Q+A With Natasha Hegmann
Natasha Hegmann and Pete Kerns are using PFI’s new Farm Business Coaching program to examine their goals and focus their 7-year-old farm business.
JVS: Tell me about your farming journey so far.
NH: I started working for Laura Krouse at Abbe Hills Farm as a high school student in 2005. After a season there, I couldn’t imagine doing other work; it was so fulfilling, interesting and engaging. I worked for Laura for several more seasons and then went to college at St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota. While there, I started a farm with fellow students. After graduation, I worked with FoodCorps in Montana to teach kids about agriculture and nutrition, and worked to get more local food into schools for a couple of years.
I met Peter through FoodCorps. Pete moved to Portland, Oregon, to start a new job in 2014, but when his parents both became ill, he left his job to care for them. Faced with a lot happening in our lives, Pete and I decided to get married and pursue our dream of farming.
We formed a relationship with a non-profit around Elkader that owns land to see if we would be a good fit as their next farm caretakers, and it turned out to be an exciting match. We started our first season in 2015 with three main enterprises: vegetables for market and a small CSA, heritage-breed hogs on pasture and maple syrup. Between 2015 and now, there have been a couple of big turning points.
When we first started, we were driving two hours south to Iowa City to deliver nine CSA shares every week, plus selling at three farmers markets in Clayton County. That was a lot! The next year, we streamlined a bit, and by the third year, we shifted to all local CSA shares and just one farmers market. That was more manageable, and by being at just one market, we were making way more money. Doing less actually made more money and left us with more time and energy.
The next big change was dropping maple syrup in 2019. Sugaring was fun, but it took a lot of time and energy and was not profitable. Our son Joe was born in September that year, and on Jan. 1, 2020, we closed on a local greenhouse business to have indoor growing space, add a complimentary enterprise of ornamental plants and create a retail outlet. When the pandemic happened in 2020, we had to stop going to farmers market and have not gone back. A lot of those customers have transitioned to CSA shares, and we feel really confident with that program.
This year, 2022, has been another big turning point. At seven years into the business, we are starting to look more forward with what we’re doing. We’ve done the hustle, and now we have more space to look at what our bigger goals are and how to get on the path to pursuing those. The Farm Business Coaching program has been perfectly timed to help us explore those questions.
JVS: Tell me about your PFI involvement.
NH: I joined PFI when I started working for Laura Krouse and attended my first PFI event in 2005. Laura hosted a field day and often took her employees to field days. Susan Jutz and Laura Krouse were great mentors.
When Pete and I were in Montana and wanted to start a farm, we knew that coming back home to Iowa was the place to do it because we wanted to be part of this community of farmers teaching farmers. PFI made it feel possible to farm here.
Once we moved back, we applied for the Savings Incentive Program our first year. This provided the framework for us to start our business plan, and the savings match gave us the capital to invest in our first high tunnel. We have done a couple of field days, did a Cooperators’ Program trial, presented a farminar and have attended other field days. We also do the grower meetups in the spring and try to be as involved as possible.
JVS: What led you to apply to PFI’s Farm Business Coaching program?
NH: We heard about the program and were talking with PFI staff about our challenges, and it sounded like the program was a great fit. It was perfect timing. We shared what help we needed and PFI was simultaneously trying to provide resources for farmers who had a different set of needs than those who are just starting out. We were at a place where we were ready to dig into the business questions.JVS: What are your key takeaways
NH: Doing less – pulling in and focusing on fewer things – has the potential to increase profitability and make our lives more balanced. Pete and I are both generalists interested in a lot of things, but now more than ever, we need to focus, pare down and be wise with our time so we don’t burn out.
An enduring question I’m continuing to explore through this program is the intersection of our values and our business. For example, the first five years we didn’t increase our prices because we wanted the food to be accessible to everyone. But now we recognize we can’t do that at our own expense. Through this program, we’ve been willing to question some of the assumptions we’ve made based on our values in a productive way.
JVS: Has anything surprised you or changed your perspective about your business?
NH: One thing, which also feels hopeful, is that there are simple tools to help us use data to make decisions. We’ve been trying to use data but have felt like some business decisions are purely opportunistic.
Our financial records felt impenetrable. But when you have a professional to help you interpret your data, you see that you actually have the tools you need to make informed decisions. And if you don’t have it right now, they can help you see what gaps you need to fill to move forward. We kept trying to do it on our own, but it turns out we don’t actually have the tools and knowledge we needed – so it’s great to have an expert to guide us.
JVS: Having gone through the first phase of the program, what are excited about for Phase 2?
NH: Now that the season is slowing down, we anticipate having more time for reflection. Coming out of Phase 1, we’re still in kind of an uncomfortable place because we’re still processing what we have learned so far.
But what I’m proud of is that before this program, I would not have been able to even think about these things or allow this degree of uncertainty during the growing season. If we hold off all business decisions until January, that really limits the space we have for those conversations.
Even though this isn’t a big, concrete aha moment, I have been challenged to dig into big ideas during an already busy time. Without doing that, making real change would never be possible.
JVS: How do you anticipate your business will be affected by the program?
NH: The Farm Business Coaching program allows me to step into a role as an entrepreneur with a different level of confidence than before. I feel like not just a person who grows food, but a person who has a business that brings in income for their family, manages employees and works toward things with business goals in mind.