Originally published April 26, 2018 on Country Guide
By Madeleine Baerg
As Mike Kosaka and Adriane Skaros are learning, it takes determination, toughness, and plenty of smarts to succeed as a local-food startup. How many smarts? Read on
Young Zoe Jones and Ava Kosaka have sized me up. The girls are ultra-enthusiastic entrepreneurs. They’ve got a marketing plan, they’ve perfected their product, and — just weeks into production — they’re already watching the dollars roll in.
Of course, the girls may be only seven and nine years old, respectively, but they already know that if they can churn out more of the pink and orange Shopkins-filled bath bombs they’re selling, the sooner they’ll get to their big-spend goals (Ava is working toward a laptop; Zoe’s dreams are for an iPod).
They also know they’re on a tight, tight timeline. With farming season about to kick into high gear, the adult help that their production system relies on is going to disappear into the greenhouse. So for now, the girls work. Every day after school and as much as Zoe’s mom and Ava’s dad can tolerate on weekends while the girls mix, shape and package, filling the kitchen counters and table with their creations.
Yet it’s little surprise that these young ladies have such an overabundance of entrepreneurial spirit: it’s clearly rubbed off from their parents.
Some wanna-be farmers dabble in agriculture slowly, dipping just a toe at first into farming’s uncertain waters. Ava’s dad Mike Kosaka and Zoe’s mom Adriane Skaros aren’t that sort of people.
Last spring, both quit full-time careers in order to go all-in in a brand new organic market garden business they call Amazia Farm. (“Get it?” says Skaros. “Amazia? It’s the first letter of each of our names: Adriane, Mike, Ava, Zoe, Isaac and Achile. We’re a new farm and a new family. We wanted our name to capture all of us.”)
Not everyone was entirely sure the startup could reach firm footing. Sure, Alberta-born Kosaka comes from a line of successful farmers (his father currently farms in Lethbridge). And, both Kosaka and Skaros had already proven their tireless work ethic, a strong stomach for risk, and a passion for food and agriculture.
But, to leave job security and reliable incomes in the Okanagan’s thriving wine and hospitality industry to create something from a handful of acres of overgrown sheep field? The skeptics shook their heads.
The skeptics were wrong.
In just their first season, Kosaka and Skaros earned the regular business of 15 restaurants, sold produce at four different farmers’ markets, delivered several dozen direct-to-consumer CSA boxes weekly, and sold veggies literally from A (arat — a root parsley) to Z (zucchini) from the farm gate.
The fact that they achieved production and sales success in season one would be notable for anyone starting a business. It’s even more impressive given that their infrastructure was basically non-existent as of early spring last year. While figuring out crop planning, organic production of 80 different crops (a mind-bending 140 if you break the count down to variety), marketing, packaging and sales, they put in seven 10,000-ft. vegetable plots and built a 30 ft. x 50 ft. greenhouse, a chicken coop to house 99 layers, a cold room to store harvested produce, a mobile cold trailer to transport produce, and a truly beautiful trellis system for 2,000 tomato plants.
By anyone’s evaluation, the list of completed building projects is long. Given Kosaka’s meticulous construction standards (his sheep feeders are as precisely built as fine furniture; even the doorway of his outdoor cat box is perfectly cut into the shape of a cat’s head), the to-do list didn’t leave a lot of time for sleep.
Add in the unexpected — a greenhouse floor that turned into a bog and had to be re-levelled and gravelled mid-season, a cooler that died just as crops hit full production, the realization that a misting system was an immediate necessity rather than a longer-term goal — and you start to see why Kosaka and Skaros worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week from March through October.
“The worst was when people would ask us how our garden was doing. It’s not a flipping garden. It’s a farm. We’re working our butts off and they’re making it sound like it’s some on-the-side hobby,” says Skaros.
If only the peanut gallery understood the potential in this form of intensive agriculture, which urban farming guru Curtis Stone says can bring returns of $80,000 per quarter acre, Amazia Farm wouldn’t have to argue its authenticity.
“I don’t question other farmers now. Conventional, organic, big, small, you have my respect if you’re a farmer,” says Skaros.
A key piece of Amazia Farm’s success last year, and even more so looking forward, hinges on efficiency: efficiency in spending, in movement, in effort. Each laying hen gets 115 to 120 grams of food per day: not more, not less. Every egg is counted and calculated against costs. Crops that prove more effort than return get chopped no matter how close to harvest. And automation is the farm’s Holy Grail.
“I spent eight years tree planting. To be a good tree planter, you have to become obsessive about being as efficient as possible,” says Kosaka. “If you walk to hole first and then grab your next tree, you’re going to lose $60 a day. You can’t waste a single movement. Our goal here is to make things streamlined so you’re not wasting any energy. Most people can farm but you have to be efficient to make money farming.”
Admittedly, their farm is an awkward in-between size: too small to justify major purpose-built equipment purchases, too big to manage entirely by hand. Luckily, inventive solutions by other “bigger-scale small farmers” exist, and Kosaka is creative enough to problem-solve the rest.
“We’re willing to invest if it’s going to make our life easier,” says Skaros. “A precision seeder that plants 288 seeds per (bedding) tray at once is a lot better than hand-seeding thousands of tomato seeds with a wet pencil. And we’ll save hundreds — hundreds! — of hours now that we’ve got a mechanized greens cutter where before we were cutting microgreens and lettuce with scissors.”
This year, they know their quest for efficiency needs to extend to sales as well.
“Last year we did it all: everything we could get into. Every market, every restaurant, every sales method. I felt like we needed to make everyone happy. You want one pound of broccoli? I’ll deliver you your one pound of broccoli. I need to rein in delivering direct to consumer and we need to choose our market venues better. We can’t spread ourselves so thin,” says Skaros.
While being part of the local community is important, the reality is that this part of the sunny Okanagan is blessed by an abundance of fruit and veggie options in the summer months. Literally hundreds of fruit stands and U-pick farms compete for consumer dollars; seemingly everyone has a garden overflowing with produce in their backyard.
“The very best would be if we could do all our business right here in town. We really think being part of the local community is important. But, there is a lot of competition here. So, it’s better for us if we can get into bigger markets that draw more outside dollars. We have to be smart about our time,” says Kosaka.
Increasing efficiency will also depend on hiring more hands for menial tasks, both to reach production targets and so Skaros and Kosaka can invest more time in marketing and management.
“We didn’t hire when we should have last year. That was mostly me saying, ‘We can do it, we can do it, we can do it,’” says Skaros. “But it turned out we actually couldn’t do it, not all by ourselves.”
Though they ended up with two fairly full-time staff last summer, the help didn’t arrive until mid-July, at least six weeks too late. This year, they’ve got an agricultural intern from France working from April through September. In addition, they’ll likely hire at least two more employees… if they can find them. Unfortunately, the fact that they can’t yet offer workers accommodation puts them out of the running for the foreign worker program, and competition for the few available local workers is ultra-stiff in this agriculture-dependent region.
“Finding good labour is a huge challenge here,” says Kosaka. “And, ending up with a bad worker will sink your business. It’s money out the window that we can’t afford to spend.”
Their hope is that the intern can help them keep up with transplanting during April and May. By June, they’d like to have some kind of mobile accommodation in place in order to draw WWOOFers (organic labourers) or other workers for the summer and fall.
One year in, Kosaka and Skaros now know that while the internet and others’ experiences are a great way to learn, there’s no substitute for experience. Kosaka highly recommends that anyone considering a new farm startup should first work on a variety of existing farms.
“I come from agriculture so there’s some knowledge I’ve got that I just take for granted. But there’s a lot of other stuff I didn’t know. I’ve never farmed beets or carrots. It would have been very helpful to really understand in advance what tools work best, how much time a job takes, what’s reasonable to expect,” he says.
Two weeks away from the start of planting, Skaros and Kosaka were deep into crop planning.
“Growing this many crops is definitely not the most efficient, but it’s the business model and the lifestyle that we want,” says Kosaka.
“We can sit at the table for four hours and it looks like nothing’s happened, but we’re just trying to figure out where everything goes and when,” says Skaros. “Crop succession planning is like a puzzle. This went there last year so it can’t go there again. This comes ripe then and can be replaced by that. This worked, that didn’t so let’s do more of this and less of that.”
It all comes down to knowing what grows well and what sells well.
Radishes, for example, which are described as 30 days to harvest on the package, can actually take about 50 days when planted early in the season but only 25 days when planted late. So if, say, one were to plant radishes every two weeks from early season through late (as Skaros and Kosaka did last year), it’s perfectly possible that every single one, regardless of planting date, will mature at exactly the same time. Radishes for breakfast, lunch and supper, anyone?
CSA customers like Swiss chard and kohlrabi, but not every week. Melons grow spectacularly in this soil, but you need close relationships with accommodating chefs to use up those melons when they all come ripe at once. And if all else fails, the chickens will probably eat it.
“We definitely need more peas. And more brassicas like kale and broccolini. Actually, more of pretty much everything,” says Skaros.
Not quite everything. Turns out edamame, immature soybean pods popular in Japanese cuisine, aren’t so popular at farmers’ markets.
“Do you like edamame? Then you’d be the only one,” says Kosaka. “People had no idea what they were. They’d stand at our farmer’s market table saying ‘What’s an ed-A-maim?’ My joke is that edamame is Japanese for ‘MOVE ALONG because you’re not going to buy any anyway.’”
“We could have demoed them at the market,” adds Skaros, “but we ran out of time and energy. A lot of moving product is about marketing, showcasing, demo-ing, offering value-adds like recipes. We’ll be putting a lot more effort into that this year.”
Equally important this year will be adjusting pricing: specifically, doing a better job of valuing the time and effort it requires to produce high-quality organic produce.
“We need to say, ‘This is our price’ and then figure out how to access more people who see that. Those people exist: we need our marketing to reach them,” says Skaros.
Both Kosaka and Skaros are excited about the future of their business despite still clear memories of last year’s exhausting pace.
“I don’t think I would have wanted to know some of this before we got started,” says Skaros. “Part of it is the satisfaction in overcoming the challenges. Looking back on the hard work now that it’s winter, I can say ‘oh yeah, it wasn’t that bad.’ It did take its toll, exhaustion-wise, and it’s not easy but it’s still worth it. It’s important work that makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.”
“I fully expected to work super hard last year and that we’re still going to have to do the same for a couple more years at least,” adds Kosaka. “I counted on three years of not having any luxury money. For us pretty much everything goes into the business to make it easier and more streamlined. But, the tradeoff is the freedom. I love that we are our own bosses, that we make every call and choose every priority.”
Skaros and Kosaka each credit their parents for modelling values that are leading to farm success.
Skaros’ parents were unconventional, choosing not to work a traditional 9 to 5.
“They taught me that I could take risks, be resilient, adapt, and not worry about expectations,” she says.
Kosaka’s father (his mother passed away in 2011) still tirelessly continues to prove there is a life and a living to be made in agriculture. “Dad is a problem-solver and he sees the value in the work itself. I don’t think I understood that when I was young, but I appreciate it now,” says Kosaka.
“My great-uncle and my grandparents left internment as new parents with nothing,” says Kosaka. “They forged a pretty nice life from farming. They had nice homes, nice cars. On a greenhouse that was maybe 10,000 square feet, they put their kids through university, went to Hawaii. It wasn’t excessively big money but enough for a good life.”
Through the ’70s and ’80s, Kosaka’s parents bought the family business from the grandparent generation and grew it from a solid mom-and-pop level to a much bigger enterprise. While he and Skaros don’t aspire to that scale of operation, Kosaka has never wavered in his desire to follow in his parents’ independent, be-your-own-boss footsteps.
“A lot of people, including my dad and mom have said ‘Don’t be a farmer.’ When I was little, they always said that being a farmer is just too much. My dad even considered becoming a dentist. Then they really made something of their business. Now he says, ‘Why would you want a boss? Having a boss means pursuing someone else’s dreams.’ I’ve always been drawn to this lifestyle and to this freedom. I want to pour 100 per cent of myself into this.”