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We are working to develop a culture of eating based on what farms need to grow to build healthy soil and a resilient ecosystem.

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Farm Case Study: Yard Birds Farm

Yard Birds Farm

Angela Roell and Brian Kline
Montague, Massachusetts

SNAPSHOT QUESTIONS

When did you start your farm?
2012

What do you produce?
We produce honey, queen bees, beeswax products: balms, candles, propolis, tinctures and honeys infused with herbs and spices. We also grow seed garlic and greens.

How big is your farm?
21 acres, 2 tilled acres, 30+ beehives, 21 fruit trees in production, 18 forested acres currently under conservation, restoring hardwood forest, used to harvest personal fuel.

Where is it?
Montague, Massachusetts.

What is your soil type and topography?
Sandy loam, river bottom/valley.

Do you lease, rent or own your land?
Own.

What are your markets?
Garlic and Arts Festival, Deerfield Academy Fall Festival, Northampton Winter Market, Greenfield Farmers Market. Small retail sales include: Amherst All Things Local, Acadia Herbal, The Haberdashery Easthampton, Follow the Honey Cambridge.

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS

What made you want to start your farm? What was your dream?

Our dream has always been to run farm based educational programming from a small working farm and apiary. We began our farm with some seed money, and the objective of engaging our local community in food. We participated in garden build outs, panel discussions and volunteer days to generate buzz about our farm in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. As momentum grew we realized that our dream of conducting place-based education on a farm meant we’d need a “place,” and that our “place” wasn’t urban. We began the search for farmland and leased land in the interim from a farm contact. We were an urban farm for one season before making the transition to rural. We did it over the winter, wrapped and packed everything we’d purchased for the farm and our house, and moved to Western Mass in November. We planned and launched using contacts we’d made over several trips out here in the previous 1-2 years. We had friends and a small support system in Western Mass, which helped ease that transition.

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

• Founding members of Egleston Community Orchard, reclamation of urban lots for urban farm and community gathering space
• Founding member Boston Area Beekeepers Association
• Mentor Boston University Beekeeping Association
• Mentee under Master Beekeeper in Boston
• New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Farm Business Planning Course
• Blair Grocery Project, New Orleans, field work volunteer
• Food Forest Project, New Orleans, garden volunteer

How did you secure land and capital for your farm?

We leased our initial land by reaching out to contacts in the region we wanted to purchase in. We sent potential contacts our initial business plan, references and information about our work in the community. We found our contacts by reaching out to friends, family and friends of friends, as well as landowners whose land was in Chapter 61A in the region. We used our own savings as capital. We purchased our land one year ago using personal savings and our investment portfolio. Our lease was coming to an end and our landlords were not interested in extending our lease to include a long term commitment.

What problems did you run into in the planning stages?

When we first began with an urban farming model the cost of travel between plots in both fuel and time outweighed the income we were able to generate, we hadn’t accurately accounted for time or fuel, and had to reconfigure our model after year one. In the planning stages of year one we knew little about CSA management and experienced a sharp learning curve with customer preferences. Luckily our clients were able to give us working feedback to address these concerns.

In year two we received a lot of feedback from peers about the demand for eggs in the Pioneer Valley and tried to meet this need by managing a test flock of 50 birds. We created a budget and production projections from these hens. These hens were great producers, but our winter management became difficult due to landlord land care, pest pressure and our access to the land in winter. We had to assess and eliminate this enterprise in order to maintain the health of our remaining flock, which we were able to do swiftly to mitigate additional cost.

What did your farm look like in year one?

In year one we ran an urban farm model, we leased land from 5 land owners in Milton, MA and grew veggies on each lot, on 3 separate lots we managed small apiaries. Our CSA members included the land owners and our friends. We sold in the Jamaica Plain market in Boston as well.

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

Our first challenge came when we shifted markets from an urban to rural market. We weighed our quality of life against the risk of relocating to a new market, and chose to relocate to improve our quality of life, and to have a chance at purchasing land in the first 5 years- a reality that was not possible in Boston. The shift came with the challenge of entering a competitive market with large vegetable growers, and needing to both hit the ground running- generate a customer base and interest in our model, and find a unique niche for ourselves within the market. Our second challenge came in managing the topography and soil of our land in Williamsburg.

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

In our second year, our first in the Pioneer Valley market, we turned a very small profit. This success inspired us to continue pursuing Young Farmers Preconference 2015 Farm Case Studies farming in the Pioneer Valley despite the competitive nature of this new market. In our third year we were able to increase the size of our apiary, and increase honey and beeswax product sales. Interest in our beeswax and honey products grew, and we were able to secure a spot at the Northampton Winter Market. In our fourth year we secured a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to double our apiary size again. This year our apiary went from 15 to 40 hives, and we’ll take about 30 strong hives into winter with low mite loads and plenty of stores.

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

• Entering the Pioneer Valley market
• Purchasing our Grillo
• Selling our Grillo and purchasing a Farmall Cub
• Purchasing our farm land
• Securing a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to expand our apiary size

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

I don’t think we’re there yet, but I do think we’ve made great strides in establishing our name and our brand in the Pioneer Valley, and we continue this work every day.

How have your goals changed?

Our goals have shifted from building a large number of vegetable enterprises quickly for wholesale to acting as stewards of our land and our pollinators, while simultaneously increasing on and off farm education opportunities. When well managed our honeybees will produce a bumper crop of honey, queen bees for sale and beeswax. In time, with input our land will produce perennial herbs, fruits (peaches, apples, pears, berries) and a small handful of annual vegetables (garlic, peppers, greens). Our farm will act as a community gathering space for outdoor events, overnight stays, workshops and summer programs.

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

I have invested a majority of my time and energy into the honeybee production on our farm, and this investment of time and resources has paid off. I’ve managed to successfully overwinter a small line of queens for breeding, and increased our hive numbers with a small grant from MDAR. This year’s bees created enough of a bumper crop for harvest, and to overwinter 30 hives.

Our quality of life has greatly improved, four years ago we were dissatisfied with living in the city, unable to justify the expense of land/housing purchase and feeling “stuck” with a dream outside of our current reality. We were able to take our skills in community building and farming/gardening and use them to shift our lives to be aligned with our values. This has meant consistent assessment of our quality of life using the “Holistic Management” model of evaluation.

Who or what can you credit for your successes?

  • I credit our drive, persistence and willingness to learn and grow together as business and personal partners.
  • I credit Julia Shanks, a food consultant who via both The Carrot Project and MDAR has guided our financial planning, and brought clarity to farm financial management.
  • CISA for offering us wholesale and market opportunities, workshops to build our business in the Pioneer Valley, and sponsoring a scholarship to the HMI Beginning Women Farmers program.
  • Our customers, and their commitment to our product and our passion.
  • I credit my brother-in-law who passed away as we were forming this project, and invested in our success.

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

I think taking a huge step back from vegetables was a BIG and scary step for us. Moving slowly, and learning about our land before beginning to pile on inputs and amendments was an exercise outside of our comfort zone. It has meant re-envisioning our brand and changing how we conduct our business in some radical ways. It is a risk, but it helps us to realign our farm with our long term goals. The challenge will be expanding our brand in the next 5 years.

Where do you see your farm in five years?

In five years we’d like to increase to 100 well managed hives and 25-30 queen rearing colonies. When well managed, our honeybees will produce a bumper crop of honey, queen bees for sale and beeswax based products. We will move these products via retail and wholesale channels. We will sustainably harvest firewood from our woodland, and support other local farmers interested in running woodland enterprises, like hog production or mushroom cultivation, by leasing land. We will reclaim our forest edges and plant pollinator beneficial perennials along the borders. We will increase our on and off farm education opportunities to include on-farm workshops, workshops for children, summer programming and farm dinners to raise money for community projects. Our land will produce perennial herbs, fruits (peaches, apples, pears, berries) and a small handful of annual vegetables (garlic, peppers, greens). We will move these via wholesale channels (local food cooperatives and restaurants).

What advice would you give to beginning farmers?

  • Seek financial advice from everyone who is qualified to give it to you.
  • Tap into your networks for advertising and community engagement: Who do you know and how can you partner with these contacts to broaden the reach of your business in a way that benefits both your farm and your community?
  • Spend time developing an understanding of your market.
  • Plan everything! Accept that not everything will go as planned.
  • Learn about support programs in your area.
  • Seek out grants, case studies, workshops and learning opportunities to participate in.
  • Find meaningful ways to connect with your community, make realistic commitments to do so.
  • Secure flexible off farm employment to ensure financial security in the first 5 years.
  • Beware of burnout, we all act as if working ourselves to the bone is gallant, but it’s not sustainable.

For more on Yard Birds Farm:
yardbirdsfarm.com

From the 2015 Young Farmers Preconference — “This Is How We Do It: Learning From Successful Farm Models.”

Originally published on March 14, 2016