“I didn’t so much downsize as reorganize,”
said Eero Ruuttila of Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H. of
his decision to flip his marketing focus from 80 percent wholesale
and 20 percent direct market to mostly direct sales following
a slow-and-steady slide in wholesale produce prices that put
the farm in jeopardy. “I dropped my biggest wholesaler,
which was 40 percent of my business,” Ruuttila recalled.
“Making that switch is what saved the farm and made
By scaling back production volume and working in rotations
of green manures and cover crops, Ruuttila said, he’s
now giving his land the rest and fortification it needs (not
to mention himself). And by developing direct relationships
with chefs and eaters, Ruuttila said he commands a better
price for his produce, which helps him pay his highly skilled
Cambodian field workers a more livable wage.
||"Just the daily feedback and
enthusiasm of the chefs means a lot to me— I could
have been shipping cardboard to the wholesalers."
Ruutila prides himself of developing niche markets for items
not traditionally found in the marketplace by paying attention
to the nuances of surrounding communities. For instance, a
market for pea tendrils (the young tops of pea plants) has
turned one of his favorite soil-building crops into one of
his most lucrative cash crops.
Direct marketing is not only about commanding higher premiums,
Ruuttila explained, but also about an equally rewarding return
on investment that’s only possible when dealing with
“Just the daily feedback and enthusiasm of the chefs
means a lot to me,” he said. “I could have been
shipping cardboard to the wholesalers.”
Dale scales back
Ironically, Dale Coke of Coke Farms in San Juan Bautista,
Calif., got into organic farming with a modest quarter acre
of strawberries in 1981 after a serious illness in his 28th
year forced him to reevaluate his career choices. Fast forward
to the ’90s. With Cisco and Safeway among his customers,
Coke’s business had expanded from a quarter acre of
strawberries to more than 500 acres producing salad mix, strawberries,
and a host of other specialty crops, and he’d taken
on the additional burden of acting as a reseller for other
work and no play: Presenter, Dale Coke
of Coke Farms, waits to share his views on the "get
big or get out" phenomenon.
Volatile market forces—including changes in the salad
packing industry brought on by raised health department standards—combined
to send the albatross crashing to earth. “For the first
time I had trouble being able to make payables,” Coke
said. “Every week I would be looking to see if I had
enough money to make payroll. I decided to cut back. It wasn’t
satisfying, and it was getting to the point where it was no
The first thing Coke did was to exit the middleman business,
renting out his elaborate packing facility to another grower.
Next, he cut loose the salad mix operation. Finally, he eliminated
those specialty crops that did not absolutely thrive in his
growing climate. “I whittled down from 100 crops to
By focusing in tightly on fewer crops, carefully tracking
labor hours and other costs, and then channeling resources
into those crops that are making a solid return on investment,
Coke said he’s improved profitability as well as his
quality of life. “We plant once or twice a week throughout
the growing season until November,” he said. “We
harvest what’s out in the field when it’s ready,
and it goes into a cooler. My preference is to sell out of
Coke even took three years off to pursue other ventures while
his wife and sister ran the produce business. “I bought
my sister out last year, so my quality of life got a little
worse,” he quipped.
Jerry’s partner in time
“I’m still learning how to get smaller, how to
improve my quality of life and be profitable,” said
Jerry Brownrigg of Heirloom Organics in Ramona, Calif., attributing
his renewed enthusiasm for organic farming to the fact that
he has a solid farming partner to share the burden. “Every
farmer is going to have a different way to do it.”
||"We decided to get lean and mean
and get back in there."
For Brownrigg and his partner, it all came to a head when
“prices were in the dirt, we were producing a mesclun
mix and losing money…and we were spending less time
farming and more time managing crises.”
Together, the two farmers decided to apply the brakes, scaling
back from farming 200 acres in four locations to farming 40
acres in two locations.
“We decided to get lean and mean and get back in there,”
Brownrigg said, professing his and his partner’s love
for farming and their commitment to finding a successful model.
Alas, he said, they found themselves working harder than ever
to make ends meet.
What the two farmers ultimately discovered, Brownrigg said,
was that it wasn’t as much about cutting back on volume
and acreage as it was about developing a whole new philosophy
toward farming. So they set about drawing up a set of “socially
sustainable” goals—including some that flew in
the face of traditional agricultural models—as well
as strategies for achieving them.
and associate: Jerry Brownrigg found that
for him job-satisfaction came from fewer acres and
a partner that could help shoulder the responsibilities.
The first was to establish a 5-day work schedule for themselves
and employees. “In agriculture there’s this massive
inertia toward the 6-day workweek,” Brownrigg said.
“Everybody wants the hours and wants to buff up their
paychecks.” But it’s not necessarily the most
productive model, he said, particularly by week’s end
when huge slides in productivity typically occur. The solution:
better pay and fewer, but more focused, hours. “We had
to create a balance for ourselves so we would be better farmers
and we would be better workers.” The 5-day week is a
goal they now hit about half the growing season, he said.
“Getting smaller, a shorter workweek, and a smaller
crew enabled us to really start developing relationship with
our employees. Before, there were people out in the field
who I didn’t know from Adam. That’s a crappy feeling.
Now that we’re smaller, we can develop personal relationship
with our employees, be involved in their lives, and respond
to their needs.”
Another major goal was allowing for time away from the farm,
which meant one partner running the show while the other recharged
his batteries, typically by visiting other regions and countries,
immersing into other cultures and drawing information and
inspiration from the farmers there. To allow for these sojourns,
he said, “each of us has to know every aspect of running
the business. When one person goes away and the entire operation
is in the lap of the other there are going to be slip-ups,
but it’s making farming socially sustainable for us.”