Lessons from a small, organic farm

Brent Preston shares his experiences of creating and growing a small-scale organic food operation in a new book entitled, The New Farm, which hits the shelves May 2. Photo: Courtesy The New Farm

It is possible to be idealistic and make a profit

By John Greig
OrganicBiz staff

When Brent Preston and his wife Gillian Flies moved to a small farm near Creemore, Ontario, they were idealistic Torontonians moving to the country to grow small-scale organic food.

And for the first few years they tried to fit the ‘orthodoxy’, says Preston. They soon found, like many other organic and local food idealists, that idealism only took them so far.

They grew many crops, trying the craziest, most diverse varieties (stay away from Fuzzy Peach tomatoes, he says). They harvested leeks from their bush and grew heritage potatoes from a local seed saver. They wrestled a BCS tiller through winter rye. They sold at the local Creemore farmers market. They also brought in the well-meaning city interns that help out on many organic farms.

“We were killing ourselves with work, spending all of our time training interns, losing an enormous amount of money, and we were still working off farm,” Preston told the annual meeting of the Organic Council of Ontario.

Unlike numerous other ex-urban idealists, they changed their model, leading to the money-making, successful farm that they now run in a business that continues to match the ethos that drew them to organic farming.

Farming is not a hobby, not just something hippies are doing and not making any money at. It’s a beautiful life for educated, thinking people. – Brent Preston

Their success has made The New Farm story a popular case study as a route to profitable small-scale farming. Preston and Flies have put their story into a book called, like their farm, The New Farm.

They found focus, bought a tractor, drastically reduced their number of crops and found local, but better markets for their produce.

The most important change, however, was in labour, replacing the interns with no farming experience with Mexican workers through the Seasonal Agriculture Workers program.

“These guys totally transformed our farm,” says Preston. “They are highly skilled, highly motivated, extremely conscientious and want to work as many hours as possible in the growing season.”

The first year of the new model, they hired four Mexican workers. This year they are employing seven, along with two Canadians with some farming background, showing the growth in their business. Preston and Flies have worked full time on the farm for the past five years.

“Everything started to click when we had professional staff.”

Preston and Flies kept meticulous financial records, so they were able to evaluate the business that resulted in more significant change. They expanded their area under cultivation to 20 acres, but don’t intend to get any larger. They continued to increase their numbers of hoop houses. At the same time, they drastically reduced their crop numbers.

“We started to specialize, found crops we enjoyed growing and that worked well in our microclimate,” says Preston.

They now grow salad greens, now their largest value crop, greenhouse cucumbers, multi-coloured beets and specialty potatoes.

They manage their cover crops, seed bed preparation and some other labour-intensive practices with a tractor.

“Have you ever tried to hill potatoes with a hoe? With the tractor we can hill what it would take you three weeks with a hoe in 10 minutes.”

They have resisted further mechanization and continue with a significant amount of manual labour. All rows are seeded with a single row hand seeder that can sometimes see 15 km in a week planting salad.

Finding new markets

Preston and Flies changed their labour, changed their production focus, but also dramatically evolved their marketing.

The traditional route to consumers in organics is through farmer’s markets and/or Community Shared Agriculture, in which farmers deliver food boxes directly to customers. Both fit the ethos, but both are challenging to cash flow.

The New Farm no longer sells at the local farmer’s market. The most bags of salad they ever sold at the farmer’s market was 100. They now send out lots of 1700 bags at time to a home delivery service in Toronto.

There are many other routes to consumers than farmer’s markets and Preston encourages farmers to explore them. They include wholesaling and selling direct to restaurants. Flies has the marketing skills, he says and has worked hard to develop new and strong markets. Getting enough volume of product is key. Their salad sold to wholesale markets generates five times the return on labour as did bunches of carrots, their most popular farmer’s market item.

Retail has also been valuable.

“We doubled our salad sales in just one season by going into retail. That was more than enough to cover our increase in paid labour, just one change.”

The New Farm changed radically and for the better, but Preston and Flies still wanted to maintain the ethics than led them to small scale, organic farming.

Contact with consumers who eat their food is what drives some to sell at farmer’s markets and to create CSAs. At The New Farm, they didn’t want to lose that contact.

They now have chefs and staff from restaurants in Toronto visit the farm and sometime cook and work there. They do a popular fundraiser for Community Food Centres Canada which now brings in 800-900 guests and The New Farm has raised more than a half million dollars for their work.

Most recently, they have built a community space on the farm, with a commercial kitchen, with space for groups like local high schools to come for cooking classes. They had community and company contributions to get the facility built.

“I think the pinnacle of where we got to is that Creemore Springs has put a beer tap in the kitchen. If you told me 10 years ago, there would have a beer tap on the farm — it’s as good as it gets.”

Preston is now sharing his successes and lessons through The New Farm Book which will be available May 2.

“Farming is not a hobby, not just something hippies are doing and not making any money at. It’s a beautiful life for educated, thinking people.”