Tag Archives: small business

Box Truck

16 Mar

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So it was finally time.

We bought a box truck.

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We’ve been doing farmers markets for 3 years now with our trusty farmers market trailer which is dutifully pulled around by the farm pickup truck.  The truck/trailer combo served us well, but now we’re trying to reorganize our market days and we decided that a box truck would be a better solution.

After a whole winter of shopping around, we landed on this 2003 Isuzu NPR box truck.  Now we just have to change it from a plain-ol’ box truck into a farmers market truck.

First up on the list of must-haves is electricity.  Freezers don’t stay freezy on their own, so we needed a way of getting all that 120 volt goodness inside the box.

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We learned from experience with the farmers market trailer that a plug-in style outlet on the box isn’t really the best solution, when you inevitably forget to unplug before you drive away there’s a good chance of breaking something.

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Inside, again learning from our experience with the trailer, we put an outlet strip on the wall up a good 3-4 feet off the floor.  Freezers need to be unplugged and plugged back in a lot and having the outlet strip easily accessible helps a lot.

The one outlet we put in the trailer ended up behind a big freezer down at floor level.  Over the years much cursing resulted from the contortionist ritual that was unplugging the freezers.

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All the farmers market fixtures get the same treatment:  tie-out rings, a bumper board so nothing important rubs against the wall, and a couple of boards on the floor so that it can’t go rolling around everywhere every time you hit the brakes.  We put a lot of work into having nice-looking fixtures and freezers, so we like to make sure they don’t get too banged up in transit.  The display freezer gets the same treatment, but with one of the coveted spots nearest the electricity.

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And of course, after all that talk about how we’ve outgrown the trailer,  the box truck gets a trailer hitch.
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For all it’s shortcomings, we’re still going to be using the trailer this year.  We’re hoping to make our farmers market outings a bit more efficient this year, attending two markets per day on Saturday and Sunday.  That’ll leave us more time to get things done on the farm during the week, while keeping us at 4 markets per week.

The plan is to drop our trailer off at one market, take the box truck to the second market, and pickup the trailer on the way back home.

Big Wheels

14 Feb

It’s that time of year again, mostly spent inside where it’s warm.  That and the new year is kicking off with all kinds of “business” stuff to get done.  There’s all the tax prep, market applications and market-season planning going on.  While going through our big to-do list, I noticed that our annual re-inspection by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is coming up in 6 weeks or so.  Time to get cracking on a few projects.

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One such project is putting some new casters on our egg refrigerator.

The egg fridge is a True GDM-7, a commercial refrigerator (as required by the MDA) that we take to farmers markets with us.  For the past year I’ve had it on these 3″ casters.  It lives in the farmers market trailer and we roll it out at each farmers market.

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I love having the refrigerator out in front of our booth at farmers markets as it has really helped our sales.  Even though we have pretty extensive sinage (if I do say so myself) you’d be amazed at the number of farmers market shoppers who don’t realize we have anything to sell.  With the egg fridge at least passersby realize that we have something to sell, even if they think we only have eggs to sell. Getting a product out where customers can see it is awesome.

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While I loved having the egg fridge on wheels, the 3″ casters were aggravatingly small.  They didn’t work that well on anything that wasn’t perfectly smooth and the little “brake” on the wheels didn’t work very well.  It went flying around the trailer a bit more than it should have (with no eggs in it  thankfully).

I decided that some bigger wheels were in order this year.  These 5″ wheels should roll a lot easier.  Instead of brakes on the wheel, I’m going to bungee the fridge to the wall of the trailer when it’s in transit.

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I made a lovely frame to bolt the casters to out of some 2×4, 1×4 and whatnot. This fridge came with four metal feet, the feet screwed in with a 3/8″ bolts.  In our current arrangement the wooden frame is bolted to the fridge using 3/8″ bolts where the feet were.  The big casters are then lag-bolted to the wooden frame.  The old casters were screwed directly to the bottom of the fridge with sheet-metal screws.  I was a bit nervous to go that route with the bigger wheels. I guess the manufacturers don’t get much demand for big-wheeled refrigerators.

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That’s too bad, cause this bad boy wheels around like a dream!  And it looks about a foot higher.
Now lets see what other stuff I have around to slap some wheels on…

Square for Meat: still not there yet

31 Dec

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Before we did our first market we went ahead and ordered up a pair of Square credit-card readers to use with our smartphones.  I initially had very high hopes for Square as I was looking over it’s capabilities.  In addition to the credit-card reader, Square has a web-based “register” that can do all sorts of useful stuff, like generate sales reports and inventories.  Unfortunately for us, the one feature set that Square does not support is pricing by weight.  All the cool features of the Square register depend on running all transactions through Square, which is made difficult when you can’t input variable prices. This meant that Square was relegated to a credit/debit-card processing role for us for the past two years, even though it is capable of much more.

As we look at growing our sales at our new market next year we’ve come to the realization that our checkout process is going to be holding us back.
All of our beef and pork comes labeled with only the weight printed on the package. We have to calculate the price for each individual cut and add up the total on a little adding-machine that we bought. After we’ve made change, bagged up the goods and sent our customer on their way, we record the sales on a sheet of paper.
We break down our sales by category: Beef, Pork, Chicken and Eggs.
It makes for really useful sales records, but it’s very slow and we’re prone to missing things.

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I took another look at Square’s capabilities this past month and found that there have been a few changes.  While Square sill does not support pricing items by weight, they have come up with a few workarounds.  They’ve also come out with a POS/register system that supports scales, UPC scanners and the like.

The UPC scanner sounds like it could be really useful if it would work out right. Our butcher uses a Hobart Quantum scale to weigh and print labels for all of our beef and pork. This scale is capable of printing type-2 UPC codes on all the labels. The type-2 codes contain two bits of information in them. What the item is, and what the item costs. Type-2 codes were designed for use with meat, where weight (and therefore price) varies with each cut.
So we know it’s possible to get labels with individualized UPC codes, it’s now up to Square to see if they can read such codes. Square’s website is tragically devoid of much useful information, after browsing a few youtube videos it looks like I may be out of luck. I glean that Square’s software is limited to using UPC codes for a PLU (price look up) function. No word anywhere about Type-2 UPC codes.

I called up Square, and after explaining my question a few times and waiting a few minutes on hold, I heard back that they do not support Type-2 UPC codes.

The good news is that sometime in the past two years Square began supporting variable-priced items. We can at least get the prices printed on labels, input those prices by hand as a variable-priced item.

Looks like that might have to do.

I think it’s a problem they’ll get around to fixing, but not until all this chip-and-pin card stuff gets settled.

Hooray! Oh No!

10 Dec

We’ve been looking for another farmers market to attend next year. We were hoping to land another market in the south suburbs (of the twin cities) like our markets in Eagan and Apple Valley.

We were not expecting to have the Downtown Saint Paul market fall in our lap.

For those of you not from the area, the downtown St. Paul market is THE biggest market in the state, quite possibly the biggest in all the surrounding states.  We’re talking 8,000-12,000 people per day.  Compare that to our biggest market so far (Eagan) which sees about 3,500 people on it’s busiest day of the year.

Right now I feel like a high-school kid who’s just been signed by the Yankees.  (or something like that, I don’t play sport-ball)

Market starts on April 19th, so that means we have 4 months to prepare.

Based on the rough sales numbers of the farmer we’re replacing, we’re preparing ourselves for 5-6 times the sales volume of our three markets last year.

No idea how were going to make it work, but we’re sure gonna try.

 

 

 

Chicken economics – ranger vs cornish

27 Oct

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So I wrote earlier about the results of our first experimental batch of red ranger chickens, but I’d like to get all geeked-out and dive right into the nitty-gritty numbers of it all.
Read ahead at your own risk (you might find it all dangerously boring.)

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 I wanted to do an in-depth comparison of Cornish-cross and Red ranger chickens for any other farming-type folks (0r customers) who might be interested.  I need to figure out which chickens I’d like to raise next year, and figure out what price the chickens need to bring.  It helps immensely to have a solid set of numbers to base my decision-making on.

 

Cornish-Cross

Live weight – 6lbs at 7 weeks

Dressed weight – 4lbs (66% dress-out)

Cost per chicken:

  • Chick – $1.05
  • Feed – $2.97 (13.5# x $0.22/lb.)
  • Processing – $3.13 ($2.80 + $0.33 transport cost)
  • Labor – $1.20 (7 weeks * 7 days * 5 minutes * $15/hr. [divide by 50 chicks/pen])
  • Equipment – $0.33 (pasture pens, brooder, feeders, etc.)
  • Marketing & Overhead – $2.00
  • Mortality Loss – $1.21 (9%  * $13.40)

Total Costs – $11.89

Income – $13.40 ($3.35 * 4lbs.)

Profit – $1.51

 

Red Ranger

Live weight – 6lbs at 11 weeks

Dressed weight – 4lbs (66% dress-out)

Cost per chicken:

  • Chick – $2.20
  • Feed – $2.97 (13.5# x $0.22/lb.)
  • Processing – $3.13 ($2.80 + $0.33 transport cost)
  • Labor – $1.93 (11 weeks * 7 days * 5 minutes * $15/hr. [divide by 50 chicks/pen])
  • Equipment – $0.33 (pasture pens, brooder, feeders, etc.)
  • Marketing & Overhead – $2.00
  • Mortality Loss – $0.80 (6% * 13.40)

Total Costs – $13.36

Income – $13.40 ($3.35 * 4lbs.)

Profit – $0.04

 

There you have it: red rangers cost more to raise than NASCAR chickens.  We would need to charge $3.95 per pound for our red ranger chickens to make roughly the same amount of profit that we’d make raising cornish-cross.  And that’s not even factoring in the opportunity cost of having the equipment and labor tied up for an extra 3 weeks.

Several times this past year I’ve had other farmers ask me why our prices are so low.  Mainly, our prices were a complete shot in the dark.  I’d done the math way back at the beginning of the season, so I knew we weren’t losing money, but it was going to take a year to get a really comprehensive view of the costs involved with raising chickens on pasture.

For next year it’s pretty clear that we’re going to have to raise our prices.  Raising Cornish-cross (which we’d prefer not to do) we would only make $906 in profit for a whole years work at our current prices.  It’s even worse with red rangers, profiting a mere $24.  That’s not much for a year of hard work.

 

On feed conversion:

I just used the industry-standard 2.25:1 feed conversion ratio for my calculations.  We buy our feed in bulk, so it’s difficult to compare exactly how much the cornish or rangers eat.  The meat chickens, turkeys and young layer pullets have all been eating from the same 4-ton batch of feed.  I estimated the amount of feed that I would need for this year based on a lower conversion ratio (about 3:1, I can’t remember) and we came out with more feed than I thought at the end of the year.  Judging from this powerpoint presentation, it looks like 2.25:1 is a solid number to aim for.

Farmers Market Trailer: Part 2

21 Apr

Amidst the flurry of activity that is a new farm in the beginning of spring, we have managed to get our hands on a new trailer.

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It’s a pretty basic 6’x10′ enclosed trailer, and it ought to work just fine for our purposes.  Unfortunately, they don’t exactly sell them all done up in a way that’ll pass muster with the MDA.  We’ve got a bit of work to do to get the trailer up to snuff.

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The inside walls are finished in Luan, with some little luan strips covering up the gaps where the panels meet. That’s all well and good, but the MDA requires a non-porous easily-cleaned surface.
In order to get this new non-porous surface to go on smoothly, I promptly broke out some tools and proceeded to tear up the nice new trailer.

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With all the luan strips out of the way, the FSB (or dairyboard) can go on a bit easier.  We’re installing the diaryboard over the luan panels with plenty of construction adhesive and several stainless-steel screws per panel.  I bought several packages of the pound-in plastic rivets for fastening dairyboard, but quickly decided that it’d be a pain in the butt to have to drill a hole for every fastener I wanted to put in.  Stainless self-tapping sheet metal screws go in much faster, and being stainless, are just dandy for a food facility.

dairyboard install

It’s less than halfway done, but we’ve got the bulk of the ceiling done, which is the hard part. Dairyboard is a real pain to work with, because it’s relatively heavy for something so thin. That means that if you ever try to pick it up above your head, it does it’s best to curl down around you from all 4 corners. Putting dairyboard up on a ceiling is most certainly a two-man job.  Cutting diaryboard isn’t much easier.  It has too much fiber (FRP stands for Fiber Reinforced Plastic) to score and snap easily, and cutting thin plastic with a circular saw is always a crap shoot.  I quickly settled on the electric power shears, which cut through the stuff like butter.

So, that’s some stuff I’ve been doing.

Now we’ve just got to finish up the diaryboard, put linoleum on the floor, get it wired up with a 110v outlet and light, get a generator, and get it all inspected.

No sweat.

Farmers Market Trailer: Part 1

12 Apr

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Well the animals are all here now, so it’s time to get all the stuff for the farmers markets in order.  We’ve got our markets lined up: Zumbrota, Red Wing and Eagan.  Now to get the trailer all squared away that we’ll need.

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) a farmer doesn’t need a license to sell meat from their own animals, as long as 100% of the ingredients come from the farm.  They will need to keep the meat in a NSF (commercial) Freezer that’s plugged in at all times.

We will be selling meat from our own animals, but we’ll also be selling a few things like bacon and sausage that have a few ingredients that don’t come from our farm, like salt and spices.  In the MDA’s eyes, this means that we need to have a Mobile Retail Food Handlers Permit.

Having talked to a few MDA inspectors, I’ve learned that we’ll need the following:

  • Enclosed trailer (or box truck, van, etc.)
  • Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP or dairyboard) to cover the walls and ceiling of the trailer
  • Vinyl tile or similar easily washable flooring for the trailer
  • Commercial Freezer to store the beef, pork and chicken
  • Commercial refrigerator to store the eggs.
  • Generator to run the freezer and refrigerator while we’re on the road.

Today I got two of those knocked out.

I drove over to Winona and picked up this commercial chest freezer that I found on Craigslist.

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It’s got a couple of dings, and the casters on the bottom need to be replaced, but it’s clean and most importantly, it works.
Commercial chest freezers are actually kinda hard to find. Most restaurant supply places have upright freezers, which in addition to being inefficient, are too tall to fit in a trailer.
This particular freezer only draws 5 amps max. That’s 575 watts, which means that you could comfortably run two freezers and a refrigerator on a 2000 watt generator.

On my way home I stopped by a home improvement store and picked up 7 sheets of FRP, which everyone around here calls Dairyboard, and all the accoutrements that we’ll need to install it in the trailer.

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The FRP is required to make the trailer into, essentially, a retail food establishment. As with any restaurant or store that sells food, the walls and floor have to be easily sanitized. Since most trailers have plywood walls, they need to be covered up with FRP to pass muster with the MDA.

Anyhow, it’s two down, three to go. We’re on the hunt for a trailer next week, and I’m following a few leads on a refrigerator and generator. It’s a lot to get done in the next month, but we can’t sell much without it.

Farm Paperwork 2

7 Feb

I got a big manilla envelope in the mail today from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.  Turns out they sent us our exempt processor certificate for eggs and on-farm poultry processing.

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Awesome!

Now we’re A-OK to sell eggs (on and off farm) and farm-processed poultry (only sold directly on-farm).
Eggs: check!
Thanksgiving turkeys: check!

Still to go:
Mobile retail food handlers license
Retail food handlers license (Farm Store)
County building permits to remodel the Farm Store.

I’ve been talking/emailing our regional MDA inspector and have learned that there are some flatly ridiculous requirements that the MDA has for selling meat and eggs at a farmers market.

Eggs really aren’t that bad, at least compared to meat.  To sell eggs at a farmers market, you must candle and grade them, label them and sell them from a cooler with ice packs  (reasonable so far…)

BUT  If you’re going to have that cooler out for more than 4 hours total (and what farmers market isn’t more than 4 hours including transport time?)  then the MDA has decreed that you’ll need to have your eggs in a commercial refrigerator that is constantly plugged in, even during transport.

Apparently requiring that eggs be kept under 40°F just won’t cut the mustard around here.  After your arbitrary 4 hours are up it’s into Mr. Fridge with ya!

 

As I mentioned, meat is even worse.

 

First: there is something called a P-L Exemption for selling meat.  The P-L Exemption (as far as I can tell) allows you to sell meat at a farmers market without getting a Mobile Retail Food Handlers Permit.  The problem is that the P-L Exemption doesn’t apply to bacon or sausage (or similar multi-ingredient products) because not every single ingredient was produced on the farm.

Why does the provenance of the salt or spices in the sausage or bacon matter?  I have no idea, but MDA says it does, so tough cookies.

Since bacon and sausage are part of the plan, a Mobile Retail Food Handlers Permit is in the cards for us.

 

But a P-L Exemption won’t get you around the other lovely requirements that MDA has outlined.

Selling meat out of a cooler?  Not in this state pal.

The MDA requires that meat be sold from a commercial freezer or refrigerator (depending if it’s fresh or frozen).  That appliance must be plugged in all the time, even on the road.

But the best part is:

"It is best to keep your meat items at the
licensed processing facility and pick them 
up when you go to the Farmer's Markets, 
as we do not allow folks to keep product 
at their home."

That’s right!  We can’t even be trusted to keep our own meat at home in a freezer (even a commercial one)!   So we have to drive all over the state to pick up our meat EVERY TIME we go to a farmers market.  And then, presumably, drive back to deposit what we didn’t sell before heading home.

I got a little clarification, and the MDA requires meat to be stored at an establishment with a Retail Food Handlers License (apparently mobile licenses don’t count for storing things).  So we technically could find somewhere close to home that already has a license and lease freezer space from them.

That or get our own Farm Store…

 

I’ll just keep reminding myself that it could be MUCH worse.

We could be trying to sell raw milk in Minnesota.

 

It’s Official

31 Jan

LLC 001

Hooray! We legally exist!

Farm Paperwork

15 Jan

It’s been a joyous day here at the farm. It’s the new year, we’re starting a new farm, farmers markets are taking vendor applications, and we’ve got piles of paperwork that need to be done.

First up: Mark all the Farmers Market dates on the big calendar, along with first and last average frost dates, and dates for a few webinars I’d like to attend.

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Then we get into the fun stuff.

Start things off with a bit of light reading, say the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Developments delightful little tome “A Guide To Starting a Business in Minnesota.”  It’s 358 pages of fun, let me tell ya.

We will be doing business as an LLC, which means that we have to fill out and file our Articles of Organization with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office with our $135 filing fee.  After, of course, doing a quick search online to make sure that nobody else in the state has taken “Green Machine Farm, LLC” which would be a real shame at this point…

Then we have to file with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) to get a certificate exempting us from the Corporate Farm Law because we are a family-owned LLC.

Next on the list is registering with the MDA as an on-farm exempt producer for poultry and eggs.  This will allow us to sell our eggs to retail customers, restaurants and grocery stores.  As far as poultry, we will be able to process and sell up to 1000 birds per year from our on-farm store without any further paperwork or inspections.  If we want to sell a farm-processed bird at the farmers market or sell more than 1000 birds per year anywhere, then we will need to have our facility inspected by the MDA.  Our plan is to sell a few birds at farmers markets, so for now those birds will have to go to a USDA or State-inspected facility for processing.

We are exempt from having a Minnesota Retail Food Handlers License because we will only be selling products that came from our farm, of which the meats will be processed in a USDA-inspected facility.  Our breads and any canned goods aren’t potentially-hazardous foods and are specifically exempted, so we’re good there.

Minnesota puts out a handy PDF called the “Operational Guidelines for Farmers’ Market Vendors” which seems to cover all the legalities of this stuff.  Due to the somewhat byzantine nature of Minnesota’s laws, I’m still feel like there’s some license or inspection we will end up needing that will materialize out of nowhere. Time will tell, I suppose.

We are also exempt from collecting sales taxes (and getting a tax ID number) because Minnesota does not levy sales tax on Food except candy and soda.  As we do not yet have any soda trees or candy bushes, we ought to be OK for a while.

With all that out of the way (at least for now), we move on to Vendor Applications for the various farmers markets we might want to attend next year.  Red Wing has a nifty single-page application, while Northfield seems to want our entire life history on their 5 page application (not counting the 8 copies of licenses they want you to attach). But at least those two have applications available online.  I’m still waiting to get my hands on applications from Rochester and Eagan.  I gotta call those guys back tomorrow and harangue them about it a little.

The only application deadline that’s coming up fast is for the Red Wing farmers market.  I have to make it to Red Wing tomorrow before their annual winter meeting to get in our application.

So that’s been my day.  Try not to get too jealous of all the fun I’m having.