With not much money in the bank and a baby on the way, most people probably wouldn’t decide the timing was perfect to move to a new state and start a farm.
But Rand and Alexandra Gifford aren’t most people.
Earlier this year, they moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago to a 10-acre property in Marshall, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. Today, that property is the home of Greenshine Farms, which specializes in growing high-quality salad greens, microgreens, herbs, and edible flowers for market.
While Greenshine Farms has been in business for just about six months, the Giffords’ journey with farming started last year while they were still living in Chicago in an apartment with no land.
Fortunately, Rand’s grandmother lives on a double suburban lot just outside of the city. “She was kind enough to let me till up her backyard,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I built some raised beds and threw some seeds in the ground and things grew.
Then, I went around downtown Chicago trying to sell greens to 5-star restaurants.” He ended up with a handful of restaurant customers, a booth at a small farmers market, and a new wealth of knowledge about how to grow and sell specialty greens.
The decision to pursue their dream of farming came because they realized the time was now or never. “I realized that if I didn’t start then, I never would. Farming would just become that thing I wanted to do once when I was young.”
Not looking forward to a future full of “what ifs,” Rand and Alexandra took the plunge. With six-month-old Odin in tow, they moved to a former tobacco farm in North Carolina with nothing on it but an old barn and a general store built in the 1890s. The store is now their house, but when they first arrived it didn’t even have electricity, much less running water.
“We came down with about $6,000 in our pocket and needed to do a massive renovation and buy a lot of equipment,” Rand says. “I was hoping to make a full-time income, so I definitely made a big push early on.”
They started out with microgreens, the crops they’d honed their skills on back in Chicago, mainly sunflowers and pea shoots.
And then they encountered another challenge: Asheville is a very saturated market. “I was declined from every farmers market,” Rand says. “And a lot of restaurants were already working with farmers.”
But he noticed a gap that Greenshine’s products could fill — there was no local salad mix or microgreens in grocery stores. “I made up some samples and went around to mom and pop grocery stores and that’s how we got our foot in the door.”
That was in April. Now, just over six months later, they have two distributors and their products can be found in five local grocery stores.
They even have a woofer (farm intern) to help them keep up with it all. “Harvest days are crazy. Each week, we sell about 100 lbs of greens, 40 containers of microgreens, and some other things like cherry tomatoes. We harvest on Tuesdays and deliver on Wednesdays. Greens have a very short lifecycle so we’re constantly planting and cropping out.”
Most importantly, they’re living the life they dreamt about back in Chicago. “It’s a sustainable enterprise,” Rand says. “We’re making more than we spend. While we’re not paying ourselves any wages, we’re doing pretty well and starting to pay down our debt.” They’re even planning to scale up, with the goal of being a four-season farm.
Essential Tools for Beginning Farmers
We talk to a lot of farmers, and I think they would all agree that six months is a pretty short timeframe to go from getting started to getting paid. So, we asked Rand about the top three tools that were key to his success.
Here’s what he said:
1. A Walk-In Cooler
“You need a walk-in cooler to do anything on a decent scale. But that’s not the only benefit. We also use it for our microgreens. If a tray is ahead of schedule, we pop it in the cooler to stop the growth cycle. Being at a colder temperature also gives the greens a sweeter flavor.
“It’s particularly useful when starting seeds in the heat of summer. You can’t start lettuce seeds outside because they won’t germinate. So we seed them, water them, and put them in the cooler for a day or two at the optimum temperature for germination.”
Rand chose to build his own cooler using a CoolBot. “I bought a used cooler that came with a compressor, but I didn’t want to deal with that. I was able to just go to the hardware store and get the air conditioner and I didn’t need an HVAC technician. I watched the installation video and was able to hook the system up in about 10 minutes.”
He wrote a blog about the experience and detailing the build. Read it here.
2. A Quick-Cut Greens Harvester
Everyone we’ve talked to who grows greens has recommended the Quick-Cut Greens Harvester from Farmer’s Friend. “By hand, harvesting a bed would take an hour,” Rand says. “Now, I can do the same bed in five minutes.”
Learn more about this miracle tool:
- How to Harvest Greens Up to 4x Faster: A Game-Changing Tool for Small Farms
- How to Make Six Figures Farming on ⅓ Acre – Advice from Urban Farmer Curtis Stone
- 3 Must-Have Tools for a Profitable Small Farm
3. A Jang Seeder
“Last year, I sprinkled seeds by hand and then the birds would come or it would rain and the seeds would slide into the pathways. The Jang seeder is awesome. It’s super easy to use and it’s good at going over bumps so your beds don’t have to be perfectly flat. We get tremendous results, and it’s easy to switch out the seed plates.”
Jang seeders come in many types and sizes. Check them out over at Johnny’s Seeds.
A Final Word of Advice: Take Time to Take a Step Back
Here’s what Rand has to say about the more existential aspects of starting a farm:
“My advice is that if this is what you want to do, start now. You can read all of the books and watch all of the YouTube videos, but at some point you just have to start doing it. Start in a backyard, get used to growing things and selling things.”
“But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Especially when you’re starting out, you’ll be working 80 or 90 hours a week. Don’t forget to step back every once in awhile and take a day off. When we first started, we were working seven days a week, and I had the mindset that I couldn’t take a day off.
“I’ve come to see how important it is to take even just half a day off. Go on a hike. Do something that isn’t farming. It’s easy to burn out because it’s physical work and you’re not making a ton of money for what you’re putting into it.
“So, take a step back and spend time with your family. Of course, you want to make a decent living, but also focus on making a good life. You can’t do that if you’re working too hard. And if you can’t take a step back and appreciate it, what’s the point?”
The Giffords have been chronicling their journey online, and they also provide a ton of valuable information for anyone else just starting out.