Winslow Food Forest
Melissa and Teague Cullen came to Mercy Corps NW in 2013. They applied to be a part of the IDA program to get their plant start/ farm business started. Over the year the structure of the training and one-on-one assistance helped keep them both accountable to their goals. They are now in their fourth year of business.
People start a business for all kinds of reasons. Melissa and Teague found themselves piecing together part-time work to make ends meet. They both decided that wasn’t going to work so they began to explore their options.
What inspired you to start your business?
We wanted to make a living doing what we loved: gardening and encouraging others to garden! Winslow Food Forest began in 2013 as an urban micro nursery called “Kenton Plant Starts”. My partner Teague and I grew vegetable seedlings for sale through a “Plant Start CSA”, which delivered veggie plants for home gardeners all throughout Portland.
Also, we are both REALLY STUBBORN. Wanted to be our own boss in charge of our day-to-day while doing something that feeds our values. We were at a place where we could make a change without sacrificing too much. I mean honestly, the business was part heart and part necessity.
A business means different things to different people. We often learn that people are struggling to find a job that means something to them or gives them purpose. Despite the deeper meaning and satisfaction the business might offer, the first year is tough. Melissa and Teague are now, after four years of operation, 95% sustained by their business. This means that often they were pulling a double or even triple shift to pay their bills and keep their business growing.
What is the hardest lesson you learned during your first year in business and how did you overcome it?
“People don’t like to talk about it but you need that stable income.”
Working the side jobs. It’s not glamorous and there is a lot of judgment that comes along, mostly from ourselves. We felt like failures because we couldn’t survive from just our business. So many times we wanted to walk away. It’s hard to have your side jobs suck up so much energy and leave you feeling depleted.
But we learned that side jobs are a necessity for A LOT of small business owners especially those in agriculture/ farming. It was hard though… it still is.
The other thing that we really struggled with in the beginning was of course money. We are stubborn about perennial agricultural systems. If we did a conventional farm we could be sustainable but the natural infrastructure of a food forest takes time. Doing something different takes time and investment. We could have grown a cash crop and let go of their dream of a sustainable diverse food forest. It’s a tension between paying the bills and nourishing your dream and the mission of the business.
Mercy Corps Northwest meets owners and aspiring owners at many different stages of business. The programs and services are designed in a way to provide support and encouragement and with enough space to accommodate those that are going about business at different speeds and levels. Winslow Food Forest started as a backyard project that would supplement their income. Melissa and Teague were deeply moved by their desire to help others view home gardening and permaculture in a different light. Maybe their path was not the most financially lucrative but it served their much larger goals. Mercy Corps Northwest was honored to help.
What was the most useful lesson or advice you learned at MCNW?
The most useful part of participating in an IDA program through Mercy Corps NW was all the support we received as we took those first steps in starting our farm. We took the business foundations course and it gave us all the step-by-step guidance on how to form a legal business entity.
Literally moving from idea to actually starting the business. One of the biggest hurdles we faced was following through and be accountable to our business goals.
Ben, one of the small business advisors at Mercy Corps NW, has checked in with us over the years. Knowing that Mercy Corps NW is there gives us some peace.
“We’ve done a lot of things that I never planned from day one. We used our intuition.”
Small business is more than the work, it is often ingrained and dependent on the community that it serves and supports it. Portland is often thought of as weird market with a unique culture. Businesses that succeed are great at understanding how they fit into the bustling melting pot of makers, creatives, and DIY’ers. Melissa and Teague got connect to the CSA community and relied on mentors to help them get their footing.
What excites you about doing business in Portland?
The enthusiasm that Portlanders have for supporting our local food system is very encouraging to me as a farmer. This is a city where you can find chefs who not only understand the importance of cooking by season but who are actually excited to work with the seasonally available produce.
If you are looking to get started in farming or urban farming, jump right in, there isn’t a better place to be and check out Portland Area CSA Coalition, it has been so helpful getting us connected. http://www.portlandcsa.org/
Successful business owners are inherently lifetime learners. Business strategies, markets, trends, technology; it’s all always changing. The key is to learn as you go and continue developing yourself and your business.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your pre-business self?
Winslow Food Forest has transformed us into organic farmers and food foresters. Farming taught us persistence and has helped us learn to give up control and go with the flow.
How have you personally grown since starting your business?
Since we started our business we both have become more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and we have less fear about the core values and mission of our business. We felt that it might seem intense and weird but the more honest we are the more people responded to us. Growing your own food is an act of subversion and defiance against the norm. The earth is a place you can put a lot of energy and you get that energy back, it’s not like that in other places, we want to build on that.
What lies in the future for you?
We have expanded over the years from an urban micro plant nursery into a diverse small CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. Our Harvest Share of weekly produce and a Seedling Share from the micro nursery is still an important and vibrant part of our farm.
What’s new? Winslow Food Forest was just selected by the city of Portland to establish a new food forest on an empty lot at SE Sherrett and 34th!!! We are constantly evolving. We have moved into a more intimate space where we can get into plant breeding and seed saving. We are urban farmers at heart and it is so great to be back in the city. Since we are back in the city we are looking into bike delivery options so stay tuned for that.
The space off SE 34th is beautiful and unique. Support Winslow Food Forest and buy a CSA membership and bring local sustainable food to your table with their CSA. How is your farmer?