December 9, 2016
Introduction and Context
The 2016 crop year was the most difficult in Featherstone Farm’s 20 years in business. The fourth wettest summer in state history combined with a number of other factors- some within our control but most well beyond it- to produce crop losses in excess of $360,000. Throughout late fall and into the month of November, the farm’s very survival was in doubt.
Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our customers and community in supporting the November Campaign for Recovery and Renewal at Featherstone Farm, that basic survival is now assured, in 2017 and beyond. I cannot begin to describe how thankful all of us at Featherstone Farm are, for this outpouring of support. So many people contributed on line or in person; so many more stopped me or Jenni or others at FF in day-to-day life to express concern and care. For all of this, we express heartfelt gratitude. Thank you.
We conducted many interviews with the media over the past few weeks, and I always opened such discussions with two basic points:
1.As a general rule, commercial vegetables are bred to be grown in very arid areas, and are therefore very susceptible to foliar disease, particularly in wet years like 2016 …and
2.Beyond that simple statement, everything else about the historical context, the causes of the “issues” we faced in 2016, our evolving understanding of what we need to do now and in the future (short and long term) to ensure that we never get back to this place of need… all of this is exceptionally complicated and nuanced and dynamic.
For this reason, my “final report” on the campaign we have just concluded will be more of a provisional explanation of the big picture, how we understand it now and in the foreseeable future. I wish I could helicopter onto the deck of an aircraft carrier with brass bands playing and declare “mission accomplished” (or at least hang glide into a field of cheering CSA members!!!) as other leaders have been known to do. But as we all know, grand declarations of success like this can be premature, even misleading(!). Reality is often more complicated and perhaps messy.
This report is an attempt to clarify what has happened in 2016 and what I think it means, at this stage of recovery. It is also an effort to lay out a plan for Featherstone Farm to remain transparent and accountable to the larger community moving forward, to demonstrate that we have learned enough from the past year’s losses to develop and implement plans to prevent similar losses in the future. To demonstrate that we are responsible and worthy recipients of this great gift- survival- that we have been given this fall.
The Campaign for Recovery and Renewal that concluded at the end of November took two main forms; cash donations through Go Fund Me and Small Farm Central (red ”mercury” in campaign thermometer on our website here), and working capital generated through sales of 3 and 5 year CSA shares (green “mercury”). In addition, we consider unanticipated fall crop sales, “belt tightening” and other operational efficiencies to be parts of the solution to our survival needs (bronze colored “mercury”). The next 2 sections of this report detail progress on each component of the campaign, as well as the dynamic nature of the need itself.
Nature and Scope of Loss and Need for Recovery
When we began to outline the campaign for recovery in the middle October, we estimated that Featherstone Farm would fall short of its 2016 crop sales budget to the tune of $360,000. But this figure was essentially an “educated guess” because (a) we were at the time still harvesting “fresh market” greens and herbs, and could never have imagined that they would last 2 weeks longer into November than ever before, in our 20 year history (b) we had yet to harvest many “storage crops” like carrots and other root crops and (c) we had to estimate breakdown/ “cull rates” for other storage crops that were already in the warehouse (such as winter squash and cabbage). For these reasons, we included a “note” qualifying the $150,000 figure of ”need” in the campaign prospectus.
As it turns out 6 weeks later, some of the assumptions that we made in mid October were too pessimistic. We had a completely unprecedented November, in terms of fresh market harvests (nearly $30k more in sales than ever before seen for the first 2+ weeks of the month). We saw much less breakdown in winter squash than anticipated (…continue to see, that is; we may be wholesaling butternuts through New Year’s!). And we could never have foreseen the response of our commercial customers, who voluntarily recommended a bump in carrot price to help make up for losses in other crops. Thank goodness for all of the above!!
At the same time, we have seen more breakdown than projected in the remaining storage cabbage that we do have on hand. And we have since written off many thousands of dollars in budgeted root crop sales (beets, turnips and celeriac in particular), as yields out of the field in late October fell short of plan (disease and breakdown in roots…).
We have done our level best to calculate and re-calculate the net effects of these changing wholesale numbers- as well as net savings in labor and other expenses as we “tightened the belt” as rapidly as we could. At this stage it appears we can safely report “net gains” of $35k- the bronze colored fluid in the campaign thermometer on our website- assuming we continue to pack and sell remaining carrots, cabbage and winter squash in the coming weeks and months as planned. But this situation remains fluid, to say the least. We are not dealing with standard “nuts and bolts” inventory here, not by a long shot!
One clarification on “needs of recovery and renewal” of this campaign. Our goal at the outset was to get Featherstone Farm back to a place of similar strength- specifically, equal working capital- by the start of the 2017 “growing season / fiscal year” (3-1-17) as we had at the start of the 2016 season (3-1-16). But this assumes that it will be just as easy (or difficult!) to develop a workable budget in 2017, as it was in 2016… that we don’t need even more working capital entering the coming season. With a whole series of changes afoot in the coming months (specifically, contractions of all sorts associated with a leaner “FF 3.0” plan), it is not at all clear that this is the case (i.e. that restoring working capital to March 2016 levels is sufficient to balance a draft 2017 budget). We are working feverishly this month to determine if it is.
Response from the Community
Community response to the Featherstone Farm Campaign for Recovery and Renewal- through Go Fund Me and Small Farm Central (CSA) both- has been completely overwhelming and humbling, to say the least. In this section I will explain a bit about the other two “buckets of mercury” that we used to fill our campaign thermometer; the red “cash contributions” and the green “prepaid CSA share” working capital.
We received over $52,000 in straight contributions to Featherstone Farm in this late fall. WOW! How could we ever have imagined?!? Online and through the mail… folks knocking on my front door and handing me checks; others dropping by the office with envelopes. CSA members adding contributions onto 3 and 5 year share renewals. Church groups from Rushford and Winona raising money. Complete strangers donating from throughout the state and nationally. A former professor of mine contributing on line from northern Finland. A food co-op in the TC “rounding up” at their checkout lanes for the month, and contributing the proceeds. Donations of 2, 3 and 4 figures. Farm business partners, vendors, landlords and neighbors collectively contributing over $12,000. The list goes on and on and on.
To say that all of us at Featherstone Farm were overwhelmed and inspired by this giving, would be the understatement of the year. I hesitate to call out individuals specifically for thanks, in this format, anyway; you know who you are and what your support means to us (at least I hope you do!). We owe you a debt of gratitude and more, which we hope to repay over time (see last section on accountability in this report).
The third and final component of our campaign- the green “mercury” of working capital from CSA shares- deserves a bit of clarification. In the wake of flood loss in 2007 we raised a great deal of money in CSA pre-sales as well… and then proceeded to spend every penny on relocation in the following weeks and months. This left us with lots of obligations- filling CSA boxes for 3-5 more years!- with no related resources to pay for the growing, packing and delivery of those boxes. We learned from this experience nearly a decade ago, and resolved not to repeat the mistake with this campaign.
This time around, we consider only 30-40% of the proceeds of every CSA prepay to be actual “working capital” for winter recovery and renewal (percent varies with precise length and type of share in question). The balance of the proceeds will be allocated for 2017 production costs, put in “escrow” to cover 2018-21 production costs, and to pay down debt; the exact formulas for how we do this are in development right now. This allocation issue is why it has been a bit cumbersome for us to report out on success of the campaign, more than 1-2x/week all fall. And the fact remains that spending any amount of the money we’ve received from fall CSA pre-sales on “recovery and renewal” projects this winter is borrowing from our future to some extent.
No doubt we set and exceeded an ambitious goal for fundraising and recovery capital in November. I do not mean to place too big an asterisk on this success and what it means to us; I just want to make sure that we don’t get too carried away on the optimism it has created here.
Featherstone’s Plan to Remain Accountable to the Community in the wake of this campaign
I consider transparency and accountability to be baseline commitments that we at FF “owe” our community in the wake of such generous donations. This is a commitment that we hope to repay not only to GFM contributors and CSA members, but to the broader small farm and food community in general; we recognize that you want Featherstone Farm to succeed in large part because we are at the forefront of a community of small market farms that are struggling to reshape an entire regional food shed. To the degree that FF “pays forward” gifts of support from this food shed by sharing lessons learned with other farmers- to help them (hopefully!) avoid the “issues” that plagued us so strongly in 2016- we are repaying in spirit what I believe our donors intended.
First and foremost, our plan for transparency and accountability will involve the writing and posting of progress reports on our website (blog posts clearly labelled as campaign follow up related). These will come twice annually through 2018 (4 reports, spring and fall), followed by annual reports in 2019-21 (3 reports, through the end of the 5 year CSA “prepay” period). These reports will largely detail progress on implementation of the “FF 3.0 paradigm” outlined in the campaign prospectus… the shift in “business as usual ” that we’ve developed this fall as our “collective wisdom” about what it takes to mitigate risk and operate sustainably moving forward.
I will be clear at the outset that the first several of these reports are not likely to focus on groundbreaking new ideas or innovations; the “3.0 era” begins with a return to practices from an earlier era (emphasis on soil building, instead of crop fertility), and with a focus on learning from mistakes and following through on addressing “old business” in a new, even more professional way (resourcing, formalizing and implementing best practices in crop management…). But I firmly believe that this is where the “3.0 era” must take root first: taking care of business without distractions or excuses. This is not particularly sexy or innovative, but it is essential. We will do this and we will report on the progress as described.
As time goes on- and as our farm finances recover and our resilience increases- I certainly imagine that we will return to exciting innovations (mid scale farm IT/operating system adaptation, or collaborative arrangements among neighboring farms to reduce the complexity [read: risk] in filling CSA boxes, among other things) and work on “big picture” pursuits like environmental sustainability and “domestic fair trade” etc. Reports on this level of work will be part of my updates as well.
Second, our campaign for recovery and renewal will involve serious research into the relevance and affordability of the USDA’s Gross Farm Revenue Insurance program. This is a pilot program expanded and improved as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, but FF did not carry this coverage in 2016. It is not clear to me- having not read all the fine print in the program description- that this insurance would have been sufficient to “make FF whole” (at least base line sufficiently) from the losses we suffered in 2016; it IS clear to me that answering this question definitively, and soon (this winter) IS a key part of our plan for accountability to donors. If Gross Farm Revenue insurance is, on close inspection, all it purports to be, Featherstone Farm will carry it in 2017 and beyond.
Moreover, as part of our plan to “pay forward” the generosity of campaign contributions, we will carefully track how long it takes for us to research, evaluate and (hopefully, if demonstrably relevant) implement Gross Farm Revenue Insurance at FF this winter. We will calculate “costs of adopting and administering” vs potential benefits, and we will share all we learn with the broader farm community through a variety of means (blog posts, “field (office!) days” and the like). I believe that other growers are often daunted- as FF was- by the potential bureaucratic “black hole” that crop / gross revenue insurance represents. If we can help digest and quantify the costs and potential benefits of this program and make this information public- in a simple, easily understood way- it may well be of great value to the broad “farm shed community” of producers and growers alike.
Finally, we will be looking at a number of other ways to share lessons learned over our 20 years in business- lessons about surviving crises of all kinds (environmental, financial, operational…)- with other growers, with the aid of “recovery and renewal” funds from donors this year. FF is already party to a USDA application (approval pending) that would flesh out “crisis survival” strategies and problem solving tactics for the benefit of an emerging industry of regional market growers. Featherstone Farm will continue to look for and initiate new ways of passing on lessons learned from 20 years of survival- blog posts, presentations and field days(?)- for the benefit of younger growers following in our footsteps.
Please keep an eye out for update emails, blog posts and social media outreach from us. And please do not hesitate to contact us this year, next year, 5 years from now, to check in on how our recovery and renewal plans and implementation of those plans are playing out. We look forward to further building our relationships with all of you. And we are thankful for the role you played this November in our survival and future successes.