For the Love of Business

silver-birch-bark_mediumI was nine years old in the fall of 1992. It was a cool afternoon in northern Denmark, as the sun began to set behind the trees. I was working with my father in the front yard, cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.

At the end of the day, we had a substantial birch log left on the lawn.   At three feet long, it was too large to split. So my father issued a challenge; if I could saw the log in half by the following weekend, he would issue a crisp 100-kroner bill, equal to about $15.

I was on the job immediately after school on Monday. With that much money on the line (my allowance at the time was a weekly $3), the work simply had to be accomplished. But I was the smallest kid in my 4th-grade class, and it became obvious that the log would be a challenge.

My father heard my daily reports, my sinking into despair, as the weekend closed in and the log appeared triumphant. “If only I could have a bigger kid help at the other end of the bow saw,” I said one evening. My father smiled. “I told you I would pay 100 kroner when the log was cut. I didn’t make any rules about how you go about it.”

That day I learned the difference between schoolwork and the real world, a difference that cannot be overstated. In school, you have to do your own work to get the points. You have to follow the rules to complete the assignment. But the world is different. The world cares about results, not about made-up rules. The world lets you find your own assignments, as many as you want, and write your own rules. The world has customers instead of teachers, and happy customers don’t care how you got it done.

With that in mind (a lesson that I’m sure my father was pleased to stage) I hired a friend.   I paid him $3 for his efforts, and made full disclosure that I would myself pocket 4 times that amount. That fact didn’t bother him at all; he would make a week’s worth of allowance in an hour’s work (he was much larger and more effective at sawing than me), and he was quick to accept the invitation before I offered it to someone else. An entrepreneurial seed was born.



Letter to the Editor


Dear Friends at Modern Farmer Magazine,

Rachel and I read your publication with enthusiasm.  From stunning photography to witty prose, each issue is an encouragement to our agricultural ventures.

With that in mind, may I humbly share a concern in your September 2015 issue?

We couldn’t find the old-fashioned “letter to the editor” box, so we will share it here instead, and tag you on Twitter.  This is, after all, Modern Farmer Magazine. =)  

On page 47, David Zuckerman writes about his experience running CSAs.  As a fellow direct-to-consumer farmer, I’m not so sure about his recommendations on pricing:

“See what other area CSAs charge and study the price of seasonal produce at…and supermarkets. Then try to undercut them all.”  

That strategy may grow a customer list, but it defies the laws of microeconomics to expect that a small-scale producer can compete with supermarkets on price, and still make a decent living.  Supermarkets, and the corporate farms that supply them, are designed to be efficient and price competitive.  They are machines built for volume over profit margin, and it isn’t possible for a small farmer, taking all costs into account, to get properly compensated for her work while fighting them in a price war.  That would be like asking a one-man, hand-made furniture producer to compete with prices at IKEA.  He simply can’t do it.

A small farmer provides a completely different customer experience.  She replaces the soulless supermarket with a transparent production system, a smiling face and a compelling brand.  On that playing field, she is untouchable.  She should talk up the clean and safe production practices, show pictures of happy grazing animals, and then let customers draw conclusions about those “other” producers.  Fortunately for her, a growing crowd of customers are figuring out that food decisions are too important to be left up to price.