Starting a Farm Is Actually a Lot Like Starting Any Business

Dec 22, 2016 · 6 min read

Pro tips from Nick Storrs, an aspiring young farmer who’s starting his own transplant business—you can help us support people like him with our local impact partner, GrowNYC.

There’s a dearth of young farmers in America — the average age of farmers is 58. That’s a number that’s been going up in the last few decades, which isn’t a good trend, and it means there’s not enough young farmers getting in the game. And that’s why we’re supporting young local growers here at sweetgreen — we feel a responsibility to protect the future of real food. And we know that eliminating barriers for young farmers can hugely impact their chances of success and our chances of a better food system.

If you’ve been to opening day at a New York City sweetgreen, you’ve impacted young farmers like Nick Storrs. Nick’s involved with GrowNYC, the organization that runs farmers markets throughout the city, and they’re our NYC impact partner. Their FARMroots program provides new farmers with technical and business skills, so they can get their green on — because farming ain’t easy.

But if there’s one thing that makes it easier, it’s getting institutional knowledge, the kind of things you learn only when you’re out in the field, shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who’s done it. That’s why we partnered with GrowNYC to create the Shoulder-to-Shoulder program, and all NYC opening day sales are donated to it.

Through STS, Nick — who’s working to open a transplanting business next year— paired up with John Madura, a vegetable farmer in Pine Island, New York, and they spend Saturdays together and exchange countless emails and phone calls so Nick can absorb as much as he can from someone with real experience. We spent a day with these growers up in the Black Dirt region where Madura Farm is, to get a sense of what Nick’s been learning out in the field with John. Turns out, just about everything Nick’s learned is applicable to pretty much every career—it’s just that “getting your hands dirty” is literal in farming.

1. Get out in the (literal) field to learn.

Turns out, farming textbooks aren’t that helpful — they sterilize the farming process and tend to take the culture out of agriculture. What is helpful is having someone demonstrating how to plant 1,000 row-feet of cucumbers, standing behind you saying That’s a little too deep, that’s a little too shallow, that was good, let’s try it faster. At Madura, Storrs is refining his technique and learning the kinesthetics of planting, and seeing John speed-plant with 30 years of hard-earned experience helps him set a realistic goal, which helps him create estimates for things like labor.

A farming book, on the other hand, would just say Plant this fast. “A book loses something, those moments when someone’s pounding their fist and saying This right here is the important piece, don’t forget this!,” says Nick. “That oral history creates a culture. Forming those connections, learning information and seeing the personalities behind this information is really important.”

2. You have to find the white space.

In business, you always need a differentiator, and farming is no different. One of Nick’s friends from the Greenmarket retired in West Virginia, leaving a hole in the transplanting space. Nick quickly saw the vacuum and swept in. As a transplant farmer, he’ll sell seedlings to home gardeners, community gardens, and schools, with an emphasis on heirlooms and variety. “You can buy hundreds of seeds at Home Depot, but typically not as transplants,” says Nick. “So that’s a big perk for many gardeners — it gives instant gratification and confidence that growth will happen.” And confidence is invaluable to a farmer.

Getting down and dirty in the field is a big dill, er, deal.

3. You must create a healthy environment for growth.

Much like an entrepreneur might choose an open office layout to foster collaboration, a farmer needs to create an environment that’s good for growth — that means fostering good, healthy soil. “Sustainable soil, in many ways, is the bare minimum of what we need to pass by making sure that what we hand off in 40 years is better than what we started with, and that it will get easier for my kids and my grandkids,” says Nick.

A lot of the fun is that improving soil health and the density of microorganisms is still experimental, and nobody has really figured it out just yet. “That’s very exciting for me — there is more to learn about this than anyone can learn in a lifetime, so we will always be getting better at this,” says Nick.

Nick Storrs + John Madura on Madura’s Pine Island, NY farm. The farm is in the“black dirt region,” a rich-soiled lowland created by a melting glacier and known for onions.

4. You must challenge the status quo.

In the postwar era, the conventional wisdom of farming was that bigger is better. But now, farmers like Nick and John are part of a grower group that’s demanding new tools from the industry to help small farmers stay profitable — like smaller, more budget-friendly tractors that are more appropriate for a smaller plots. “I think having new farmers, young farmers is bringing diverse ideas to farming,” says Nick. “We’re trying new things, and we’re willing to push a little.”

And while it was always noble and important to grow good, real food for people and improve soil health, it’s becoming more sustainable than ever, especially as the locavore movement has taken off. “It’s fantastic that now, more than 30 years ago, you can also start to pay bills with this,” Nick says.

5. The importance of having a mentor.

Every successful person will tell you how important it is to have a mentor — farming is no different. Spending days in the field with John has given Nick visibility into myriad things to keep in mind as he gets his business off the ground. “I always assumed that there was gonna be sh*t that I’d get blindsided by,” he says. “Working with John means I can see things from a higher vantage point, and prepare for them.” Like GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), for instance. It’s not something Nick needs to pay attention to right now, but he can start getting his ducks in a row and working on paperwork. Knowing where it’s easy to trip up helps Nick preemptively damage-control.

Right now, Nick’s signing a lease and running everything by John, for a gut-check to make sure he’s not getting scammed or making risky compromises. “John has the experience to give me an informed answer — a lot of times, it’s an informed opinion, but I feel so much better with that,” Nick says. “It’s increasing the chances of my success exponentially.”

Want to help growers like Nick? Come by sweetgreen 61st + Lex on Friday, December 23rd for Opening Day — 100% of proceeds go to Grow NYC to fund the Shoulder-to-Shoulder program and relationships like Nick + John’s. Check out other ways to support GrowNYC here.


Stories from the sweetgreen community.


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connecting people to real food since 2007.


Stories from the sweetgreen community.

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