How to Start a Vegetable Farm with a Big Grower Mentality
STEPHEN BASORE FINALLY took the plunge. After years of heading up the food safety program for his family’s large Florida growing outfit, he went home to Michigan to start his own farm.
His approach to bringing back the old family name (Basore Farms) and tradition may have been full of nostalgia, but it was anything but old fashioned.
All those years of perfecting his knowledge of growing, learning how to increase yields by keeping soil conditions and pests under a microscope, perfecting drip irrigation, and understanding how to create contracts and partnerships came along with Basore. So you wouldn’t say he was starting from scratch — but in a sense, he was.
As a result, 2017 was what any grower would consider a dream year. It was a year to learn and to understand what he could grow. But it wasn’t a year to sell. His focus was understanding the crop and the market, not wrestling with food safety and labor.
“[Not having food safety and labor] shuts the door on the market place. You have to go through inspections and approval processes. My task was not to market, only to grow,” Basore says.
After an entire year of R&D, Basore is willing to share what he learned with others.
“We wanted to be comfortable before we went commercial. That’s the next phase. This year we tested, and it was a success,” Basore says.
Here are just a few of the highlights from his fun, exciting, and analytical dream year.
Understand Your Crop Options
Basore’s main goal this year was to understand how different crops grow in the various growing conditions in Michigan.
Because of his large-grower background, he understands higher yields and quality crops depend on precision techniques. And for those methods to be financially feasible, crop timing is king.
So in 2017, Basore grew a bit of everything that seemed remotely feasible — iceberg, romaine, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkins, berries, squash, gourds, and field corn. That list will be smaller in 2018.
“We’re going to have to be selective,” Basore says.
A quick note regarding the field corn. He used it as a transition crop on 60 acres to prepare fields for vegetables. The experiment went better than expected, Basore says.
“Had we been in production, we would have hit it out of the park the first year. Whether it’s going to be there next year, well that’s agriculture. You just focus on doing the best you can and hope you’re able to take advantage,” he says.
Explore Growing Conditions
Basore and his skeleton crew’s growing methods were a little different, he says.
Many farms have their routines, and do not experiment extensively. Basore saw so much value from his research this year, he wants to devote a significant part of his future operation to it.
This year, the team focused on crop timing, fertility, and irrigation.
One of the biggest things to become familiar with is the planting curve,” Basore says.
The questions he needed answered were fairly basic:
• When you can begin planting?
• What are the optimum planting windows for the particular crop you are growing?
• When do the maturity dates fall throughout the season?
• Which varieties slot best into which windows?
Some of these answers may seem obvious, but others need testing.
“Much of the production window information is readily available to the public,” Basore says. “But maturity dates and varietal information isn’t. Some of the commodities with shorter growth cycles need to be observed throughout the season to see what performs better under different conditions (temperature, daylight hours, soil type, etc.) Varieties are not always one size fits all.”
Although Basore’s family started out as onion farmers in Michigan, eventually the family moved to Florida and found significant success there. Basore has spent most of his adult life growing in Florida, so he’s having to learn how to grow in Michigan.
“I’m getting accustomed to the long daylight hours. Many days I would find myself working until 10 p.m., because it stays light for so long,” he says.
The plants behave differently as well.
“During the summer months, plants can grow quickly, and as a result they must be closely monitored. The plants that I grew on sand required the most attention since the beds were fast to lose moisture, especially on hot days,” he says.
Reach Out to the Experts
Basore didn’t hesitate to find local expertise. He may have a lot of experience, but doesn’t fool himself into thinking he can figure it all out on his own.
So he turned to Michigan State University (MSU), especially for fertility and irrigation information.
Basore is using drip irrigation over the entire farm. When an earlier generation farmed Michigan soil, pipe irrigation was the norm.
“There’s been a lot of changes, newer growing techniques to the industry,” he says.
A big part of 2017 research was exploring soil types on the farm’s four locations. The two main types of soil are muck and sand.
“Muck is a little more forgiving because it holds moisture, but you have to pay close attention so disease doesn’t develop. Fertilizer will not stay in sand, and on a 90°F day, you will be adding moisture, but you are doing it through drip, so you’re not wasting it. You have to be sure you’re on top of things and feeding that plant what it needs,” Basore says.
Don’t Be Afraid of Precision Growing
Basore is an enthusiastic supporter of using precision methods.
“It’s going to require a little higher cost, but it’s going to translate to higher yields, better quality, and a more useful product,” he says.
The Basore Farms acreage in Michigan is a great deal more varied than his family’s operation in Florida, which makes monitoring conditions closely an imperative.
“The timing changes because it can be kind of hilly. That’s where some of the precision really becomes important. You can GPS some areas, and we can really map a field for nutrients from one end of the field to another,” Basore says.
The standard practice years ago was to average out what was needed on a field and apply a one-size-fits-all fertility plan. Being able to apply only what is needed and where will be a key component to Basore Farms’ future success.
“Technology is always changing. And it applies to everything for growing. If you’re not changing, you’re dying,” he says.
Basore grew 40 acres of pumpkins in 2017, and it was the only crop he sold, since it was not a food crop. And he was able to sell the entire crop, although it wasn’t something he originally planned to do and did not contract for.
“I would say one reason we’re doing really well with the pumpkin is we’re watching the crop closely with fertility and irrigation,” Basore says.
So the extra costs involved with monitoring soil and crop conditions throughout the season paid off, he says.
“It doesn’t matter what commodity you’re growing, customers have a very high expectation of quality,” Basore says. “We have to put in more steps, but it pays off. Don’t cut corners.”
Labor Schedules Are Important
Basore isn’t growing in sandy soil with flat surfaces like he did in Florida. So he’s working to find the right timing that will allow crews to transition from one field to another without major hiccups.
“Going forward, finding the right scale will be extremely important. I found it very challenging trying to keep on top of every growing aspect of every commodity that we grew,” Basore says. “It takes a village to make a crop. Having a team of people that are dedicated to the same common goals is essential. I am fortunate to be working with some extremely talented and hard-working young farmers on these projects. They have bought into my vision and wish to see the program grow and succeed as much as I do.”
Never Lose a Hunger for New Ideas
A full year of exploring how to best launch a Michigan farm has taught Basore the value of fresh thinking.
“When you are learning something from scratch, you pull in ideas from anywhere that you can. You do online research, talk to other growers, sit in on relevant workshops when available, and talk to your vendors. My team constantly provides me with many of the ideas on how to improve our operations,” he says.
He’s had several people visit the farm this year, which gave him a bonus of new advice.
“I’ve reached out to many different people from MSU’s ag departments, and they have all been extremely willing to help answer my questions. Several also have visited the farms. It’s amazing the difference that just one helpful little pointer can make on the success of a crop. MSU even has a garden hotline. I reach out to them every now and then and they always provide me with excellent advice,” he says.
Winning Customer Confidence
If Basore didn’t see market opportunities in Michigan, Basore Farms wouldn’t exist.
Talking with produce buyers, he’s found there’s a desire for locally grown food from the Northeast and Midwest.
For Basore, that knowledge is not enough. He fully intended to end 2017 with a line of customers committed to buying everything he grows in 2018.
“The growing R&D was extremely challenging and satisfying, but so was the marketing R&D,” he says. “I spent a great deal of time researching and touring different U-picks, farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants, CSAs (community supported agriculture), and grocery chains. I enjoy visiting produce sections of large and small retailers to inspect the quality of their produce and see where they are sourcing it from.”
He also invited potential buyers to his farm.
“We wanted future customers to gain confidence in us. So I gave quite a few different tours and approached a lot of people about what I’m doing online. We posted to our website and Facebook all summer long and let prospective customers know what we’re doing,” Basore says.
Basore also tapped into existing relationships and attended shows to develop new ones. He wants to strengthen ties with neighboring farms and other Michigan growers. Marketing opportunities can crop up unexpectedly, and if Basore Farms has healthy ties with other farms, they will all be better positioned to take advantage of new business.
All the data he’s gathering can be quite overwhelming.
“There are so many possibilities for constructing business plans. It’s difficult, but absolutely essential to narrow them down to make the right fit. It’s impossible to be all things to all people, at least starting out. Once the core commodities and customers are identified, others can always be added down the road,” he says.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take Chances
“One of the biggest lessons is almost anything is possible,” Basore says.
He went into 2017 planning to just learn, and while he hoped for success in growing and marketing research, he kept his expectations realistic.
“We definitely had opportunities to improve. I was a little bit dumbfounded that things went as good as they did,” he says.
Basore intends to expand the farm to more than 500 acres as quickly as he can, then maintain that size.
“This will be a very good size to manage and help spread overhead. Hopefully, after several years of working the bugs out, we will go through another growth spurt. The success of the operation will determine the rate at which we grow. There is an incredible amount of opportunity in Michigan and I hope to seize a good deal of it. I’m willing to take on as much as I can handle.”
Reviving the Family Logo
Before moving operations to Florida and becoming wildly successful, the Basore Family owned Basore Farms, growing onions in Michigan’s muck soil.
When Stephen Basore decided to return to Michigan and farm on family land again (along with rental acreage), it was important to him to bring back the old logo.
He may not have any intention of growing onions again, but the distinguished “Winner Brand” logo will proudly accompany packaging, websites, and uniforms for years to come.
“That’s where my family growing started. It’s a like a coming home thing. I get a lot of satisfaction. I’m not just doing it because I’m nostalgic, but there is a certain element of that,” Basore says.