I grew up on a struggling family farm. My father died when I was 11, leaving my mother with 6 mouths to feed and a farm she could barely afford, so I know firsthand the hardships our family farms face.
I come from a long line of farmers. Since my family first immigrated to the states in the 1700’s, my family have been farmers on both sides of my family tree. I guess you could say it is in my blood. Even now; my brothers, my sister, my mother, my cousins, my uncles and my grandparents are all farmers.
How do you choose the farms?
It’s an organic process, pun intended. Usually when I start a market, I rely on logistics already in place. I use a wholesaler or a broker and work my way backwards from there. I make connections with farmers slowly and form relationships, so that I can fit them into our logistics and make sure we all work well together. All of the produce that I sell is certified organic, so if the farm isn’t certified, then I take the time to help them with that process. They also have to consent to allowing me to spot test their produce for residue. After all, a label is only as good as the person who stands behind it. I am the one who stands behind my produce, so I take the extra steps to make sure that what I am sending out is something I can stand behind and something the farmer is proud of!
What is it like when you visit a farm?
Usually makes me homesick for my own family farm.
How do they live?
Like we all do- one day at a time.
What are some common problems that they face growing organic food and going up against Monsanto?
Monsanto isn’t the biggest problem. The consumer is.
What are your thoughts on last year’s searing summer drought?
Oh, my heart aches just reliving that in my mind. It was horrid. Animals died, crops failed, and farms failed. The year before, in my home town, there was a flood. So flood, then drought, and as I type this there have been record colds (Snow in MAY in Missouri) which will yet again affect the farming communities. It’s a crazy thing being a farmer. Your feast or famine quite literally depends on the divine. No matter how hard you work or how much you dance, you can’t make it rain.
How did the drought affect your farmers?
You might want to buckle up for this one. You asked, so I am going to tell you. There are so many stories I could tell you of the drought’s fury. However, how about what happened to me and my family.
Last year was the worst drought our country has seen since the dust bowl. No farm in the Midwest was immune, including my own family farm in Missouri.
My grandfather has kept a herd of cattle for 60 years. Last year in the drought, I asked him how he would feed his cattle in the winter. He told me that he wouldn’t. He would sell them or eat them. His reasoning was that he is old and his seasons are nearly done, whereas my brother Cole (the youngest of us 6 children) is just starting out. He would give him the hay that he had, so he could feed his cattle and hopefully weather this season.
If only the story could end there with grandpa giving Cole his hay. But alas, it was not to be.
In addition to raising cattle, my brother raises a heritage breed of hogs on pasture. He has never had an interest in commercial row cropping as is common in our area. His heart has always been with animals. He has been this way since a child. When he was five, one of our mama cows had a still born calf. Cole held that calf and wept for hours. Let me digress here and say that at the end of the day, eating meat is a very personal choice, but if we are to eat it, surely the animals deserve a life worthy of their sacrifice. My brother Cole is the kind of farmer that gives them that.
Ok, back to those heritage hogs. Generally they are raised on pasture and require little supplementation to their diet in the summer. He gives them left over produce from all of the local grocery stores, and they eat misc. stuff out in the pasture. However, with a drought there was no pasture. They required lots of supplementation to their diet. Secondly, his breed is a finicky one. They sense even the slightest bit of danger, and they will kill their young. Drought is a danger. He lost many litters at the hands of their own mamas. It was horrible.
Although he sells to a large national grocery chain, the price discrepancy between what it costs to raise hogs in a drought and what he was getting for the hogs was significant. He was on the verge of going under. Things were bad. Yes, it can go that bad that quickly when an act of God such as a drought is involved.
Meantime, my own businesses were struggling. I operated at a loss all of last summer, and the quality of produce was greatly diminished. Why? Because what the farmers could grow was not their normal rockstar quality, but they needed a higher price for their goods to make up for such a short supply (sound familiar to Cole’s story?). I did not pass these price increases along because I needed my customers. If the consumer won’t eat it- who will? My customers will do a lot for me, but they would not have been able to shoulder that much of a price increase, and for the sake of our farmers I could not afford to lose a single eater.
I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I have always felt that what I do matters. I help farmers. I help consumers. I do my little part in helping our food system. I make a difference, albeit small, wherever I can. However, who am I if I can’t help my own family when they need me the most?
I tried. I sank as much personal capital as possible into my brother’s farm to keep him going. Of course, he is a proud man so he wouldn’t allow me to give it to him. So, I bought his hogs at higher than market value and then gifted them to friends, family, and the poor. I was hoping to set up the logistics to get his meat in the hands of the consumer at higher prices than he was getting (selling through a broker, but lower than the consumer was paying at retail), but I was racing the clock. In the end, I failed. I ran out of time, and he ran out of options. In December, my brother had his first load of feed lot cattle delivered to our family farm. 3 acres of his 80 is now leased to a feed lot.
Knife through heart. My brother hung his head, and I cried. My soul had been delivered a severe blow. I wanted nothing but to crawl in a black hole. Everything I have done/ do seemed insignificant to my failure. I was embarrassed and heartbroken. But finally, I realized I had to get up. As we say in Missouri “It was time to get back on the horse.” I haven’t figured it all out yet, and I haven’t fixed it, but I will. Somehow. Some way. Out of the ashes rises a phoenix, and it ain’t over til it’s over.
How did you get the idea for SpacegirlOrganics.com?
By accident, divine intervention, spontaneous thought, luck, or whatever else you want to label it as. I started with a storefront in Missouri selling local fruits and vegetables. When my lease came up on my building, I told my customers I would deliver to them until I got a new building. I never did get another storefront.
What gave you the push to your business after you had the initial idea?
I don’t guess I had or needed a push. I am a take the bull by the horns kind of girl. If I think something up or want to do something, I just go do it. I don’t usually need a push.
How has your business impacted the farms you utilize?
We impact different farms in different ways, but one common theme is that we provide a reliable market place and the logistics to be able to move the product from farm to table.
Spacegirl Organics also has other side projects that help the homeless. One is asking for your customers to give what is needed to local shelters when returning the cooler bags that are used to deliver the produce. How has that impacted the local shelter? What kind of feedback have you gotten from them and your customers for this idea and these acts of kindness?
Seriously, my customers are just flipping awesome, aren’t they!! The feedback I get from my customers is that they are thrilled to be able to help, and they are appreciative that we make it easy for them to do so. As for the impact on the shelter- we have become a go to source when certain items are in low supply. Short on socks? No worries. I’ll put it in the newsletter.
I heard you also make good use of the wax coated boxes that are used to deliver the produce to you before they are put in freezer bags and delivered locally. The wax coated boxes are sent to Haiti to help waterproof makeshift housing. How did that idea come about?
Yes, that is something that I have done sporadically over the years. A friend of mine was collecting items to send to Haiti. Only issue was that the items she was collecting were the same things that were needed at the local shelter. Hmmm. What to do. So, I thought about it for a while, and I figured hey I don’t want to take from the local shelter, so what else do I have to donate? Oh yeah, I can upgrade their housing. So that’s it. That’s how it came about.
Now you have moved your business model into a few markets. How did you make that move and how did you pick the locations to replicate the process?
Trial, error, hard work, and few strokes of good karma along the way.
It all started in Missouri, but I was on the wrong side of a corporate takeover (another story for another time), so from there I went to Florida because that was one of the few states in which I did not have a binding non-compete. From there, a friend of mine in Chicago mentioned that he thought I should start one in Milwaukee because they needed it. He offered to let me share his warehouse space. So, I said “Why not, I’ll try it.” Then, I started one in St. Louis and shortly thereafter another company started in St. Louis. I figured there was no need for two of us, and the owner of the other company was someone I respected, so we made a deal to let him take the reins. Now, because I fell in love with a man who was relocated to Atlanta for his job, I am starting one in Atlanta. Nothing says I love you like making sure your other half is well fed.
My wife, Dana, who delivers for Spacegirl, always says she gets feedback from customers about what they make with their recipes. How often do you get feedback from customers sharing recipes?
People are often emailing me telling me what they are cooking up. Or, they post pictures to facebook. We just started a “Will you blog for food?” quest, for which we asked people to blog about what they are cooking or growing or doing. That has gone over quite well. It’s cool to see what people are doing with their goods. I usually say, “If you are cooking something I should be jealous of and should attempt to replicate, please let me know!!”
While I was undergoing radiation treatment for a brain tumor, you donated boxes of produce to our family so I could make anti-cancer smoothies and help feed my family healthy produce. We will always be thankful for that. Dana has returned the favor in many ways and has given boxes of produce to friends and family when she has the chance. There seems to be a bond that is shared when sharing food with others. What do you think that bond can be described as?
Food is a language we all speak. It is a basic necessity of life, just like breathing. However, you don’t call someone up and say, “Hey, let’s get together and breathe.” Well, some people might (which is awesome), but it is not the norm. You do however, in every culture, find the sharing of food. No matter the religion or race or culture, we all eat. The sharing of food can be nourishing for the body and nourishing for the soul. My gran taught me a lot about the power of sharing a meal. She runs a funeral home. Someone dies, and our community almost always coordinates a meal. Someone sick? She’ll take them noodles. Heartbroken? Take them a pie. New baby? Yep, she has a dish for that too.
You seem to have your hands in so many projects for social change and sustainability. How do you keep all the balls in the air?
- I understand that if I want to earn an honest day’s pay- whether that be financial, emotional, or spiritual, I have to put in an honest day’s work.
- The people that work for me, with me, and beside me are generally smarter than me and have some sort of skill set mastered better than me, so they can help me where I fall short.
- I use evernote.
Thanks, Lucinda. I love what you are doing. Keep up the great work.