Root Down Farm was started in 2014 by West Hartford native and former journalist Ben Harris. Ben spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about being an entrepreneur, the challenges with launching a startup farming business, and his commitment to the community.
NAN PRICE: Have you always known you were going to do something entrepreneurial?
BEN HARRIS: I don’t totally think of myself as an entrepreneur. When you use that term, I think of people who are trying to create the next big thing and change the world. Farming is a very old thing. It’s not the next big thing—it’s kind of like the last old thing!
Most people working in agriculture in America are hourly wage earners. That’s really why I wound up starting the farm. This is what I want to do for my life and my livelihood, and that’s really difficult to do if you’re not running your own operation. I should say it’s also really difficult to do if you are running your own operation.
Farming is not a high-margin business. It’s pretty difficult to make a living as a farmer—it’s certainly not impossible and plenty of people are doing it in Connecticut and elsewhere.
NP: Let’s talk about that. How are you attracting clientele and generating income for your business?
BH: Mostly it’s been word-of-mouth. We’ve gotten really good feedback from our community-supported agriculture (CSA) members. People post about us on Facebook.
At the moment, the demand for local, organic, healthy food is exploding. People want this product. Given our size and our modest growth objectives in the short term, it’s really selling itself.
We have three major revenue streams. The largest one by far is the CSA shares, which are probably about three quarters of our revenue. And that’s by design. I like that both as a business model and as an ethical model.
We also participate in the Coventry Farmers Market and we do some wholesale to very select restaurants—ones we really like and admire what they’re doing both culinarily and ethically. Firebox Restaurant in Hartford is our major one. We also do a little bit with some other places in West Hartford Center.
On the demand side of things, things are amazing. We have more demand than we can meet.
We are a small operation at present, which is also partially by design. We’ve kept the farm on the small side. We are not going for explosive growth at this time. So we don’t actually have a lot of bandwidth to take on lots of CSA members.
We just finished our third season, we start every one with a waiting list of people who want to get into the CSA.
NP: How many numbers do you typically have each year?
BH: We jumped to a little over 50 our second year—which was a very challenging year. We’ll probably grow a little bit this year. I think if we were looking for more explosive growth, over 20% or 30% annually, we probably need to do a little bit more advertising and marketing.
NP: How many employees do you have?
BH: Full-time, I have one employee. It’s a challenging thing but we hire somebody new every year and there are usually one or two people, often students, to help us when things get really intense in July and August.
So we are small. Root Down Farm is what is known in the farming world as “market gardeners.” We grow on less than two acres of land. We grow very intensively. Lots of vegetables in small places. High fertility. Lots of use of hand tools. We don’t own equipment that’s a big drag on our budget. I don’t have to buy loads of fuel or burn through a lot of resources.
We try really hard to grow in a way that’s smarter and more sustainable that keeps our cost low, and also produces an abundance of really high-quality vegetables.
NP: What would you say are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup?
BH: By far, the biggest challenge we face as farmers is land access. Connecticut is a small state. It is a highly urbanized state. A lot of our farmland has been lost to developments and other things. And getting a stable land situation has been extraordinarily difficult—because there isn’t a lot and because it’s really expensive.
We started the farm in 2014 in Coventry. We basically leased a field. That didn’t work out, so we had to relocate the farm at the end of that first year, which is really difficult to do. Moving a farm is not a simple process.
A lot of the improvements you make to a farm are, by definition, left on the farm. It’s not like running a factory, you can’t pick it all up and put it down somewhere else. You lose things when you move.
Root Down Farm has a much more stable situation now in Simsbury. But land access is just a perpetual issue. I live in West Hartford. I farm in Simsbury. So I commute to my farm about 20 to 25 minutes each way every day, which means I lose time driving back-and-forth, which is a really inefficient way too farm.
And again, given our size and given the approach we take growing vegetables, we live or die by efficiency. One thousand little cuts is going to destroy us or we’re going to soar. So efficiency is crucial. We need to be able to do a lot of things quickly, intelligently, without a lot of resource use, and without a lot of excess labor.
NP: You mentioned you kind of struggle with the term “entrepreneur.” Is there anything you can share about what it’s like to take on that level of entrepreneurship?
BH: Farming is obviously hard work. I’m doing simple labor 12 to 14 hours a day. I don’t know whether your typical Hartford-area entrepreneur works like that. It’s physically very draining, and I know it’s also draining to run a regular business where you’re sitting in an office, but this is draining in a different kind of way. So that’s really challenging.
I think what is probably is a little more unique about the nature of the business is that, with the CSA, I’m taking money from people in January, February, and March and I’m promising them a product months later.
Over a period of 20 weeks I have to make good on that promise I’ve made. I’ve already taken the money and spent that money before I’ve even done anything—which is a great business model in its own way, but there’s a lot of pressure and anxiety that comes along with that.
I deal with that a lot. I feel like in some ways I carry a heavy moral burden in wanting to make sure this money I spent was spent intelligently and that I can give people a product they’re happy with.
Farmers also deal with nature. There are a lot of things that are fundamentally beyond your control with the product. In a factory, you often can control your variables in a way that farmers inherently cannot. If we get really favorable weather we’re going to have a much easier time of it than if we don’t. There’s all kinds of pressure. I don’t have a choice. I have to make it work. I have to get that crop to maturity and to harvest or else I’ve failed these people whose money I spent three months prior.
So there’s a lot of pressure one feels when you do this kind of farming operation. Maybe other farming operations or businesses don’t have the same pressures? So that’s something I struggle with a lot.
BH: On the most basic level, food—after air and water—is probably the most fundamental human need. I feel strongly that is vital that we grow food in a way that’s more ecologically responsible. It’s vital for the planet and vital for human health. So I feel like we’re doing something really significant for the Greater Hartford community, even though we are small and our impact is still fairly limited.
It’s also really important to us that our employees are treated well and receiving decent wages and not exposed to toxic chemicals. And the people who eat our food can be confident that the food they are eating is healthy and nutritious and free of chemicals.
I also believe really strongly that one of the great virtues of the CSA is that people are much more connected to where their food comes from. They know the person who grew it. That’s really important too.
The last thing is, I hope that part of our impact has been to raise awareness among our members about eating locally and seasonally, recognizing that not every type of crop is available every time of the year. We can’t have everything we want whenever we want if we want to behave responsibly toward the planet. I think all of that is really essential to our health and well-being in the community.
NP: It really does have an impact.
BH: I’m not doing this principally because I want to be a wealthy entrepreneur. If I did, I would probably start some cell phone app company! I started this business with a deep conviction that food production and food consumption in this country has gotten really off the rails. And Root Down Farm wants to be part of the solution to that in our own small way.
This business is ethically motivated and articulating a certain set of values around the earth and the environment—but also around the nuts and bolts of how we conduct our business, which is really important to us. That’s the reason we do this.
We obviously need to be profitable. We are a business, I don’t want to suggest otherwise. We need to make money or else we’re not going to be able to do it.
NP: Of course being profitable is important, but you do give back to the community, too.
BH: Right. We donate huge amounts of produce every year to food pantries and food shares.
It’s hard for everyone to afford organic produce. It does cost more to produce. We are really committed to trying to make this product as widely available to people at all income levels as we possibly can, because we think it’s just that crucial that we begin—as a society—to dramatically move away from the kind of large-scale, industrial food production that has been the norm in the country for decades.
To that end, we offer our CSA is on a sliding scale to try to make them as widely affordable as possible, which is money out of my pocket. Some people who take advantage of the sliding scale pay less than what we call our “target price.”
And I should also say there are some really wonderful people who voluntarily pay more to help us make those shares available. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but it actually does come close. So we don’t take a huge loss every year on the sliding scale, but we take a small one. It’s worth it.