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Vegetable grower starts small to grow big

Is diversification the best way to get a start today? As Nathan Klassen is learning, even if the answer is yes, that doesn’t make it easy

Nathan Klassen might not have grown up on a farm, but for as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be a farmer, so in 2011, in the midst of North America’s record-smashing run-up in the price of farmland, he made that dream come true.

Klassen was 24 that year, and he bought his first patch of farming ground. But whether, at 75 acres, you’d call that patch a farm probably depends more on who you are than on any definition you’ll find in a dictionary. For some of his neighbours, 75 acres is more like a big backyard than a working farm.

In the best traditions of agriculture, however, the only opinion that really matters to Klassen is his own, and he’s convinced that he’s on the right path.

When he bought that ground near Plattsville, Ont., Klassen saw it as a key step in achieving a goal he’d been working towards his whole life. Growing up near Rochester, New York, he had taken every opportunity to work on farms, and in 2010, he completed a degree in organic agriculture from the University of Guelph.

man planting vegetables in a greenhouse

“We’re moving in the right direction and I’m doing what I love,” Klassen says.
photo: David Charlesworth

Using organic production methods, Klassen grew just one acre of vegetables that first year to test the water. But with a farm to pay for, he’s been more or less doubling his acres ever since. The second year he grew three acres, the next year, six, and then 10.

Recognizing that he must be careful not to over-extend himself, he plans to expand at a slower rate in 2015 by bringing two more acres into vegetable production for a total of 12 acres.

“With the rapid growth, systems are always changing,” explains Klassen. “I’d like to get to more of a steady state.”

If a dozen acres still seems a very small number, however, just read on. The numbers soon get bigger.

With 40 different vegetable crops, and a total of 200 varieties, farming for Klassen is anything but simple. Tomatoes are one of his most important crops and he grows 40 different kinds. He is constantly evaluating varieties. Some are old standbys that he grows year after year. Others don’t make the cut and are only grown once.

And as on any other farm, the numbers keep multiplying. Klassen, for instance, takes note of the days to maturity advertised by the seed company, but also keeps careful notes on maturity and other agronomic factors on his own property.

He has even developed his own customized system of maturity ratings, which he considers an indispensable tool for ensuring a consistent supply of vegetables ready for harvest.

As well, by saving seed from the earliest-producing plants, Klassen has been able to shorten the days to maturity of one of his favourite varieties.

Despite knowing the dangers of expanding too fast, Klassen says it’s hard to be patient. “I see so many opportunities, and I want to go after them.”

At this stage, sales aren’t the problem, Klassen says. While it did take a few years to make a name for himself, he has a reputation now.

man planting vegetables in a greenhouse

Klassen grows 40 different vegetable crops with over 200 different varieties.
photo: David Charlesworth

It wasn’t always easy though. It took trial and error to figure out what would grow well and sell well. For example, he learned in his first year that broccoli doesn’t grow well on his farm, nor sell well in his markets.

This past year he added a walk-in cooler which increased his capacity to store vegetables, thereby substantially reducing waste. One of the coolers is set at 5 C and the other at 10 C so he can store vegetables at temperatures closer to their optimum.

This past year Klassen purchased a second delivery van. In addition to delivering vegetables to market he also used the van to pick up harvested vegetables in the field. He also uses two bicycles outfitted with trailers as a low-cost and environmentally friendly way to run back and forth between house and fields.

Again, established farmers might hardly call such things “farm machinery.” But for Klassen, the important thing is to keep one eye on the work, and the other eye on the budget, and somehow manage to make a living.

It’s why, for instance, he has two converted clothes washing machines that he uses to wash and spin dry the salad greens.

Similar to the way he expanded production, Klassen has been growing his markets, i.e. step by step. In addition to selling at five farmers’ markets in Waterloo, Toronto, Brampton, Etobicoke and Aberfoyle, he’s been growing his weekly veggie box program. He started with just 10 the first year while he got the hang of it. The next year he had 20 members, then 50. He thinks next year he will aim for 100.

The CSA members generally pick up their weekly boxes at the markets he sells at or at the farm. Klassen is considering shifting more of his sales to the CSA model. “There are some real advantages to the CSA model over selling at market,” he explains.

That includes a better cash flow, since members pay up front at the beginning of the season for a share of vegetables.

Secondly, CSA is a dependable market. “If it’s rainy, people don’t buy at the market,” Klassen explains.

Filling the weekly boxes also reduces waste. “You sell 100 per cent of what you harvest,” he says.

There is flexibility with the CSA model too, since he can put in the boxes whatever he is harvesting that week.

Finally, selling through the CSA program is less time consuming. When he goes to market, he usually spends four to five hours at the market plus travel and setup time. With the boxes, he just fills them and drops them off.

Still, Klassen recognizes the time he spends at markets gives him useful feedback and helps him to ensure his CSA customers are getting good value.

Klassen also sells some produce from the farm but needs to invest some time and effort into a better setup to exploit this more fully. For example, people tend to buy what they can see, so a refrigerator with a glass front would be helpful.

Branding has been a very important part of Klassen’s marketing strategy. He grows high-quality produce using organic methods so he can command higher prices and develop loyal customers.

bag of organic lettuce

With the help a graphic designer, Klassen developed a logo which he uses on his products and marketing materials.
photo: David Charlesworth

With the help of his family during a brainstorming session they came up with the name Nith Valley Organics, named for the Nith River that meanders behind his property.

Klassen explains that he wanted a name that was tied to the local region. With the help of his sister, a graphic designer, he developed a logo which he uses on marketing materials, the website, signage and the delivery van. (His sister created the website but Klassen keeps it updated.)

At market, Klassen keys into the romanticized image of farming by using rustic wooden packing crates painted barn red. (The paint was left over from painting the barns.) Klassen and his employees wear plaid shirts and straw hats as part of this image.

artichoke

As with any kind of farming, Klassen’s operation starts with a focus on efficient production.
photo: David Charlesworth

Customers often have questions about the produce so he makes sure his market staff know how to cook what they sell. And with an uncommon vegetable like Jerusalem artichoke, he includes instructions on how to prepare it.

Klassen is also very aware of the psychology involved in selling at market. For example, displays shouldn’t be too symmetrical or too neat. Otherwise, potential customers will be loath to disturb the display by removing a basket.

Not one to stand still, Klassen is always looking for new opportunities. This fall he started growing cold-tolerant salad greens in hoop houses to extend his sales season, and he will soon try sprouts as well. He will also offer a few shares of a winter CSA program to get experience with it before deciding if he wants to pursue this on a bigger scale.

Eventually Klassen plans to target restaurants but he wants to be sure he is in a position to provide a consistent supply of high-quality vegetables first.

Despite the hard work, Klassen remains excited about his chosen profession. “We’re moving in the right direction. And I’m doing what I love,” he says with a smile.

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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