Is there any way we can go back to our roots and champion the natural, organic way of consuming things? The world is so used to pressed, processed, and packaged goods that we often forget sustainable farming is still practiced. In this episode, Brian Bruno of Apple Ridge Farm joins us to talk about small, sustainable ag-entrepreneurship. He shares how the farm lives by its vision of producing the best food in the most sustainable way possible. This story has plenty of lessons about starting where you are and finding a compelling goal.
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Read the transcript below.
Breaking The Mold In Sustainable Farming With Brian Bruno
Brian, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
Before we jump in, would you tell our readers a little bit about what you’re doing and about Apple Ridge Farm?
We’re a small 7-acre farm in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. We’re a little bit of farming. We’re a whole lot of baking. We’re partnered in a pizzeria. We’re a team of about twenty people, give or take, depending on the time of year. Our whole motto is sustainability through diversity. We’re a lot of things in a little space.
In farming, if you name it, we’re probably in it on the small scale, from beekeeping to educational workshops to organic vegetables to hydroponics, a little bit of poultry and pork. We stack enterprises. Our big thing is we take as much of that as we can and value-add it through our commercial kitchen and sourdough bread bakery.
I came across your bakery while on vacation in Milford, Pennsylvania, staying on the Delaware River. We went to the Milford Farmers’ Market and found that bread. I was like, “This is unbelievable. Who is this guy? Where is this stuff coming from?” We drove down to Saylorsburg, which is maybe an hour from Milford. We visited the farm and that’s where I connected with you. I saw this amazing thing you got going on. Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me how you got on this track. You’ve got this little 7-acre farm. What put you on this path?
I was born on the farm. I grew up on the farm for my family. It was more like a hobby farm. It was more like a homestead. We had sheep. Off and on, we had chickens. We had an orchard. It’s called Apple Ridge Farm because we had a decent-size apple orchard. Every fall, we’d sell apples and do apple cider and stuff. I don’t think it was intended this way, but it became an entrepreneurial starting ground for me.
My dad would say, “Do you guys want to go to Disney World? Let’s get some chickens. You can sell eggs in the driveway and we’ll put it in the jar until we have enough money.” When we were kids, the whole neighborhood would come down. We’d pick apples and go to the mill. We’d press it in the cider room. We’d all sit there in the driveway and sell it on the weekends out of this big Oak barrel. We’d always get to keep the money.
Your dad was entrepreneurial is what you’re saying.
He had a corporate job for a big pharmaceutical company. He was more of a back to the lander. He was more of a, “I always want to be close to my food source. I want to be able to have these skills.” He was a city kid who decided early on that he wanted to be tied to his food source. He gained these skills and befriended a lot of the local farmers when he moved here many years ago. There were people who he always was worried about. He worked for a company that makes the flu vaccine. He was always like, “We got to be ready for a big pandemic.” We always had cases of peanut butter in the basement.
You must have been told him, “Dad, you’re crazy. That’s never going to happen.”
He always had tieback suits and masks. Finally, here he is and we’re in a major pandemic. He’s like, “I told you.”
I’ve looked at some of the data. People being entrepreneurial at an early age greatly increases the probability of you’re going to do your own thing. If we dig into it a little bit, what’s happening there is your parents are teaching you at an early age. You got to create something useful for other humans and get rewarded for doing that. That connection isn’t often made in young people.
That’s an interesting part of the story to me. Your dad was saying, “Do you want to go to Disney World? We’re going to have to sell much cider or many eggs or do whatever it is we’re going to have to do to get there.” I hear a lot of that. I hear people say, “My parents said, ‘You want a bicycle. You’re going to have to figure out how to do something to earn the money to get the bicycle.'”
They did that in their life too. At some point, my dad said, “I don’t want to keep getting loans when we buy a new vehicle.” When he wanted to buy a new truck or a van, they would buy and flip a house. That would be the money they would use. They didn’t do it a lot because they liked recreation as well, but they did it when they needed to.
My whole life, I’d hear my dad saying, “I missed that opportunity. So and so farmer wanted me to buy that land years ago. Now, it’s all the main strip in town. Each of those lots was sold for $1 million to Burger King and McDonald’s.” That stuck with me because I was like, “I can’t miss an opportunity.” I don’t want to miss an opportunity. My dad could have been millionaire ten times over if he would have not passed up the opportunity.
Your dad also wanted some recreation and leisure. It’s not all about grinding 24/7. You need a break. You need to have balance. I struggle with that myself. It’s easier said than done.
I struggle with it hard. I’ve been grinding for many years straight. It’s hard to come up sometimes.
There’s something there. Work-life balance for somebody who’s got a passion and a vision for something is a difficult thing. I don’t know if it’s even possible.
It’s so hard. You get on it and when you’re passionate about it, it takes a lot.
You grew up on this farm and 7 acres is not a big farm. That’s a relatively small piece of land. Did you go off to college or just roll right into this? How did this work?
When I grew up, there were 60 kids in my first-grade class in total. By the time I graduated, there were 450 of us. There were a lot of developments around here. A lot of people from the city have moved in here. It’s the same thing that’s going on down in Asheville, North Carolina or Colorado. It wasn’t cool to be a farmer. I grew up with my friends who all had Nintendos when they were eight years old. I had to wait until I was fifteen until my parents let me get a Nintendo. By then, they were old. After school, I’d have to feed sheep and shovel manure. I always thought to myself, “Someday I’m going to be normal. I’m going to have a house. I’m going to mow one little yard. I’m not going to mow 7 acres.” Growing up was a lot of work.
You wanted to be a suburbanite.
I wanted to be normal. We wanted to grow up and be normal like all the neighbors and all those kids. When I left for the first time to go to college, I realized that these other kids have zero skills. I’m glad that I’m not normal. It was towards the end of my college career that my dad asked my brother and me, “Does either of you want the farm?” and we were both like, “Nope.”
Because it was an 8-acre farm. They had that 1 acre that we never used. They sold it and they started building the house on that acre. It didn’t sit well with me. I said, ‘”This is awful. I hated it.” After my junior year that summer, I had an internship. I went to school for Environmental Resource Management. I wanted to do something for the EPA to help with environmental issues. I had an internship with our local DEP and said, “I’m going to start a garden and sell some stuff.”
That’s the Department of Environmental Protection. I worked for them in their West Nile Virus Program. Every summer, I always had something. The year before that, my friend and I started cleaning outhouses. We put an ad in the newspaper. We started buying the contents of houses and we’d take them to the local flea market. We’d sell stuff on eBay. We were always scheming. We always had something going.
Did you think of yourself as an entrepreneur or you didn’t even think of it at that time?
I did because everyone always told me. When I was fifteen, I always had these ideas. I would buy all the broken canoes from the local canoe rental places. My family is into canoes. I would take them to the welder down the street to get them fixed up and get them good as new, and I’d resell them. I’d buy snowboards on eBay in the spring when they were cheap and I’d resell them in the fall because I could charge 25% more. I don’t know why but I always had that.
You told me your parents taught you, “If you want something, you got to sell some cider. You got to sell some eggs.” It’s important to dig into that because people often look at entrepreneurs and think, “They are born that way.” That’s a dangerous way to think about it. Does that mean that the rest of us are destined for cubicle hell?
You have to dig a little bit deeper. There are all these other factors. I was reading a paper on dispositional traits and all these studies, trying to connect your genetic predisposition and your traits. Openness to experience predicts entrepreneurship, but these trait-based theories certainly don’t tell the whole story.
Someone has to show you that it’s possible. Once you start doing it and once you start seeing an opportunity, you can’t not see it anymore. It opens up a whole world. Until you’re trained that way, I don’t think you ever see an opportunity or you don’t see it as something for yourself. When someone shows you it’s possible, all of a sudden, the whole world is full of opportunity every day.
It’s painful. I can’t sit in a movie theater without counting the number of people in the seats and saying, “Are they profitable or did they lose money?” Once your brain goes that way, you can’t turn it off. Everywhere you go, when you see a hotdog car, you think, “How many hot dogs did he sell? How many does he have to sell to break even?”
I do the same thing. It drives my wife crazy sometimes. I’m criticizing the business model. It’s way too much overhead. That’s interesting what you said. Once you have that mindset shift, you can’t not see it. We’re probably living in the most opportunity-rich time in human history. Technology enables us to access a billion people on our cell phones. Those opportunities are latent. They’re unfulfilled and unarticulated human needs. They’re not like apples hanging on a tree that you could just see, walk over and pick it. It’s a mindset thing. Once you’re aware of it, you see opportunity everywhere. That’s powerful.
Brian, I could identify with what you’re saying because I grew up in a blue-collar community. My dad was an artist from Europe. He emigrated from Europe. All he did was paint all day and draw. My parents never let us have a television and I hated them for it. I had to go to the library. I thought, “I can’t wait until I could grow up and get my own TV. I want to be normal.” Just like you, I’m so grateful. I had to go out in the woods with sticks and rocks and make my own fantasy. I could identify with that. You were fifteen years old and you are selling canoes and snowboards. You got the bug. You’re in college and your dad’s asking you, “Do you guys want the farm?” You and your brother were saying, “No, I want to be normal.“
In college, especially working for the state and everything, I realized when you’re a kid, it’s all black and white. It’s like, “I’m going to go work for the EPA. I’m going to arrest polluters.” That’s not how it works. Most of the people I went to school with, the ones who are doing well work for polluters helping them pollute. I realized, “This whole world is not the way I thought it was.” I also realized that one of the biggest problems with the world environmentally is agriculture. I thought, “I’m part of agriculture. I grew up in agriculture. This is crazy.” I caught the bug.
I started reading about the food system. It was around the same time Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He blew the whistle on big corn and corn syrup. The more I learned, the more intrigued I got. I got into it and said, “I can make a difference here. I want to change this.” That summer, I joined the local farmers market. I went to one of the big farmers who was in there and told her what I wanted to do. I showed up all excited and said, “This is what I’m going to do.” She said, “No, you’re not. You’re crazy. Why would you do this? You can’t make a living as a farmer.” When someone tells me I can’t do something, that’s it. Right there, I set a goal to be like, “I got to fix this. Why can’t I make a living as a farmer? We got to figure this out.”
At that point, did you go back to your dad and say, “Dad, maybe I do want the farm.”
I said, “I’m going to pursue this. I’m going to grow with this a little bit and see where it goes.” Shortly, after that first season, I’m pouring over seed catalogs, reading books, and doing stuff. I realized and said, “Dad, I want to keep this going.”
You started as an experiment. Did your dad let you?
Yes. I did a small plot. I did a big garden with a roadside stand. I only made $1,000 that summer. It was enough for me to realize that I can take $50 worth of seeds and turn them into $1,000. It’s a miracle what you do in farming. You put a seed in the ground and money pops out.
Something useful comes out of it.
It’s like, “I made this thing.” You have this thing. It’s an actual product that you can sell and it grew right there. You don’t have to order it from somewhere. It’s right there and was so cheap.
I want to dig in a little bit. There was a problem you were trying to solve. What was that problem? There’s an environmental issue. Can you articulate that?
I grew up in a household where we were always outdoors. We were cross country skiing. We were fishing, hiking, and doing wilderness trips. My family is very outdoorsy. Growing up in the Pocono Mountains, seeing all the open space turned into housing developments and seeing even the population going up to a point where it felt feels unsustainable, I always felt there are too many people for the resources we have.
Seeing the algae situation in the bays are getting worse, and the plastics in the oceans becoming a problem, you keep hearing about it. When you’re in an area like this, you see it fast. When I was a kid, maybe three cars a week would drive by the farm and we’d run to the fence to see who it was. Now, we probably get 2,000 a day. It was a massive change and the problem was so much worse. We’re getting overrun by people. There are so many people.
As a young adult, you’re seeing the planet is not being managed well.
That’s one problem. The other problem is agriculture. As I got a little more into it as I started going to college, I realize that nothing that happens in agriculture makes any sense. For the consumer who’s eating these products, that doesn’t seem to matter. For the environment where everything they put out on the ground or put out for herbicides, it’s all about making money for big corporations at the expense of everything else around it. That got me as a young college student. I was like, “This is insane. Why do we have this system?” On the little farm I grew up on, we didn’t have those problems. For me, it was eye-opening because I thought farming was great. I thought all farms were little family farms. I didn’t realize that this corporate farming is destroying the planet and our health.
What was that Michael Pollan movie where he opens going into a grocery store and the farm scene was painted on the back wall? We’re taught that farms are these bucolic, peaceful places and it’s all nature. There are butterflies.
It might have been Food, Inc. That was a big one. That one sent more people into the farmers’ markets. The industry followed right behind it and changed the marketing. People think everything is better, but we’re still consuming massive quantities of corn. It’s amazing how deceptive agribusiness is. It’s not even the farmers, but the people who process and use this stuff. It’s crazy and you see it. It makes you mad when you realize what’s happening. It’s in all levels of agriculture, unfortunately.
Have you ever come across this concept called the tragedy of the commons? That speaks to what you’re talking about at some point.
I use that saying all the time. That’s what happened in the Poconos. In Asheville, North Carolina, a lot of people from up here are moving down there. It’s a beautiful place with low taxes and everybody is going to go there until it’s not beautiful and nice anymore.
My wife and I went down to Asheville for a little weekend getaway. It’s an awesome little place to be. In Asheville, people are raising goats in their front yard and the suburban neighborhood was cool. You’re in college. You’re becoming aware of these environmental concerns. Your dad has asked you, “Do you want the farm?” You start experimenting. One summer, you had a little garden and you made $1,000. Was that going on while you were in college?
That was my junior into my senior years when I started with a small, self-serve roadside stand. After college, I started a career outside of the farm, but then I started pushing harder on the farm and joining the farmers’ market.
Where are your mom and dad in all this? Did let you take over the farm? Do you have to buy it from them? How are you doing that?
On the farm, there’s a cottage that’s right across the street from the farm. When I got out of college, I started renting the cottage. My dad was tickled pink to have me interested in this thing that he was always interested in. We had a little bit of equipment. There was a lot of ground that wasn’t used for a long time. We had sheep run over it for years. It was fertile.
It was small. In the beginning, 1/20th of an acre plot was my first plot. The next year, it was maybe double that. We’re talking of small pieces of the ground because I didn’t have much equipment. We had a rotary tiller and an 80-year old tractor. We were slowly figuring out how to manage weeds. There’s a lot to figure out. I also had a regular job and was traveling a lot for my regular job. I couldn’t get too big too fast because I was doing a lot of it over the weekends or at night when I’d get home from work.
That’s a super interesting point. I want to dig into that for a second because many people characterize the entrepreneur like, “Screw it. Let’s do it, all-in, mortgage your house and quit your job.” That seems to me not to be the way. You didn’t quit your day job. You started with what you had. You experimented and kept learning, and growing from the experiments until you were able to leave your job. Is that how it went for you?
Yes. I always tell all of the apprentices we have here, “The best thing you can do is have a side job because you can’t live off your business when you’re trying to grow it.” It’s like having a baby. You feed your baby until it’s old enough to take care of you. You don’t try to have your baby feed you. All the money that my business made in the first probably seven years went right back into it. It’s like rolling up a snowball, trying to get it bigger and bigger until one day, I couldn’t have a job and my business. I had to choose. At that moment, it was big enough to take care of me.
You made the transition. I need people to hear that. That’s an important point. It’s about experimenting in the margins.
If you live off of your business, you can’t grow as fast. We doubled year over year for probably the first seven years. It was exponential growth every year. One year, we’re 1,000. Next year, we’re 2000, we’re 4,000, we’re 8,000 and we’re 16,000. We kept doubling for a long time to the point where we couldn’t anymore. That’s the point where I took more management. That’s when we started getting employees and I had to make a full-time jump in on it.
Did you write a business plan? Did you go looking for help from people like, “How do I do this?” Did you get mentors?
I didn’t. Most people in this industry will go through apprenticeships and things like that. I have ADHD. I’ve got all this wild energy that I want to put somewhere. I full-time ran things through my head and would say, “If I can get to here, I can get to there.” I set goals for myself daily just daydreaming about this stuff. It went as things made sense. I’m at the point where all the new things I do, I’m finally realizing that I got to start doing budgets because now we’re on a much bigger scale. It’s like, “We got to have a plan.” Back then, I was just chasing what interests me.
I realized if I could build the best product I possibly can and I’m excited about it, customers will be excited about it and I’ll charge what I need to charge. We went the other way with it than most businesses go. I could afford to because I had another job. The bakery wasn’t even a plan until about year 3 or 4 when I got flooded out by a bad storm and realized, “I can’t quit my job to be a farmer on 7 acres. I need something else.” The next year, we built the bakery. I had a plan. I read a lot of books. I went to California and looked at a lot of bakeries.
People always say, “Where did you learn how to bake bread?” I always say, “In my own bakery.” I built the bakery knowing that, “It’s bread. It’s not rocket science. I’ll figure it out.” We built the bakery because we needed a bakery. I spent a year and a half obsessing over bread, making bread, experimenting, going on blogs, talking to people on forums, reading books, staying up to the middle of the night, and the bread got better and better.
We started bringing in people who were interested in bread who said, “I want to work here. I’m interested in bread.” They were obsessed with bread and they made bread better. It kept snowballing. Everything we do here is the hardest way to do anything. We’re human-powered organic farming. We’re wood-fired brick oven bread. To get to bread, it starts with a fire. It starts with cutting wood. Everything we do is difficult.
The one thing I’m realizing as I get older about our business model is they say work on your business, don’t work in your business. This business has a steep learning curve and there’s so much knowledge that you have to have. I’ve not yet figured out how to get out of my business to work on it versus in it. Still, half my time is in it because there are many pieces, and every part of it is hard. That’s the one challenge with the way that I did it. We very much rely on myself as the main source of knowledge.
The entrepreneurial journey creates a powerful incentive to learn. You said, “I’m reading these books in the middle of the night. I’m staying up all night and reading these books.” That’s why all kids need to have these experiences. Another aspect of entrepreneurship that is a bit of a myth is that entrepreneurs are driven by money. I see this in higher ed. There’s a casual contempt for entrepreneurship like, “Those are people that’ll exploit everyone else for their own gain. They’re trying to make a lot of money.”
There are people out there that are like that. I get it. I probably interviewed 500 entrepreneurs. There’s almost always a purpose component to what they’re doing. You’ve got to make money. You’ve got to live. You want to be able to grow, but there’s a purpose thing. That’s where the motivation comes from.
The people who want to make money are trying to do what’s the easiest. They’re not grinding away on a small business that they’re having to learn a serious skill in. The people who do those things that are passionate about what they do, that’s what drives them.
It’s intrinsic-extrinsic motivation. If you’re doing something for money, you’re not going to be as motivated. If there’s a purpose-driven component to it, that’s the way it is. That’s how we’re wired. You’re taking over this farm and you’re expanding. The garden is growing, let’s say. One year, you get some flood. It sets you back a little bit. You realize the bakery is maybe going to guard against that.
We’re trying to diversify. On a massive scale, you have crop insurance. On a small scale, you don’t. If you have a year where you get twenty inches of rain in May and it washes out all your stuff, you’re done. For us, it was like, “Okay.” You’re also very seasonal. Here in the Northeast, May through October is our farm season.
You can’t make enough money on 7 acres to live comfortably year-round unless you’re getting into the season extension and winter farming. Winter farming is a whole lot more work than summer farming. My thought was, “What is something we can do to add value to what we do and help us round out the seasons? What’s a little bit more scalable that we can get a wholesale component?”
The farmers’ markets are very weather-dependent. For example, we lost our shirts because we happened to have a snowstorm hit. We went from having 5 farmers’ markets to having 1, and that’s a huge part of our income. Over time we said, “How can we diversify even into more wholesale?” Now we’re half wholesale, half retail. The bakery was there to balance out the seasonality.
If you have a bad weather weekend, you’ve got all this produce that goes out to a market. If it’s raining at that market, most of it is going to come back. In the beginning, we’re throwing that in the compost. It’s more valuable to us as soup or chicken pot pie. All the stuff that would have been our garbage stream is now even more valuable than it was before it went into our value-add. Now, there is no waste.
When you did the bakery, you don’t know anything about baking. You’re not a baker. You never worked in a bakery. You decided to figure it out. You start reading books. You start baking bread. As you said, it’s not rocket science. Talk to me a little bit about how you grew the business. Were you going door-to-door selling bread?
When we first started making bread, we were in two farmers’ markets. Right away, we started taking it to the farmers’ markets because our thinking was, “If we have 100 customers at these two farmers’ markets, let’s figure out how we can get the average sale to be from $5 a person to $20 a person.” We started going to the farmers’ markets. We also started reaching out to a couple of local health food stores. Until 2021, we’ve never done sales. Aside from getting ourselves in the farmers’ markets, usually, once we get into a farmers’ market, the local health food store in that area will find us and say, “I bought your bread at the farmers’ market. It’s great. How can we get it?”
That’s how I found you.
What bread did for us is that there is a lot of small farms around here. The only thing that makes us unique around here is how diverse we are. We’re not the best vegetable farmer in the region. We’re not the best pig farmer in the region. We’re not the best chicken farmer in the region. We’re one of three wood-fired brick ovens sourdough bread bakeries.
We’re unique and all of a sudden, the phone is ringing. Every farmers’ market wants us because you’ve got something unique. It was much more unique than vegetables. Most people think vegetables are vegetables or an egg is an egg, but you can tell the difference between good bread and not good bread. The bread is what got the phone ringing.
My goal was to produce 100 loaves of bread 3 days a week. That was our long-term goal. We’re probably producing 3,000 to 4,000 loaves of bread a week. We could sell more if we could handle it but we can’t handle it. I’ve had many meetings with people. At one point, I was sitting in New York City at a meeting with Whole Foods.
They liked our eggs and said, “How can we get you to supply these three stores with eggs? We need 10,000 dozen eggs twice a week.” I said, “If I did that, you wouldn’t have the egg that I have.” You can’t do that because what makes us great is our small-scale production. If we scale up to that size, you’re going to have the same crappy egg. It doesn’t work at that scale.
That’s also interesting to me because that’s where your original values and vision kicks in. A lot of people get smitten by money. You were able to say, “No, thank you,” that’s not always the case.
You lose what you’re about. They say, “We’ve got grants. We can fund you to expand to a bigger farm in a snap.” I was like, “You’re missing the point. I can’t produce the egg you want on that scale. I don’t want to.” I’ve always admired Zingerman’s Bakery out in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It’s crazy good.
Bo Burlingham wrote the book, Small Giants, about companies that choose to be great instead of huge. I remember reading Zingerman’s story and how everybody wanted them to franchise and put Zingerman’s in the airports. They said, “No, we want to be the best at what we are right here.” We’ve always had that mentality here as well. I’d love to get to a point where we can educate people and teach people how to do what we do to be successful as farmers.
I have no interest in having some huge 1,000-acre farm or having a whole bunch of them. We’re trying to create a model more than we’re trying to become huge. We want to create a model that works for people. I want to keep diversifying. As I’m getting older, I’m getting more sore. I want to move more of my time into the passive income things, which is real estate stuff, which is what I’m focused on.
A few times I’ve been to your farm, in the summertime in August, there are interns running around. You’ve got people coming from Europe to work on your farm. How did all that evolve?
About 5 or 6 years into it, our head baker at the time had been an apprentice at another farm that had a bakery. She said, “We should get an apprentice program going. There are so many people that want to come out and learn this stuff.” We did. We started hiring three apprentices a year and we’ve had people from all over the place like Africa, Germany, Israel, and all over the US. It’s generally younger folks who are trying to get a good look at agriculture and at the system. They are trying to figure out, “How do I get into this? How do I start? How do I overcome the hurdles? Land is not cheap.”
They come and they work a season with us. Most of them leave with a whole other idea than what they came in with. It’s pretty rounded. They were either farm or bakery apprentices, but they all have to do one day at a farmers’ market. They get to get out and see the other producers. We do a few field trips. We have other farmers or people come out.
We do potluck dinners at the farm. They get to immerse themselves in this local food scene. They get to see, “What do I want to do?” Most of them came in thinking, “I’m going to be a vegetable farmer,” and they leave thinking, “What do I want to be? Maybe I want to do fermented products. Maybe I want to do condiments.” If you want to be a vegetable farmer, it’s a harder path. It’s not as easy to make money.
It’s seasonal, weather-dependent, and all these variables. It’s hard. That’s what you’re changing, to diversify their thinking.
You don’t want to be just a vegetable farmer. If you’re not taking that product all the way through to something else, you’re going to struggle a bit. There are a whole lot of ways you can do it. For example, Eric, who was my first two-year apprentice to graduate, halfway through, he came in and said, ” I’ve seen the market. I’ve seen what’s going on. I think fermented drinks are where it’s at and that interests me. That’s something I’ve been interested in for years.” We said, “Let’s start a fermented drinks business.” That’s how that started.
One of my apprentices saw the market. He saw what was going on. He was looking for his niche and said, “I like growing small fruits. I like growing herbs but I don’t see a future for me in doing that as a business as much as I see fermented drinks.” The nice thing about that is it’s scalable. As it scales, it helps other farms. We’re already talking to other employees of ours who have acreage who are trying to get in the farming as well and saying, “Can you plan elderberries for us because we’re going to need a lot more than we can grow on this farm?” As you grow, you can support the local agriculture in the region. Someday, you can step out of agriculture yourself and still be a local product.
Are you raising chickens and selling pork also on the farm?
We are. More than half of our chicken goes into our chicken pot pies these days. We generally sold out our chicken. If we butcher 150 chickens every other week during the season, maybe 50 of them will go for sale and the rest of them will go into a value-added product.
The value-added thing is where you up the game. You went from selling cucumbers and zucchinis on the street corner to turning that zucchini and cucumber into something more valuable.
Chickens are a great example. It started because when we started butchering chickens, in the process, there’s scalding and plucking. There are a lot of moving parts and you can have a lot of damaged products. The skin rips or a leg breaks in the machine. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. What do you do with that? You can’t sell it. We said, “We have eight chickens here. Our scalder was too hot and they’re not visually appealing.” We realized a chicken that is worth $20 at the farmers’ market will make us two and a half chicken pot pies. Chicken pot pie is $25. That chicken is now making us $67 worth of chicken pot pie.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not visually appealing.
In the process of making that chicken pot pie, we also are cooking down the chicken. We have the carcasses left and we make that into stock and we can sell bone broths. That one chicken is now the base of $80 worth of value-added products. Value-adding lets us take it all the way.
You set goals for your stuff like you wanted to sell how many loaves of bread. You went way past that. Where are you trying to go from here? You got this farm. It’s a beehive of activity at least in the summertime.
Our original goal was to get to the point where we could gross $500,000 in sales off of our little farm. We thought, “That would be something.” We hit that years ago. We hit $1 million in gross sales. For me, it was like this is a milestone of where we want to be. We are still growing a little bit but our bigger focus now is on developing a culture and a team.
Historically, it’s all young folks coming in from all over the world wanting to learn with us for 1 to 2 seasons. Some of them stayed around for four seasons but are always transitioning and going back to where they came from or going off. A lot of people learn this and say, “I’m going to go somewhere where this is cool like West Coast, Colorado, Asheville, North Carolina, somewhere where there’s a whole community of this.” We’re very unique here. It’s great because we get all these people with all this energy. It’s worked but it’s exhausting for us to constantly start with a new crew every year, and to train people over and over again.
We started a 401(k) program. We started a profit-sharing program where a large portion of our profits is going right back to the employees. I want them to feel ownership. I want them to feel like entrepreneurs themselves. I always tell them whenever I get a new manager, “It’s not me who’s going to come up with the next thing, it’s you.”
Our first question is, “What are you reading? What is your mind consuming?” If they’re not passionate about something, we don’t want them. We need them to come and be passionate about what we’re doing. We’re trying to get the next generation of people with energy to help keep this thing moving forward because at some point that’s what’s got to happen.
I‘ve interviewed the guy that started 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Brian Scudamore. He was talking about how his business struggled for 7 or 8 years. He said he got to $ 1 million but he wasn’t going. He wasn’t keeping up with his entrepreneur friends. He went out and let himself think about what this could be. He went out to his parents’ summer cottage and sat down with a legal pad. He started thinking about what this could be without thinking about how.
He said, “I came back and I wrote down, ‘We’re going to become the FedEx of junk removal.’” He did it. Five years later, he was doing $100 million in revenue. It blew up. To have something like that vision that you’re striving to achieve and pass it on, that’s what triggered the thought. You’re trying to pass that on to people that come in and pay them like owners and not just employees. That’s super important.
All the new things are partnerships. If an employee comes to me and says, “I got this idea.” It’s like, “We got your back. We’re with you. We’ll help you get going. I’ll put money into it, but it’s going to be yours.” That’s the next thing. We’re talking to a couple of local beekeepers about a large honey coop. We have this whole idea for a honey coop.
We’re talking to a couple of other farmers and people about buying a 70 to 100-acre farm and trying to do a whole large scale of what I have going now, but very deeply based on agritourism like weddings and glamping on the farm. Ultimately, what we want to do is come up with models that work and get other people to follow. It’s hard. The biggest challenge is getting it out there and getting people to follow because it is much work to get it to that point that a lot of people don’t want to do it.
You got to love it.
I always tell people, “You got to bleed for it.” At some point, I dropped out of my life for a number of years. We always have new people who come to the farm and the farmers’ markets who won’t come when it rains. It’s like, “You just killed yourself. All the good customers come out when it rains.” They’ll say, “We’re going to close down for two weeks and take a vacation.” You’re breaking a consumer trend. These people are going to start going to the grocery store because you’re not there for them. We haven’t missed a farmers’ market in twenty years.
It’s a super important point. People don’t get that. You got to be consistent. You got to be thinking about the customer. I’ve watched people do that where they would take a mundane idea. If you’re focused on the customer and you understand, you can’t just disappear for two weeks. You can take a mundane idea and turn it into something. The opposite is also true. You could have a fabulous idea and a fabulous product, but if you keep dropping the ball or disappointing people, they are going to give up on you.
You have to grind away until you get to a point where you can step back. Even to that, you have to plan it like how can you step back? I’ve always told people, “If you don’t have a business, you have a job. If you want a business, a business has to be able to run to some extent without you.” A lot of people don’t ever make that jump to employees. People say, “What’s the hardest part of your business?” It’s having employees. Farming is easy. The baking is easy. You have twenty people who rely on you for their living. When they have a problem, you have a problem. It is challenging. That’s the hardest part. You got to do it at some point if you want to be a business versus making yourself a job.
You said that you’re unique where you are in Pennsylvania and Saylorsburg, as opposed to maybe in San Francisco, California or Denver where there’s more of that. Did you get pushback? Did you get people to tell you, “This is never going to work here?”
In anything we’ve ever done, there’s always somebody pushing back. I remember when I built my bakery, I had members of my own family saying, “You’re an idiot. What are you doing? You’re spending $100,000 to build this thing that you don’t even know anything about.” We’ve had a lot of pushback early on in the whole organic movement. A lot of the local farmers were anti-organic because they didn’t understand it and it was threatening.
There has always been some pushback, but we’ve also had a ton of support from people. I got lucky with the timing. It was right as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc. blew up. As we were doing these things, it coincided right with these documentaries and things coming out. People were flooding to us years ago. It’s what we always say.
We didn’t have to start selling until years ago because there hasn’t been a good new documentary in a while. We’re having to go out and sell for the first time. It takes a push. Consumers take a push. It takes a trend. A lot of times those things are artificially created by a big business to push them in that direction. For us, those documentaries that come out are powerful and inspiring, and they pushed people our way.
That’s another good point you’re making here, Brian. It’s that good ideas don’t sell themselves and people give up. You’ve got to get that flywheel going. I was taking a writing class online, masterclass series. Malcolm Gladwell teaches this writing class. He said his first book, The Tipping Point, went nowhere. For two years, he went to every library, book talk and anybody that invited him. He would show up and gave a book talk and that’s what got it going. It took two years. A lot of people think, “If you’ve got a great idea, you’re going to put it out there and people are going to come flocking to you. That’s a huge mistake.
A lot of the best businesses and products I know don’t necessarily ever get successful because they’re good at that one thing, but they don’t go out even. For a while when we were trying to push, I found that the best thing I could do is put out my own press releases. You’d be amazed that the newspapers and the local news stations are looking for stuff.
We got to a point where I said to one station, “Anytime you guys don’t have any news, stop over and we’ll make some.” For a while, they were coming over every other month for two years. It’s free publicity. We create our own. If you don’t do that and you have this great product, how does anyone know about it? We do that.
We have a whole marketing committee now. There are four people on it. We do a newsletter, Facebook and Instagram. We’re creating a little bit of video content to get the word out, especially bread. Everyone’s anti-gluten lately but there’s a great story there. Why are people having these? At our farm, we’re uninventing bread. We’re not reinventing something new, which generally is what happens. Big companies will invent the next thing and everyone will jump on that craze until they realize, “This wasn’t good after all.” With us, we’re going way back before there were big corporations trying to sell us solutions and bread was the staff of life.
We’re going back to old grains, fermentation, organic methods, things that always worked. All of a sudden, people will call us. We’ve had some interesting customers. We had a guy who was having a food allergy. He lived in the city and he couldn’t eat anything without getting sick. Doctors couldn’t quite figure it out. They knew it was something. I said, “Come out and try our rye bread because that’s our most digestible bread. The guy came out and he tried it.
Is it the dark brown one or the regular rye?
The whole grain rye, the one that I shipped you. He came out and tried it. He was able to eat for the first time in a week and he wasn’t sick. That guy would come out 3 days a week for 6 months. We joked that he was our mascot. We adopted him. He is asking all kinds of questions and we’re teaching him about fermentation. Ultimately, he ended up moving to South America. He went extreme with it. He was trying to get to where he could eat the food because there was something in the food he was having a bad reaction to.
It’s one of those things where it’s like, “Let’s think about what could be going on with you.” There’s so much more that goes into all the modern allergies and things. There are herbicides. There are GMOs. There’s even the way that we’re processing food and the way that they’re mixing it into the crap that gets mixed in when you make these boxed foods. Every time someone calls, I get a chance to talk to them. We made them our new customers because we educate them. It’s one customer at a time.
What you’re saying is you’re tuned in to what other people need. It took me many years to do this, but I came up with a new definition of entrepreneurship. I defined it as a self-directed pursuit of an opportunity to create value for others. It’s straightforward and you don’t have to own a business to embrace that way of thinking. What’s stopping you from making yourself more useful to more people? The more useful you become, the better off you’re going to be. I was telling my wife that if you set up an online store, you’d be shipping that bread everywhere in the world. Now, I hear the answer to why you’re not doing it because you’re already selling as much bread as you can probably produce.
To ship bread all over the world is not sustainable from an environmental standpoint. We’d rather train that next bread baker who comes from Ohio or wherever. We teach them what we do and they go do it there. That’s what it’s about. It’s about that local food economy. My message to people is to buy food where you live from the people who are doing it the right way like intentional living. Understand what you want to see out of your food and go find it. We have to create those producers because they’ve been wiped out over the last many years.
My goal is to inspire other people to put it back and give consumers an alternative that isn’t the latest grocery store marketing scheme. It’s an actual alternative. We always say, “Shake the hand that feeds you.” Go meet a farmer, just like how you and I got connected. Meet someone who’s doing something that you like and support them. Hopefully, that spawns into the next producer of the next thing that you like. We got to create change in culture right here wherever we’re living. It’s a long slow process but it does work.
For me, it was backwards. My wife is a board-certified Functional Medicine Health Coach. She’s all about living healthy and organic ingredients. I had some of that bread you guys make. I’m glad it’s organic. Don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t because it was organic that I found you. It was because it’s like, “This is good bread,” and it’s cool that it’s organic. The organic is the cherry on top of the sundae. It wasn’t the driving force.
That’s also important because you can educate people about why the bread is so good. It’s not because I’m a genius or I’ve got secret bread recipes. It’s because the ingredients are grown properly. My wife has been plant-based for almost as long as I’ve known her. We were out in LA and we went to this restaurant, Cafe Gratitude. There were 3 or 4 in LA and San Diego. It’s amazing plant-based food. That’s what got me.
If we could find food like this everywhere, I would go plant–base in a heartbeat. It’s so good. You have some clear goals. You know what you’re about. You’re not driven by money. You’re trying to do something to impact the world in a positive way. You got these 7 acres. This thing is humming along. You’re about maxed out. You got to $1 million in revenue. What’s next?
I’m doing a lot of research. I get excited about things. Something will pop in my head and you can’t turn it off. Around here, the thing that’s got my attention is the whole short-term rental craze. Where we’re at, a lot of folks from the city are snatching up lands, a lot of real estate, and doing a lot of Airbnb stuff. I had this idea that if farmers could do this glamping, these short-term rental campsite things on farms, it would be a great way to add value to a farm because most farmers I know don’t make a living farming. They still have a day job.
I’ve spent time on the phone with different zoning officers and planning commissions trying to think about a good model. Even all the people that work for me who want to go off and start their own farm someday, how can they do it? We’ve got it down there. You could buy land. Let’s say you buy a farm for $1 million. There is lending for that through the Farm Service Agency. That’s a hurdle to overcome.
You can sell the development rights from that farm to the county. You can get half of that money back almost in this market as working capital. You sell it for $1 million, you get back $500,000. You could serve breakfast. People could sign up for a breakfast slot like they were with a bed and breakfast. It’s $20 per head and you have three slots for breakfast. You could do weddings where you partner with a caterer and that caterer has to use food from your farm. It’s all supporting farming. That’s the idea that I’ve been latched on to.
It’s like a franchise almost. You’re trying to teach people how to make money on small farms and survive.
For me, doing it on 7 acres, it’s very hard to have the full team of experts that you need. That’s been our challenge. If I could do it on a much larger scale, you could hire or even partner with a full-time couple whose focus is vegetables. That’s their piece of it. You have another couple whose focus is on animals and that’s their piece of it. You have somebody else who is on the culinary end who wants to do food, whether it be dinners. The sky is the limit for what you can do. You could have all these enterprises within enterprises on one big piece of land with one of the major value ads being agritourism.
I’ve done the numbers on some of the farms I’ve seen for sale around here. A big farm can do millions of dollars a year in revenue this way, especially because we’re in an area that that’s big tourism. A lot of the people that want to get into farming around here, you can’t buy land around here for the purpose of farming solely. It’s too expensive because it’s all being developed. That’s one thing. I’m on it. Half my time at night, I’m looking at things. That’s my thing.
That might be something that we get into in the next year or two. We’re working on cooperative things with other farmers and producers. One thing on this small scale is there are a lot of inefficiencies. We all do what we do. We load up a van with stuff. We drive to a farmers’ market. We come back empty. For example, on Tuesdays, we have three runs. Let’s say one of them will stop at six places.
We might fill our van a third of the way full to go to these little health food stores, cafes and stuff like that, but we’re crossing paths with other small producers. A friend of mine has a coffee roasting business. He and I cross paths in New Jersey. He ends up back at my farm because I buy stuff from him from my farm store. I always say to him, “Dan, we got to fix this. Think about how much time you and I spent driving around to deliver a little bit of product to the same places.”
I’m trying to figure out how to aggregate all the energy that all of us little producers are spending on sales and delivery. We’re trying to work on a lot more cooperative things. We’ve been having a lot of conversations centered around that. It’s the same thing with our local honey producers. The equipment to get into some cool honey stuff is expensive and you don’t need it very often.
We’re trying to put together a honey cooperative where we can have one salaried good beekeeper who supports a bunch of farms like mine and is also training along with an apprentice program. They are providing labor and knowledge. The co-op is providing bulk purchasing, buying power and good equipment to value add the product into all these value-added things that the producers can then buy back and sell in their stores. We got these great concepts. We’re trying to focus on them one at a time and put the energy into making them realities.
You’re not only having ideas. You tend to act on the idea in some way. Do you experiment with something or do you just get an idea and go all-in?
I usually go all-in. My girlfriend always says, “I can tell your process is deep enough. It’s going to happen now. There’s no turning back.” I’ll get to a point where I’ll think about it. If I don’t find a reason that it won’t work, generally, I’ll keep obsessing over it until it happens.
Have you had any failures in that realm? Have you obsessed about something, act on it and it didn’t work?
I’ve had one failure but it’s because it wasn’t my thing. We partnered in a pizzeria in a public market. There was a cake-style bakery in that market that went out of business. The lady had some family things. Everything was going well in that market. I had a couple of bakers working for me at the time. My apprentice said, “Please buy that bakery. We’ll run it for you. Let’s do it.”
It was a style of baking that’s more on the sugar end, which I’m not that into. They were passionate about it. They wanted to do it. I said, “Fine.” It was cheap. I was $15,000. I bought this bakery out, put one of these graduating apprentices in charge of it and it wasn’t good. She was a good baker but she was missing a lot of things that were required to run a business. It didn’t work out.
I realized I own this thing and I’m not interested in it. We kept it going for 2 or 3 years until it got to the point where I said, “Why am I doing this? I got no interest in this. It’s a burden. It’s stressing me.” We ended up selling it and breaking even on it, but it was a stressful thing. I realized what I can’t ever do again is get involved in something that doesn’t interest me because it sucked a lot of time and energy, and it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue.
If you don’t love that, you’re not going to be able to sustain the motivation long enough to get it going. The micro experimentation thing, I hear this from entrepreneurs a lot. They’ll try something of a smaller scale and they’ll go all-in. It sounds like you’re obsessing about it. With this desire to learn, you’re calling up zoning people. You’re reaching out to everybody and anybody. Is that weird? Do people ever ask, “Who is this guy?” It’s like self-education. You’re schooling yourself.
There are people who say, “Where did that come from?” Most of the people that I’m calling, I usually will say, “This is my angle. This is why I’m calling. This is what I’m looking to do.” With the zoning stuff, I’ll tell people, “I see where this is going. I see there are a lot of ordinances being passed and problems happening with this. As someone representing the farming community, I want to put this idea out there and try to pave the way for something that could be of good use for this style of business.” Generally, they’re very receptive. I’m in townships around me. A lot of them will say, “I’m from Apple Ridge Farm and they know us. They know me. We’re here and we’re proven. Some of them are more receptive than others but in general, it goes pretty well.
Have you been able to replicate people that have interned with you? Are there other farms around the country or the world that are emulating what you’re doing?
I will honestly say not one of our apprentices has gone off and started another Apple Ridge Farm yet. We have an apprentice who’s on our second year with us whose family has a farm not far from here and they’ve got components. They’re doing the pork and chicken the same way. Their value-add is wine. They’re doing a farm-to-alcohol thing. The components are never exactly the same. A lot of our apprentices leave and they either go into more education, next apprenticeship or into a regular job to try to stabilize and save up the money to start their business.
We’ve had some that have left as bakers who have worked their way in through other bakeries. I’ve had some that have left and started their own bakeries. So far, they’ve all been pretty uniquely different. I’ve yet to have anyone go off and do it the same way we’re doing. If I could do it again, I don’t know if I’d do it the same way that we do it. A wood-fired brick oven is the best bread you can make, but it’s much work. If I was doing it again, I might look into another way. I can’t even say that because I built a brand new oven and it’s wood-fired.
Is that the oven that I saw? You found a guy in Massachusetts.
It was a team of three guys and they came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and one guy was South from here in Pennsylvania. There was another guy out of Oregon or Washington State who was collaborating on the doors and stuff.
That’s a pretty cool project. Brian, we spoke on the phone and you said something that struck me. You said you wanted to get the half-million and you got to $1 million. You said something to the effect of, “I’m going to spend the next twenty years teaching other people how to do this.” Can you say more about that? That was interesting.
All through this, people have always said, “We’re not tooting our horn enough. We’re not out there talking about what we’re doing enough.” We see it a lot especially with social media and stuff. Someone will start a bakery and in two years, they’re taking all these good photos and making a name for themselves. People will say, “Why don’t we make a name for ourselves? Why aren’t we pushing our story?”
Most people in agriculture are thinking about one thing. You’re a vegetable farmer or you’re a hog farmer. A lot of the people writing books on a 10-acre farm that are famous in my industry for vegetable farming might be on 10 acres of land, actively farming 2 acres of land which is where we are for vegetables. It might be a couple making $100,000 a year gross and they are keeping $55,000 of that. They’re writing the books and are famous for them. I’m like, “$55,000 split between two people is poverty.” These people are famous for it because that’s good numbers in our industry.
They’re writing the books. All my employers were like, “When are you going to write your book?” I’m like, “I’m not a writer.” I’ve never felt I’ve figured out how to make it sustainable enough yet because of that work-life balance. I’ve been grinding for twenty years. I’ve missed funerals and weddings. I don’t feel like I’ve figured it out yet because I’m not entirely sure that replicating the way I did it is sustainable for most people.
You should still write that book, Brian. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not. That’s not the point. You could figure out how to say it. You’ve got something to say to the world. You don’t have to have it all figured out.
I do think we have the concept but if you had a team of people working together, one person can’t do it all. At one point, I was the head baker and the head farmer. You can’t do that. That was fifteen hours a day workdays for two years. We’re at the point where we have all the components. Our plan a few years ago was to start doing workshops on the farm, bringing people in, teaching them how to be bakers quick. It’s people who have the interest to show them, “This is possible. This is how you could do it. Come in for a two-day work workshop.”
COVID happened and that all went out the window. We still want to get back to that. We still want to do workshops. We still want to get into an educational component, even to bring local people who want it. We still do a spring beekeeping workshop or a spring gardening workshop or two. We would like to add a deeper level of workshops where they’re multiple days to bring people to plant seeds in their heads, to get them excited about, “Here are all the possibilities. Think about it a little bit differently. Think about it this way. Think about, what’s your value-add? What can you do to be successful financially in this?
That seems like what’s going on in your mind. Your brain is constantly scanning the horizon for ways to add value. Some of those terms are even a little bit too clinical. I’m trying to break these concepts down sometimes for people to get rid of the business vernacular. You’re trying to find more ways to make yourself more useful to more humans. That’s what it comes down to. It’s fascinating to hear this story unravel. You didn’t know what you were doing. How did your degree help you? You were studying Environmental Science, is that what you said?
Yeah. At Penn State, it was a very broad degree. It’s not very specific on anything. You get a little bit from wastewater treatment to a lot of math and calculating chemical things, pesticide applications, sizing irrigation pipes, a little bit of forestry and environmental law policy. It was very good, broad and basic. What it was good for was my first job at a college. It was a smaller company that did West Nile virus consulting and mosquito management. It got me that job. That job opened my eyes because I learned a lot.
We were maybe a $10 million company spread out over the whole country, maybe 50 to 100 employees in total. I wore a lot of hats. I was a problem solver. I started out as a basic guy driving a mosquito truck, but I was able to move up in that company and use my entrepreneurial thinking to eventually become the Director of Business Development trying to get the company into other things. We were bought and sold by a few different venture capital firms while we were part of that thing. Our original owner bought and sold us back. I learned a lot about business.
One of the most valuable things I learned being there was that the owner of that business, the guy who started it became a multimillionaire. He wasn’t very intelligent. There was nothing special about the guy other than he had the balls to pull the trigger. He’d analyze risks and go for it. Many people get right up to the edge and stop. This guy would go. Some things panned out and some things didn’t, but he was good at saying, “This is worth a shot.” He was a gambler. Seeing him do that inspired me to say, “I can do that. I can take risks. If this guy can do it, I can do it.”
That was the perfect storm. You had this upbringing where you were entrepreneurial. You were hustling, but that guy showed you a model where it’s like, “Maybe this could be something bigger that I could sell.”
He was hustling on a big scale. We were in this one company, but he always had something going on the side. He had an entrepreneurial brain and was always thinking on a much larger scale. He was into a lot of different things, but to see how his mind worked and even to be in that company. I was involved in almost every department in that company because it was small enough.
I got to see how a lot of different things flow, from helping pick out health benefits to going to big, huge trade shows in our industry with a very small budget to having to be creative and how to get our booth to stand out without much budget. It was a southern-based company and I felt that most of the people were very laid back. I was their first northern employee and had all this energy and all this go. If I wanted to do something, I’d say, “Can I come to the National Trade Show and get involved in this?” They’d say, “It’s yours. Take it.”
They welcome your entrepreneurial spirit.
I got a chance to travel quite a bit and meet a lot of different people, and also see how a company ran. Aside from working as an apprentice at the DEP and working summer jobs as a kid, that’s my only job off of my own farm. I got a lot out of that. That degree got me into that and I felt very well-educated for that.
The degree got you in the door. An interesting part of the story is that exposure to this guy who you described as not that bright. I’ve been struck by this very often in some of the interviews I’ve done where I’m listening to somebody and it’s not brilliance. The things that enable you to survive as an employee are different from the things that enable you to survive as an entrepreneur. I don’t think even IQ is that important.
It’s more of EQ is important. You’ve zeroed in on what other people need. It’s emotional intelligence. It’s empathy. It’s big-picture thinking. It’s not narrow expertise. You’re not an expert baker or pig farmer. You got your fingers in so many different things. It’s interesting. I don’t think people get that. They try to teach entrepreneurship through a managerial lens and it doesn’t work. You don’t have to be a genius or an inventor. You don’t have to have access to money. People think, “I need money to start a business.” No, you don’t.
You have to see opportunities and know how to problem-solve. That’s the biggest thing.
What’s the difference? Sometimes people see an opportunity and they come right up but they won’t act on it. That’s always curious to me. What is that invisible barrier and where is it?
It’s almost like we’re pre-programmed to avert risk and the unknown. When you’re doing your first entrepreneurial thing, there are many unknowns. How am I going to get financing? How am I going to do this? How am I going to find the time to do that? What happens if this goes wrong? You almost have to jump on that first thing or start small. It doesn’t have to be crazy.
Everything we do is very calculated and nothing that we do could ever ruin us. Everything we do is organic growth. We start with something small that we know we can grow into something bigger. We start where we can start with what we have to start with and we grow. That’s the way I go. It’s a slow-growth model but it’s a safe growth model.
I’m very leery about doing anything in a brick-and-mortar building because for me doing everything and starting in a farmers’ market setting, I can go out, go to a town, get the best four hours in that town on Saturday morning, and see if that town is good for me or not. That’s how we ended up with our pizzeria in Easton. We did a farmers’ market there for years and realized, “There are a lot of potentials here.” When something came about in that town, we said, “We want to get in on this.” It wasn’t just anything.
It was a city-based thing where there was a ton of grant money and opportunity. We made our money back on that investment in the first year and a half because we had been in that town long enough to have a finger on the pulse of it. If you’re going to go out and try and do something huge and put more into it, you can’t afford to lose. That is a dangerous way. Some people do it and they are super successful but that’s risky. It doesn’t have to be risky.
As human beings, we’re no different than any other organism insofar as we’re opportunity-seeking growth-oriented organisms. At the same time, we’re stability-seeking, uncertainty-avoiding organisms. Most of us default to stability-seeking.
We’re also trained that way. The school system and everything train us that way. It trains us to be good employees, get a stable job and focus on stability. Nobody is training anybody to be an entrepreneur. The mass is not trained for it.
It’s a natural default for people and then school amplifies it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The greatest obstacle to growth is either the belief that opportunities don’t exist or that one is not capable. We don’t arrive at that consciously. We don’t know we hold that belief but you can see it in somebody by watching how they spend their discretionary time and resources. It’s all recreation.
That’s why I’m fascinated with the mindset of the entrepreneur. Part of what’s interesting to me is that you don’t know what you know. So much of the knowledge you’ve acquired, you’ve acquired implicitly. It’s like the rules of grammar. You knew them by the age of five but no one ever taught them to you. You can’t explain them to another human being to this day.
That’s part of the fun of these interviews I get to do because I’m like an entrepreneurial anthropologist. I’m like Jane Goodall. You have the benefit of your story and some of your entrepreneurial friends, but I’ve got this benefit, this much broader sample size. When I interview people like you, I’m always assuming that you don’t know what you know.
I try to dig out what are the nuggets that Brian has that he doesn’t know he has. There is so much that people can learn. Part of what I’m writing in my new book is that these everyday entrepreneurs like you are everywhere. They are in small towns, big towns, big cities, urban farms or wherever. They’re everywhere. We’re ignoring them.
We’re all enamored with Jeff Bezos or we’re vilifying him, whatever the case may be. There is so much to be learned from the everyday entrepreneur like you, Brian. I’m grateful I spent this time with you. I have a couple of wind-down questions here. What do you think it is about you that makes it work? What is your personality that makes it work? How much of it is luck? What part of your personality works against you may be that you are doing in spite of?
The greatest thing that works for me is that I have a lot of nervous energy. If I’m not doing something, I’m chewing my fingernails. I’ve got this energy that I have to do something with. My mind always needs to latch onto something and run with it. I need that. Otherwise, I’m losing my mind. I feed on the new ideas and the next thing. It gives me something to wake up for in the morning. That’s what fuels me. In terms of luck, I have a bunch of employees who always say, “You’re the luckiest person I know. I don’t know how everything always works out for you.”
I heard a quote once that somebody said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It’s not that I’m not lucky. It’s that I’ve failed enough that I can see failure coming. I can navigate the roadblocks better now and problem solve. For example, we tried to get into a farmers’ market that we’ve been trying for years to get into and it’s hard to get into this farmers’ market. We ultimately got in, but it wasn’t luck. It was politics.
I’d been on enough boards of farmers’ markets that I knew when they took the vote, they didn’t have a quorum so I protested it. There was no luck about it. There was knowledge. I’d been rejected from that farmers’ market ten times before I finally got in where it was like, “How did you do that? That’s impossible. You’re lucky.” I’m not lucky.
I feel the same way. People say I’m lucky. I’m like, “Slow it down with that luck thing.” Luck is a component. It’s always intriguing to me. Years ago when I was getting started. I had a construction business back in the ’90s. I remember talking to my accountant’s wife and she was asking me, “What are your plans?” I said, “I’m going to Maui for a couple of weeks.” She was like, “It must be nice. Aren’t you lucky?” I let it roll but I walked away thinking, “That’s interesting how quickly she ascribed that to luck. I was up at 1:00 in the morning and my pajama trying to figure stuff out. I was working on Saturdays and Sundays.
That’s part of that overall mindset of people. People wait for something good to happen for them. Something entrepreneurs do is they go out and they get it, whereas a lot of people are waiting for the next promotion. They’re waiting for something.
It happens. It’s passive but I think there’s an ego-protection thing. It’s easier for me to tell myself, “Brian is lucky,” than it is for me to say, “What is Brian doing that I could learn from?” There’s a guy I follow. His name is Naval Ravikant. He’s an insanely bright investor philosopher. He did this little two-minute podcast about luck. He said, “There are four kinds of luck.” It was brilliant the way he laid it out. He was saying that there’s random luck. You’re walking down the street and you find a $100 bill. It’s random.
The next kind of luck is what he called hustle luck. You’re shaking a lot of trees and every once in a while, an apple falls out of the tree. The next kind of luck is insider luck. You’re immersed in something. You can see something other people can’t see. The fourth kind of luck is reputational. Opportunities come to you because people know they can trust you like Warren Buffett.
The way he laid it out, and you alluded to this, is you’re generating luck through persistence, through the way you think and act, through the tacit knowledge you’re acquiring. You’re like, “I know there’s a land mine over there. I’m going to avoid walking in that direction.” To the casual observer, it looks like random luck.
That’s very true. You’re putting energy out on something and you’re bound to get something back for that. Are you lucky? People who are passionate about certain things come back to them. What you put out into the world comes back. I don’t think luck is the right word for most of it.
I don’t think it is either.
I’m lucky to be born into the family I was born into. I got a good start in life. That’s luck.
In the psychological literature, part of my theory is what distinguishes the entrepreneur from the non-entrepreneur is the compelling goal. There’s a vision in your head that you’re striving to accomplish and most people don’t have that. It’s more passive. It’s like, “I’m going to work. I’m trying to get a raise. I’m looking forward to vacations, weekends or holidays.” The literature is fascinating because when you’re actively striving to accomplish something on the horizon, something you’re trying to get to, your brain is able to access problem-solving abilities that are not otherwise available to you.
In my entrepreneurial mindset theory, the fact that you have a compelling goal is acting on you. It’s pulling you into a different realm. You’re not just static. It’s interesting to me. Brian, I thank you for taking a couple of hours out of your crazy busy day. I know you’re going to have fun down in Key West and chill out a little bit. Thanks for taking the time out of your day. I can’t wait to share this story with the world. The last thing I want to ask you is where can people find you?
The farm is in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. We do farmers’ markets all through Pennsylvania from Central to North Jersey and a little bit into New York State. If you’re not right from around there, we do ship through a company called WildKale.com, anywhere that UPS can get in one day. Generally, if you’re in this neck of the woods, you can look us up on our website at AppleRidge.net. Find us at a farmers’ market. You got to see us. You got to talk to us. Gary, thanks so much for having me. It’s been awesome. It’s cool to talk to a fellow entrepreneur. It sounds like you’ve been at this for a long time and have a lot of insight. I appreciate it.
Thank you, Brian.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma
- Small Giants
- Food, Inc
- The Tipping Point
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About Brian Bruno
Apple Ridge Farm is located in Saylorsburg, PA. It is owned by Brian Bruno and run by a group of hard-working people who are dedicated to producing the best food possible in the most sustainable way possible.