interested in the possibility of fresh (not frozen) chicken processed on the farm? Do you want us to raise turkeys this year? Do you want a more abundant supply of eggs? Interested in maybe having some duck eggs? Duck meat? Rabbit meat? Do you want to eventually be able to buy milk or yogurt or cheese or ice cream from your favorite local producers at our store? Then buy a gift card. A big one. Encourage your friends to do the same. And do it right away. This is Community Supported Agriculture at its finest, friends. You invest up front, and in turn you do your part to insure a supply of farm fresh food produced right here in Columbus. If you put up the money, we’ll do the work. If not–if nobody buys a gift card–we’ll just being doing veggies, bread, and a few eggs this year. The more money we raise, the more we can do for you.
So how does this gift card stuff work? It’s simple. There are no pre-set amounts. You’re starting a debit account with the farm. Write a check payable to Frijolito Farm for whatever amount you want, and send it to 2130 Paul Drive, Columbus, Ohio 43211 (be sure to include your name, mailing address, and preferably an email address or phone number so we can contact you if necessary). Or, if you prefer to pay through PayPal, send your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org. Either way, I’ll mail you a gift card good for the amount of your check plus 10% on anything we sell. Anything–including delivery fees, workshops, and community garden plots.
Last year, I offered cash back at the end of the market season for unused balances. We’re not doing that this year; and besides, there is no “end of the season” anymore since we’re opening the store. We are still offering the 10% bonus, though. If you send us $100, you’ll get a gift card worth $110 in goods and services from Frijolito Farm.
What kind of money are we looking for? Here are a some examples:
- $365 to cover the market fee for Clintonville Farmers Market from June – November.
- $300 to pay our annual liability insurance premium, required to vend at farmers markets.
- About $950 to raise a flock of 120 broilers from day-old chicks to packaged meat in the freezer.
- Around $400 to replace the front brakes and rotors on the truck so we can haul compost, chickens, bedding, feed, etc.
- $200 + shipping buys 800 egg cartons.
- $33 + shipping buys 420 cardboard, one-pint, berry boxes (for green beans, cherry tomatoes, etc.)
- About $60 buys one full pickup load of compost.
- 100 layer chicks cost $181 + shipping. (and take 5-6 months to start laying)
- 50 Broad-breasted White turkey poults (chicks) are $249 + shipping. Heirloom breeds are even more and will dress out smaller.
- $13-$16 for one bag of feed that feeds between 100 and 150 adult layers for one day. (Organic is about twice that.)