By Richard Robinson
Brittany and Kevin Overshiner run Upswing Farm, a certified organic produce farm in Pepperell, Massachusetts. They began their farm journey over a decade ago when Brittany was managing Medway Community Farm, about 20 miles west of Boston, and Kevin came on board as a farm worker. They’ve been together ever since, through starting their own farm and scaling up on leased land, losing their lease and facing the crisis of “what’s next?” and buying their current farm, an hours’ drive away from all the markets they worked so hard to build.
The farm comprises 127 acres under an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR), plus a four-acre lot that includes the house and barn. They grow on about 20 acres, with about a third of that in cover crops at any one time. They have three full-time, year-round employees. About 75% of their revenue is from their CSA customers, with additional income from farmers markets and small wholesale accounts.
Establishing Upswing Farm
After several years at Medway, Brittany and Kevin took the plunge and began Upswing Farm on leased land in nearby Ashland, MA. They grew quickly, with 200 summer share CSA members, and selling at the Ashland Farmer’s Market, which they helped turn into one of the most thriving markets in the suburban communities west of Boston.
But then they lost their lease. “Luckily, we had worked with Land for Good in setting up the lease, and we made sure we had a lease with a three-year window,” Brittany says, so they had time to plan their next move. “I strongly recommend at least a three-year lease if you're going to start farming on leased property.”
As they looked around for a farm they could buy, they were not surprised that there was nothing in their price range that close to the city; the Metrowest area of Boston has some of the highest land values in the country. As they looked further afield, they found the farm in Pepperell, forty miles north, that barely matched what they could afford and was quite a bit larger than they might have chosen otherwise.
“A lot of the decision for scaling up was related to the fact that we could not find a farm that we could afford, that wouldn't require us to operate at a larger scale,” because of the threshold the price of a house adds to the cost of even the smallest acreage. “And we can still barely afford the house associated with this land.”
The move also came with major financial commitments. “We actually have two mortgages, one through Dirt Capital Partners, one through the Farm Service Agency.” At the start, Brittany says, “I don't know if I trusted my capacity to produce at a scale that I would need to pay this mortgage. And yeah, I guess sometimes I look back and think maybe I could have done this differently, either by doing a more intensive, smaller scale operation or doing just wholesale, so decreasing the energy that goes into marketing the product. But I just really liked direct-to-consumer relationships.”
“One of the things we've always been careful about is not investing too much money into something that doesn't hold value. With the farmland under an APR, it might be hard to find a buyer who accepts those terms [of non-development]. But the four-acre house lot is not protected with an APR, and we're not legally required to keep it connected with the land. So if we ever really needed money, it would be terrible, but we could just sell the house and barn and we'd be okay.”
Brittany also factored into the decision to scale up the kind of labor a smaller versus larger farm entails. “I felt like my body was only going to be able to do this work for so long, and I definitely got feedback from a lot of my crew that they'd be rather working at a slightly more mechanized scale. We can operate at this slightly larger scale and still be doing the work that we do, we can afford some tools that can actually make the work feel a little bit better and be a little bit more sustainable for our bodies.” And the demand for locally produced, high-quality produce seemed to be growing as well. “So it just it felt like the direction we should move in. Whether or not it was the right choice, I still actually don't know.”
Keeping their customers and remembering their names
A major question in the move was whether they could hold onto their customers - a major business consideration for any farm move. They succeeded by continuing to bring CSA shares to Ashland and the surrounding towns and by staying with the Ashland market. “I think one of the reasons why we were able to hold on to our customers was that I was very invested in customer relationships to start with, and we had built a lot of connections in the community, including at their distribution sites.”
They now sell 300 shares for their spring CSA, 450 for summer, 450 for fall and 230 for winter, with plans to expand at least the winter. Currently, they have three off-site pickup locations; other customers pick up on the farm. “We go back and forth on whether we would want to move away from delivering produce and focus on just having people pick up on the farm,” Brittany says. “One reason I tend towards maintaining off-site distributions is that there are a lot of bigger farms around us, and our neighborhood has a lot of opportunities for customers to buy local produce. So rather than trying to be competitive in our neighborhood, I feel like allowing those farms to thrive with their setup and maintaining our remote distribution sites is a good idea.”
“I still have customers who have been my customers since I started Medway Community Farm, whose infants are now teenagers. And that’s a really important and special thing. I still remember the vegetables people liked. I don’t remember everybody’s name, but I don't feel like I have to. A part of my responsibility is helping the social ecosystem of the farm grow so that people can feel engaged and involved,” including her staff: “Maybe they will remember the names of their regular customers. And I think that's happening.”
Management and systems
“One of my biggest challenges with scaling up is growing as a manager and realizing that I have to have better systems in place to hire and maintain the crew effectively.” I really care about being a good employer. And I really care about helping my employees do a good job. And I really care about the quality of my product; I care about a lot of things. And it's very hard. And I had a lot of self-doubt about my capacity as an employer, feeling like I was pushing people too hard, worrying that my expectations were too high. I started seeing a therapist last year, who's also a business consultant, to help me work through some of that. I also did an online course this winter called ‘Becoming the Employer of Choice,’ designed for farmers, which was excellent, and I highly recommend it.
“My weakness as a manager is that I'm actually just a really great farm employee: I can still do all the work, and a lot of times, I will lean into that because it's what I love. It's why I started farming. And I sometimes think if I were more interested in being in that management position, I could make smarter or better choices.”
Another challenge of scaling up, Brittany says, is to develop systems that can augment or replace direct instruction for farm employees. “It is impossible for me to be physically present all the time. But I need to know that somebody along that pick and pack distribution line is trained to the point that they know what the standard is. Having things written down and creating standard operating procedures can really help. That also allows me to evaluate some of the decisions that I'm making or the standards that I have and see if they were worthwhile.” For a premier example, such a procedures manual, farmers may want to see the ones from Roxbury Farm.
Last words of advice
“I would say first, make sure you've filed your taxes for three years. Get those schedule F’s in place. That opens a whole world of borrowing opportunity with the Farm Service Agency, and you really can't access those programs without that financial history and the tax history.” Once that is in place, Brittany says, consider taking a class or working with a consultant to develop a business plan, which you’ll need for a lender. “And then take the time to think about why you are scaling up. Is it just because we're all told that we should get bigger or get out? Working out your real goals is important—not just about making money, but why are you farming? What is the community that you hope to live in? What is the impact that you're hoping to have? Thinking about those questions should help make the decision on whether or not to scale up.”
Links & Resources:
Becoming the Employer of Choice, farms.extension.wisc.edu/programs/becoming-the-employer-of-choice/
Dirt Capital Partners, dirtpartners.com
Roxbury Farm, roxburyfarm.com/more-information-for-farmers