This is the story of start-up farm that is actually a start-over.
For most of his life, David Lankford, along with his wife Sharon, ran a farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore called Davon Crest II, which was particularly well known in the Washington D.C. and Baltimore areas for quality microgreens grown year-round in heated greenhouses.
When David decided to get out of the day-to-day farming business to work for a company that produces farming software, he offered the farm to his sister, Dixie Blades.
Blades had been forced by work circumstances to move to Ohio, so when her brother gave her this chance to move back to Maryland, she took him up on it. She and her partner, Heather Grant, re-branded the enterprise Cool Beans Farm in 2012, picking up directly where he left off.
However, they’re finding that there are still challenges to overcome as they get their feet wet.
Although Blades and Grant took over the farm a little over a year ago, Lankford hadn’t done much with it for some time, so it needed a lot of work. At the moment, Cool Beans is only using three of the 12 greenhouses on a 10-acre property. The other greenhouses are in disrepair, and are being restored one-by-one as the business develops.
Like her brother, Blades is focusing on microgreens.
“We just love the idea of them,” says Blades. “We knew that was the way to get in the door with high-end restaurants because executive chefs love microgreens. They have so much flavor and are so beautiful to look at.”
Blades inherited many of her customers from her brother as well, including the Inn at Perry Cabin on St. Michael’s Island in Maryland, and Restaurant Eve in Arlington, VA, two powerhouse restaurants in the area. She strategically uses her brother’s relationships with other prior clients to get in the door.
“When I contact restaurants now, I’ll say I’m doing the same microgreens as Davon Crest,” she says. “The chefs get so excited and they’ll say, ‘if they’re anywhere near the quality your brother had them, then I’m interested’.”
While the microgreens are babied in a heated greenhouse, Blades and Grant also grow spinach, kale, beets, and lettuce in unheated greenhouses. Blades is finding that this can be a bit of a challenge, especially as this bitterly cold winter has led to some frozen pipes. In the summer, on the little acreage not covered by greenhouses, Cool Beans Farm grows (of course) beans, in addition to potatoes and peppers.
Although Cool Beans Farm is not currently certified organic, Blades is committed to growing her produce as close to organic as possible.
“It’s really hard to be certified organic, and it’s very costly, so we can’t afford to do that,” she says. “We would if we could.”
The microgreens are grown completely without chemicals, and Blades will use chemicals on the remaining produce only as an absolute last resort.
“We try not to use any chemicals if we don’t have to—what we’re doing to our children’s food is crazy,” she explains. ”We do it for our own health and our children’s health.”
Blades sees the farm’s future remaining in microgreens, and would like to continue building her client base and perhaps get into overnight shipping. Her location on the Eastern Shore is a bit of a logistical problem; most high-end restaurants are naturally located in and around the larger cities in the area, such as Baltimore or Washington DC.
“They might only want $60 worth of produce, and we have to drive and hour and a half to deliver it,” says Blades. “So the hard part is trying to build that business up. Even if you only have one or two customers in that city, you still need to make that trek there.”
Blades clearly has an advantage in having bought a farm from her brother and benefitting from his former clients and experience, However, she still feels she could have used even more preparation, such as earning a business degree.
“Even though you might not think you need it when you’re farming, you definitely do when you’re selling products.”