From Seed to Market: Profitable Small-Scale Vegetable Farming – September 9, 2015

Skagit Flats Farm
Mount Vernon, WA 
September 9, 2015

The Skagit Valley provided a blue-bird day as 31 farmers descended upon Skagit Flats Farm to spend a day with farmer Andy Ross. Attendees came to learn how he has grown his successful farm business, covering all aspects of his operation. Andy has been in production for 14 years and only sells wholesale to produce distributors and directly to local grocery stores. He estimates that 70% of what he produces on his 20 acres goes to a distributor based in Seattle. He will also complete deliveries to the Skagit Valley Co-op. Andy’s basic philosophy is that farming isn’t all about profitability, but it has to be profitable to continue. If there is to be a future for farms that operate on less than 20 acres, then they need to be making a decent living.

Skagit Flats is a certified organic farm that focuses on growing lettuce and squash as well as some bush beans, broccoli, cabbage and cucumbers. Since he began farming at his current location, Andy steadily increased the amount of acreage he had in production – doubling it about every 2-3 years. At this point in time, he feels like he’s at the scale that he wants to be. He attempts to have long rotations that include a year of fallow to reduce disease pressure. Ideally, he’d love to have longer rotations and be able to keep portions of acreage in long term cover crop. Andy also spent time with attendees going over his choice of tractors and implements. He also strongly vouched for diamond hoes from Earth Tools and their great ergonomics for weeding. As for irrigation, Andy uses microsprinklers (from Hamilton Sprinklers in Omak, WA), as well as a reel system.

Besides the beans, everything is transplanted by hand. Harvest is also completed by hand with most produce field packed if possible. Andy has two full-time employees that have worked with him for 7 years and he hires on 5 full-time workers during peak season. Andy shared that if a farmer has good employees, the goal-wage should be greater than $9 per hour.

The whole production process for Skagit Flats begins with seeding trays. For lettuce, Andy demonstrated his use of a vacuum seeder, which greatly improves efficiencies considering he will plant 60, 160 cell trays a week (that’s approximately 10,000 seeds!). These flats then spend a week in a heated greenhouse followed by 2-3 weeks in one of three hoop houses. After a one week hardening off period, the lettuce starts are then transplanted into the field. Andy heavily tills his beds in order to create a loose soil structure for easy transplanting. This is a “hands-and-knees” process with lettuce plants spaced 14 inches by 14 inches. Andy estimates that it requires 20 hours a week for transplanting. Overall the whole process for lettuce takes two months from the time of seeding to the time of harvest. Andy has a goal to harvest at a rate of at least $100 per hour and if it’s less than $50 per hour, he is not being profitable.

To plan out his production year, Andy will make verbal agreements with distributors during the winter months. The agreements that Andy makes determine a target number of cases of produce that he can provide per week. He builds in a loss factor of 20% with the transplanted crops. He admits that a farmer doesn’t have much negotiating power starting out, but overtime as they prove themselves and the quality of their product, a farmer is better able to negotiate price points. That being said, even after 14 years, Andy says he is still mostly a “price-taker”, with the goal to get at least 40% of the retail price (wholesale distributor) and at minimum 50% of the retail price (if he delivers locally, 65% of retail being his ideal). Price points fluctuate during the season and are definitely affected by production in California. Andy notices that usually his prices are higher in the spring and fall, and lower in the summer when the market is a bit more flooded – but it all depends on the crop.

Overall, this workshop provided a wonderful opportunity to pick the brain of a profitable organic farm that focuses solely on wholesale markets. Andy Ross was a knowledgeable host and we hope to make a return visit soon!

Summary by Angela Anegon. 

This workshop funded in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Program.