What I took away from the course at Soul Farm

Lots to think about after the recent course down on Soul Farm that we invested the time and money for me and Rosie to attend.

The course was hosted by Laurence at Soul Farm near Falmouth and run in conjunction with Jean-Martin Fortier of the Market Gardener fame (well, famous in my world at least!). I had met Laurence at a Better Food Traders catch-up and his story immediately resonated. He was new to market gardening, had previously thought about setting up a sailing school and had signed up to JM’s course when he started Soul Farm 5 years ago! These three things also apply to me (except I did actually set up and run the sailing school).

Soul Farm is about twice the size of our growing area. It’s on amazing soil in a glam climate surrounded by other market gardeners and vegetable farmers (and co-incidentally right next to somewhere I have visited for sailing events for years…vegetables and sailing just keep connecting). In Cornwall if you say you are a farmer – most assume you grow veg, unlike round here where the definition of ‘farmer’ is somewhat different! I sometimes think that the perception is that because we don’t drive a tractor and have swathes of land covered in 4 legged creatures that we aren’t real farmers. At Soul Farm though I met my tribe – there were 50 other like-minded people on the course and it was inspiring to meet them and hear their stories.

I realised that as we fast approach our 5th anniversary for the business (5 years!!), we have done amazing things and proved our business model can and does work. We’ve created a great relationship with our wholesaler, and with local growers too. We have provided our local community with reliable and consistent access to great-tasting fresh produce grown without chemicals. We have introduced many people to the joys of getting a veg box. We’ve created a real community.

But there’s always things to learn. And we need to think about how we want to do things for the next 5 years! Rosie and I learnt lots of things about how to use our tools better and how to grow some crops better than we are doing which was invaluable. We also realised that some of the things we are doing are better than what was demonstrated and that was encouraging.

My take-home nugget though was that Liz, Charlotte and I have earned a summer holiday together! [note from Liz- think most of our customers have actually said this to me at some point!] We’re aware that one of the big issues in small businesses is burn-out, and we want to make sure we stick around. But in order for us to do that, there is another piece of the puzzle that we need to put in place.

For the past 5 years, first Eat Your Greens and then The Vale Grocer has operated on a series of sophisticated spreadsheets that I built to operate the business efficiently. Apart from a few little mess-ups here and there this system has worked pretty seamlessly, and has really helped us get to where we are. In fact, during the early days of the pandemic I even shared my spreadsheets with shops and restaurants that wanted to pivot into veg boxes – I actually met one of the recipients of my free spreadsheets at the Better Food traders meeting and her box business was still going strong. That said, even when I have a week off I still have to use the spreadsheets because they are easy to break unless you understand them fully, and then you can’t trust them. 

I’m not planning to go anywhere (other than maybe the field!) but my goal in any place I work has always been to make myself redundant – or at least minimise my role. Currently the business cannot run unless I’m involved.

So, the missing puzzle piece is to implement some software for running a veg box scheme. We’ve thought about this many times in the past few years but it’s never been the right time or the right software. But after the course, and meeting some guys who have the software, we’ve decided the time is right to invest. So the plan is that over the next 4-6 weeks we’ll start transitioning on to a new software platform. The cost of the implementation should be fairly neutral as we will save in other areas of the software that we currently use for the business (that said, we will be changing box prices too as it’s been 2 years since last price increase and things have changed fairly dramatically in that time, as everyone sadly knows).

We’ll keep you posted on what this means for you but it will allow customers a lot more flexibility as per other companies you may deal with – it will allow you to pause, order extras, and also donate your box without having to email us and wait for a reply.

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