It’s mid-May and at Our Kids’ Farm in Exeter, RI the first strawberries are ripe. This is not a freak of nature. Rather, it is the result of a carefully designed business plan that includes niche items, creative growing practices, diversified offerings and season extension.
Loren and Gina Thurn were contacted seven and a half years ago by the former owners, John and Holly Howard, who decided to retire and wanted to sell the farm. At that time, the farm was growing hydroponic tomatoes, bedding plants and perennials under approximately a quarter acre of plastic. The transition was nearly seamless. The Thurns purchased not only the property but also the business —name, customers, and all.
In the years since, the farm’s footprint has not changed much. Most of the greenhouses had just one door, so they added doors to both sides of the 7 houses and added roll-up sides to facilitate ventilation. They also added three cold frames. While the physical appearance of the farm has not changed a great deal, the business itself certainly has. The Thurns no longer grow perennials, focusing instead on annuals and vegetable transplants.
Like many farmers in the Northeast, the Thurns’ dream has always been to market exclusively retail. At this time, however, the overall security and volume of the wholesale bedding plant market plays an important part in their business. The list of their standing custom orders is impressive: the Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport Grand Jai Alai, country clubs and landscapers. Many of these customers order the same plants in the same numbers year after year, so the Thurns know months in advance exactly what to plant and what the return on that investment will be.
Every year is also a transition, though. When large accounts change owners, those standing orders can be changed or done away with altogether. Landscapers can lose customers, therefore changing their orders. In the midst of changing conditions, the Thurns have a set of guiding principles that guide what they do, how, and when. The first is innovation. What they do is not as remarkable as how they do it. This is a couple informed by, but definitely unhindered by tradition. Gina puts it differently: “We’re silly!”
The flood benches (installed by the Howards) alternately hold greens, scallions and cut flowers in pots. Strawberries grow in gutters and peas climb trellises. Onions and carrots sprout in plastic wading pools whence they are sold fresh with tops intact. Specially designed bins shelter baby potatoes; cantaloupe and butternut grow in large pots. At Our Kids’ Farm, there is no such thing as picking vegetables while standing on your head. All of their crops can be harvested upright. If necessary, they’re not afraid to design their own planters to meet that goal. Lest you doubt the efficacy of their creativity, consider that 30 pots of squash last year yielded around 800 pounds of butternut.
Another principle is that they don’t want to compete with the nearby farmers growing field crops. For a couple years they tried growing a traditional garden, but it wasn’t a good fit for their operation. Therefore, all their produce is grown before or after the field equivalents are ready. Their greenhouse-grown zucchini is ready May 1. Their strawberries are ready by the second week of May. Once the field zucchini and strawberries are ready, the Thurns’ are finished.
The Thurns also endeavor to make the farm the marketing center of the business. They have an on-farm storefront where they sell their annuals, vegetables and vegetable plants. Rhode Island is home to around 40 farmers markets and the Thurns have taken a unique approach to them. While most farmers consider farmers markets a sales venue, the Thurns treat them more like advertisement.
Our Kids’ Farm has spent time at four summer markets and the Thurns served as market manager for one of the smallest ones. They choose which markets to attend less by the volume of customers or the amount of product sold at a given site and more by the potential the market has for driving customers to their farm. The strategy has paid off as loyal market customers begin frequenting the farm stand on non-market days.
Identifying and capitalizing on off-season and niche markets is another keystone to the Thurns’ success. Winter is a slow time for many farmers. For the past two years, they have run their greenhouses year-round to keep up with the “off-season” demand for their produce.
They participate in a winter farmers market, but their best winter marketing venue is arguably Market Mobile. Run by Farm Fresh RI, Market Mobile could best be described as an online produce broker that enables small producers, such as Our Kids’ Farm, to supply local produce to high-volume markets such as high-end restaurants. On a set day of the week, consumers go online and select how much of what kind of product they want, from which producers. The farmers get notified of the orders and deliver to a central collection point. At the collection point, the farmers get paid for their produce and go home while the Market Mobile workers separate all the orders and deliver them to their end point.
Market Mobile is a win-win for farmers and consumers. The farmers benefit financially since they generally get a higher-than wholesale price. Additionally, Loren notes that Market Mobile “lets us target a market we never could have reached before.” The Thurns regularly look for gaps in the produce available on Market Mobile and then grow crops to fill those gaps. Parsley, radishes and mint are some of the niche products that have become staples in their greenhouses. Loren marvels, “I never expected the results we’ve had on this sort of stuff. I’ve been really pleased.”
Profitability is a driving factor in any business, but the Thurns also believe in giving back to the community. They regularly run fundraisers with garden clubs, FFA chapters and civic groups. The previous owners had established a special “fundraiser price” that was between a wholesale and retail price; the Thurns have continued that practice. They have taken fundraisers to another level, however, by providing several different fundraiser options.
The first is a consignment program. In this model, a group can organize a plant sale at a remote location, bring a supply of plants to the site and sell directly to their supporters. The organization then pays only for what was sold. This method is attractive to many organizations, but it has some significant drawbacks for the Thurns.
The second option is a list order. Much like buying Girl Scout cookies, groups have a limited list of plants from which their supporters can order and a limited time in which to order them. This model helps minimize loss because the only plants that leave the farm are those which have already been purchased.
The third method is an on-farm fundraiser. In this method, supporters go the farm, identify themselves with the organization of their choice and 30-percent of their total purchase is donated to that cause. The Thurns prefer this method because it brings customers to their farm, showcases all of their product rather than just a select sample and virtually eliminates waste.
In truth, working as a team — in family, in business, in community — could be the essence of the Thurn family and Our Kids’ Farm.