Monday, May 27, 2013

The Big Leap :)

Today's weather forecast was for a high of 65 degrees with 0% chance of rain. Current temperature is 50 degrees with increased heaviness of rain since around noon or so. We LOVE and need the rain, no complaints about that. And in fact, having an unexpected cold and rainy day has been just perfect for doing an unexpected inside job, like quickly filling out responses to questions required for our farm's nomination for an award!

Think Local First, an organization that promotes locally-owned businesses in our county, has created its  first 'Indie Awards', and our farm has been nominated for The Big Leap Award, which is for a business that 'took the leap' and successfully created new idea, model, or solution despite all the risks. Of course we are both delightfully surprised and honored to have received an email on Friday with the news that we had been nominated (wow - good thing one of us quickly scanned our farm's email account on Friday night), but truth be told, I am not sure we would have squeezed in the time to fill out the tough (but good) questions except for the fact that today (the deadline for submission) was not a day for outside farm work although I weeded during the early afternoon until I was starting to get cold and was also tired of 'dripping'.

The questions were great. They made us really think about our farm and what we are doing here. We had two friends (a fellow farmer and one of my dietetic students who is working with us on the farm this summer) help us brainstorm concepts on Saturday over dinner, I let things percolate in my brain while weeding yesterday, and then I word-smithed some answers this morning. My student helped catch omissions and repetitions this afternoon, and then my husband gave it the final review and finishing touches before I pushed 'submit' a few minutes ago.

Winning is not important to us. However, we are touched to have been noticed and nominated. And yes, I can appreciate anyone who has made a 'the big leap' after evaluating the risks, taking a deep breath, finding the courage to do something hard, and choosing to try to fly high into the unknown instead of staying low in the safe, known, and easy spot.

My father was an entrepreneur, ultimately taking an idea from nothing tangible to a company doing international work. I wish I could ask him if retrospectively he wishes he had kept his company small, doing great work focused in a community/regional area instead of spreading out nationally and to the world. I'm currently reading the book Small Giants by Bo Burlingham, which discusses companies who have done just that (such as our local Zingerman's Community of Businesses).

Our farm's business goals are the same as many of those companies featured in Small Giants:

  • to be economically profitable and thus sustainable,
  • provide the best place possible for us to enjoy working every day (along with any potential employees or volunteers), 
  • to help diversify and revitalize our local economy with organically-grown and produced food, 
  • to grow and provide the highest quality garlic and garlic products to our local community, 
  • and through the care of the soil, land, and water under our stewardship to ultimately contribute to the creation of a healthy and thriving community. 
Here are the responses to the questions we were asked, which really made us think. Frankly, answering them was not quick; it took me all morning. I hope you enjoy reading them. (Every time I cut and paste, the formatting seems to get weird. I do not have time to re-type everything, so I hope the transfer is not too bad.)


Tell us about your business:

We are a small specialized farm, growing 40+ varieties of garlic using organic growing practices. Although we could easily (and more profitably) sell all of our garlic via the internet, we intentionally sell ~100% of our garlic to our local community (shipping only to our two sons and a small number of friends and relatives who live across the country). We also intentionally sell our garlic to eaters across the full economic spectrum within our community, being as happy to sell our garlic to people using food assistance programs at 4 local farmers' markets within 12 miles of our farm as we are to local chefs at high-end restaurants.

Define success for your business:

Success........yes that it hard to define, as it is different for each business. We'll state right up front that we are close but not yet making a profit (which is only one measure of success). The start-up costs for our farm (i.e. our barn, our tractor) have been huge. However, while a profit is our goal and is necessary for all small farms to be sustainable and provide a reasonable quality of life, we have other measures of success:

  • we have enjoyed the creative (even artistic) process of working together to start a business from an idea and watch it develop, 
  • we both enjoy growing food and working outside as farmers, 
  • we have enjoyed the learning curve of taking the big step up to commercial production (i.e. market gardening) versus home/hobby gardening, plus 
  • we truly enjoy being food educators as we introduce and bring both awareness and discovery to our community of the "wide world of garlic". 

Success can also be measured by the large number of repeat customers we have, the number of customers who heard about us from their friends, the large number of customers who drive over an hour to buy our garlic, the large number of people who ask if they can volunteer on our farm plus the large number who sign up for our farm’s email newsletter, the legion of customers who tell us they can ‘never go back to store-bought garlic again’, and the fact that it was our customers who suggested we start a Garlic CSA.

The goal of our farm is to be a contributor to a healthy community, attaching the word 'healthy' to many outcomes (physical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, spiritual, and likely more). We sleep well every night living our values and knowing we are hitting many of those high notes, while caring for our land as we literally and figuratively sink deep roots into our community. 

Describe your Big Leap

Going from being long-time vegetable gardeners who have been gardening together even before being married (our first date as undergraduates was Dick asking Diana if she would help him weed the beans in his vegetable garden on Purdue's campus), we became 'old-new farmers' at age 59 when we bought 15 over-grown acres (and a foreclosed house in need of major repairs) to start a small specialized garlic farm. There are many ways in which this 'leap' made sense to us, it seemed the natural thing to do, but we can understand how our serious lifestyle change would appear to be a HUGE (and maybe crazy) leap to most everyone else. :)

Here is what our Big Leap looks like in bullet points:

  • We became 'old-new farmers' at age 59.
  • We started the first garlic farm in this area.
  • We jumped from a small community garden at County Farm Park with Project Grow to being market gardeners at four local farmers' markets. (we were growing 500 garlic bulbs of 10 different varieties in our Project Grow garden, 5,000 the first year on our farm, 10,000 the next year, to now planting ~20,000 garlic bulbs annually of 40+ varieties)
  • We went from being very private people to being very public people who are still surprised but enjoy it when someone sees us around town and points out to their friend/family "There is our garlic farmer!".
  • We have both professionally leaped from being focused on the treatment end of the health care spectrum to the wellness/prevention end (Dick led various drug discovery teams at Parke-Davis and Pfizer. Diana is a Registered Dietitian who previously worked at St. Joe’s in the Medical Intensive Care Unit and is still an advocate at the national level for the inclusion of oncology nutrition services as a proactive component of true comprehensive cancer care)
  • Instead of always wondering when and where we would be moving along (neither of us grew up in Michigan nor were we educated here), we made the big decision to stay in the Ann Arbor area forever. 

Describe the catalyst for your Big Leap

Dick lost his job as part of the “Pfizer fall-out” during an earlier phase that was not announced in such a public way as when Pfizer actually pulled out of Ann Arbor. At that point we began to take serious stock of what was to be next for us, i.e., “What are we going to do with the rest of our lives and where do we want to do it?” Of course this was an opportunity, but there is nothing quick or easy about answering that question when it happens as abruptly as it did for our family. 

It took us several years to sort through the opportunities, options, challenges, and constraints to answer this question. To make a long story short, Dick wanted to ‘garden out the back door’ and Diana wanted to ‘create a healthy community’. Combining those desires with our love of being outdoors listening to the birds, growing food, cooking with garlic, and doing our market research at several local farmers markets to see that no one else was providing garlic as a specialty crop, led us back to an early dream of starting a farm. It is still easy to procrastinate and not make the leap, however, one day Diana had the ‘epiphany’ that “we are as young today as we are ever going to be so if we want to start a farm, let’s get on with this!” We did. :)

What makes your business unique?

We are a specialized garlic farm, growing 40+ varieties of garlic. Nearly every aspect of production is by hand and with love. We are not really exaggerating when we tell people that we sell ‘hand-crafted garlic’. 

We sell green garlic in the spring to local chefs and our CSA members, garlic scapes from 20+ varieties at four local farmers markets in June, and then our 40+ varieties of garlic plus garlic braids, garlic gift boxes, garlic sampler bags, “40-clove” bags, dried green garlic and dried garlic scapes, with more plans in the works, at local farmers markets during August and September until sold out. We offer a Garlic CSA to those people who want ‘first choice’ and just cannot get enough of our delicious garlic. To our knowledge, we offer the only Garlic CSA in the country. 

How does your business support the community?

We sell 99% of our garlic to our local community: to chefs and caterers (Arbor Brewing Company, Bona Sera, Tammy's Tastings, Juicy Kitchen, The Ravens Club, Jolly Pumpkin, Moonwinks Cafe, Zingerman's Deli, Zingerman's Roadhouse, The Grange Kitchen & Bar, Cafe Japon, and several more), food product producers (Granny's Garlic Salt, The Brinery, Nightshade Army Industries, Delicious Diversity, etc), and to garlic lovers at 4 local farmers markets (Ypsilanti Downtown Market, Ann Arbor Wednesday Evening Market, Ann Arbor Westside Market, and the Dixboro Market) and Lunasa. 

We happily accept all food assistance vouchers (SNAP, WIC, Senior Fresh, Double-Up Bucks, etc etc etc) at our local farmers’ markets. 

We work with various Farm to School programs in the area to ‘talk garlic’ and the importance of sustainable farming with various age school children (King School, Greenhills School, Honey Creek School). 

We have also offered our garlic products to many local non-profit organizations (Growing Hope, Habitat for Humanity, etc, etc) as a fund-raising item at their silent auctions. 

We’ve helped other farms put up their hoop houses (Growing Hope, The Farm at St. Joe’s, Capella Farms, Green Things Farm). Dick is on the market committee for Ann Arbor's Westside Market at Zingerman's Roadhouse. Diana is on the committee that developed and maintains the Dixboro Farmers' Market in addition to be on the Advisory Committee for The Farm at St. Joe’s. 

We LOVE LOVE LOVE co-marketing through Facebook, our website (, and our Garlic Friends email newsletter for other companies who purchase and use our garlic (i.e., The Brinery, Nightshade Army Industries, The Grange Kitchen & Bar, Zingerman’s, etc, etc, etc). 

Lastly, Diana works adjunctively with several local and state universities by providing their dietetic students and interns with opportunities on our farm to get their hands in the soil as they learn that the starting point of sustainable food systems is not ‘we are what we eat’ but instead it is ‘we are what we grow’ (University of Michigan, EMU, Madonna University, MSU, Western Michigan). These dietetic students are also given the opportunity to work on other area farms and with non-profit organizations such as Growing Hope and The Ecology Center’s Healthy Food in Healthcare Initiative in order that they may obtain a wider view of the community benefits provided by a local food system.  

Is there anything else you would like to share about your business?

We almost dropped out of our graduate school programs in the mid-70's to start an organic farm near Madison, WI. For a variety of good reasons, we did not do that, so we are both happy and grateful that we have had the opportunity to finally (at last!) come back to one of the first dreams we had as a young married couple. 

The tag line for our farm is 'Shaping our future from the ground up', where the word 'our' is very large and inclusive, starting with our soil and then working its way up to our family, our community, and our society at large. We are passionate about being stewards of our farm's soil, its land and water, plus nourishing a healthy community. We feel that passion and those goals are captured in the following two quotations: 

"Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy that flows through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals."
~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

"Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization."
~ Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth (2002)

We will end by repeating that we are beyond grateful and happy to be 'old-new' farmers. While our customers may think they are buying garlic, we are really sharing this gratitude and happiness with them. 

Dick & Diana Dyer


Now I think I may take a short nap, another perfectly acceptable activity for an unexpected cold and rainy Memorial Day holiday afternoon. 

Cultivate your life - you are what you grow (and leap for!) - inch by inch, row by row,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD


TeacherPatti said...

I think this line--we are as young today as we are ever going to be so if we want to start a farm, let’s get on with this--should be an anthem for everyone.

You are beautiful people and I am glad to know you both.

Prieta said...

Very inspiring!

Julie Zickefoose said...

You go!! I'll be rooting for you, down here in the soil. It truly is worth the doing, just to have to define and describe oneself, whether you win an award or not. I have a feeling you will. Congratulations!


Unknown said...

Very cool!!!

Anonymous said...

Very well written! Your efforts have produced a farm that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw county is proud to call their own!