Summary of Operation:
- 70 acres total land (30 acres of certified organic vegetables on home farm property, another farm in Richmond that has 40 acres of tillable land)
- Grass fed lamb (30-50/yr for meat), broiler chickens on pasture (1000), pigs on pasture (50), laying hens (1200)
- 2 heated greenhouses, 8 unheated
- Sell 75% wholesale, 25% CSA/farm stand: “I enjoy selling wholesale; that relationship is just as important to me as our relationship with a CSA customer”
- On farm CSA as well as remote drop offs that are on same route as wholesale deliveries
- Customer base: primarily greater Burlington area, Waterbury, and Stowe, distributors out of state (Black River Produce and Farmers to You), Deep Root: cooperative of member farms from Canada, Quebec, and Vermont selling in Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and occasionally Georgia
- Employees: in the past have had 15-18, this year only 12, “fewer people to manage means a tighter knit team”, H2A program
- Biomass furnace heat system, wood pellet fired, (heats the water which is piped underground), back up furnaces fueled by propane if very cold
- Business model: market garden for farm stand/CSA (wide variety of crops), 20 acres for wholesale (only 6 different kinds of crops)
- Produce 70,000 pounds of carrots per year
Christa, one of the farm managers along with her husband, grew up on the land that they now farm, however, her parents were not farmers. When she was a kid, the land was leased to dairy farmer, however, when the farmer transitioned, it became difficult to get someone to use the land. Although Christa had worked in a small vegetable garden with her mother when she was a child, she never had farming in mind, however, she “always had an appreciation for really good food”. Her mom always canned through the winter and she had always had an interest in science and biology. After getting a degree in biology and environmental science as well as realizing how pervasive the industrial food system was at the time, she and her husband, Mark, began with a garden and chickens. What propelled them into farming as a career was the chickens because most of their friends and neighbors had their own gardens but not their own meat. It started with a self serve table at end of driveway, all the while, they still both had full time jobs as biologists. Eventually, they decided to make the leap to become full time farmers and applied for the Farm Viability Program to gain technical assistance on how to scale up the farm. Christa noted that “the demand and the market was there”. Another reason for their success in the beginning was that they began before the early 2000’s when the organic market exploded onto the scene.
Mark, Christa’s husband and co-manager grew up on small farm and homestead in Washington state. Therefore, he was used to the need to work hard. Along with the Farm Viability Program, they also benefitted from attending workshops and mentoring with other farms in the area.
The focal point of Jericho Settlers Farm is “good food year round”. In Christa’s words, she “really wanted to produce food so that people could eat locally year round”. She also realizes that this means people will have to shift their current eating habits. However, being able to grow fresh greens in the winter and store crops in the winter allows greater diversity in the winter and early spring months. Another whole systems focus point is providing year round steady employment.
Within the vegetable production, Christa mentioned that they focus intensely on a few crops such as early tomatoes, cucumbers, root crops such as carrots beets parsnips turnips, and cut salad greens.
Although 75% of what they grow is sold through wholesale, yet another focus is on staying connected to the immediate community through the CSA and farm stand on the property. They also do so by selling to local stores and restaurants. Essentially, they see the fact that Jericho exists as an alternative form of community service because anyone who comes to the farm to get produce can learn more about how growing works.
Variability/Unpredictability– One of the hardest parts about running a diversified vegetable farm is that there are many different crops being grown at once, each of which has different labor demands. A farmer ends up doing something different for 30 different crops or more. In order to continue to be as efficient as possible, they track costs by logging the amount of time that goes into growing each crop. For certain crops such as carrots, they keep track of what tractors they used on them and for how long, seed cost, how many beds they planted, how many times they weeded, how many hours went into that weeding, every time they cultivated with a tractor, yields, harvest time, and wash time. At the end of the day, they know exactly what they produced, how much they sold it for, and how much they put into it.
Management– For a significant amount of time, Christa and Mark hired a few managers to oversee certain aspects of the farm. However, this long term goal did not work for various reasons. For instance, they cannot offer the benefits of most full time work such as health insurance. It also caused issues because managing other people is difficult and having to manage a manager proved difficult, including managing managers. Instead of this model, they now have a team model in which all employees are on the same plane; there is no hierarchy. They all meet once a week as a team on Sunday’s to plan for the week ahead and in combination with this, Christa sends out an email detailing what will happen the next day. In order to keep track of what happens each day, team members will text Christa at the end of the day to update her on anything noteworthy. Christa reflected on this model saying,”other team members are learning their jobs better because they have to”.
Employment– Before switching over to hiring through the H2A program which brings seasonal workers up from Jamaica, Jericho used to hire almost exclusively locally. Unfortunately, they found that many employees could not commit to the full season and hours necessary. Now they have five employees that work year round while half of the seasonal comes through the H2A program and the other half of the seasonal crew are local. This relationship works well because the Jamaicans’ goal is to make as much money in that specific time frame as possible from March – November. The program also offers continuity because they can and often do come back to the same farm every year. Having a consistent, efficient labor force is even more important as they shift towards selling more wholesale as the margins have to be even lower.
Information gap–“What we run up against is consumers who are confused and unaware of what’s happening in the organic certified world” (in terms of lowered standards).
Economics and Profitability:
The most profitable crops include roots, greens, and tomatoes, eggs, and pork each of which they run profitability budgets on. Still others such as baby bok choy they take “snapshots” of by keeping track of how long it takes to seed, wash, and harvest once or twice during the season.
In order to continue to be as efficient as possible, Christa and Mark have placed informational signs for the employees to follow. These signs include information such as how to take care of a crop, how to trellis and prune, or a reminder to bleach out the knives or record data. By making sure that the employees are as efficient as possible, this affects the pace at which things happen on the farm, increasing the potential for produce being sold.
Since Jericho sells to Deep Root, a wholesale producer selling in stores on the east coast such as Whole Foods, the prices are much lower, therefore, they need to be able to produce a product efficiently. The prices are sometimes half of what they would receive selling through retail or local wholesale. Christa advised that “it doesn’t matter so much how big you are, but how efficient you are”. Therefore, there are certain things that they do not sell because they are not efficient enough.
At Jericho, they go above and beyond in terms of cover cropping. Instead of having a cover crop on one field for one season, they have a 4 year cover crop and pasture rotation in which the pigs, sheep, and chickens graze. This rotation cultivates good soil structure through leguminous cover crops that provide nitrogen, and increased deep root growth, organic matter, and carbon sequestration. It also serves to break the pest and disease cycles while still being productive.
In order to take advantage of renewable sources of energy, all of the electricity on the farm comes from solar panels. Furthermore, the greenhouses are mainly heated through a biomass system fueled by wood.
Although their produce is certified organic, the livestock are not due to the scale that they are at as well as the degradation of organic standards, especially in the world of dairy. These standards are lenient and not well enforced. The labor that goes into raising grass fed livestock is much different than in CAFO’s, however, the standards of certified organic meat do not take this into account making it so that smaller scale producers cannot compete.
In terms of community and quality of life benefits, Jericho Settlers is involved in local farm to school programs, donates to the local food shelf, works with the Vermont Food Bank, gleans with the Intervale throughout the growing season, and hosts on farm dinners (one in the summer and fall). For these dinners, they partner with a restaurant who sells the tickets while they prepare the food and host the event on the farm. Some of the money from the ticket goes towards NOFA VT. The on farm CSA is also a way in which to interact with customers and build community.
The biggest piece of advice that Christa has is that young farmer “should know their market before they start”. She emphasized that in Vermont there is not a lot of room in the market locally, so new farmers need to either identify a market that is not local or to figure out what the local market still needs. She noted that it is also important to sell the product at the price that you need to thrive. This is even more important now with the market being saturated.
Yet another piece of advice was to “find the right thing that matches your strengths, interests, and satisfies a need in the market”. This is a delicate balance that must be considered before jumping into farming. Finally, Christa expressed that having an educational background in science as well as knowing how to get information and analyze it are helpful. Practical skills such as welding, carpentry, and mechanics are also beneficial.
In the future, they are building four more unheated hoop houses in order to continue to increase winter production. Markets will continue to stay the same as they continue to sell more to the same people. They will also continue to focus on being the best possible suppliers possible so that people can depend on them. It is oftentimes difficult for farmers to provide dependable, high quality products, however, this is a key goal for Jericho now and in the future. Christa also noted that they think it is important to invest as much in the infrastructure that they already have and to produce as much as they can with what they have in a relatively short period of time.