Small farms — at least successful ones — can’t be stagnant. They need to evolve to meet the needs of their customer base, keep production profitable and grow with the farmer’s changing needs. One such farm, which has continually reassessed its farming model as the farm, the local food community and the family has grown, is Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, VT.
With 75 acres of fields and forest, Sara and Bob Schlosser began growing their small farm and their family here in 1990. Long before the Community Supported Agriculture model was common, they offered CSA shares. Selling via shares allowed them much-needed cash flow to begin the season, and formed the close connection with their members, which they were seeking.
Farming without chemicals, the couple sought to build a farm based on produce, maple syrup, eggs and a lot of hard work. Working together as a family, and raising healthful food for themselves and others was the goal.
Since its inception, many things have changed at Sandiwood Farm. The couple raised their children, Sandi and Kyle, as vegetarians. As such, they did not raise meat on the farm. But the CSA customers were interested in meat, and as teenagers, so were the kids. They added broilers, and later pigs and beef. The children needed to learn where their food came from, and raising and slaughtering the animals fit into the family’s and their customer’s needs.
“It made sense,” Sara Schlosser said, despite the couple’s commitment to vegetarianism.
The Schlossers eliminated the CSA as more and more local farms opted for this type of marketing. This made sense for their bottom line. They opted to pare down their product line, focusing on their top dozen crops. Beef was another product which became more available from other local farms, and the labor of bottle-feeding the calves — and becoming attached to them — no longer was working for the vegetarian couple.
The farm also had a booth at the local Stowe Farmers Market, where they originally focused on selling garlic and flowers. After a scare early on with the garlic crop, they realized they had to have more diversity. The flower business evolved, and they added bouquets. But the success of the cut flower business and the labor involved in meeting the demand for bouquets eventually began to demand more from them than they had to give. The farmers market booth has also evolved along with the farm.
“People like to see fennel, but it’s a loss leader,” Schlosser said, and the farm decided to tighten the books.
“We got smarter about how we farm,” she continued. They began honing in on the amount of seeds to plant to produce enough of their top crops to sell to wholesale customers and fulfill restaurant orders.
Season extension offered a prime opportunity for ongoing, profitable sales. They now offer custom growing for restaurants, and have 4,500 square feet of greenhouse space. They have several local restaurant clients, and also grow food for Vermont Harvest Catering, daughter Sandi’s catering business, which is based in a certified kitchen on the farm.
Changing to Tourism
Sandiwood Farm began to transition to a different approach to marketing the farm three years ago. Their transition to an agritourism-based venue has been quite successful, and today on-farm special events, such as weddings and farm-hosted gourmet local food dinners, are the farm’s main product.
“The farmers market has been a good venue for selling our dinners,” Schlosser said. “ We’ve found our niche: a very, very, local gourmet meal.”
Sandi Schlosser, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, has combined her knowledge of growing food with her knowledge of cooking it. High-end, gourmet dinners of food from the farm, as well as from other Vermont producers, consist of numerous courses. Dinners are held on the farm. They have a large event tent, and also use high tunnel space for dining. Dinner events are held monthly in-season on the farm.
Hosting on-farm events, particularly those where customers are interested in a refined experience, can be tricky. Knowing that the farm has to look its best can sometimes mean putting off tasks until after an event. Sometimes seeds don’t get planted on time because weeding needs to be completed before visitors arrive at the farm.
“Guests want the farm to be well-weeded and groomed,” Schlosser said.
Another issue has been inclement weather. Having to decide whether to postpone an event until its rain date has caused numerous headaches. Often, guests cannot make the rain date, and refunding their tickets leaves the farm with last-minute seats and a scramble to quickly fill them.
The infrastructure needed to host on-farm events is also a tremendous expense and requires upkeep, staff and a lot of planning. Combined with added insurance expenses, the cost of producing and preparing the food, the marketing of the event and all other expenses, the profit margin on farm dinners is really quite slim, Schlosser said. But the benefit to transitioning to agritourism has been the ability to continue to work as a family, and for the farm to support the next generation.
Becoming an agritourism farm has been “real interesting, to learn to work together in this other way as a family,” Schlosser said.
As Sandiwood Farm has grown through the years, the Schlossers have found that maintaining a small, diverse, sustainable farm isn’t easy. As the family grows their agritourism ventures, they remain diverse, but streamlined.
“It’s hard to stay small and diverse, and really stay sustainable,” Schlosser said of the changes they’ve made over the years. “People see the beauty, see the crops, see our family working and crew working together. It’s worth it.”