In First Year, Marketer-turned-Farmer Embraces Sustainable Practices; Inches up on Break-even
August 7, 2012 | Hana Lurie
Skinny Lane Farm, located 30 miles east of Austin, began as a backyard garden project designed to supply a single family with fresh produce year round. The farm’s founder, Bekki Callaway, soon outgrew the confines of her backyard and in short order she and her husband purchased 13-acres of land to start Skinny Lane Farm. Embracing sustainable practices and innovative business models, in just its first year operation, Callaway has not only found happiness, but has nearly reached a financial break-even point with Skinny Lane.
I recently spoke with Callaway, who left a career in marketing to become a full-time farmer, to find out more about her reasons for starting a farm, her methods, her philosophy on organic and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Bekki Callaway: We’re brand new and we purchased the farm last year, in March. Before that, I had always been a health nut; I’ve always been extremely concerned about where our food comes from, how it’s grown, and what kinds of pesticides, fertilizers and genetic modifications went into it. So I just started growing a lot of my own vegetables at home until I had taken over the entire backyard with raised beds, and then I brought chickens home, and finally my husband just said that maybe I should go start a farm! I started looking for some land, and thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I share the joys of harvest? I think it’s really important that we have more small farms with the direction that our food industry is heading towards, so this was a good niche to go into.
We live in a neighborhood that’s about 15 miles east of Austin, going towards Houston, and we purchased 13 acres of land about 12 miles down the road. So we have almost an acre of vegetables, a barn with three cows and three donkeys, a chicken coop with give or take 40-50 chickens depending on the hawks, raccoons, coyotes and foxes (laughs).
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Bekki Callaway: We’re doing mostly common vegetables, meaning yellow squash, zucchini…one type of each vegetable because we’re still new at this and want to make sure that we know what we’re doing. I’m not really trying to sell to restaurants or anything. I’m just trying to get people to start buying more of what they normally would buy at the grocery store. That’s been pretty successful so far. The biggest disaster you could have is to grow a half an acre of something and find out that nobody wants to buy it.
Q: Is your farm certified organic?
Bekki Callaway: No, and I don’t plan to do that. When we first started, I was intending to do that, but after I found out how difficult it was and how much money it was going to cost, I didn’t see the value in it. If I have two or three thousand dollars and I can plow another acre, grow more vegetables and feed the people in the community, or I can pay to have a stamp on my farm that I’m certified organic, it just doesn’t seem like it makes sense.
We follow all of the guidelines – we don’t use any genetically modified seeds, we don’t use any pesticides, we have an open-door policy, etc. Maybe if I was selling stuff that was going to end up in a grocery store, where you have more of a distance between yourself and the [consumer], it would have some value. But then you’re getting away from the whole buy local thing again. To me, the way this works best is lots of small farms feeding lots of people who are in a close vicinity to them. They should be close enough to see your farm, and that should be enough for them to know how you’re doing things; know your farmer.
Q: Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Bekki Callaway: First, companion planting. The biggest problem we have is that we’re not using pesticides and we’re not using seeds that have been modified to be resistant to pests, so we have a lot of bugs. We’ve been having a lot of problems with grasshoppers, and I found an article that says that they don’t like cilantro, so we’ve been planting cilantro and that’s been helping. Marigolds is another thing – they actually attract the bugs to them[selves], so they can help keep bugs away from your crops. Another guideline is crop rotation.
Q: How does your farm make money?
Bekki Callaway: Well, when I first started the farm, I had done a lot of research and my goal was to have a CSA and to do the farmers market. Farmers markets are a great way to get your face out in front of people and get your produce out there, but at the same time, I personally find them a lot of work and not necessarily the best reward. For me, it’s this guessing game of how many people will come and how much they will buy. Maybe if I did it more often, I’d get more regular customers and that [problem] would go away somewhat. But, on top of that, it’s a lot of time that you’re sitting at a table and not at the farm working.
We started a facebook, website and a newsletter. In the newsletter every week, we tell people what we have, where our delivery areas are, and we ask for a day notice. That way, I know that somebody is going to buy it when I go out and pick it. I also connected with two farm delivery services – Green Lane and Farmhouse Delivery. They buy from lots of local farmers, put it all together and deliver it to people. I can give them larger volumes and it’s a lot less work, because I just drop it off to them. I’m [still] not sure what the best method is going forward.
Q: Would you consider the farm profitable, or self-sustaining at this point?
Bekki Callaway: I have an intern working for me this summer who was entering all of our records into quickbooks, and we finally did an analysis for eggs. We sell our eggs for four dollars a dozen, and most people would say that that’s really expensive. But we’re losing money. We would have to charge six or seven dollars a dozen to make money on our eggs. So every time I sell a four dollar dozen of eggs, I’m basically telling people that I’ll cover the cost of the two dollars. It’s really tricky because you’re constantly walking this line of pricing things to make them accessible, but not going out of business by giving things away and losing money.
Looking at our labor costs, material costs, and things like the water bill, we’re actually doing better than I would have ever expected for our first year. I’d say we’re inching up on break-even. I could see us actually making a profit next year. What we really need to do now is the thing that anybody who likes to farm doesn’t want to do, which is a business plan, expenses, and the whole accounting part of it. But I definitely don’t feel like we’re digging a hole every month – I’ve been really impressed by how much we’ve sold [considering] how new we are at it.
Q: What are the future goals of your farm?
Bekki Callaway: My original goal was to be able to get everything I needed off of my farm. I still would love to have that one day, but being more practical, my goal is that we can figure out how to break-even and make enough to keep putting back into it and stay afloat. But I think when you’re first starting out, you have to find one or two things that work well and focus on them. When we first started we did too many things – the cows, the chickens, the eggs, the vegetables – and now we’re focusing on growing vegetables and growing them well. So, my goal is to get better and get more customers so that we can provide more vegetables to our community.
What I’m thinking now is being more like a coop – I tried connecting with a couple of other farmers in the area so that I could provide more each week for this customer base we’re creating. I just started working with another farm about 20 miles from here to add their eggs and meat to our orders. I had another farmer yesterday, too, doing peppers onions and tomatoes. I like the idea of a coop for a more local group, and I think that would be more successful than forcing on people what you’ve decided to grow [and distribute].