At 31 years old, my wife and I find ourselves on the downward slope of the wedding phase of life.  Most of our friends have married and started families, so the frenzy of our late twenties, when it seemed attendance at one wedding per weekend was mandatory, has slowed to a drip.  Hallelujah.

I am not much of a dancer and the art of small talk strategically eludes my capabilities, so I often find myself seeking alternative forms of entertainment during the loud and rowdy reception following a knot-tying ceremony.   Mostly, I watch people and how they interact with their surroundings.

A wedding soiree almost always features a meal, and bedecked tables wait with patient resolve before guests arrive.  Decorated tables aren’t a focus of fascination for me, but what has consistently caught my eye is the presence or absence of name tags at each seat.

Tables that lack any form of seating assignment are approached by the crowd as though they are potentially hostile alien spacecraft: people stream in and gawk at the vast selection of empty seats filling the room.  When realization strikes that seating is a free-for-all, the excitement begins as everyone tries to claim their turf.   Each seat is filled by the time the bride and groom arrive, but I’ve always observed some level of tension because not everyone is happy with their final landing spot.

Conversely, when the wedding planners have indeed accomplished some planning and each seat has a name attached, reception choreography is much more refined: guests enter the hall, find their name and corresponding table number on a board, and proceed to the correct seat with little aggravation.  A name tag speaks an important message to a guest: we knew you were going to be here, and we picked this specific spot to fit your needs. 

There is, as some of you are acutely aware, a large amount of envisioning that must take place to assign seats during any social gathering.  Hosts must think ahead to prepare for people arriving in the future.  It is just such an activity that is rapidly becoming crucial for farms across our region: we have to start envisioning who will be coming tomorrow so we can make a place for them.

What I’ve come to realize is the current agricultural paradigm is much like a wedding reception without nametags: most farmers are desperate for anyone to show up and do some work, but our tracts of open land don’t have reserved seats.  Farming is an everyman’s occupation, and, therefore, whoever shows up at the doorstep is good enough.  Tension is high because no planning takes place to get the right people in the right place.

If we want to turn the farm labor crisis around, it is imperative that we re-imagine our reception.  We have to set specific placeholders on our farms rather than allowing whoever limps through the farm gate to make the cut.

I have a good friend who wants his children to grow up with an appreciation for their food and where it comes from.  The challenge for him, however, was how to get a foothold into farming without spending a fortune and while working a full time job.  What we realized is each of us could solve the other’s problem: by allowing Mark and his family to utilize our existing property and business platform, he can sidestep massive capital investment and start a farm enterprise with an immediate customer base and flexible hours.  On the other side of the coin, we have for the first time a huge selection of garden fresh produce available for our customers.  Diversity of products helps to retain current customers and attract new patrons.

All of the money generated by Little Sprouts Produce goes to Mark and his family; it is their own independent business.  They front costs for seed, planting, and whatever equipment they deem necessary, and the family carries the risk that comes with growing vegetables.  We offer a large following of customers who are conscious of what they eat and how it is grown, yet, should the Little Sprouts choose to expand in the future, it is their responsibility to find new markets and customers.  Mark and Kristen have their four children involved in the entire process from planting to weeding to harvest and sales, and the oldest two girls are learning financial, customer service, and marketing skills.  Across the country an aging and diminishing farm population has choked each agricultural organization with a toxic fog of worry; at our place, we have eleven year olds greeting customers.  Ha!

Our approach to expansion is unique: we’ll do what we do best, and, rather than hiring lackluster labor, we’ll set a placeholder for someone else to follow their dreams, too.  The best way to fill our farm with enthusiastic, driven entrepreneurs is to stack enterprises, sharing infrastructure and customers.  I have a list of projects I would love to see come alive, and I’m laying the groundwork for the right person to come along, grab the idea by the horns, and do something with it I could never accomplish.  A Banquet Barn destination and apple orchard are on the short list, and more ideas will come as aggregate businesses begin to share the vision.

Customers who make the effort to direct their food dollars back into a community often can’t see results for their efforts beyond better food on the dinner table. We feel the best way to show return on a dollar spent at our farm is to partner with and launch a new generation of excellence. That’s an easily visible result that consequently strengthens the food landscape for everyone who has made this passion possible for our family. We can’t wait to share the ride.