With one foot still on farm, Dove ‘loves’ new challenge
WOODBINE, Md. (Nov. 14, 2017) — Some call it no man’s land, others say it’s growing pains.
It’s the stage of business growth where you become too big to be small and too small to be big.
John Dove of Love Dove Farms in Howard County found himself in this spot after years of rapid growth.
“We got to that in-between point trying to figure out how to get from the first stage to the third stage. We couldn’t grow because we weren’t making enough money to expand any further than we had,” Dove said.
When Dove started his produce business in 2011, he sat down and wrote a business plan. He said he tried to set good expectations but his numbers were off.
Dove said projections for farmers’ market sales in the early stage of the business were underestimated and other areas like the wholesale markets and CSA were overestimated.
“Every year, I’d sit down and look at that plan and after a year or two, I was able to pencil in more realistic projections,” Dove said.
Even with three marketing outlets: the farmers’ market, a CSA, and a handful of wholesale accounts, he said he wasn’t able to move enough product.
“We grew to the point where we are now with five high tunnels, huge walk-in coolers, an 8-foot deer fence around the property…but I still didn’t have that next step. We’d have produce left over at the end of the day,” he said.
Ultimately, the growing pains led him to look for opportunities off the farm.
This year, Dove stepped away from the business and became a certified financial advisor with Edward Jones Investments. His office is in Ellicott City.
Keeping the farm in business was important though. Dove hired a full time farm manager and a full time farmer’s market manager.
“I’m still very much involved, but they’re handling the day to day operations. I wasn’t being challenged anymore. The new business is a way for me to stay involved, keep the farm going, and make new connections in the community,” Dove said.
With Edward Jones, Dove said he can be more of an advocate for agriculture, which he struggled to do when he was managing the farm full-time.
“I’m still a farmer…now I’m able to get out and explain what farmers need,” Dove said.
He said what farmers need is help with identifying that next step. For him, he looked at organic certification and GAP certification but ultimately, he wasn’t sure that was the answer either.
“The bottom line is you have to sell product to make a living and if you have product but it isn’t selling, that’s the problem,” Dove said.
Farmers’ market sales have been flat in the past few years, he said. Some of the larger farms are still doing well, Dove said and the newer, smaller farms are able to sell out of product because they’re still in the early growth stage.
“The markets haven’t grown and they’ve definitely leveled off,” Dove said. “No matter how much I grew, the numbers were still the same. I’d have to go to ten more farmers markets to be able to sell everything.”
He said farmers’ markets still have a place, especially for new farm businesses.
The CSA model has also been challenging. Retaining customers year after year was difficult especially with the rise in popularity of prepared meal kits and grocery delivery services.
“Sometimes it’s hard to connect a raw ag product into a meal. Our typical customer is a middle aged woman with children or retired women who still cook. We’re missing the younger people at the farmers’ markets,” Dove said.
He said he sees an opportunity in value-added agriculture.
One of the things that’s missing from his region, he said is a commercial kitchen. Dove said he’d like to see more investment in this type of infrastructure.
His goal now is to help raise awareness for the issues that medium-scale farmers are facing.
“I’m still very optimistic,” Dove said. “We have so much potential in central Maryland. It’s coming up with a way to help farmers be more successful.”
Looking ahead to next year, he said that he envisions the farm will still be in business. He said he’d like to do two farmer’s markets to keep a presence in the community.
But he’s enjoying the next phase and his new found work-life balance.
“I’m loving my job. I love the change. My job specifically has a component of relationship building so it works for me to be passionate about agriculture,” Dove said.
“I miss going to the farmers’ markets but at the same time, having my Saturdays and Sundays have been amazing,” he added. “To wake up and have coffee with my wife and play with my little girl…I appreciate that more because we spent the last five years not having it,” he said.