By Rebecca Susmarski
The Register-Mail, Galesburg, Ill.
Dusty Spurgeon never earned a business degree before becoming a partner in Spurgeon Veggies, but her overwhelming success proves that the most important training for an entrepreneur occurs on the job.
Spurgeon, 28, moved to Galesburg in 2010 to marry her husband, John, shortly after she graduated from Monmouth College.
As Spurgeon debated where she wanted to take her career next, her mother-in-law, Eloise Spurgeon, asked her to help with a community-supported agriculture business she had started on her farm in East Galesburg three years before.
“I loved working the market, and after a while I started coming out to the garden to do a little work,” Spurgeon said. “I quickly became more and more involved in her small CSA and the logistics of planting and harvesting, and found that I really liked it. So instead of finding a job, I expanded our offerings at the market and CSA, and it worked!”
Spurgeon became a partner in 2011, the same year she and Eloise registered the business and dubbed it “Spurgeon Veggies.”
Since then, the business has expanded to offer more than 70 seasonal vegetables of multiple varieties, free-range eggs and whole broiler chickens to about 100 members.
Soon, the amount of products offered by Spurgeon Veggies may increase even more.
Spurgeon and John bought a second farm last month, and they plan to shift their primary operations to the new farm over the next couple of years.
“I’ll be opening a roadside farm stand there — next spring if all goes as planned — where we’ll have veggies and other local farm products for sale all week long,” Spurgeon said. “I have tons of space there, so I’m planning lots of new expansions.”
Spurgeon and Eloise work full time on the farm with two part-time seasonal employees and assistance from John and Spurgeon’s father-in-law. Spurgeon recently took a break to talk with The Register-Mail about the operation of Spurgeon Veggies, and why she enjoys providing locally-grown produce to others.
Register-Mail: What is your favorite vegetable to grow and eat, and why?
DS: Head lettuces are probably one of my favorites to grow. Every single year, we manage to produce hundreds and hundreds of multicolored, beautiful, perfect heads that get their pictures taken way too many times.
They’re easy to germinate, easy to transplant, they’re forgiving if the soil isn’t great and, best of all, they’re easy to harvest! One cut and they’re ready to go. They’re definitely the best in the springtime, when they can put on most of their growth in the cool weather and spring rains. Lettuce doesn’t hold up well to the heat of the summer.
It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite (to eat). In April and May, it’s the lettuce, because I haven’t had it for several months and have been anticipating it for a while. Once it starts to get hot, the lettuce turns bitter and goes to seed, so it’s not as good anymore and we move on to other crops.
The shelling peas fill out early in June, and those are just the most incredible little things. I mean, if you’ve never had freshly picked and shelled young peas, you’re seriously missing out on life. But again, those only last for a couple of weeks. After they’ve been heavily picked two or three times, the peas get starchier and less sweet, so we yank the plants and put in something else. When the big purple heirloom tomatoes ripen in July, I eat them like apples. I can’t decide.
RM: Why do you like farming and working with fresh vegetables?
DS: Sourcing food locally is important to me. I learned a lot about our industrial food system in college, and I want to offer produce — and eggs and meats — to the Galesburg community that doesn’t travel hundreds of miles.
Plus, fresh stuff just tastes infinitely better than shipped-in, out-of-season veggies. I get to grow crazy varieties of tomatoes, beans and other interesting stuff that you’ll never see in a supermarket.
RM: How many hours do you spend per day, week or month planting or harvesting vegetables?
DS: I don’t actively keep track of my labor hours. The line between my work and the rest of my life isn’t really clear, so it can be difficult for me to define what “work hours” really are.
I can say, though, during the busy summer season, I frequently spend entire days — from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed — in the field, or managing CSA drops or fixing a tractor or whatever.
I put in as many hours as are necessary to maintain our crops, our CSA and to keep the farm afloat. I don’t generally do field work on Sundays, but I do bookkeeping, scheduling, marketing and so on instead, so I can take a “break.” Winter months are less physically demanding, but seed starting and CSA sign-ups begin early in January, and by February we’re planting in the high tunnel outside. I definitely like working outside, but it has its drawbacks. For example, Fridays are always harvest days for the farmers’ market the following day. So whether it is cold, rainy, windy, humid or 95 degrees, we’re harvesting. Sometimes it can get a little unpleasant, but more often than not, it’s great!
RM: How do you know when the vegetables are ripe for picking and selling?
DS: After doing this for almost seven years, I just know! I watch crops very closely — almost daily inspections keep me in the loop — and can usually predict pretty accurately what’s going to be ready in the next week or two.
I time plantings to coincide with the start of the main and summer season CSAs. Radishes, for example, take around 28 days from germination to harvest, depending on the weather conditions, so I use “days to maturity” for each variety as a guide. It’s taken a lot of trial and error — and reading — to figure out the best times to harvest and the best ways to handle produce post-harvest to maintain our high-quality standard.
RM: How do you keep up your energy during the long hours you spend in the fields?
DS: It is labor intensive and mentally draining. I am very highly self-motivated, personally, so when I want something done, it gets done, even if I’m tired. I work quickly to finish everything, particularly in the hot summer months when the only time we can safely harvest most produce is early in the morning.
Varying tasks throughout the day helps a lot. Hand weeding with a hoe for six hours at once is a lot more draining than just weeding for a couple of hours at a time and switching to another task. Eating regular meals is good to do, too, though I tend to skip out on breakfast and lunch until I have most of my work done for the day — it’s something I’m working on.
RM: When you’re not planting, harvesting or selling vegetables, what other work do you do for the business?
DS: I handle all of the “business-y” stuff. I write the newsletters for the CSA each week (and) do all of the marketing for the farm, including maintaining our website and social media pages, the bookkeeping, customer service — there’s a lot of emails and phone calls every day! — make purchases for the farm, organizing the CSA drops … etcetera. Running a 100-member CSA takes a lot of coordination behind the scenes.
RM: What is your favorite part about running Spurgeon Veggies?
DS: I love having the freedom to be creative with solutions to the puzzles and challenges that present themselves every day. Every season is completely different, so it keeps me on my toes.
RM: Why do you think the Galesburg community responded to Spurgeon Veggies so well?
DS: Local food is gaining traction here in the Midwest, and I think we’re growing right along with the movement. More and more people care about where their food comes from and how it’s grown and handled before getting to their kitchens.
Our produce is usually harvested one to two days before getting to a market or CSA box, so it’s significantly fresher and tastier. It doesn’t have to be shipped halfway across the country, either, lowering our environmental impact.
RM: One challenge to running a fresh-produce business is that the product depends on the weather. How do you respond if there’s a bad season?
DS: Diversity is like our insurance. We grow hundreds of varieties of vegetables; something is always going to do well in a given season, while another will do poorly. Even if we have a bad season, we’re still going to have something to offer.
This is the beauty of the CSA model, though — members commit to the season in the winter and early spring, knowing that it might be a great, bountiful year or a scant one, and the weekly shares will reflect that. We’re able to keep the business going even through a bad season because of our members, so I make sure the CSA is always our first priority.
RM: What are some other challenges in running Spurgeon Veggies that people may not know or think about?
DS: Marketing. I have to do it all. The. Time. Running a small farm isn’t just planting and picking — people have to know about you, and the only way that happens is if you tell them! I spend many, many winter hours preparing marketing materials for the upcoming CSA sign-ups. It takes a lot of effort, but always pays off.
RM: What do you like most about owning your own business?
DS: I love being my own boss and making decisions every day. I like taking risks — and seeing them pay off, of course — and working on my own terms. I’m not sure I could work a “norma” job after doing this for so long!”
DS: Start out small, or work on another farm for a few years. If you have land, it’s easy to just go nuts in the spring and plant everything, but the management in the summer can quickly get overwhelming if you’re not ready for it. Pacing yourself and starting off with just what you can easily manage is important. Do what you love and commit to it!