Mary Ackley’s backyard microgreens farm is feast for the eyes, as well as a hard-nosed business success story. A pretty dramatic one, too. It includes divine intervention, epic red tape, and some classic SPIN twists – minimal investment, multi-locations (including a restaurant basement), and premium positioning.
After just 15 months in business, Mary has become a much celebrated member of Washington DC’s foodie culture, and she’s taken the leap to full-time urban farmer. If you missed Garden Hero’s recent meetup with Mary, here are just some of the highlights. SPIN-Farming aims to help farmers get income producing gardens in and off the ground quickly, and Mary definitely proves the point.
You live in a condo. How did you find growing space?
I passed this unused plot in front of a Monastery while jogging one day, arranged a meeting to ask them if I could farm it, and actually ended up with a plot behind the Monastery. I don’t pay any cash rent, I just have an agreement to use the land in exchange for a weekly share of produce and a weekly donation to a local homeless shelter. I prepped the plot in December 2014 and began production in January 2015.
How big a space did you start with?
I only cultivated approximately 700 sq ft at the Monastery plot during my first season (the total space is probably between 1/8-1/4 acre.) This year I will cultivate closer to 1,500 sq ft outdoors. I also had about 175 sq feet of microgreens cultivation (that is the actual growing space on my shelving units).
How did you expand your growing space the first year?
I didn’t need to acquire any additional land, but needed more space for indoor microgreens production. I found that through a chance conversation with one of my restaurant customers that happened to have an empty cellar. So I set up an indoor shelving unit in the cellar of the Pub and The People in Nov. 2015.
What was your first year revenue goal and did you achieve it?
$21,287, and I made it primarily wholesale to restaurants and chefs, plus one farmers market every other week and a few pop-up market events.
How many units of production did you produce the first year?
Approximately 6,300 oz of microgreens, 320 lbs of field crops/value added produce (salads etc.), and approx. 100 units of pesto.
What major investments in gear did you make?
Year 1: Lighting/shelving/ventilation/nursery trays for microgreens; basic farm tools (Earthway seeder, hoes, rake, shovels, etc.); drip irrigation for field crops; basic market gear (tables, tablecloths, chalkboard, signs, etc. but borrow canopy).
Year 2: Produce washing station, drip irrigation for microgreens, more lighting/shelving/ventilation/trays for micros. Landscape fabric and tarps for field crops. Logo re-design/better marketing materials. Canopy and better farmers market gear.
Why did you decide to focus on microgreens?
I just found there was a market and they made more money, so I kept growing more. I actually had about 8-10 regular restaurant & catering customers by the end of year 1. Now we have about 15-20 regulars. Caterers were also a great sales channel in Year 1. We also started with one grocery store in Year 1 but that one didn’t last very long. We later took on two more grocery stores when we were more prepared and those are still going strong. We also started to ‘pop-up’ at additional markets and events (about 5 or so in Year 1).
How did you market yourself the first year?
Lots of Instagram, and direct emails to a targeted list of potential wholesale customers (restaurants, caterers, grocery).
SECOND YEAR – 2016
Now that you have left your job and are farming full-time this year, are you adding any additional sales channels?
We will be doing two new farmers markets this year (Penn Quarter and Bloomingdale, each bi-weekly). We are now doing wedding centerpieces (live microgreens) as well, and we have about 15-20 regular wholesale accounts. We are also doing lots of events, tastings, etc. at places like Williams Sanoma, specialty markets, and food truck events.
How do you currently market yourself?
We mainly just use Instagram and then try to email and then follow-up with samples at restaurants (but this takes coordination with our supply and can sometimes be tricky to manage). We aim for a few per week but need to spend more time on this. We are finally starting to get some press which also helps. We also attend quarterly open tasting events at our business incubator, Union Kitchen.
Now you are multi-locational with indoor and outdoor space. What is the total size of your outdoor growing space now, in sq. ft., and how many indoor grow rooms do you have, and what is their capacity?
Total outdoor space under cultivation will be 1,500 sq. ft in 2016. We also have 175 sq ft. indoors (only one location, but looking to add a second because we are at max capacity indoors).
What is your total revenue target, and can you break it down by sales channel – farmers market, restaurants, grocers?
Total projected revenue for 2016: $138,022 This should be $118,194 microgreens + $19,827 field crops. We don’t have a target for pestos but expect that will rise and make up a significant portion of our revenues in 2016. Need to figure out a way to track this. Approx $95k should be from wholesale accounts and $42,214 from markets and events.
How many units of production are you targeting this year?
Approximately 46,000 units (oz) microgreens, Approx 2,500 units (lbs) field crops. I know this doesn’t jive exactly with SPIN unit methods but is the best way I can keep track right now given the large amount of wholesale we are doing all priced in lbs, oz, or live nursery trays.
How much of the work do you do yourself? Do you have paid help?
I have four paid employees right now, all part-time. One of these only works three hours per week doing deliveries. The others are about 10 hrs/week each on specific tasks, planting microgreens, business tasks (one helps with developing marketing materials, recordkeeping etc., another with more manual farm labor, harvesting, helping set up and run markets). I plan to hire a full-time person that can do all of these tasks combined for the second half of 2016. I am very close to obtaining a $50k USDA microloan – will know this week if I will be getting it – and will use some of that to help bring on my first full-time employee. The reason I have so much paid help is because I’m trying to develop standardized systems for each task and also because I had a full-time job for most of the first year so I really had to bring on help or I couldn’t keep up with everything. Now I will likely be doing more of the work myself but still aim to develop systems so I can focus more on growing the business.