Community Connection Helps Small Organic Farm in Florida Overcome Challenges and Thrive
October 10, 2016 | Vanessa Caceres
It’s one thing to manage a farm and all the challenges that it brings.
It’s another business challenge altogether to focus heavily on community involvement for your farm with special events, collaborations with area partners, farm tours, and brand promotion.
Yet Geraldson Community Farm, a certified organic farm in Bradenton, Florida has risen to both tasks with some adjustments along the way, says farm manager Christa Leonard.
The land itself where Geraldson is located has been agriculture-focused for decades, and the original owners sold the land to Manatee County with the caveat that it had to be used for agriculture. An arrangement was made with Florida West Coast Resource Conservation & Development, which funded the farm originally when it began in 2007. Leonard, a former behavioral therapist, got started with the farm as a volunteer and loved it so much, she stayed on.
Fast forward to now, and the farm has 20 acres (it cultivates 10 of those acres), three employees, an agricultural army of 20 volunteers, and 16 chickens, two donkeys, and a farm dog named Poppy.
The farm grows 50 different items throughout its growing season. On the traditional farming side of things, it does business via a CSA that is in its ninth season, a variety of local farmers’ markets, and with several well-known restaurants in the area. Managers also plan to open a small retail store on site this season (it will sell Geraldson produce as well as items from other local food producers), and they will begin to grow microgreens to sell to area restaurants.
On the community side of its business, Geraldson hosts three festivals a year, participates in a regular craft market held at a local brewery, and hosts regular farm-to-table dinners. With the exception of the farm-to-table dinner series, the events are all family-friendly.
The farm also welcomes school tours and has other events in mind to attract young families—something foremost in Leonard’s mind right now as she is due to have a son by the end of October.
One business advantage that Geraldson has is its location in a suburban versus rural area, Leonard believes. “We are 15 minutes from downtown Bradenton and 30 minutes from downtown Sarasota. This gives us the opportunity to bring people into the farming experience,” she says. The farm is also located almost adjacent to a busy preserve and is just minutes from popular area beaches.
Yet Geraldson is also expanding its brand this year by participating in a farmers’ market in the Tampa area, about an hour north, and selling some of its produce at a retail market in St. Petersburg.
With so much going on at any given time in season, one goal that Leonard had to set was to streamline the operation, she says. “I had to learn what’s working and what’s not working,” she says. She has partnered with a new field manager who she says has a very different approach to things than she does—but that’s advantageous, as they balance each other out as business partners.
This partnership has helped Leonard reflect more on how adding certain things to the business—such as a new event or idea—could affect what is already working well on the farm. “It’s about balance, and that is our focus now,” she says.
While it can be challenging to keep a farm profitable, the business seems to pull through each year, Leonard says. “You have to figure out where you make your profit and cut out where you’re not. I think we’re still learning about that challenge,” she says. This has also involved being thoughtful about the work that the farm will do pro bono. She believes that the profitability issue is a bigger challenge at a community farm like Geraldson versus a farm that focuses solely on selling what it grows.
For other growers looking to expand into community farming, Leonard recommends harnessing community connections in all ways possible. Establish relationships with organizations and residents interested in eating local. Use volunteers to your advantage, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “We wouldn’t run without the people who come here to work for free each week,” Leonard says. Invest in marketing for the farm, and find low-budget ways to consistently get your message out there, such as social media. And capitalize in a positive way on the national interest in eating food grown locally.