Editor's Note: The conversation below is expanded from the version that appeared in the March 8, 2021, print edition.
Your farm is quite diverse between raising cows, sheep, ducks and chickens, as well as growing vegetables and running a bakery. Why this model?
It’s partly a business decision, but that’s not how it originated. I used to run restaurants, and I’ve got a long history in management of food-related businesses both in the U.K., where I come from, and also in the U.S. My experience was the quality of ingredients wasn’t good enough. Initially, it was a selfish decision because we wanted to try and grow and raise as much of our own food as possible. But the realities are that to be able to sustain a farm, it’s expensive and you have to invest in infrastructure – it’s labor intensive. But then there is a security to it: You’re not dependent on any one crop or any revenue center. It also gives us a unique selling proposition. (People) don’t like to eat the same thing or buy the same thing all the time. There’s a bigger picture to it, which is ultimately why we wanted to take that from farm all the way through to a professional retail restaurant.
Where do you sell your products, and are you planning a retail side of the business?
We’re now 100% direct to consumer. We started out as a tent vendor at Farmers Market of the Ozarks, really not having a clue what we were doing. We got to doing microgreens and we had quite a lot of success there. At that time, they weren’t common and we developed a unique way of growing them. We were able to get those into restaurants and into retail. Then we worked very hard on promoting duck eggs. What we found is it’s quite difficult to make a reasonable living and a profitable business from that kind of model because to be able to do wholesale, both in terms of restaurant sales and retail sales, you have to have quite a high volume and you have to be very reliable. Then the overheads and the operational costs just weren’t really matching expectations. We were working seven days a week, 365 days a year. We decided to refocus our energy on the farmers market and direct-to-consumer sales. Economically, and personally, it was the right decision.
We’re about to sign a letter of intent on a lease. We’re hoping to launch a retail space, bakery and cafe model in the next few months. That will be heavily supported by the farm, but also we’ll be using a lot of local vendors from FMO and other farms and friends. We’re negotiating at the moment, but it’s going to be at Farmers Park. They’re incredibly supportive.
With the push of the local food movement, is that increasing business at small farms like yours?
The opposite is true, unfortunately. We’ve lost several very talented farmers in the last year because it’s just not viable. People aren’t willing to commit, (community supported agriculture) models have gone up and down. In the last year, they’ve been a lot stronger. For a lot of vegetable farmers, in particular, it’s literally seed money. Wholesale restaurants can be very cagey about committing. There just needs to be a better understanding of what it takes to produce high-quality food. Then there is also the reality, and this is probably the worst, which is that people think when it comes to food that they can negotiate on price. That’s just not an economic model that can work.
Will your planned retail and restaurant space provide the control and access to consumers to eliminate some of these hurdles?
That’s the concept. It’s really our only option to survive. We are fortunate because we have experience and skills that perhaps others don’t have. To do value-added products, you have to have a commercial kitchen. It remains a hurdle for a lot of people, but value-added is really the only economic model that works for a small farm because it allows us to keep production costs low and then take a low value item and, as the name suggests, add that into it. Put simply, it’s more valuable to sell somebody a cooked egg than it is to sell somebody a raw egg.
We moved to this farm literally with nothing. We’d been living in the U.K., and we sold everything and we had two duffel bags and $6,000. That’s what we started this farm with and that’s about all we have still. You’ve got to be tenacious. We hope that perhaps this could be a model that other people could replicate with the right support and training.
What do you and your wife, Jennie, produce and grow at Blue Heron Farm & Bakery?
We're a small farm. We've got about 50 acres and we're between Strafford and Marshfield. We're a diversified farm, so we do a little bit of everything. We run up to about 20 head of cows, seasonally, but usually during the winter, we bring that down to just the breeding herd, which sits at around a dozen. We run up to 30 sheep. And then we do ducks for eggs, and we've got around 300 ducks. We have a small flock of geese that are with the ducks, and they give us eggs, too, but they're also there to protect the ducks because they're good watch birds. We are just about to start doing chickens again. We're going to use, for the first time, a large chicken tractor that can be moved around. On the growing side, we have a high-tunnel greenhouse and we grow seasonal veg. We tend to focus heavily on peppers, and tomatoes and cucumbers. We do a lot of herbs. And we also grow microgreens; we're quite well known for that. And finally mushrooms. The farm setup is predominantly me, so I do most of it myself on my own. We've also added to the business a bakery, and that's what Jennie focuses on. That really diversified our income. And it's allowed us to do products like farm in a box, which has been quite successful.
What are the challenges farmers face with consumer sales?
The biggest issue with doing direct-to-consumer sales is that you have to rely on a farmers market. The Farmers Market of the Ozarks is excellent. But it is one day a week. We've been trying to resolve that, but to operate a farm and all the expense and the complexity of that and to lease a professional retail space, that is a big ask. It's been challenging for us to work out financially how to achieve that and also to garner the support. The pandemic was a huge benefit, initially, because everybody's locked at home and we were able to deliver and do the sort of drive-thru market. We actually had the best year we've ever had last year. But the true picture is that for the first half of the year that was true. But then when everybody got sick of it and the big boys, from Walmart to Amazon, their supply chain pivoted to cope and people got lazy and they didn't want to go to the trouble of visiting a market. We were really hit quite hard toward the end of last year.
Being from the U.K., how do people from the Ozarks differ with their relationship to food? And what behaviors do you hope to shift among local consumers?
We chose to farm here predominantly because of cost. It would not be possible to do what we're doing in the U.K. We would never have been able to afford it. When we started, there was a poor food culture in terms of the quality of ingredients and the knowledge of the difference quality ingredients can make. Still today, I don't think there's enough of a focus on ingredient-led menus. Menus are dreamed up by chefs, in particular, based on their whims and based on trends, not based on what is locally available and locally abundant and seasonal. There are chefs that have made a big impact on that, Andy Hampshire [of Farmers Gastropub] is one of them. Unfortunately, he is in a minority. But more and more people are coming to the Ozarks because of the landscape, because it's a nice environment, it's an affordable place to live and to get property, and that is slowly having an impact. We are certainly finding a market amongst those people. And I think that there are more younger people, local people that grew up here that are recognizing that. People are still reluctant to spend money on food and invest in quality food.
James Boosey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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