Well, needless to say, the next few years were very difficult ones as he learned through the “school of hard knocks.” But Eliot’s book was kept by dad’s side and dad came to view him as his “mentor” — even though the two had never met.
So, when we got the news that Eliot was going to be in Nashville (just an hour away) for a conference, my dad was pretty thrilled — that is until we learned that the conference was to be on Saturday. You see, as Bible-believing Christians, we see Saturday (the 7th day of the week) as the Sabbath. We are asked not to do any work on that day (Ex. 20:8-11) and since farming is kind of like work, we choose not to do anything farm-related (including going to conferences) — which meant not meeting Eliot.
But my sister Kirsten, unbeknown to my dad, decided she was going to try and arrange a meeting between the two of them. So she wrote Eliot a letter explaining why my dad wouldn’t be at his conference, and wondering if there was another time they could meet. Eliot graciously responded and said he would love to meet my dad and talk. How about for breakfast Sunday morning — and could she come too? She had great joy in making an invitation to this breakfast date. My dad was thrilled!
They had a wonderful time over breakfast and Eliot invited my dad and uncle (who had become my dad’s farm partner) to come visit his farm in Maine. That was nice, but times were hard and it didn’t seem like a doable dream — that is until someone who had come to our farm for a week-long workshop gave my dad a check and said it was for he and my uncle and my cousin and me to go visit Eliot’s farm and learn all we could.
So, in September of 2008 (I had just turned 15), we flew up to Maine and spent a couple days visiting and working on Eliot’s farm. While we were there, Eliot looked at my cousin and me and said, “You young guys need to come up with a solution for harvesting baby greens.” He then shared some pencil sketches of ideas he had and left it at that.
Well, that got my wheels turning. You see, growing up on the farm, I was always looking for more efficient (read: “easier”) ways to do things. Why do things by hand if you can come up with a mechanical solution, right? When I got home, I bought an electric bread knife and an electric hedge trimmer and started tinkering. I soon had fabricated something with the hedge trimmer that worked decently. A few drawbacks were that you had to run extension cords a long way, and I kept getting shocked by it! It was also clear that we needed some sort of device to gently push the greens into the blade (so they didn’t just bend over). I had a lot of ideas in my head for how to solve these problems, but didn’t have the skills or equipment needed to take these concepts and create real prototypes. It was clear I needed some help to make this a reality. I talked with my parents about my need and they wished out loud that they knew a “retired engineer” who could help me.
The very next day, a lady acquaintance called my mom to see if she and some of her friends could come and visit the farm. At the end of their visit, as we were saying goodby, it hit my mother that this lady’s husband was a retired engineer! Did she think he would be interested in looking at my harvester ideas? The following day he called and asked what he could do to help. What a Divine appointment!
I couldn’t have asked for a better engineer! Mr. Christianson is brilliant, talented, and willing to think “outside the box.” He bent over backwards to help this “kid” come up with a working prototype. Sometime in 2010 we had a greens harvester that was cutting well, but then I lost momentum on the project. I got distracted with my Mighty Power Small Engine Shop, and just wasn’t sure how to proceed with the production challenge. So, things kind of sat on the shelf for a while.
Then, in the winter of 2012, my dad was reading the latest Growing for Market magazine and saw about the “Slow Tools Summit” that Eliot had helped organize. Someone there had demonstrated a mechanized greens harvester and there was interest in getting it into production. My father encouraged me to “act quick” or else I was going to lose out. I emailed Eliot and sent him a picture of what we had been working on. He said he “whooped and hollered” when he saw the photo; he could tell from the picture that it had great potential. He then immediately forwarded it on to Adam Lemieux at Johnny’s Selected Seeds and they said they would like to see it demonstrated.
So, in March of 2012, my dad and I made the 25-hour-long road trip to Maine to demonstrate the harvester. It was a bit nerve-wracking, because we had not been able to actually test it much — since our farm was not growing a lot of baby greens at the time. But I had faith in the design and believed it would work.
Eliot was a very hospitable host and put us up for the night. The next morning Adam from Johnny’s arrived and we headed to the greenhouse for the demonstration. Let’s just say that it was an amazing experience to demonstrate this tool to Eliot and Adam. At first they were almost speechless, then Eliot became like a “kid in a candy shop.” He wanted to try it out on everything. Big and small leaves, old and young. I think I can say it exceeded the expectations of all of us!
Adam was ready to “sign on the dotted line”, and on the long drive home, my dad and I discussed how to face the next hurdle: going from prototype to production. I needed a building, equipment, and supplies…. It was all a bit overwhelming, but the Lord worked out all the details: a shop was built on the corner of our farm, I obtained financing from farm customers who believed in the project, equipment and supplies were ordered and production began.
It was a very humble beginning. The shop was dry (most of the time), but there was no running water, heat or electricity. We sweltered in the summer and shivered in the winter — running our power equipment with a generator. The “Quick Cut” (Eliot’s name choice) Greens Harvester debuted in the Fall 2012 Johnny’s catalog. After JM Fortier wrote a very positive tool review in Growing for Market, and the editor, Lynn Bcyzinski, wrote a complimentary article, sales took off.
Orders quickly outpaced Johnny’s projections and it wasn’t long before we were way in backorder. The first model we manufactured was very labor intensive to produce and we just couldn’t keep up with demand. Johnny’s was very patient with me, but after being out-of-stock more than in-stock, they finally terminated our contract. In all fairness, I was young and didn’t really know what I was doing. Adam Lemieux was rooting for me and the harvester, but I just couldn’t produce like they needed me to produce.
After that, I was pretty discouraged. It seemed like I had blown my big chance to really get this tool out there. But, after regrouping and looking at options, I decided to just try direct marketing. Fortunately, there were already enough people using the harvester to keep the momentum building. Sales never slumped after I stopped selling through Johnny’s. What at first appeared to be a big problem has actually been a huge blessing — no middleman! Production problems were slowly tackled, manufacturing and assembly were streamlined, and Farmer’s Friend actually began to be profitable. I was able to pay off the last of my loans in the spring of 2016 and hope to never be a borrower again.
Well, “the rest is history,” as they say. The Farmer’s Friend team and product line continues to grow. We now own the whole building we started out renting a portion of. The team is full of ideas and plans for the future and sales are booming.
As I look back, there are so many blessings and providences along the way; so many people who contributed knowingly or unknowingly to the success of Farmer’s Friend: My parents who blessed me by choosing a “road less traveled” and a hard-working farm life; my sister who first connected us with Eliot Coleman; the friends who paid for us to visit Eliot’s farm; Eliot, who inspired and encouraged me to dream big; Adam, who believed in a kid with big ideas; Mr. Christianson who put “skin and bones” on my ideas — and gave plenty of his own; JM Fortier, Curtis Stone, and other market gardening revolutionaries who have used and promoted my products; the whole team at Farmer’s Friend (past and present) who have contributed their blood (that harvester blade is sharp!) and sweat to make it work. But there are two others that deserve special mention: My Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ — without Him I can do nothing! And YOU, the customer. You pay the bills, keep us motivated, and encourage us to press on in search of better tools and solutions to your small farm needs. Thank you!