The little farm that could
David Van Wyk, co-owner of Bloodroot Blades, sat down with his old friends Mandy and Steve O’Shea, owners of 3 Porch Farm, a local farm dedicated to sustainably-grown flowers and fruit. The O’Shea’s discuss their journey (back) to Athens, Ga., and how their operation of a small-scale farm is rooted in their life’s passions and nurtures their big dreams.
David: I would love for you guys to introduce yourselves.
Mandy: I'm Mandy O'Shea.
Steve: I'm Steve O'Shea, and together we run 3 Porch Farm.
David: It's a pleasure to see you. What got you into this business? How did you find Athens?
Mandy: Well, I went to school here in Athens, probably 15 years, 20 years ago now, and started farming with another organic farmer, one of the few that were around. It developed my passion for that, and I ended up moving out to California, which is where he and I actually connected.
Steve: Well, full story, I was doing an environmental outreach and driving vegetable oil powered bus across the country doing presentations, and ended up in Athens in 2003. I met a young, cute farmer, and that's Mandy, and was really inspired by her. We became friends. Two years later, we started dating, as she was passing through California. She stayed in California. We got married and decided to pursue farming together. After we saved up some money, we started looking for a place to do that, and we decided that Athens was calling to us. We love the community. She knew how to grow here, and it just was a place we both really resonated with and decided to come back.
Mandy: We looked all over the country. We looked at multiple places of where we wanted to settle down, and it just kept coming back to Athens, so we moved.
David: What aspects of Athens?
Mandy: Kind of just that chill vibe that Athens has.
David: Yes, I hear you.
Steve: The culture. The community is just really warm and welcoming, and creative, and they're just a-
Mandy: The art, the music are very important to us.
Steve: There's a life, there's just a ... I don't know.
Mandy: A vibrancy here.
David: Are there any folks in Athens that you admire that do the kind of work that you do?
Mandy: Well, as far as farming, yeah. Each year, Athens’ farmers are bringing it more and more, growing better quality, unique varieties. Of all the farmers that I've known within a certain community, it seems like Athens farmers are just crushing it more and more each year. It's just really fun to watch them and fun to be a part of it.
David: Is it more in terms of technique or production or both?
Mandy: Production, technique.
Steve: Persistence, overall perspective – the view of how to make it work. Because most small farms in this country are supported by outside income or they fail – generally, they fail. To see a lot of people that started around the same time as us survive (and we know how hard it was for us to survive) to see what they've done, the moves that they've made from a business perspective to find a way to keep doing what they believe in, has been really inspiring. We've been excited that we've stayed afloat, but we've also been really excited to see our peers stay afloat, too, and start to thrive in some ways.
David: It's an interesting paradox that scaling is the means of surviving in today's business-y kind of world. On a small operation like yours, or like ours, the temptation is always to grow out and go out. I wonder how you guys would respond to that, especially thinking about keeping it small and surviving.
Steve: Absolutely. We contemplate that all the time. The direction that we've taken has been to expand out into having sales outlets in Atlanta, and adding a couple other markets, too. We do some online retail stuff, but really we wanted to expand to a point where it became feasible to support ourselves financially, and not push past that due to ambition or just that sense of, "Got to grow, got to grow, got to grow."
We realized that there was definitely a need to grow quantitatively, but beyond that once we hit a certain point, we thought we could grow the rest of the way just qualitatively. Once we hit that certain level, we really started to put the emphasis on efficiency, because if we can become a lot more efficient in our processes, we can make more of a profit margin without having to produce more.
Mandy: Another good thing about us – what kind keeps us not expanding and going crazy – is our land. We're pretty small. We're very small. We're considered a very small farm. Then sometimes we daydream, "Oooh, what if we could lease an acre, two acres?" But we keep coming back to, "Let's just do everything we can with our property, our space and let's make that work super smooth, super efficiently." Like he said, really increase quality, and let's get into some unique varieties. Let's not stretch out further than we can. The temptation is there for sure, but usually that's in the spring and then by fall comes it's like, "Please, do not even ever consider taking on anymore property."
Steve: We do have that natural limit, which really helps us, with the perimeter of the property. We could grow beyond that by purchasing elsewhere, but it really helps keep us in check and go, "No, let's find more ways to be efficient." Because we thought we maxed out our property four years ago, but every year upon further reflection we go, "Oh no, we could utilize this space by doing this. We could utilize this space by doing this." If you put a little extra effort, you realize that there's a lot more room for improvement with all the resources you already have.
David: I really like that. I admire the microcosmic approach rather than the urban sprawl approach to farming, where more is better.
I'd love to hear a little bit about your vision for how the small scale farm plays into your environmental concerns and then your life, how you guys do that.
Mandy: One thing Steve recently said, what was your principles over profit? It's kind of how we operate, any sort of ... profit, I don't even know if it's profit you say, but when it comes in, we're reinvesting in ways to make this an even more sustainable situation – like adding more solar.
Steve: When we advertised we're a solar-powered farm, a lot of people that don't know us and see that for the first time go, "What are you talking about? All farms grow their stuff with solar energy." I think what gets overlooked a lot is that there's a ton of infrastructure in farms. We have four walk-in coolers, and we have five industrial freezers.
Mandy: Commercial fans in our tunnels.
Steve: Heating pads and refrigeration. There's tons of buildings that we have to build, and they all require lots of energy. And then there's the driving. The more you produce the more you have to find customers, which means you have to drive a little further out, and that's its own form of energy consumption and pollution. Our vehicles, we have four now that I've converted to run on recycled vegetable oil that we get from restaurants in Athens. So, it's been really challenging to keep up with the goal, but the goal for me has been to be as close to carbon neutral as possible with our operations. Every time I add more infrastructure I invest in more solar panels, and then I install them.
Mandy: It's just really important for us to live that way. It's obviously (important) for our business, but it's really, again, that passion and that heart that has to come through in our business. It consumes our whole lives, so it might as well be based on principles that we really believe in.
Steve: I guess ultimately for me, for the bulk of my adult life I was trying to find an occupation in which I could work and support myself in line with my view of what's a right way of living. I never really found anything that lined up with all my values, but all my ethics and my values are met by this farm. I'm really excited about the fact that I finally do get to live in line with my ethics and values.
David: Intellectual growth and growth in quality are also a kind of growth that will keep a business moving, because there's always movement in the business. I'd love to hear a little bit about where the business is taking you and how that excites you guys.
This is the first year where I've seen delegation excite me so much. We're really on the search for that work-life balance, and I'm not sure I believe in that at all, but we need more and we want more. We've had such a grip on this farm, this farm has changed so much since we first started. I feel like we’ve figured out where we are, where we're going, and we know we cannot go there by ourselves. We have to trust our employees, and we have to hand things over. We cannot have our hand in every single thing anymore.
Steve: For about five and a half years it was largely just Mandy and I, and that was unsustainable.
Mandy: It gives me chills thinking about the early days.
Steve: One-hundred-and-five-hour weeks in fifth gear. I mean you just run in, and the climate was brutal when you're working like that.
Steve: We brought people on last year full-time, and it meant that we had to produce more and get more sales outlets to sustain everybody in a fair manner. But it's been totally viable. Now, we have a whole social dynamic to our farm that we never did before. We work with immigrants and refugees, largely not completely, but these are people that their only other line of work oftentimes would be working in a slaughterhouse or chicken plant or something like that, and they wouldn't get paid what they get here. It made us expand our understanding of what we can positively impact, and it's a little bit more stress sometimes with the responsibility end of it. It's not just us at stake anymore, but all in all, it's been net positive because it just feels really good to see how we're affecting these people's lives and their community.
Mandy: We love being a part of all these different cultures, too. It helps the blow of us not getting out and traveling a lot. We can just go right down the road to Naw Dee Po’s and have an insanely ethnic local dinner, and that helps me. I don't know. (Naw Dee Po is a field hand and harvester at 3 Porch Farm. She’s originally from Burma, but lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for years.)
David: That's very cool.
Mandy: Having the community of people here on the farm definitely has brought so much joy to us in general.
David: I love that idea of the cultural input, and you're kind of killing two birds with one stone in a sense by expressing a belief about how we should treat our workers, and employing people that are from ... people who are marginalized in our sort of mainstream culture. That's a really admirable quality. I know that it's got to be pretty hard to let go of some of those things. What have you kept and what have you let go of as you move through this process?
Mandy: I'm still definitely the field manager. I'm making the list, you know, everything’s very list-driven. Everyone knows their duties, and details of those duties, but I don't have to have my hands ... I don't have to cut every flower. I don't even have to go out one day and cut all the flowers. I don't have to do every bouquet. I don't have to do those things and so I'm able to actually go and answer an e-mail, 1,200 e-mails.
David: Right, I hear you.
Mandy: You know what I mean, to get the next thing rolling, to have five minutes to research another variety that we want to experiment with, because without those bits of time to do that when it's not midnight, you know, actually maybe a decent hour, it just helps expand the farm, it helps the farm grow.
Steve: We're in an exciting phase for us where we're doing one of those qualitative growths. We're trying to expand one of our outlets, which is ...we are largely a farmer's market-oriented farm. We do three farmer's markets now, all on Saturday. Sometimes we do weddings on Saturday, too, which makes for a great chaos, but early week, we are trying to really expand what we can offer to local florists and designers.
Mandy: We're here and in Atlanta. I'll draw all the landscape. The guy who owned the property before us worked at botanical gardens for years and years, and we have two acres just filled with some of the most unique material, plant material, and we want to be able to offer that to other people in Atlanta and Athens, so they can make their work standout, make their work more unique. Erin, we actually just delegated, she's in here working on it right now. She's officially going to be in-charge of running wholesale for us, which is huge.
Steve: We're expanding beyond e-mails with Google documents on them, and now setting up a Shopify site and giving one of our employees ownership of the whole process, so that instead of me just trying to squeeze it in, in a couple of minutes here in between running around doing everything else that I'm doing, she now has dedicated time to create something that's going to be a little bit more intentional and holistic, and hopefully boost our sales. Like Mandy said, tap into some of these amazing plants that are here that we never had time to even list before.
Mandy: That normal wholesalers don't offer to people.
Steve: Right. It's a total niche, it's a competitive advantage too in some regards, but it's also just expanding the market and expanding what we offer from the farm without having to move to another field and grow more crops. These things are all growing right now, we just haven't had the time to really market them. That's a way to take better advantage more efficiently of what we already have, and to give one of our employees a raise to take over that too. She's excited, we're excited.
David: That's very cool. We'll try to close it out. Any final thoughts or anything? I'd love to hear a little bit more about the balance that you guys are trying to achieve between work and life? Because starting a business is such a difficult mind-numbing affair, that you wake up in the middle of the night and you're like, "Oh, man," and you get over your phone and you put something and you're trying to fall back to sleep, but you kind of come out of that. I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you're coming out of that, and what you hope to accomplish.
Steve: This is the first year where we might make minimum wage, we're on track for that which is very exciting.
Mandy: Yes, I know.
Steve: There is never an opportunity to not work a 105 hours. It didn't matter how hot it was, how sick you were, how depleted you felt and just 30 years older than you should be, and you just felt destroyed, but you knew if you didn't, you were going to have to give up the last four years of work. You were going to have to possibly give up your home or try and figure out a whole new plan. It just wasn't an option. It was just drive, drive, drive, we'll sort out the rest of it later. Well, now we're about seven years in, and we've realized not having weekends for over six years, and not having evenings, and not being able to even make food for ourselves is just not acceptable anymore. All of a sudden we've got more revenue coming in, we've got more help and we still work long hours, but we do have the occasional evening. And we are starting to take Saturdays off, not all Saturdays, but on occasion.
Mandy: We're trying to have two Saturdays a month where we're not doing farmer's markets.
Steve: We had to hire six or seven extra people in order to have a rotation where we can start to do that because we do have three markets. That took a lot of training, but overall we have started to have a couple Saturdays off here and there, and oftentimes that means we're working on the farm a little bit, but still it's-
Mandy: Just different.
Steve: It's our own pace and it might be four or five hours, and then maybe we'll go into town for brunch to meet some people, maybe we'll just go lay back in bed for a little bit if we're exhausted, but there has been more space this year. We're working at creating even more space in the future. We are very excited about that potential, we're starting to see it as a reality that's been dangling and starting to get closer, and every now and again we're touching it. It feels hopeful.
Mandy: It's a blessing and a curse that we get a climate that we can grow year-round in, but since that's the case we ... I want to be really intentional about which seasons we choose, not which ones have to choose us. I enjoy the experimentation of pulling different flowers out at various times, and maybe having local Valentine's Day flowers. I love that idea instead of beating sun in July.
David: It's super hard operating ... We operated for so long out of a sense of scarcity like, "If you don't do it, like if we don't take advantage of this," I have lot of admiration for you guys, especially in taking off like some of your peak season, because it's got to ... when you step out it's got to feel pretty strange.
Mandy: It's still full-on for sure, and we're going to have lots of flowers of course, but we want to choose our peak seasons instead of feeling like we have to go the route everyone else goes in.
Steve: Very cool.
David: That's super cool, I like the fact that, it's neat that you're using the land that, like what it already has on it rather than ripping out some hedge since you don't know what it is so that you can grow ...
Mandy: All of these, this is what created Moonflower, the design side of our farm. It was just that we have all of these really unique material that no one else can get their hands on. People who know flowers and have been around them, if they see one of our arrangements they're pulling into it like, "What is this? What is this material?" It's because it's what's happening right now, and all the arrangements and everything we have, it's all very what's in bloom this week not three weeks ago or four weeks from now, or like six months from now. It's all just a picture of in time of the landscape as it is at this very moment. We want to offer that and really push that local flower movement into people's view more and more. Let them know what's possible.
David: So… when we talked about Athens at the beginning, about you guys kind of chose Athens from the panoply of places that you could have gone, but I'd love to hear a little bit more about how Athens has helped 3 Porch gain the momentum that its gained.
Mandy: Athens shows up at the market rain or shine, customers are there. We've had customers, I still have customers at the Athens Market that I had 15, 20 years, ago that they're still coming to the market. They're just like hardcore market folks. When it's pouring down rain and you're sitting there with all of your-
Steve: Perishable goods.
Mandy: Perishable goods, and no one shows up it's like the worst feeling ever, and that's just never the case with Athens. We can say that now knowing we've gone to some other markets, Athens, even when it was in the tennis courts so it wasn't covered, always showing up. I think another thing too, we were so blown away when we first moved here and we never got out, but suddenly we were at the Five & Ten or The National for some brunch or something, and they would come out and comp. us our food. They made us feel like superstars, I'm like, "What farmer has ever felt like this?" It's super bizarre. I'm so grateful.
Steve: Early on I was just telling my brother the story the other day, he was asking how the community has responded to us. About our second or third year in we drove by ... there was a rally for something. What was it about?
Mandy: Monsanto about GMOs.
Steve: That had nothing to do with us directly, but we drove by this rally and all of a sudden everyone started screaming out. Someone was holding up a sign that said, "We love 3 Porch Farm," and it seemed like we had touched a nerve with our approach. Somehow I think we represent something meaningful to a certain cross-section of the population, and there seems to be a lot of that cross-section that exists in Athens. They're very enthusiastically supportive in so many ways. It’s just, I liken it to moving into a warm hug. People here just embraced us, it just felt so good. A lot of times small businesses could ... it could be ripe with competition and we used to do a lot of food with restaurants. The restaurant industry is notorious for having the friendliest of head chefs, but every single one that we worked with was so kind, just out of their way to support us. We just felt-
Mandy: Our customers completely fuel us. They fill us up and it's like the week, we start off on Monday and we're fresh and we're just drained by the time we get to Saturday. Unfortunately we're just drained. They come up, they have a big smile, they're super excited to see us and our product, and we just freak out with excitement. They just completely keep us going, recharge us a 100%.
David: That's very, very cool.
Steve: I gave up a healthy social life to do this, and for the first few years, there was no one out here but me and her all day, every day. There was no weekends anymore, my contact with the outside world was the farmer's market, and to have it be filled with that much positivity and enthusiasm, and even though we weren't making a cent it was enough to say, "Okay, this is worth it. I want to work this hard again next week and next week."
David: Eventually you make it happen. That's very cool. You guys are right about the customers and having a strong base, and having them there for you, that's great. That's very cool.
Steve: I love Athens. I heart Athens.
David: Well, thank you guys so much.
Steve: Thank you.
Mandy: Well, thank you.