2016 26.1 Seed to Market: Profitable Small-Scale Vegetable Farming

Summary of the Fall Workshop at Skagit Flats Farm, Mount Vernon, WA

The Skagit Valley provided a blue-bird day as 31 farmers descended upon Skagit Flats Farm to spend a day with farmer Andy Ross. Participants came to learn how Andy 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. 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 certified organic focusing on 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 in production—doubling it about every two to three 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. Andy also spent time 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 Washington Tractors, formerly Hamilton Sprinklers, in Okanagon, WA) as well as a reel system.

Aside from 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 seven years and he hires on five 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 plants 60 160-cell trays a week (that’s approximately 10,000 seeds). 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 over time 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 is his ideal). Price points fluctuate during the season and are affected by production in California.

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 written by Angela Anegon, Education Coordinator.
This workshop was funded in part by a grant from the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

Workshop Schedules and Summaries
View upcoming workshops and read complete workshop summaries at tilthproducers.org/programs/workshops.

Tags: Crop Rotation, distribution, Seeding, vegetable production