Tend Blog Staff - Jan 31, 2018

Farm of the Month: Blue Shirt Farm

This month marks the beginning of our new "Farm of the Month" series on the Tend Blog, where we highlight the amazing work and delicious produce and food  that small organic farms are producing. Check back each month. To be considered for our series, please email [email protected].

Farm Name: Blue Shirt Farm
Owner/ Manager name: Matt Conahan
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Website: www.blueshirtfarm.com
Number of Employees: 1
Acreage: 1.5
Specialties of Your Farm: tomatoes, salad greens

How did you get into farming?
I came to farming later in life. My degree is in photojournalism and I worked in data science in Silicon Valley for a large part of my career (with formative side trips in Peace Corps service and at a nature education non-profit in California.) While in the Bay area I watched friends and acquaintances start their own farms. I spent time on their farms whenever I could and I was hooked. I eventually left data science work in 2015 with the intention of transitioning to farming. I was fortunate enough to serve as the Winter resident at Pie Ranch in Pescadero, CA shortly after I began the transition. What an incredible place to learn! I moved (back) to Michigan for family matters in early 2016 and was again incredibly fortunate to find a farm to learn from - Stone Coop Farm. I worked for about 2 years at Stone Coop and made the decision to start my own farm this year.

Tell us about the story of your farm – how did you (and your farm partner) get started? What was that like? What challenges did you encounter?
At this point this is either a very long or an incredibly short story! I'll aim for middle ground. 2018 marks Blue Shirt Farm's first year in existence. I started planning the farm with a business plan I wrote in November of 2017. Prior to crafting the business plan I was looking for land. A friend suggested I talk with current farmers at Tilian farm development center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I did and I could not have met a kinder group of people. From those who have farmed at Tilian for several years now to the Tilian management team, I was overwhelmed by their kindness, advice and willingness to share their insights. Blue Shirt Farm will start its first year at Tilian in 2018.

What are some important things you’ve learned since you started at your farm?
In my case I would narrow it to a single important thing - ask fellow farmers for their advice. Doing so has helped me immensely.

What is the most challenging aspect given the location of your farm?
Blue Shirt Farm is 1.5 acres located on a farm development center. The only challenge (amidst an incredible amount of advantages) is that I lease the land and cannot undertake some of my longer term farming projects (orchards, geo-air greenhouses) because it wouldn't make sense to undertake these projects on leased land.

What do you love about your community that makes it a special place to farm?
Ann Arbor (and its surrounding communities) is an incredible place to start a farm. From consumers to restaurants, grocery stores and co-ops there is a culture of understanding the value of local high quality food systems.

Name something you would love to grow that you haven't tried or been able to grow yet?
I am a sucker for a good peach and would love to grow them. That will have to wait until the farm is on land that is owned and not leased. Same with having a go at growing citrus in Michigan in a geo-air greenhouse.

Where do you see your farm 10 years from now?
It is my hope that in 10 years Blue Shirt Farm is recognized as a leader in small-scale intensive farming.

What are a few of your favorite farming pro tips?
Invest heavily in tools that reduce unnecessary labor costs and backbreaking work. For example, a greens harvester and or a greens dryer. Do every single thing you can to learn as much as you can about the crops on your farm. It's easy to think something like "I've been growing this for years, I know what I am doing." I've seen that turn out to be far from true and it was to the detriment of the crop and the farm. Never be afraid to continually evaluate the way you do things. Your business and the things you grow will be improved if you can get past whatever causes you to be afraid to do so.

Who are your greatest farming influencers?
A lot of farmers in the South Coast (Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz) of California come to mind. These farmers and their farms were central to my early farming experiences and to my decision to transition to farming. In no particular order:

Suzie and Jay Trexler at Portrero Nuevo Farm - https://potreronuevofarm.org/farm/
Ryan Casey at Blue House Farm - https://bluehousefarm.com/
John Vars, Teresa Kurtak and Mike Irving at Fifth Crow Farm - https://fifthcrowfarm.com/about/
Debbie Harris, Jered Lawson, Nancy Vail, Flor Revolorio at Pie Ranch - http://www.pieranch.org/

More recently three additional farmers come to mind:
Daniel Moffatt was assistant farm manager at Stone Coop Farm during my final season on the farm. He fundamentally changed the way a lot of things were done on the farm and introduced me to a world of new farming ideas. He's one to watch for sure!

The other two are Jean-Martin Fortier and Conor Crickmore. Their demonstrations of how small-scale intensive farming can be profitable serve as daily inspiration.

How has Tend helped your business?
I use Tend primarily for crop planning and will eventually use it for data analysis. It's hard to express how much the tool has helped me. As a one person farm the manner in which I use my time has an outsize impact on the business. Using Tend rather than cobbled together spreadsheets for crop planning is invaluable!

I worked in data science and business intelligence for most of my career in Silicon Valley and am impressed with the thought behind the tools and the execution. I will happily include Tend in my annual expense planning!

What are some of the greatest challenges, for your farm, that you have overcome? How?
Finding land was the greatest challenge I overcame. I changed my thinking, got sound advice and expanded my search and I am so fortunate that I did.  Starting Blue Shirt Farm at a farm development center is an incredible opportunity and I am grateful to be at Tilian with shared resources and knowledge. What an incredible place to start a farm!


Matthew J Adkins

Feb 2, 2018 at 4:48 PM

I am so excited to see Blue shirt farm come to life! I have been friends with owner Matt Conahan for about a year now. We worked on an organic farm together last year. Matt is one of the kindest and brightest individuals i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I have no doubt that Blue shirt farm will blossom and grow to be one of Michigan's premiere diversified intensive farms. Matt cares more about quality than anything else, and that is what i like most about him as a farmer and a person. Good luck Blue shirt farm, and happy farming!

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