31. Evolution

Garden Variety Harvests' first ever farmers market!

At this point, Garden Variety Harvests has eight farmers markets under its belt. Considering the business was started literally from a backyard full of weeds and grass eight short months ago, the initial launch feels pretty successful. No, we obviously aren’t making a fortune. But veggies are getting grown and making their way onto tables at homes and restaurants throughout my city, and that represents an important milestone. But I think it’s important to keep evolving the business strategically to fortify our position in the local food web while simultaneously increasing profitability and efficiency. So lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this concept of evolution on personal and professional levels. I’ll start with a few notes about the personal side:

Going from employee to sole proprietor is a huge personal change. I make my own schedule (for now, it’s basically always working) and that is an incredible freedom. Time management is a skill I’ve always done pretty well with, but every instance of wasted time is now exponentially more painful. I’m working toward an attitude of acceptance in that regard; it’s not smart to let little timesucks become temper tantrums. Another personal maturation I’m currently working through is the fact that I make all of the decisions when it comes to the direction of the business. I rarely find myself in the position of saying “them’s the rules, I don’t make them,” anymore. That’s something employees tend to say a lot, and there’s a bit of comfort that comes with shedding the culpability with an irritated customer or client. With this new bevy of decisions comes accountability, of course. If I fail to deliver a product because of a decision I made, nobody is falling on that sword for me.

a market gardener can never grow enough strawberries...

In a business where weather, insects, disease and mildew can drown, eat, kill and rot my profits, it would be easy to make excuses. And many do. But I’m making a conscious effort not to because I hate when I hear others do it. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are words often attributed to Ghandi. But that’s not really what he said. The actual quote reads, “...As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” It’s a more windy road to the same point: I don’t want to be seen as an excuse maker.

Professional transformations are also under way on a daily basis. On the most minute of scales, I’m always changing planting and cleaning procedures, rethinking calendars. For instance, GVH will have tried its hand at over 40 different crops by year’s end. And next year, I hope we have that number down to 25 products we know work well for the business, plus three or four new experimental crops. Some of those decisions have already been made:

  • Radicchio is off the list. So get it while you can at the market tomorrow; I don’t think I’ll grow it again. Only about ¼ of the plants head up like the picture on the seed packet. I don’t have enough space to only harvest only a quarter of the plants in a given bed.

  • Cilantro in the field is a waste of space, too. It goes to seed way too fast, and I can’t produce it for a price that market customers see as fair. I may experiment with growing cilantro as a microgreen in the future.

  • Squash and cucumbers should never be planted where groundhogs can get to them. Those evil, fat, furry rodents will gnaw every single plant to the nubs.

sun shining thru the rainbow chard

Every day is an education on so many levels. I meet new colleagues, pick up new techniques, and receive poignant pointers all the time, and because I’m operating a business of 1.5 people, (Chloe is the most devoted volunteer I could ask for, and she makes up that .5) I’m nimble enough to convert these pointers into policy immediately.

And that leads us to the big-picture evolutions on the horizon. These are just ideas at this point, no promises or declarations. But right now, I’m thinking about:

teaching a class about homemade salad dressings

  • What would a consultation component to Garden Variety Harvests look like? Currently, my offering to a given homeowner is to take control of their yard and turn it into vegetables for the market while paying rent to that homeowner in said vegetables. But at some point, the GVH network doesn’t need to continue to expand, and it might make sense to turn people’s yards into edible landscapes on a contract basis. The homeowner would then grow whatever they want in their space for their own table. And I love the idea of having a “community table” at my market booth, where clients of GVH can sell their excess tomatoes or sunflowers on a consignment basis. That’s an idea I can’t take credit for, the Uptown Farmers Market in Pheonix, AZ has a Community Exchange booth that works on a volunteer model.

  • I’ve heard of farmers market vendors selling build-your-own salads at the market and making a decent profit with that idea. As a farmer, selling salads in that way would offer a certain amount of flexibility, as I’d just bring what was ready each week and set up a salad buffet of sorts. There’s no pressure to have a specific product every week, and the changing variety could be attractive to market customers. It also would allow me to incorporate some ingredients from local producers for toppings and dressings.

  • Video education is always on my mind because of my background. I think the market gardening space on YouTube might be a little oversaturated right now, but I do think I may have some interesting things to add to the conversation now and then. And I certainly have the skill set. The only thing missing as yet is the extra time to plan, shoot, and edit that content.

  • Long term, I have dreams about building out an urban or peri-urban farm that has an onsite farm-to-table eatery and community space. Chloe and I have talked about this concept a lot, and I really like the model that Glade Road Growing in Blacksburg has put together, with a farmstand open seasonally, a craft brewery and space for small community events. It’s far off at this point, but it’s something I’m aspiring to.

I don’t know exactly where all this evolutionary consideration will lead, but I do think it’s important to always be thinking forward in that way. For now, it’s leading me to the farmers market tomorrow and every subsequent Saturday at Grandin Village from 8 to 12noon. And I hope to see you there!

cucumbers reaching for the next level