On a warm August day, a windy country road delivers us to the small-scale farm of Susan McKinney, Founder of Small Batch Farm. Located on family land in Gray, Tennessee that McKinney’s parents used for a large family garden every year, a half-acre plot is teeming with sun-ripened veggies ready for market.
As we walk through the rows of veggies, McKinney shares farming tips and knowledge like an old pro. Terms such as “post harvest handling,” “wholesaling,” “soil structure,” and “succession crops” weave their way into our conversation.
(Susan McKinney, Founder and Farmer at Small Batch Farm.)
If you’ve never heard of Small Batch Farm before, there’s a reason for that. It’s only been around for a few short months, becoming a reality in May of this year. And McKinney, she’s not an old pro either. She’s a first-time farmer who had an idea, a dream, to start a small-scale farm less than a year ago.
Susan McKinney is a recent graduate of the Appalachian Resource Conversation & Development (ARC&D) Council’s second round of their nine-session small-scale farming program named the Field School.
McKinney began the program with the idea of “doing some research” and exploring her options. What she didn’t know back in November of 2016 when the program began was how quickly she’d fall in love with farming and that she would start her own small-scale farm before she was halfway through the program.
The first words out of McKinney’s mouth as we began to talk about the Field School and how it has impacted her life over the past year were, “They gave us a prolific amount of information. It was extremely valuable.”
McKinney went on to explain, “I chose to go through the Field School as a fact-finding opportunity. I thought starting the farm would be something I might like to do next year.”
As we walk through the farm, Susan proudly points out her labors of love: multiple varieties of tomatoes, peppers, melons, pumpkins, potatoes (including purple sweet potatoes!) and tomatillos. She also describes her upcoming plans for transitioning her farm from a spring/summer crop to a fall/winter crop, where she’ll grow broccoli and Brussels sprouts, among other cold weather crops.
Throughout our interview, it’s clear to see how passionate McKinney is about farming and about Small Batch Farm. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious.
“I never intended to start Small Batch Farm this year, but, I got the bug. I figured I could spend the whole next year calculating and thinking and planning. Or, I could just get started and figure it out as I go.” And that’s exactly what she did!
McKinney attributes the success she’s already had with Small Batch Farm to “developing relationships. It’s extremely important.” She shared a story about a gentleman she recently met who had an interest in a specific variety of sweet potatoes. They discussed a prospective opportunity where she would potentially grow the variety, which would then be shipped to him for use in a “value-added” product. “No deals have been struck yet,” said McKinney, “but the potential is there.” She said with a smile, “You just never know who you’re going to meet or what might come of that meeting.”
So what’s next for Susan McKinney and Small Batch Farm? Her goal for the next year is to break even in her business (because starting a farm from scratch is quite the investment!). She looks forward to cultivating and nurturing her land, purchasing some small farm equipment, and working toward the ability to farm year-round.
McKinney also wishes to expand outside of the farmers’ markets, where her business has taken root and grown this year, by adding other markets, wholesaling opportunities, and avenues to her business. She plans on taking time to evaluate this first year in business and determine her next steps for the coming year.
As we wrapped up our interview and tour of Small Batch Farm, Susan shared this thought, “I still work a normal day job in addition to running my farm. It’s a lot of work, but I love it. And I honestly couldn’t do it all without the help and support of my wonderful husband, Mike.”
To learn more about and see where Small Batch Farm and Susan McKinney will be next, follow her on Facebook.
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