A year and a half ago, Joel and I sat on a white plastic picnic table in Little Canada while Jeff, our future landlord, explained revisions to the lease. We had dreamed about running a business together for years, and after growing lettuce in my basement for 12 months, we were finally taking the plunge. We signed a lease.
A few weeks later, on November 1st of 2017, we moved in. Joel bought donuts to celebrate the occasion, which was nice of him, though I soon realized all he needs to justify donut-buying is an occasion like "it's Tuesday." When he showed up at my house to grab a few supplies from my basement, Joel, who had just moved to the Twin Cities from rural Pennsylvania, chose to ignore the "No Parking" signs on the street. As I was backing out of my driveway to leave for the warehouse, Joel came sprinting across my yard. His car was gone.
It's been an eventful 17 months. We've started perhaps the first greens-delivery business of its kind - greens that are grown locally indoors, and delivered year-round straight to doorsteps. There have been successes and failures. We've delivered in 95 degree heat and in snowstorms. And we've learned a few lessons.
Lesson 1: Always listen to your plants
They will tell you when they're unhappy. Because neither Joel nor I have any formal background in farming, there's been a lot to learn. Certain types of romaine don't like high humidity. Kale doesn't do well with heat - the plant will still look and taste good, but it will grow oh-so-slowly. Basil is one of our most popular items but can be finicky. Sometimes it will refuse to take up a crucial nutrient, like iron, and growth will stall. Our troubleshooting abilities have come a long ways, though I'm sure there's still much to learn.
Lesson 2: Always listen to your customers
When we first decided what to offer, we were guided by feel, instinct, and a few conversations with prospective customers. We had never sold produce subscriptions before. (Come to think of it, we hadn't sold much of anything, except for some lemonade in 1998.) A year in, we had the impression that the three products we offered weren't a great fit for all of our customers, and perhaps we were even turning away potential customers. So we changed it up. Now, we offer boxes in three sizes: 3 items, 5 items, or 7 items. And customers pick exactly what they want - though if they still crave some mystery, they can select a rotating green or herb, and we'll choose for them.
Lesson 3: Move closer to home
This past November (2018), we moved to Columbia Heights. We're now just a couple miles from where we live, and we have customers within blocks of the farm. Our goal has always been to be a community-centric farm, and being located in our community is extremely important to us. We've been thrilled to be so close - our customers know exactly where we are, and some have even stopped by to see the farm.
Lesson 4: Running a small business requires...a lot of different skills
Many warned us: when you're running a small business, you do it all. Joel and I started this adventure with engineering degrees and, unfortunately, a disappointing lack of any discernible small business skills. So far, we’ve learned graphic design tools to develop a logo and launched an advertising campaign on social media. We've learned how to build hydroponic racks with Unistrut, EMT conduit, and pallet racking. We now have complex opinions on specific varieties of basil (Genovese all the way!) and on optimal dimensions of insulated styrofoam containers. We've learned the ins and outs of the commercial real estate market.
We do the deliveries and we mop up the spills. We answer customers when they have a problem. We make (not enough) sales calls. We have long "working lunches" at the Chinese buffet. We envision what the business might look like in 5 years, and then try to figure out how to pay the bills for the next 5 weeks.
We've learned the double declining balance method of depreciation because we do our own taxes. We've designed flyers, banners, and business cards. Well, Joel has. We've harvested at 7 am on a Saturday so we can sell freshly-harvested kale at the farmers market. We've spent approximately 28% of our waking hours thinking or talking about HVAC. We have spreadsheets for everything, built from scratch, that almost crash our computer each time we open them.
And of course: we plant seeds, transplant seedlings, and harvest the greenest lettuce you've ever laid eyes on.
Lesson 5: Take away Joel's admin privileges on the social media accounts
After he posted this picture, I obviously had to change all our passwords.
Social media spats aside, Joel and I have had a blast running the business together. We’ve been dreaming of this since college, and we’re aware of how fortunate we are to have this opportunity. Sure, it’s not perfect. We argue frequently. Joel sings, hums, or whistles constantly when we’re in the farm. (He says he has perfect pitch. He’s wrong.) He claims that I disagree with everything he says. (NOT TRUE!)
But the good far outweighs the bad. We love working together to build a rack that we’ve spent months designing. On a Tuesday morning, we can reminisce about high school tennis and minutes later pour over a spreadsheet as we figure out how to optimize our plant density. There’s no doubt we work better as a team than we would individually, and we hope we’re able to work together for years to come.