We’ve witnessed a lot of small farm failures over the years. Some came predictably, being half-hearted, half-baked, and half-assed (does anyone know where that term arose?), so we couldn’t really commiserate since we felt the quicker these farmers went down the less they’d suffer. But it was much tougher to watch hard-working, smart and able growers fail, particularly when, with just a little tweak in their methods they could have succeeded.
When we changed acreage, rather than move our first set of greenhouses (not really being eager to dismantle and rebuild—it’s hard enough to put up new structures, let alone take down old ones) we sold them to a couple bent on growing organic vegetables. They were young, ambitious, knew plants, had a bit of a nest egg to work with, and had a plan.
That plan included “French double-digging”, which may be a workable method on a small scale in soft, excellent soil, but nature gave most of the earth in the intermountain west an organic matter content of 1-2%, and double digging easily gets you right down to “hardpan”, an impenetrable layer of clay that you might break through with considerable effort but which you wouldn’t really want to mix into the upper strata. It didn’t take the couple many days of shoveling to change their minds about the efficacy of tillers and tractors.
They also went into business “knowing” that organic produce generated a higher price than conventionally grown counterparts, so at the farmer’s market they priced their greens and such accordingly—at double the cost other vendors charged. They took much of their crop home, despite its high quality, because they held fast to their “knowledge” and didn’t lower their prices to a level customers were willing to pay. Research is pretty clear that, while consumers will pay more for value-added (i.e., organic) foods, there’s an upper limit beyond which they go back to “normal” offerings.
The couple worked hard, tried growing many different things, sold to various outlets at different levels in the business, almost always succeeding in quality but never quite reaching profitability, and after just three years abandoned their project, worn out and discouraged.
Another failure we witnessed came when a grower accustomed to raising hundreds of acres of potatoes and grains went into truck farming. He put in an acre of asparagus, a half an acre of carrots, and various other crops, then hit the markets hard. He was a fantastic marketer, unafraid of cold calls, and his wife and he worked long hours with the intent of making the venture work. Work it did—they sold over a 100k worth of produce by the second year in business.
But they quit immediately after, frazzled by the work. What went wrong?
As you might imagine, a half acre of carrots is a tremendous quantity—coming from a farming background that dealt with farm sections of 160 acres, 320 acres, full square miles, he hadn’t adjusted his planting scale to his new customer base, so had a surplus exponentially greater than his market. An eighth of an acre would have been too much, but when you’re accustomed to large scale farming it’s difficult to get your head around the numbers of intensive produce production.
They had a delivery route schedule to drop off produce, which seemed like a good idea, but hadn’t realized that many customers wanted to talk and dawdle, not being as busily scheduled as him, so he wasted his days away a quarter hour at a time and took his effective wage-equivalent down to below minimum scale. If you’ve been on the delivery end of your business, you know the stress of thinking about what you could be doing on the farm as you’re listening to small talk.
The couple washed and prepared much their produce in their kitchen—you can guess how well that went over with the wife, and how taxing it might have been to prepare vegetables on that scale through the home. At the end of the year, they were exhausted and threw in the towel, unable to look at another vegetable for years—they’re probably still on a paleo diet, decades later.
Avidity is most obviously an asset at the beginnings of tasks and projects, that place that looks like an insurmountable wall, seems like an untraipsable, mucky field, where timidity (if we admit it) and logic (if we don’t) keeps most of us right where we are, doing what we’re doing, rather than moving toward an idea we have, a place we imagine, a wish or dream we might want to meet. But once eagerness and ambition have fulfilled their initial function of getting us over the fears and trials of starting an enterprise other character traits generally have to step in to bring any semblance of success. Flexibility and resilience, for instance, allow us to change our path when we encounter obstacles, and perseverance gets us back in the game after our failures.
Our friends hadn’t replicated the success they had imagined and hoped for, and rather than concentrating on their extensive successes (they all were extraordinary growers and marketers—who sells 100k in their second year?) they focused on their failures and the difficulties of hours of exhausting work. Their skill set, prodigious as it was, lacked perseverance and resilience. They weren’t “quitters”, by any means, but they didn’t see that business is a conversation, a dialogue with the customer environment, and you have to listen to what it says, change if it asks you to, raise or lower prices as needed, alter your scale, change distribution methods, streamline production operations, don’t rigidly hold to preconceived ideas—which may be wholly wrong, or may only be right in contexts other than your own. Look closely at your failures and you might find they’re really just success improperly packaged.