Please join us in welcoming our very first guest author to the blog, B-Side Farm owner Lennie Larkin! In addition to operating B-Side Farm, Lennie is the west coast director of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and a mentor and teacher to flower growers and designers.
Currently elbow-deep in writing her first book, Flower Farming for Profit, Lennie shares her expertise on goal setting for your business, and how it will yield a more focused and satisfying season ahead. Read on! ~Your Farmer Bailey Editors
Here we are just after the new year, and if one more influ-tainer-stagator sneaks into any of my feeds urging me to optimize or visualize or unlock this or that never-before-seen trick to a better body or mindset or business, I may drop kick my phone out the damn door. The nerve I must have, then, to be coming at you now with (not-unsimilar) messaging about goal setting for your farm.
But here’s the thing: I really just want us all to find ever more joy and satisfaction in our farming businesses. And some big-picture thinking, followed by strategic planning, well, it just does the trick. Goal setting gets you excited to DO the work, and it prepares you to do it well. It’s a better motivator than planning that vacation for nine months from now when you get to anticipate it every day, and a better determinant of the outcome than visualizing making the basket from the free-throw line. It’s the fun and the strategy.
The process of dreaming big–and sketching out plans to get there–will give you a road map to look back on when it’s midsummer and you can hardly remember your own name. It’ll motivate you to refocus on the priorities that actually matter to you, and when you inevitably run out of hours of daylight, to not worry about the things that don’t get done.
So as you cuddle up with your seed catalogs this winter, I’d suggest taking this fun, anticipatory mindset to planning the business operations, too. Let’s set some goals.
Personal, Environmental, Management, and Social Goals
You can start from a personal place - as both a business owner and living, breathing human, what do you need your farm to do for you in the coming season? For most of us, it’s not hard to look back to last season and pretty clearly see some places where we felt out of balance. That’s a great place to start. There have been seasons where I worked so late into the evenings that I neglected other parts of my life. Other seasons where I was so overworked and scattered that I didn’t have time to enjoy my farm or flowers (the whole reason I started this crazy career!). So I take a look back and ask myself how I can specifically care for myself better in the coming season. Maybe it’s making sure to have a few hours on the farm each week where I’m just enjoying the space and not working, or maybe it’s making sure I’m done working by 5pm most days.
And on to the environmental side: do you have higher aspirations for your farm’s ecosystem, your soil building practices, water management, pest control? The employee management side: are you creating a healthy, supportive work environment? And the social side: owning a business can be a burden but also a wild opportunity to shape your little pocket of commerce. Is your business supporting the other vendors, suppliers, and customers that you believe in?
By now we’re all heard that effective goals need to be S.M.A.R.T - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. So the more you can drill down into your specific desires and further define the goals based on these criteria, the better. This is where the world of dashboards comes into play (check out some resources here). I’ll take a dashboard over a vision board any day. Try sketching out a few versions for yourself and pinning it up above your desk or in the toolshed, and then checking in with it regularly.
Now onto the financial piece. If you’re anything like me, the first two, three, even five years in business are just spent trying to grow your flowers, get them sold, and not lose your mind. (Did I succeed? The jury is still out.) But once I got real about how much money the farm needed to make in order to support me (and not just scrape by), I had a north star. From there I could take a step back, and make a path that would lead from where I was to where I needed to be.
I at first needed to replace my salary from running a nonprofit farm - a whopping $35,000 (I’ll omit the discussion of other benefits it gave me: a little PTO, paltry health insurance and, you know, the incalculable joy of teaching shrieking children how to grow strawberries). A large, mature farm might expect to see net profit of around 25%, whereas a small but dialed-in farmer/florist operation might be able to eek closer to 45% (I question the longevity and resilience of some of these tiny operations that are fully dependent on the owner’s undivided attention and undervalued labor, but the numbers don’t lie). So, my farm would need to generate around $100k in sales to reach my net goal.
If you haven’t done this kind of simple analysis, dive in! From there you can start to break it down into your weeks of production, and your intended sales channels. Was your net goal a pie-in-the-sky number and do you need to reassess and take some baby steps to get there, or can you make an action plan to get there this very season?
As some of you know, I’m deep into writing a book about all this stuff. Flower Farming for Profit is due out from Chelsea Green later this year. In the meantime, I’m teaching two day-long virtual business retreats this winter, one for beginning flower farmers (0-2 year in business) and one for more experienced farmers. We’ll work through a number of exercises to get you comfortable with the back-end skills needed to improve your farm’s efficiency and profitability: from financial projections, sales channel analyses, and an introduction to cost of production to fine-tune your crop plan. We’ll work through some templates together in real time, and break into small groups to get feedback on individual farm plans. I’m super excited about these workshops and have been building the curriculum all season. I hope to see some of you there.
If this kind of professional development isn’t in the cards for you right now, you can certainly make great headway on your own. I highly recommend Julia Shanks’ book The Farmer’s Office, as well as Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers by Dan Brisebois and Frederic Theriault. Winter is the perfect time to take a step back, clear your mind, and bring it back to the business with some focus. Here’s to a restful and productive winter for all of us, and a growing season full of goals met and surpassed.