Featherstone Farm is committed to produce and distribute high quality, certified organic fresh vegetables, in a way that reflects values of personal, financial and environmental sustainability.
-Adopted May 2013
Click here to read enhanced mission statement
When Featherstone Farm was founded 20 years ago, the baseline values associated with organic certification were a bedrock principle for the new farm business. Similarly, my wife and partner Jenni McHugh and I were committed to fair farm labor practice from the very start. These two ideals- things we brought to agriculture from our student days of environmental and social activism- remain enshrined in the Mission Statement to this day.
I am very proud of Featherstone Farm’s record in these key areas. Though there have been ups and downs over the years- and though much work still needs to be done to bring us ever closer to true personal and environmental sustainability- we have spent 20 years raising the bar on renewable energy, soil building and environmental stewardship in ways both large and small. And ever since FF’s participation in the Agricultural Justice Project’s “domestic fair trade” pilot in 2007-09, we have worked hard to codify and implement labor standards and practices that we all (including all FF customers!) can be proud of.
But a third aspect of sustainability- financial stability- was absent from our mission statement early on. And it is this aspect which seems most relevant to reflect upon now after 20 years. Because balancing the overlapping (and often conflicting) demands of scale, diversity and sustainability, with the basic need to be profitable… this has proven to be perhaps the most vexing challenge for me- and for Featherstone Farm- for the past 2 decades.
In the early years of Featherstone Farm my belief was that growing a good crop, treating the soil well, and conducting honest and transparent affairs with customers and employees- in short, running a small business based on high ideals- would be sufficient to pay the bills. That if we took care of people and crops, that the finances would take care of themselves. Boy, what a mistake that turned out to be!
The reality is that Featherstone Farm came of age in a period of huge growth and opportunity in the world of local, organic agriculture. We were “early adopters” who, following the groundbreaking work of Gardens of Eagan and Harmony Valley Farm, were here “inventing the wheel” of a local food system at a time when very little infrastructure was in place for this sort of work. And because my “mission statement” at that time was a high minded “bring organic food to the people” no matter the cost, Featherstone Farm grew helter skelter for 15 years- responding to double digit annual growth in demand for many years- with little regard for the balance sheet or profitability in general. I was convinced that financial security would grow at pace with the rest of FF.
I have also had a basic belief- even mission- since the very beginning, of making high quality, fresh fruits and vegetables available to the maximum number of people. Among other things, this meant trying to keep our prices low as a matter of principle, certainly for the first 12-15 years we were in business. And it follows from both of these ideas- meeting demand and keeping prices low- that Featherstone Farm would attempt to reach an “economy of scale” over time, becoming a mid sized, mechanized regional farm business over the years.
Hindsight is always 20/20 as they say, and in retrospect Featherstone Farm attempted for many years (2006-12 in particular) to do many things at once, when in reality succeeding in even one or perhaps two would have been sufficient.
Two of those goals were “mission driven” :
- Set and raise standards for environmental and personal sustainability (from solar power installation in 2011, to the domestic fair trade program, and 1m things in between) and
- “Grow the organic movement” by meeting more and more demand, in ever widening demographic and geographic circles around the farm, and by writing and advocating on issues of organic agriculture nationally.
- Put systems in place to manage an ever larger and more complex farm business, without turning every hair on my (balding!) head grey with stress, and
- Keep the lights on / keep the cash flow afloat (with little or no regard to equity and the balance sheet which, as stated above, I assumed would take care of themselves!)
Needless to say, this period in Featherstone Farm’s history (from flood recovery and relocation 2007-09 to the big green power and soil rotation investments of 2011-12) produced a huge amount of stress and financial loss, and forced a re-evaluation of our Mission Statement soon after, to include explicit reference to the value of financial sustainability:
Featherstone Farm operates a mid-sized, significantly mechanized, certified organic farm, which balances big picture goals of ecological and human health with day-to-day realities of economics (both the need to be profitable as a foundation of sustainability, and the need to be efficient to make quality food affordable and accessible to large numbers of people). (from the “enhanced Mission Statement” of 2013).
I now view being profitable as a key top line goal for Featherstone Farm, not only as a matter of economic necessity (imagine the debts we piled up covering our shop with solar panels, or tripling the scale of the business in 5 years without a realistic business plan!!), but as a matter of our mission as well. Because I still believe that the people and land of SE Minnesota will be better off if more of our neighbors over time adopt some of the practices that we employ at Featherstone Farm (from crop rotation to transparent labor policy, and everything in between). But what incentive do they have to do so, if they do not see a vibrant, economically successful, replicable model in their midst?
So in 2016 Featherstone Farm has grown to be one of the largest organic, fresh market vegetable producers in the state. This is no point of pride to me in and of itself, without a solid foundation of sustainability- personal, environmental and financial- underlying it all. Balancing these 3 priorities remains at the center of my vision for what Featherstone Farm is all about, in this its 20th season. But the very scale and quality of people that we now have on board at the farm, make me more optimistic than ever about our ability to meet these goals, to be profitable without sacrificing our ideals.
As always, I am interested to hear any questions and comments you may have on this writing. Please comment below, and I will most definitely reply!
And please stay tuned for next week's upcoming blog post: diversity and sustainability at Featherstone Farm.