Get gritty, get growing

by Courtney Llewellyn

Dan and Julie Perkins have worked diligently to reach the balance they’ve arrived at. Dan is “the cover crop guy” on their DeMotte, IN, certified organic farm, who is also in charge of their on-farm stand and commercial kitchen. Julie heads up sales and marketing and is the “educator of all things food and veggie” for their CSA. But don’t misunderstand – just because they’ve found balance doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard.

Perkins’ Good Earth Farm sits on a total of 20 acres, with 11 of that wooded, 2.5 in native prairie and about three in production. They grow in 30- and 60-inch beds and are no-till/low-till. In addition, they have 12,000 square feet under tunnel. At the peak of their busy season, they have up to 10 employees.

Julie said in 2021, they had 200 members in their CSA (which accounts for 46% of their income). Another 25% comes from their farm stand. Another 10% was generated by their commercial kitchen, open for its first year last year. Private consulting and other income sources round their income out.

“We structure the farm in terms of our roles,” Dan explained, with Julie adding they “divide and conquer” based on the skills they possess. The couple has four children, ages 6 – 13, and they’re also foster parents.

“When we first started farming, the kids were little and that made things a little crazy, but we figured out how to make them a part of the farm and they like being a part of it,” Julie said.

Principles & Balance

The couple has realized over their 12-year journey together that they needed – not just wanted – to have a meaningful work/life balance. They’re trying to instill in their kids a solid work ethic, and knowledge of where their food comes from, but if they don’t want to be heavily involved in farming, that’s okay.

Their farming values, in terms of how they make decisions, have to follow this order of priority: family, quality, sustainability, regenerative, organic and food safety. Dan said, “The local chamber of commerce asked us to do a farmers market, and we want to be part of the community, but we looked at our values and we realized this would stress our family, so we said no. The idea is ‘less is more’ in a lot of ways.” He noted that they were growing microgreens and mushrooms for a while, but they were “constantly at a tipping point” – it was too stressful, so they stopped.

“I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a farmer. If I keep those things prioritized, things go much better for me and for everyone around me,” said Dan. Photo courtesy of Perkins’ Good Earth Farm

The Perkinses also follow the four principles of good soil health: Keeping soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing living roots and energizing with diversity. Dan explained they farm black sands, which drain really well but do not have a lot of nutrient-holding capacity. Back in 2009, they only had 1.9% soil organic matter; with intensive practices over the years, they have doubled that. He said they lay things out to maximize efficiency but in accordance with Mother Nature.

They’re also closer to Mother Nature in their location. “Why farm in a small town? There were no natural markets like you’d find closer to a city,” Julie said. More rural locations also tend to have more affordable land and access to better soil and water. They’re also close to family. She said they’ve surrounded themselves with their biggest fans. And when they first brought about the idea for a CSA, they had about 25 families show interest.

Julie and Dan had early experiences with CSAs at Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA, where Dan interned, and they fell in love with the concept. “We loved that community and wanted to see if we could do it elsewhere,” Julie said. “We learned we loved traditional market-style CSA. We love that they can come throughout the week and have a face-to-face connection while they’re picking out their vegetables.” They also host events (potlucks, fun runs and other different ways for customers to interact with farm). “Do you want people on your farm?” Julie asked. “If you don’t, CSA is probably not for you.”

They intentionally priced their CSA shares for everyone, including using a sliding scale, which Julie said has balanced out costs well. There are three seasons of the CSA, totaling 27 weeks from April to November. They offer three sizes of shares, as well as smaller winter shares, of which only 100 are available. “That small share was us listening to our customers, meeting their needs,” Julie said. They boast a 75% – 80% retention rate.

However, when the duo first started their CSA program, they did not have the same goals. One wanted to feed a large amount of customers; the other wanted to create deep connections with them. “When we first came here, I was still teaching. I wanted to jump right into a CSA, but Dan wanted to hold off. We pressed through and we delivered, but I became pregnant, and then I had my parents harvesting green beans. I really didn’t know – I just wanted to deliver the vegetables. That first experience helped us sit down and make sure we had shared goals.”

They scaled back and did only a seven-week autumn CSA. Dan said that was a way to build their proof of concept and a customer base. And because he was still working full-time off the farm at that point, they had to hire people – “the best thing we’d ever done,” he said.

Ten years after establishing it, Dan quit his day job to focus solely on the farm. “Financially, we could make this work and grow our markets,” he said.

Transition to Full-Time Farming

The Perkinses made a plan and committed to it. “But challenge number one is if you don’t have the money, you can’t do it,” Dan said. “There’s also time, mental bandwidth, physical energy and controlling our growth. I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a farmer. If I keep those things prioritized, things go much better for me and for everyone around me.”

Good Earth has three main workers: one in the greenhouse, one in the wash shed and a field manager. They organize and plan each week by role, and Dan assists or maintains as needed. “This really has improved our efficiency and given responsibility to these roles,” he said.

And that money bit he mentioned? To afford their infrastructure, they developed three- to four-year plans in phases. Julie said they’ve received most of their loans through FSA, but Dan had the idea to ask CSA members to help finance construction of a new barn. “They know us, and they believe in the farm,” Julie said. They asked four members and some family members to finance the building; they had a budget and design plans and asked each person for a $10,000 loan (for a total of $70,000) to be paid back over five years. They all said yes. Because of this, they now have fully modern wash shed and are ready to be GAP certified.

That closeness to their customers is due to clear communication. They survey their customers three to four times a year via SurveyMonkey to gather feedback. In 2018, they added a farm stand because so many people asked for it. The parking area was a “pain point,” so they paved it to make things easier for everyone.

“Our goal has been to not leave the farm, and on-farm pickup is our context,” Dan said of their CSA. They follow a two-week/four-week rule: offering a new vegetable for two weeks but making sure they can offer it for at least four weeks. “It’s not volume or dollar value, it’s the experience. It’s how customers feel when they leave the farm and they’re not wasting their produce.”

Julie provides recipes through their farm blog, and they now have samples thanks to their commercial kitchen. They also offer other items at their farm stand, trying to source as much from Indiana as possible. “Our main goal is to provide good food to this community we live in,” she said.

Tips from Good Earth

To save on expenses (and possible pollution), Dan suggested limited packaging and limiting packing labor. “Have people bag their own greens. They often bring their own containers,” he said. They also offer a “take a pint” option – they leave a pint-sized package in the stand so people can measure out what they want, but they don’t necessarily bring that packaging home.

Good Earth also offers an exchange box. If there’s something a customer doesn’t love in their CSA, they can trade in and out. It’s a tool to learn what customers are into.

Julie and Dan put a big emphasis on balance, and their Sunday night meeting is critical for that. They talk about wins, challenges and who is going to be the lead parent that week.

“Our goal was to hit 200 families for our CSA and we hit that this fall,” Julie said. “We want to keep our high retention rate.” They recently added themselves on Harvest Host, which brings campers in RVs through farm. “If you’re looking for a way to bring more income to your farm, look into that. And the educational commercial kitchen has been great. It’s added another job for the community.”

“Our firm belief is that small farms are the future,” Dan said. “Get gritty, get growing.”

2022-03-02T17:09:56-05:00March 8, 2022|Grower, Grower Midwest|0 Comments

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