Jack Hedin owns Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minnesota. Farming 132 acres of certified organic vegetables (out of 250 total planted acres), Featherstone Farm provides around two million dollars of produce directly to stores, restaurants, and distributors in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to a produce warehouse in Chicago, and 900-plus summer CSA shares – in addition to seasonal add-ons.
Featherstone Farm got its start twenty years ago on 5 acres in a narrow valley in the bluff country of southeast Minnesota, before devastating floods and continuing growth pushed the farm to relocate to flatter ground in the midst of an industrial park. Jack shares his lessons learned about land selection and farm location, from soil conditions and airflow to logistics and transportation. We delve into Featherstone Farm’s distribution system, which includes using hired semi-trailers to move produce one hundred miles from the farm to the Twin Cities, and a fleet of their own trucks and cross-docking arrangements to get the produce to the final customer.
Jack also shares how, after years of running the farm on intuition and duct-tape, they worked to create systems to run the farm. We get into the nuts and bolts of how Featherstone Farm has structured and documented standard operating procedures, policies, and goals to make the farm work, and the paper-based systems they use to manage day-to-day operations.
The Farmer to Farmer Podcast is generously supported by Vermont Compost Company.
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Quotes from the Show
We went from a business where I could largely handle most of those things reasonably well myself to a place where it was just vastly more complicated and more challenging than I could have anticipated.
The most wonderful and just the most exciting thing about what Featherstone Farm has become to me is, it really is a vital community of people up and down the line from our CSA members that stepped up on working on some of these various campaigns we've had and our neighbors and collaborators in the area. Other farmers, conventional as well as organic farmers that we've worked with in our area, certainly employees inside and out up and down the line, English speakers and Spanish speakers and Hmong speakers and everyone in between.
Having enough people that have enough time, enough resources to do [the support tasks on the farm] things ultimately is saving me a lot more, not just time but blood, sweat and tears as a farmer in that [when] we get news about an insurance audit or a food safety visit or some sort of a tax question comes up an audit of some sort, IRS or whatever, I feel as though we are completely prepared and that I have really little to worry about because we've taken advantage and taken care of those things.
I felt as though growing a good crop and being fair with customers and being fair minded, a responsible employer and if I just did those 3 things, good, solid, organic practice, good, solid, transparent relationships with customers and fair, responsible employment… if I had those three bases covered, then everything else would take care of itself. That was incredibly naïve and short-sighted and I just realized that I did myself, I did every employee at Featherstone Farm, and my family a disservice by undervaluing those support functions for all these years.
You try to get it out of the role of subjective managing people and more as much as possible into the question of objectively implementing a system with clearly described expectations. It sounds very clinical and cold and kind of like a machine and I understand that but I have really come to understand that having that expectation in place for people and being clear and having that structure, that objective framework for the way in which everyone from the newest field picker right up to the highest level field manager or office manager around here [does their job], it really allows people to function as human beings and to have more of a personal relationship with people.
The better the system is defined I think, the more people feel free to excel and to do their best and to follow their best aspirations as employees within that system.
People like to be associated with successful enterprises, and not to see their efforts establishing a crop of winter squash that's consumed by weeds because we didn't have really good effective strategies or systems for controlling those weeds.
Even if we have the tools sitting in the shop but they weren't getting used right, you might as well not have had that tractor or that cultivator setup if it wasn't brought to bear at the right time, in the right setup, and then followed up with the following week with the next round of cultivation in different way.
Jack discussed partnering with Co-op Partners Warehouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, on distribution of Featherstone Farm products. I’m usually pretty skeptical about food hubs that works, but Co-op Partners (known locally as CPW) has a model that has proven its value and sustainability over the years. You can find a good, albeit somewhat old, summary of their distribution work from the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.
We talked at length about the consulting work that I did with Jack and Featherstone Farm. I offer consulting and coaching services, in a variety of configurations according to client need, through my company, Purple Pitchfork.
Jack mentioned the Alloway Standard Cultivators that Featherstone Farm uses. This video shows them in action (not at Featherstone Farm).
Jack’s favorite tool (besides his grain drill) is the broccoli platform that Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables uses to speed its broccoli harvest.