Contributed by Donna Coco of Babson Magazine (8/2/2016)
Ideas Grow into Reality
Jesse Tolz ’08 remembers the gardens that his mother and grandmother planted and cared for when he was a youth. Dense, magical gardens of flowers, shrubs, and trees. Although he loved hanging out in them and even helped a bit with the tending, he didn’t have as strong of a connection to nature then as he does today. Last year, Tolz leased 2.5 acres to start Vida farm in Ghent, New York, where he grows and sells vegetables, herbs, flowers, and seeds. “I would not have seen this one coming,” he says of his venture.
As a teenager thinking about college, Tolz had envisioned opening a cafe and boutique one day. His high school counselor told him, “You want to be an entrepreneur,” and guided him to Babson. After graduating, Tolz worked in marketing for a few years and landed in Brooklyn, New York, where he planned to open a vegan baked-goods company. He decided to drop by Brooklyn Boulders, the rock-climbing venture started by fellow Babson alumni, including Lance Pinn ’06, to see how his friends were doing. “Lance convinced me to start working at Brooklyn Boulders,” says Tolz. “I think my going there was serendipitous.”
Tolz enjoyed working for the company, and, as it grew, he participated in discussions about how to potentially expand and scale. “I was working for Lance, and we started discussing our core values,” says Tolz. “There was an exercise where we designated our most positive and negative experiences of our lives on a chart.” All of Tolz’s positive experiences were tied somehow to nature. “It got me thinking,” he says.
At Brooklyn Boulders, Tolz definitely saw a great future, with room for growth, creative freedom, and financial stability. But his intuition still told him to leave and follow his interests in the food system by exploring agriculture. “Over the years,” he says, “I’ve learned that the more I trust my intuition, the better things go for me.”
During the next three years, Tolz trained to become a farmer. He took courses at The Pfeiffer Center, a nonprofit that focuses on biodynamics, a holistic and ecological approach to agriculture. He learned about draft-horse powered farming, as well as other skills, such as orcharding, beekeeping, carpentry, and welding. “To be a farmer,” he says, “you have to be a jack-of-all-trades.”
As part of his studies, Tolz did a research project on plant breeding and seed saving. “It was one of those rabbit-hole experiences,” he says. “I realized that hardly any farmers who produce crops actually produce their own seeds to improve the plants year after year.” To learn more, he worked for the nonprofit Turtle Tree Seed Initiative, which uses biodynamic methods to grow seeds, which it then sells. Next, Tolz worked in the fields at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit farm and education center.
Feeling confident in his skills, Tolz made plans with a partner to start a draft-powered farm near Albany. But the day Tolz packed his car to move, the partner backed out due to financial problems. Tolz moved anyway. “I tapped my network, walking around and talking to people and asking if they knew of any good opportunities or farmland,” he says. “As I did this, I was realizing more and more that it was a sign for me to see if things I wanted to experiment with I could now take up myself.” He found a couple with farmland who were raising chickens and pigs and who wanted to lease land to a plant-based operation. Around the middle of March last year, Tolz signed on, and he began working as soon as the snow melted in late April.
Tolz had numerous ideas floating in his head, but one of his main goals was to set up a farm that wouldn’t demand a huge initial capital investment. “The minimum you usually need to get started is around $100,000,” he says. “You need to buy tractors, fencing, irrigation. You have all these requirements, but you still have to sell at commoditized prices. People expect to find the same prices as at the supermarket. So there’s not that much elasticity when it comes to pricing.”
Falling back on what he had learned, Tolz believed he could create a scalable, replicable system with capital costs of around $15,000 and aims of profitability in year two. To start, he rented a tiller and opened the land, which formerly was a hayfield but now was overgrown with weeds. After cutting up the top layer of the soil, he planted 10 low-growth legumes to become a permanent cover crop. “With a permanent cover crop, you don’t necessarily need to rely on irrigation,” says Tolz. “The cover crop itself has an absurd amount of surface area, so every morning, the dew is collected in these overlapping layers of plants,” he says, effectively watering the field while shading the soil from evaporation loss.
Also, because of the root system and diversity of plants, the soil is healthier. “If I have bare soil, there is more evaporation and runoff, not just of moisture but also of nutrients and soil life, which is bacteria, fungi, all kinds of things,” says Tolz. “There is such an invisible diversity of life. With bare soil, that’s more depleted.”
Tolz uses no pesticides, conventional or organic. The farm also is completely direct seeded, which means every seed goes into the field. Many farms, especially in the north, start plants in greenhouses and then transplant them once the weather warms. “Every time you repot a plant into a larger pot or soil, there is some degree of root shock,” says Tolz. “The idea of sowing directly is once the plant sends out its root system, it’s unrestricted by plastic walls. Not only am I cutting out the infrastructure needed to start plants indoors, my plants are healthier and more delicious. With tomatoes, I don’t know a single farmer who does direct planting of tomatoes. It gives me a competitive edge.”
With a shorter growing season, Tolz has to choose his plants carefully, as certain plants take longer to mature than others. The first year, as part of his experiment, he grew a wide variety of crops. This year, after learning what grows well in his fields, he is focusing on fewer varieties. He also is learning about which crops are more profitable. “Sweet corn, I’m not breaking even,” he says. “But kale and tomatoes have high margins.” To control pests such as deer and rabbits, Tolz has a fence and his adopted dog, Oso, which means bear in Spanish. “I’ve had him for three years now,” says Tolz. “He’s my partner in crime.”
During the season, Tolz has an on-site farm stand for weekend sales and takes orders from restaurants and other customers. In the fall and winter, he’ll sell stored crops, such as winter squashes and dried beans, to restaurants and grocers. Besides vegetables, Tolz is experimenting with developing certain plants for seeds, which he plans to package and sell.
He also has devoted half an acre to flowers, growing 33 varieties. Tolz has high hopes for this revenue stream, which he believes is not as restricted by price ceilings as the vegetables. “People spend good money on luxury items,” he says. He sells his flowers via the farm stand and takes orders from florists and individuals. Some of his flowers are edible, which he sells to restaurants. He has added wedding sales this year and is thinking about a pick-your-own-flowers option. “I’m very taken by flowers,” says Tolz. “Even though I grew up with my grandma and mother gardening, I didn’t see the real value in the aesthetics and beauty of creating a cut-flower setting. But my girlfriend, Marla, is a florist, and she’s shown me a lot about flowers.”
For now, Tolz is a one-man—and dog—operation. Early in the year, he prepares the fields and plant beds. In the spring, he begins planting, tending, and weeding. Come harvest time, he waits for the field to cool down before picking, which means going out in the early morning or late evening. All year long, he also does maintenance, manages operations, handles sales and marketing, and continues to learn from other farmers and experiment with new ideas. Once he has obtained proof of his concept, Tolz wants to look for a larger farm, 10 to 30 acres, and add a draft-powered system. “Right now I’m working with small tillers to make the beds in the cover crops,” he says. “Adding horses to a farm system is a plus in my eyes. If you manage them properly, you also get manure, which is a great fertilizer. If I scale up with a tractor, the weight of that machinery would crush and kill the cover crop. Whereas the horse can be super nimble. And I love working with horses.”
Much of what Tolz is doing has no precedent. “It’s an experiment and a lot of risk,” he says. Although his financial investment has been low, Tolz has put in an enormous amount of time and energy. “This is like any entrepreneurial venture,” he says. “I’ve been working really hard, and I’m hoping it works.”
He already has reaped some rewards. Simply being able to put into practice his ideas and ideals has been worth the effort. And he loves the work. “I love seeing the crops, going into a field, and there’s a whole row of beautiful heads of lettuce or tomatoes that are doing astonishingly well,” says Tolz. “I’m interacting with the plants, and although when harvesting you’re ending the plant’s life, you’re giving this delicious product to someone who will be nourished by it and enjoy it. It’s very rewarding.”