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Farm Case Study: Alewife Farm

Alewife Farm

Tyler Dennis
Clinton Corners, NY

— SNAPSHOT QUESTIONS —
When did you start your farm?
2014.

What do you produce?
A diverse range of vegetables and some herbs.

How big is your farm?
12 acres under cultivation on a 40 acre property.

Where is it?
Clinton Corners, NY, in Dutchess County.

What is your soil type and topography?
I have a mix of Hoosic Gravelly Loam and Wappinger Loam. Both are somewhat sandy and well drained. Of two fields in production, one is nearly flat and the other is slightly sloped.

Do you lease, rent or own your land?
I lease the property.

What are your markets?
I sell through a mix of restaurants, specialty wholesale accounts (meaning mostly farm-to-home type distribution companies like Farmigo, Quinciple, and Blue Apron), and through two farmers’ markets – the E82nd St and Union Square Greenmarkets in Manhattan.

— IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS —
What made you want to start your farm? What was your dream?

While I was an apprentice at Stone Barns I decided that I wanted to be a farmer and start my own farm. I knew that I wanted to be self-employed and that I loved the work — being outside, growing healthy food, the necessity to learn and problem solve in many different areas, getting exercise, setting my own schedule. There is something about the tangibility of fostering growth and health in living systems that is very appealing to me. My dream was to create a lasting farm business in the Hudson Valley, and to never have to get a “real job.”

How were you involved in farming before you started your own farm?

My first real farming experience was as a WWOOFer on a diversified organic olive orchard in France. I worked closely with the two farmers there on their olives, small vegetable garden, and medicinal herb production. Afterward I spent about two years apprenticing at Stone Barns and working in different areas of the vegetable production on the farm.

How did you secure land and capital for your farm?

I found land through my relationship with longtime Stone Barns volunteer Ben Hoyer, who I had gotten to know as an apprentice. Ben had expressed interest in teaming up with a young, aspiring farmer to start a new farm venture in the Hudson Valley and we got to talking during my second year at SBC. Ultimately we found a piece of property in Dutchess County that Ben purchased and I now lease from him. We subsequently worked together to develop the farm’s infrastructure over the next few years.

I secured capital for my farm in just about every way a person can: loans, grants, self-financing, prepayment from buyers, borrowing from my family, you name it. After investing my own very meager savings in the operation and borrowing from several family members and friends, Ben was willing to offer me a line of credit with a low interest rate that was crucial to getting started. After that, I was able to get a Carrot Project loan and then in my second year a Farm Start loan through Farm Credit East. In my second year I was also awarded funding through the New York State New Farmer Grant Fund and the EQIP High Tunnel Grant programs. One restaurant that I sell to, Blue Hill, has also prepaid at the beginning of each of my first two seasons, which has been very helpful.

What problems did you run into in the planning stages?

Generally, my own limited experience was the biggest obstacle in the early stages of the farm. The range of problems and projects that required my attention at the beginning was huge — finding the property and setting up the lease, designing and building the infrastructure, setting up all of the financing and insurance, hiring staff, cultivating untested ground, starting totally from scratch with marketing, and on and on — and it was pretty much my first time for all of it. It was often a very, very steep learning curve. Aside from that, the property had no infrastructure of any kind when I started on it, so in my first season a big part of my energy was devoted to building high tunnels, putting up fencing, building a cooler, and coordinating with my landlord about a barn, a well, electricity, etc. It was definitely trial by fire.

What did your farm look like in year one?

An analogy that I find pretty appropriate to describe the farm in its first season was trying to build an airplane while flying it at the same time. Starting without any infrastructure was a huge challenge for pretty much the whole year. Otherwise, it was a year full of experimentation with different cultivation and marketing strategies. For various reasons I decided not to start a CSA so in the first year I tried selling in a lot of other ways – restaurants, grocery stores, co-ops, wholesalers, food trucks, farm stands – pretty much anyone who would talk to me. I started at one farmers’ market toward the end of my first year, and I didn’t really feel like the farm was starting to find its groove with marketing until midway through year two. I cultivated about 3.5 acres in the first year, mostly in a no-till system, and put up a lot of new infrastructure. By the time I made my last sales for the year, in mid-December, I felt about as tired as I’ve ever been.

What were some challenges that you didn’t expect to have and how did you deal with them?

A big challenge that I ran into early on was in learning how to take time away from the farm and take care of myself. Especially in the first year when very little about the farm seemed secure, I found it very challenging to step away and get the rest that I needed. Truthfully, this is something that I’m still working on, although I think I’m getting better over time.

Another big challenge in the first year was trying to balance the farm’s production with a constantly shifting and developing marketing strategy. I frequently had to scramble either to supply enough volume to fill orders or to find ways to sell excess product. Over time as the farm’s marketing plan has settled down this has been less of an issue.

What were some indicators in the beginning stages that made you optimistic for your farm’s success?

Right from the start I’ve gotten very positive feedback about the quality of our product and I’ve often been surprised by how enthusiastic buyers have been about wanting to work with us. I think people want to help a young farmer really trying to make their own way and I’ve always felt very supported by our buyers. At first I was afraid people wouldn’t even be willing to talk to me because I was so unknown, but it’s mostly been the opposite. I spent most of the first year in a state of near panic about the farm’s cash flow situation, and when I got to the end of the year and actually had some money left in the bank, that was very encouraging.

What have been some landmark events in your farm’s development? (equipment purchases, strategic decision, markets, etc.)

In the second year I shifted the farm’s production focus from a mostly permanent bed system to a more traditional tillage based system utilizing mechanical cultivation. Although I loved the permanent beds and we grew beautiful produce in that system, switching to mechanical cultivation has enabled me to rapidly scale up the farm — from 3.5 acres in year one to 12 acres in year two — without adding much additional staff. The increase in scale has been crucial in pursuing larger wholesale opportunities and bigger farmers’ markets in year two.

The other major shift is we’ve focused more and more on farmers’ markets and specialty wholesale in year two, and less on everything else. I’ve consolidated from 5 to just 2 restaurant accounts, cut out most of our other small outlets, and put more energy into working our way up within the Greenmarket system. We just got accepted into the Union Square market on Fridays, which is an amazing opportunity for the farm. We’ve also really expanded our wholesale production, mostly with Blue Apron, and that’s become a big part of the business.

Was there a point when you felt your farm became “established?”

I would say I still don’t feel like the farm is really “established,” but we’re getting there. Things are much more secure now than at the end of the first year, definitely. I’m optimistic that I’ll feel more established by the end of year three.

How have your goals changed?

Mostly I would say they haven’t. One thing I’ve realized since starting the farm is that land ownership in the Hudson Valley is a priority for me, as opposed to a long-term lease situation.

How have you been successful? (financial, production, quality of life, etc.)

To date, the farm has probably been most successful from a financial standpoint. The business became profitable midway through its second year, which I think is pretty rare for a farm, and I’m poised to pay off about 1/3 of my start-up debt by the end of this year. I would say that our production has been pretty successful as well by the standards of a new farm, although switching to an entirely new production strategy in the second year definitely presented some major challenges. From a quality of life standpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever been more exhausted, or happier. I think I speak for our whole crew when I say that the farm has been both incredibly challenging and deeply rewarding from day one.

Who or what can you credit for your successes?

I’ve received an inordinate amount of help and advice from the beginning, starting with everyone at Stone Barns. I had some really valuable financial guidance in my first year from Benneth Phelps at the Carrot Project and marketing help from Kate Galassi, formerly of Quinciple. Dan Barber and the whole Blue Hill team have been extremely supportive as well. The list of people who gave me help and advice in the first year is extremely long.

My landlord, Ben Hoyer, has been incredibly supportive and our cooperation has helped to create a situation where I was really poised to succeed with the farm. It would be hard for me to enumerate all the ways in which he’s helped out and provided essential support.

I’ve also been very fortunate in that everyone who’s come to work on the farm has really given part of themselves to the project and been thoughtful and serious about the work. I’m currently extremely fortunate to be working with the brilliant and incomparable Sarah Groat.

What challenges does your farm face now and in the future?

I’ve mostly maxed out production on my current piece of land, at least in terms of the space I’m using, so my challenge for the next few years will be to refine systems and improve efficiency while maintaining roughly the same scale. In the future, I’d like to move onto a somewhat larger acreage, although I don’t think I’d want to cultivate more than about 20 acres.

A constant challenge for me is to adapt my marketing to whatever opportunities are available and to find a more stable long-term marketing strategy. I’ve done a lot of business with farm-to-home type distributors in NYC, all of which are young companies working with relatively untested models. I’ve already had a few scary moments with buyers going out of business, and it’s made me realize that diversifying and stabilizing our marketing will probably be a very long process.

Where do you see your farm in five years?

Hopefully still chugging right along here in the HV. When I get into a land situation that feels more permanent I would like to eventually start a CSA.

What advice would you give to beginning farmers?

Don’t ever give up. And take a day off.

More on Alewife Farm:

alewifefarm.com
instagram.com/alewifefarm

Originally published on March 15, 2016