Creating a Hyperlocal Farmer Owned Business Model | Bootstrap Farmer

The Story of the Craven Local Food Market

Before we close up and move onto the next project, it's time to tell the complete story of our experience in creating a hyperlocal business model that puts small farmers in control of our food system.
by Brandon Youst
Founder, Bootstrap Farmer, Craven Local Food Market & Urban Farm Academy

A Mission to Create a Hyperlocal Food Future


I can remember it just like it was yesterday. I’ve even found my original notebooks awhile back where I wrote down some of my first notes. Cool stuff, but also cringe worthy. I (and now we) have come such a long way in the 5 years since I left my corporate job to pursue the future ideal of creating a business model that could help solve our broken food system.

That future encompassed so much, I won’t be able to address it all here, but at the core, I knew that ultimately in order to create impactful change, I needed to not just have this idea work, but create the platform and the amplifier that would put this kind of business framework out there for the people to notice it.

So what that really meant for me at the beginning was that I had to find success locally, but then knowing that to truly have an impact with this mission, it had to be able to spread the idea globallythrough other businesses.

Planning a Homestead and Sustainable Farm Based Business


I was starting from a blank state, already halfway down I-95 by the time I left my job, headed south to NC. I bought a home on 7 acres where I would create this dream of having a business built around my homestead.

I did most of the planning head of time, so by the time I moved I was able to start building the farm immediately.

The first company created was named Veg2Bowl. In it’s most basic description, it combined a food truck and a greenhouse, allowing me to take what I grew and turn it into soups, salads, stews and smoothies - all on my own property. From there, I could take the food truck out to an event, or, as I did, leverage the food truck as merely my ‘commercial kitchen’ so I could take those items and deliver them to customers on a weekly basis.

A farmer-owned meal prep service, if you will.
hyperlocal farm food truck
My first time out with the food truck, July '16

While not perfect, it leads in the direction of the local farmer ‘controlling the food supply chain’, which, in a post-COVID-19 world, has many benefits that by now, many of us are very aware of.

At the time however, for me, leaving a well paying job in finance to become a farmer, brought in the obvious concerns of living on a low income.

I didn’t know much about business at the time, so that was just my mindset towards local farmers, which turned out to not be completely true. There are farmers at all levels of success - just as there is in any industry.

Thankfully an early insight, and the catchphrase I developed around it, was to take a $2 head of lettuce and turn it into a $10 salad.

It helped me avoid the trap of selling something that had to compete on price. Competing on price is never a good spot to be in (as I had just read in a book around that time). It generally means you're looking to be cheaper than the seller next to you, and you wind up playing a volume game that ultimately leads you into heavier debt, or the same amount of profit but needing a company 10x the size to do it.

So, the $2 head of lettuce into a $10 saladconcept is the idea I started with, and built upon it to include full meals, desserts, drinks & more.
My first lettuce rafts, growing via the 'Kratky' method
Why does this phase mean so much to me? Because it says so much.

It says that I am a farmer with a diverse skill set who doesn’t settle for average.

It says that you can now know your farmer and your chef all at once, which is unique.

It says that I am not selling a commodity, I am selling something valuable, with limited availability.

It also says I am willing to meet people where they want to be met, with products they crave.

I love coming up with catch phrases to relate ideas, and you just read another one.

Meeting people where they want to be met, with products they crave
is fundamentally important to any business owner in a rapidly evolving economy.

There are many reasons why local regenerative agriculture isn’t 100x the size it is now. The vast majority of those being out of any individuals complete control. It’s so out of our control, that I generally leave those conversations to academics and drum circles.

Why? Because those conversations just don’t ever seem to lead anywhere tangible enough. I’ve been that preachy guy, and none of those conversations made anyone a better person. It was only until I looked inward, and asked what was actually in my control, could I ask myself the correct questions on what I could do about it.

For farmers, there are a few examples that show we are too willing to wait for the people to get woke on the importance of local ag & start coming to us.

But the reality is, almost no matter what happens, the majority of people are not coming to farmers markets, and the vast majority are never going to do it consistently.

Do you know how many family activities go on during Saturday mornings? I know most of my weekends growing up, I was either working or playing sports. We didn’t have time to go to the farmers market, especially in a small 6-hour window.

It wasn’t convenient enough then, and it’s surely not convenient enough in 2020.

COVID-19 exposed pre-existing conditions in many businesses. In local farming, it was the lack of diversity in sales channels and/or a lack of end consumer relationships. Selling to restaurants is smart in many ways. The average order size is much larger on a per delivery basis, and that's a good thing. But farmers who went all in on restaurants were also going all-in on the success of a single industry.

It also hands over the relationship to the end consumer from you to the restaurant.
When restaurants shut down, farmers that only sold to restaurants found themselves scrambling to build relationships with end consumers. Much of the fallout we’re going to see post COVID will be a result of how farmers were able to manage this single aspect of their business.

Post COVID, we are all now considering the importance of adaptability & resiliency in everything from sales channels, products, communication channels & delivery mechanisms.
Evolving the Business

The food truck was my way to bootstrap my start into business. I had about 15k into it, building it myself after work before I made the move, but it was never meant to be around forever.

The food truck gave me a project to work on while saving money to start the business. It also gave me an asset I could sell later on should I hate the food truck life, or simply grow out of it.

Growing out of it is exactly what happened.

At the same time, it was time for me to let go of the reins and hand the operations over to Cait & Joe of Little x Little farm.

Cait & Joe lived a few miles down the road from me, and after meeting them, quickly saw that they would be a great fit to apply this framework to the next evolution. They loved farming and cooking just as much as I did, and thankfully there was 2 of them instead of having just the 1 of me.

It also meant that we were officially too big for the food truck to be our only kitchen, and we had to get ourselves a real commercial kitchen.
So I stepped back (and started building the platform) while Cait & Joe brought their unique talent to the next iteration of this model, which we called the Craven Local Food Market.

The Craven Local Food Market kitchen sat on a semi-busy highway, and used to be a hot-dog/burger joint for many years. Even though it was a good location from a traffic standpoint, Craven County in North Carolina isn’t exactly a foodies utopia.

We opened the CLFM with the meal prep (now as a subscription), but also utilizing the retail portion of the building to open a cafe.

The cafe was good for getting people on the subscription. Having that face to face interaction was important to some people who had to try us out first before committing to something new like that.

Keeping a cafe open all day while farming and doing the subscriptions on the weekends was just too much for all of us. Sure we could have hired people to do it, but managing a team of people would take a lot out of our collective creative potential.

Doing the 80/20 and scrapping the cafe was one of the easiest and best decisions we made. So within about 6 months of opening it, we closed the cafe portion and added a farmers market booth to go along with our subscription business.
Conclusion

The story from here gets either boring or interesting, depending on how you look at it.

In mid-March of this year, COVID-19 had already started shutting down businesses, putting many business owners into a panic. A panic that would require many to adapt so immediately, so unexpectedly, that no one's success seemed a sure thing.

At the Craven Local Food Market, while we had the obvious concerns about the global economic and health implications of this virus, we fortunately did not have to spend time thinking that our business was at risk.

Understanding that convenience has been (and always will be) a priority over eating locally, our business model was set up for a weekly delivery right from the beginning.

I wanted to take out the reasons why someone didn’t eat local food, even though they’d verbally tell you how much they supported it. So coming to their doorstep with fully prepared meals was my way of removing those barriers.

On top of that, delivering to our clients doorsteps from the beginning, we’ve always had ‘contactless’ coolers set out for us. To many of our clients, we swap glass jars, milkman style, creating a near zero-waste model. So while we chose to no longer participate at our local farmers market for the time being, losing that revenue stream voluntarily, we made up for it in subscriber growth.

Another part of meeting people where they want to be met is with advertising. We advertised via the social media platforms for anywhere from $5-$50 per week. So even though we are on our farms all week, we were still able to reach the people in our area with digital advertising. For any farmers or business owners out there that don’t use any form of digital advertising, I challenge you to add it to your arsenal, especially if you offer any kind of delivery service.

As the COVID crisis locked down the whole country, we no longer needed to spend even a dollar on any kind of advertising, as Cait & Joe were talking more about limiting the number of subscribers we could realistically handle.

……............……..
(time lapse to current day, June 22nd, 2020)

So with all that, you think we’d be riding high, feeling validated, looking forward to doing this for the next 5 years.

I could imagine most of you would think that would be the case, but sometimes things just aren’t supposed to go that way.

For me, in early February, I had decided to move from North Carolina to Florida to start a new life and business with Michele Madison from Farming The Future.

At the same time, Cait & Joe spent the past winter break in Costa Rica where they were offered to spend a few weeks doing the farm-chef thing at a wellness retreat. It went so well that they've been tasked to lead creation of a farm-chef experience at a new retreat center starting construction this July.

It would have been great to keep this business going, but Cait, Joe and myself are all the looking-forward type, and decided not sell to the potential buyers that came forward. The CLFM was a special project and we all feel proud about what we've accomplished. We're excited to see our local friends fill in the void, including Seed to Shaker in New Bern, NC and Locavore Market in Washington, NC.

In 2015, I moved to North Carolina with the goal of creating this business framework, and thats what we did.

It feels quite fitting of my last 5 years that as soon as things felt automatic and normalized, Cait, Joe and myself all realized we had done special things, but that it was time to pursue ever greater opportunities.

In many ways, this is another restart. Another new beginning just as it was 5 years ago, facing my biggest challenges yet.

Reaching targeted audiences with Facebook or Google ad’s is easy.

Reaching people who are looking for a path forward, but don’t know where or how to look, or lack the education, confidence, or financial resources to achieve it is a challenge on another level.

But just like Veg2Bowl, Craven Local Food Market, Bootstrap Farmer & Urban Farm Academy, the next phase will be starting from the ground level to provide solutions that break down those barriers.

Opportunity


The frameworks I’ve used to build Veg2Bowl and the CLFM is what I call Farm Fusion. It’s another phrase, or term that I’m using to relate what happens when a farmer takes what they grow and turns it into something that can no longer be called a commodity.

Whether the fusion comes from another culture (asian-mexican farm fusion meals), another part of the industry (herb infused cocktails), or another industry altogether (Youtubers, bloggers, podcasters), skill stacking on top of farming is what is going to take small farmers to the next level - which is mainstream awareness and connection.

Last year, I created a series of videos and writing just like this to explain the concepts of the Farm Fusion framework and it available, for free, at the Urban Farm Academy.

This information is simply for anyone willing to hear what this type of business framework can do.

My hope is that my greatest contribution won’t come from just Bootstrap Farmer, it’ll come from the lessons we relate that others can use to do what they can to improve our food system through entrepreneurship.

So for me, it’s again my time to dig in my heels, and think even bigger, and to add layers of knowledge and skill in pursuit of my mission. But before I send you off, I want to recap my experience with some real data.

The business evolved so much over the 5 years, the best snapshot I can give you that tells our story is what it looked like before we closed the doors.

The Numbers


I want to show a real assessment of what a farmer-owned meal plan business can look like. To accomplish that goal, I show data from our Shopify account and also list out our monthly revenue & expenses for the period of 3/15/20 - 6/15/20. This period matches to the timeframe we did not participate in farmers markets, and up to the week before we closed. Longer and medium term snapshots are tainted with winter breaks/weeks off, earlier evolutions, or include sales from the farmers markets.

So this period just reflects what we were doing with the weekly delivery model only.

Additional notes for transparency & context:

Cait also worked part-time as a yoga teacher, so we made some trades/exchanges for her replacement on Monday’s delivery day.

To account for any help you wanted for dishwashing, prepping or a delivery driver, add roughly $10-15/hr * 6 hours / week * ~4 times in a month = $240-360 for each.

To start, lets take a look at what we offered & our pricing for context.
Our selection of subscriptions
Cost of our meal plans
Price for 4 meals per week
Price for 12 meals per week
Meals changed every week based off of our weekly menu
We also had the option of one-time (add-on) ordering
One time ordering menu which subscribers can add to their weekly order
And finally, here is our revenue and expenses from the subscriptions for the period 3/15/20 - 6/15/20, which was the week before closing.

While looking at this, it's important to consider the context of our model and location in Ernul, NC.

Start-up costs including equipment and permitting are not included, but should be considered for your situation.

A Digital History

You can go back and listen to our evolution in podcast and Youtube form, as we went along. There are lots of interviews with myself, Cait and Joe on the Bootstrap Farmer Radio Podcast & the Urban Farm Academy Youtube Channel.

Additional How-to's

From the Farm Fusion Course

  • Commercial Kitchens
  • Online Storefronts
  • Subscriptions
  • Value-Add
  • & More
Learn More

More Courses From the Urban Farm Academy

  • M.A.P. (Minimum Agricultural Product)
  • Profound Marketing
  • Business of Microgreens
Learn More

Thank you

Thank you for reading, and thank you to all of those who supported and helped build this framework. Cait, Joe, Dalyla, Kris, and many others all took a leap in supporting and going along with my crazy ideas. Without them, none of this would have been what it was.
-Brandon Youst
Bootstrap Farmer
6/22/2020

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