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Articles/Press Releases

You’re Never Too Old to Follow Your Farming Dreams

By Jane Eckert

As published in the Fruit Grower News & Vegetable Grower News, October 2007

There is an important moral to this story. A couple of years ago, I received a phone call from a gentleman in California. He had recently sold his PR and Marketing business in Oregon and was assuming responsibility for his family orange grove in California. The man was asking me a lot of questions about farm direct marketing and the types of enterprises that were successful around the country.

As we talked, I guessed his age to be in his mid-70’s. At one point, I was frankly giving my opinion as to why he may not want to consider this type of business at his age. After I hung up, I did feel badly about the way I had worded my comments, but what was done was done. Or so I thought.

The next January, I was a bus leader for a conference in Texas (North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, NAFDMA). As I was going down the aisle introducing myself, and I met Bob McKellar, face to face. He was quick to tell me that we had met by phone, and that he was the man who I had told was “too old” to start a farm direct marketing effort.

Fortunately, we have been able to laugh about that phone call, and we have been friends ever since. I’ve now visited Seven Sycamores Ranch and his CSA business, Family Farm Fresh, and walked his property to help him clarify his vision for growth.

There are actually several lessons to be learned from this story about Bob Mc Kellar.

The most obvious is that no matter what our age, we should pursue our passion and believe in our abilities. Bob is a smart enough business man, and he knew that just growing oranges for the wholesale market on his 200-acre ranch was not going to be too successful. He needed to increase his income stream. He decided he needed to learn everything he could about farm direct marketing and value added agriculture.

Lesson number two-Bob started educating himself by attending the NAFDMA Conferences and Bus Tours, attending his first tour in 2004. In addition, he has participated in the California small farm meetings to learn more about the direct marketing concepts and what’s working. Bob says that he got his ideas, and the impetus to develop his business, from attending these various farm meetings and talking with other successful growers.

One of those new ideas is a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) program which Bob launched in 2005 and named Family Farm Fresh. This CSA offers more than Bob’s delicious oranges. Family Farm Fresh offers a full array of fruits, vegetables, herbs and farm products grown collectively by him and about 28 neighboring farmers. The CSA program currently has 225 members with his ultimate goal of 500 members by December 2008.

Bob recently had a new website developed, allowing his customers to make their payments on line, to modify or suspend their deliveries while they are away, and to review upcoming deliveries and even recipes for those specific products, on the website. New customers can actually subscribe to the Family Farm Fresh services through the website, and in the first week, they added two new members. (www.familyfarmfresh.com)

Once the CSA was started, Bob’s next vision was to convert his family home to a guest cottage. He had frequently heard about the growing interest in farm stays, and determined that there were not yet any in his area. The cottage will be marketed to tourists who’d like to stay in the countryside and waken to the beauty of the surrounding orange groves. This project, part of Seven Sycamores Ranch, will be completed and ready for guest occupancy by November 2007. In addition, Bob plans to offer tours of the fruit packing plant and farms in the area for his overnight guests.

The next project on the horizon for Bob involves a nearby glass structure building next to the beautiful front yard, which he is modifying into a private rental facility for weddings, company picnics and family reunions. For now, at least, Bob is quick to admit he can’t do it all, so he does plan to use outside caterers for these events. By the way, this new area is being readied for the first wedding as I’m writing this article-the guest of honor will be Bob, who will marry his partner Anne on October 14, 2007.

What a story. It began when Bob returned to the ranch in 2003 and developed a business plan to increase his ranch revenues. He has been quick to admit that you can’t do it all at once, but you can do it if you have a plan, attend the conferences and do your homework, and take it one step at a time.

Bob tells me that we’ll see him at NAFDMA in Wisconsin in January 2008. I encourage everyone to follow Bob’s example, and leave the farm this winter to attend state or regional conferences. This is your chance to hear about what others are doing and to get ideas that you can bring home and implement on your farm. We are in an industry where people love to share, so why not take advantage of learning from others?

It’s been fun to “eat my words” as I watch Bob McKellar grow the income opportunities for Seven Sycamore Ranch. I’ve learned that growing an agritourism business can begin at any age when we have the passion for the project and enjoy what we are doing.

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.