Painful Pivot: how we sold a 5% direct market crop; farmer series 6

This was the start of the most miserable harvest season I’ve experienced in 22 years.  Each day, I had a few employees start in rows that I thought would produce, while I’d dash inside to check my messages.  After 30 minutes, I’d go check on the employees, and they’d already be at the end of the row, kind of wandering around, hoping to find a few strawberries. 

We pay employees by the pound, and this wasn’t worth their time. I realized I’d have to pay them more per pound if I wanted them to keep trying, and be less fussy about the strawberries they put in the quarts.  Rather than sacrifice quality for my customers, I decided to sort through every berry that was picked.  As the employees realized I was allowing them to pick bad quality berries as part of their paid poundage, their quality tanked further.  My daughters and I rapidly worked 4-7 hours per day, sorting the berries, and then stemming the discards for our own use.  I jacked my price from $4.70/# to $5.70 per pound,  to cover the additional employee hours.

Each harvest day, I counted in my head “X” amount of dollars. It’s not nothing.” Compared to other years, it was fractional, but fractional is better than nothing. 

The one blessing to come out of this was my appreciation for on-line ordering.  Previously, people have placed orders via email or phone, and I’d have to keep track of inventory manually.  This year, after counting available flats, I’d post inventory in my Square online account, and customers would race to get their credit card information entered before the inventory was back down to zero.  This took only about 15 minutes most days.  Once ordered, customers had the rest of the day to pick up their berries. It was very efficient.”

The emotional toll was huge.  My husband mentally wrote off the crop, and left for his construction projects each day, leaving me to muster the energy to figure things out.  Each day, I wandered the field, hoping for a resurgence of berries so that I could call in U-pickers.  Each day, I was crushed further.  

There was so much that was hard.  Pivoting every hour as we adjusted our expectations downward.  Feeling my crushing disappointment at the financial loss, thanking customers for their kindness, turning away loyal customers who drove on our yard, waiting for rain that never came, apologizing to people who told me how much we’d disappointed them.  

Thankfully, it’s done.  It’s behind us.  Thankfully also, we had a lot of risk management strategies in place, so that this catastrophic crop loss didn’t cause us to go bankrupt, or go into foreclosure.  Farming is a gamble, and if we didn’t hope for that bumper crop, we’d get out of the game and run for our lives! 

I hope and pray that if you are a farmer who read this farmer series, that you have learned something about how to plan and prepare for the down side of farming.  

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