I hope your excited to learn about an innovator green job creator and advocate for sustainable agriculture who’s growing businesses Farmworks Ann Arbor and Farmworks Builders will inspire and excite you to know someone else out there is working to help change our world by educating communities, protecting our environment, creating jobs and growing healthy nutritious food all at the same time!
Welcome to episode 163 of the Organic Gardener Podcast. I am so excited because we are talking on Christmas Eve 2016 because we both love our planet and the environment!
Chris West – Founder
Born and raised in rural Napoleon, Michigan, Chris West started his first business cutting grass for his neighbors. A spirit for self sufficiency and a love for design and nature began there and has culminated with FarmWorks, producer of the world’s finest raised bed gardens.
Chris lives and works with his wife Xinyan, and is the super proud father of 4 awesome children.
So today to share his gardening journey and his business journey and his entrepreneurship! Im so excited you took time out of Christmas Eve to share with us today! And you have 4 kids I didn’t realize that til this morning! Thanks for coming on with my busy schedule!!!
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a very proud father! I have 4 children, 3 girls and a boy. I’ve been bouncing around, in the Marine corps in Southern California, I spent a good bit of my developing years in that neck of the woods. I spent a lot of time in Corporate America, my background was in Sales and Marketing, I was the Western regional director … also got into advertising and television along that way….
I just got to the point, I kind of woke up! You just Wake up to some things! I just wanted to get out of that. Fell back on the things with I grew up with,mowing those yards and must started FarmWorks out of that. I just converted that to a raised bed setting, took some pictures, set it up online and the next thing you know I got people saying can you do that for me?
OK, tell people about your beautiful website! It’s so beautiful already, you were saying in the pre-chat that it’s gonna be changing!
So FarmWorks, we are an innovative garden design company, and we build a garden of any scale for any particular reason. We go the raised bed route, because one of our mottos is
“less work and more food”
As anyone in the gardening world knows, it’s a tremendous amount of work, weeding an other aspects to it, and it’s pretty labor intensive. So kind of our goal and we move forward into this technological future is to alleviate a lot of those laborous aspects to it so you can really just produce high yielding plants, high yielding fruits and vegetables and things along those lines.
I love that, I’ve been telling Mike to do that for years, because IDK if you know we live in Montana on the border of Canada and now that logging has shut down because they are moving to Gerogia and other places where they can grow a tree and make a log in 20 years, so we’ve become a much more industry. There are Canadians everywhere and they care about what they eat, they support our Health food store, we have a great healht food store becuase of the Canadians….
I talk a lot about I usually work a lot almost always have a full time job where as he does more of the gardner, but I think a lot of my listeners are more like me who building a raised bed would be hard, not maybe because Im a woman, but because I am just not a perfectionist and to nail 2 boards the same way would be a challenge for me like my personal quirk … and just I think this is a great idea for busy people.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
Gardening in that sense… there isn’t a time in my memory where that wasn’t present. I’m from a very rural area where there are more cows then people… I had a Tom Sawyer childhood … my front yard …. 800 acres of pine forest….
There were 30-40 kids who lived around that lake, so it was adventurous … and we were always …. building forts …. but
…. the presence of naturally growing food was always there… There were
There was a strawberry patch that would produce, years over and years, open field with strawberries… part of our food source
(This guy sounds like Matt Damon – this is Jackie here thinking…)
We tilled everything, probably an acre… we grew everything… I remember eating snap beans off a plant
- snap beans
- making pickles
- growing cucumbers
So it’s really woven into the fabric of who I am… I think in that generation, I think there’s a lot of people, who had a similar experience as compared to the hyper-consumerism we have today….
My mom and I argue all the time, it’s just a label… but I’m like Mom the food in the store today is just not what we had when we were growing up…
we are all experience now… innovations from their side …. exponential amount of food and take that give it to a chemist who’s gonna say break down corn and make 17 different types of product …. industrial standpoint …. that is what it is …. a lot of people create this them vs us, but my view really is, that’s what motivates them …
…. From a competing standpoint, I think it’s important to compete!
Yes, there is a premium that can be charged for it, that premium does help, it helps the small farmer … more crucial for pound for pound self space to really compete against those types of producers!
It seems like you have done a ton of research! I wasn’t even really sure if you were organic when I asked you…
Oh YES! I have emerged myself, this is my life… anything that affects… I have done hoards of research across the board
FarmWorks is to say if the end goal is this we have to walk it forward, this step, this step, this step, I know it seems very vague, but in my brain there’s all these cogs that have to go into this particular machine… as you said in the beginning
We have to protect our planet!
It isn’t a stretch to say that nature is considerable smarter then we are!
I take a tomato, inside that tomato is an abundance of seed, and that creates more tomato plants and that creates more seeds, in a very short period of time …. and the the sun keeps shining …. this amazing perpetual motion… and so it’s our role to shepard nature, one of the results that are beneficial …
The difference between the is Industrial method is really beating and whipping into submission, whereas the …
organic guy there’s a lot more heart!
You can almost taste that! It really comes through, they say, that’s why it tastes so much better. Because we are not beating it into submission.
Is that how you learned how to grow organically?
basically…. not really… to me… little tidbits here and there… just kind of go that route… I’ve always been drawn to complex systems… my brain can wrap around … moving parts … and create something like that
It’s the flowers vs fleas analogies
If you want to get rid of fleas your best bet is to invade the space with flowers that fleas down’t like and they’ll go away.. and that’s nature’s defense against that…
There’s all these steps and various things you can do… that nature has already figured it out… you don’t have to get fungicides etc… nature has had the answer with 3 billion years. if not more….
Component 1 = Soil
That you have put together. The first being soil is the most important component. It’s the foundation of everything.
…. thrive in the soil … everything they require … soil web … is an intricate network chemicals and combinations … which make this plant thrive … what we call that in the world of technology, that’s probably something people can relate to… nano-technology… create nano-tech …. when you look at microbes …
That’s how you get these things to grow… that’s why ORGANIC IS vastly superior … not even a close second!
COOL, I’ve always felt it should be that way, I don’t understand why organic cost more? It seems like, I’ve always believed we just need to support it and invest in it and it will come out ahead. It has too doesn’t it?
Creating Our Own Soil
FarmWorks creates it’s own soil. We literally just got this property here, and it’s like my own laboratory here! We make our own soil, we call it gold dust!
WE have a 2000 square foot shop that we work out of, and then we have an acre and half strictly committed, to soil and that makes my customers very happy!
Because you don’t really need to have a green thumb when you put that soil in there, so we have very good feed back coming from it
from the extent that I want to talk about it, there’s a lot of info about how to make soil, so what we did was create our own recipe. We do all of our own composting, from various materials! When you live in rural michigan there is an abundance of compost materials you’lll never run out of it!
We cook our own compost
every good gardener knows that you’re making teas etc. Various things like that it,s very good for your plants, they like that it’s like steroids fro your plants the natureal way, and so we just bag everything up, by the yard per say. Every FarmWorks project or system
- peat mosses
- where the nutrients
- every good gardener knows that making your teas
- it’s like steroids in a natural way
so we just bag everything up, by the yard per say. Every FarmWorks project or system comes complete, so basically your just ready to plug and play…
idk, maybe Michigan is different in Montana, but a lot of people I talk to to, the dirt is the biggest challenge where to come up with that good dirt, we have that challenge every year where to come up with fresh dirt to replenish our beds or build new beds….
That’s good to know, that might be a supply chain there… In Michigan trees everywhere… lots of space there’s tons and tons of trees, and every single fall there’s a whole new batch of sticks… to cook up…
We have mostly pine forests, we don’t et a lot of leaves, for us the thing we use the most are the grass clippings…
The pine needles once they go brown… cook them up as well. most people thing pine needles are acidic raise the acidity of the soil… but I know that if they turn brown they are actually good for the soil. … IDK the specifics of that… usually ph…
Tell us about something that grew well this year.
Because we just got the property, we were in transition…. I wasn’t able to grow a single things…. Making that transition… What we did grow, we have a new property… I have the design ready, most of the components ready to grow 5000 square feet to be pretty intensive organic that we are gonna put in there so everything is very systems oriented based on what we produce … we have…
Our next challenge is our chicken coop to raise chickens in a hands free way… chickens are really dirty, there’s a lot of work involved with chickens… I’m looking at a number of systems we can make to put together to alleviate a lot of those chicken issues as well… take a part of that… or you know kind of, incorporate into that cycle. They call it an open looped system but everything feeds everything else in that sense…
Being in Michigan we are the largest fresh water state in the states, there is an abundance of it, and as I sit here and look out we have is probably a a foot of snow is just waiting to make more fresh water …
Drop call … the most fresh water….
Maybe not the most fresh water, Minnesota might argue that point but water is abundant so it’s not a problem… coming from California where I was at … we don’t have those issues, just the resources we have here it’s the ideal place to do that …
So the chicken thing kind of answers the what are you excited to do now….
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Let’s Get to the Root of Things
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
Probably the least favorite activity I have is, we mill all of our own wood, and we work with primarily cedar and we start with rough sown timber and we mill all of it ourselves … to be honest with you, I have sawdust that will rival mountains…
That initial milling process … it’s a lot of work, the end result is fantastic and it’s a very economical way to do it, because you simply invest in the equipment you have no product, you create your own product, but it’s work to get to that point. I can tell you taht, that’s probably my least favorite.
Well, Mike’s done a lot of that, probably more when I wasn’t around, what amazes me that he’s don’t recently is peeled the posts and poles to build the fence, chop the tree down, peel it, dig the post holes!
Your beds are beautiful, the pictures on your website are gorgeous anybody would want those!
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
I kind of just like to take it all in! I really do! I love taking pictures of that stuff… finding the right angles, especially when things are in bloom, when it’s a nice clear, kind of Kodachrome type of day. Those types of things really inspire me to keep pushing, keep pushing … where else can we go with this stuff?
…. Walk around and take it all in. I am fortunate, I have clients that I work with that have done just an amazing job … of planting their gardens…
I come in and I design and build their systems for them, they come in after the fact and plant them and the results are absolutely spectacular! But I love visiting them and talking with them, and everyone’s always excited!
So just taking in the finished product! That’s #1
Can I ask you as a side note… I’m so obsessed with business. What was it like finding your first client. Was that scary? Maybe since you come from corporate and said you had a background in some sales … for me, and as Mike and I are starting out, the marketing part is the scariest.
Absolutely, that’s a very good questions…. FarmworksAnnarbor.com that is our website, that is where you go to have a nice raised bed in your home, school wherever… the other component is what we call:
FARMWORKS Builders.com and that’s where we will bring in folks like you and Mike and we will train you. This is how we do this.
Marketing 101 and Operations 101 based on the 7 years that I’ve been doing this now, and every good bad and everything that I know. This is how we approach it.
Marketing really is … there’s a plethora of information with how to be a very good marketer… but you have to start with who is your customer?
- Who is your customer?
- What do they want to see?
- What would they ultimately respond to?
Put yourself on the couch, what is it that they would like to see? What is going to resonate with them and then what they would ultimately respond to? And you kind of work it backward from that point forward.
who is your customer?
direct to consumer….
imagine, most people, when you re are buying products, you’re going through a retail channel. When you go to the grocery store, they are not producing anything on the shelves… they’re housing. So consumer direct is removing the middle man from retail standpoint is not there… So on tv that is 1-800-555 … call now….
So how did you get your very first customer?
directly to the person you want…
it’s a funny story, I got my very first customer in California…. I had redone my backyard
got my children a dog, and the dog redid a
the dog and i were not the best terms and I was seriously considered finding her a new home and this lady said, could you bring the dog over, and when I got there her backyard is in rough shape, and I said I kind of do this and if you’d be interested…. so we built a very nice lawn and garden, she was a a single mom and very nice lady and thankfully they still have the dog… just kind of an odd thing… that’s really started…
So now your in Michigan do you have to start all over finding customers again?
In a sense yes absolutely. You know my first season in California, there’s something to be said about market place of 15 million people… I was just doing it out of my garage …
16 hours a day, everyday, it was so rewarding because you know you’re doing your own thing… it was fantastic …just for a variety of reasons, I needed to find more space and to realize the full potential of where I saw this and being from Michigan it was easy to say let’s close things down here and let’s recalibrate things in Michigan and take it to the next level.
I’ve always told Mike he should go make raised beds for my mom, because she hasn’t really grown vegetables in raised beds, and I think she would love it… I don’t think I would ever have a garden again, to me if you can’t sit on the edge of the garden forget it….
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
The best gardening advice I have ever received … this thing called Companion Planting that I was taught by a friend of mine and I had no idea there was such a thing. and When I started researching what it meant it was literally like the fourth of July
realize planting basil with your tomato benefits them tremendously! it was huge moment and to be able to take that and really run with it!
I look at it like a composer, like Mozart …20th c composer … absolutely beautiful piece of music …. I look at companion planting … they all work together …. they create melody and harmonies … it just excites the heck out of me… a lot of our systems! WE call it composition garden because you want to compose a garden based on things that grow together!
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
All the guys will understand, you can’t live without your chop saw or a miter saw … any builder, you can do a whole lot with that thing …
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
I’m a huge salsa fan… I love salsa! Spending a good amount of time in southern California you have an absolutely immersion it… Because growing up in Michigan, the first time I saw an avocado, when I was 18
salsa is such a fantastic thing you can take what you have in the garden and mix it up!
I love salsa, Im not so good at making salsa but I make a killer guacamole!
A favorite internet resource?
There’s no shortage of info online… the beauty of the internet … in that respect especially recently
If you go on to Facebook, there’s a number of groups… that’s where you and I made this connection, those Facebook Groups groups they are priceless… there will be a whole group of people doing this, whatever your fancy is, there will be a group of people doing it activly now and it’s just a fantastic resource of helpful people… I mean every once in a while you get some negativity but overall it’s a very beneficial thing. so for me mine those groups for info… it’s great personalities that come with it… it’s not a static page that your reading, there’s a person that comes with it. When you’re dealing…
And of course we’d love if you’d join Organic Gardener Podcast Facebook Community!
When people are like Facebook is just about food pictures or stupid cat videos… I just think you should join a Facebook Group… someone took me to Glacier Park over Siyeh pass because of a Facebook Group… I’ve driven over Glacier park and under over 300 times and the number of times I can get out… to find someone to hike is invaluable. and I have to admit I didn’t get facebook back in 2010 till I joined a secret group… I totally agree.. there’s people on every topic, I like the birding sites… that is how we met! Full of info.
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?
If more leaning towards the entrepreneurial… Tim Ferriss –
the guy just put out a book called Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers … I picked it up for my nephew as a Christmas present and I was sitting by the fireplace with my dog, just thumbing through it.
I was just astounded at how, that could be a life changing, the information contained in those pages, for people, just across the entire spectrum… I was really blown away…
It’s kind of like a library of all those fun entrepreneurial things across the board from Health…
It’s broken into three parts:
health. wealth wisdom
healthy wealthy wise
basically a number of people that he talked to, it’s like 800 [ages long… it’s huge… continusuously they’re sharing resources and this is free…
OK, you have to go check out John Lee Dumas’ site at Entrepreneur on Fire because his website is like that book. Tim Ferriss, is a genius, I have learned a lot from him, the Four Hour Work Week was a huge impact on my life, and it’s not about working a Four Hour week, it’s more about doing what you love, life style design, and doing maybe a 40 hour a week in 4 hours so you have time to do what ou love… I haven’t listened to his podcast in a while.
Good to hear that…. my time to listen has been reduced…. I teach on the other side of the mountains, I live in Western Montana, and teach on the east side of Glacier Park on the edge of the mountains I could drive on the Going-to-the-sun Road in the spring and fall, but I’m too scared…
Kate his girlfriend has the audioblog of EOF called Kate’s Take
If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?
So how does that work, people can franchise with you?
Think of it more like a program. I will open up the book on exactly how to do this… and It’s like a 4 day program where you come to Michigan, and training eschelon basically. What you do with it after that is totally up to you. I was in franchising for many years and I can tell you that’s an awesome business model from having a standpoint of having skin in the game… a lot of people … they have great ideas … they are motivated .. the part when you take the rose colored glasses off … that’s why businesses don’t succeed… because it’s not easy… it’s easier to fail then it is to succeeds
is to create a deep and wide network of builders who are all doing this kind of like in a mini production, which will lead to a chain of growers… which will lead to a chain of producers … which will lead to a chain of customers
there’s a whole lot of terms of jobs and michigan just rural in the US, you don’t have to read in the news to far to see jobs are an issue, manufaturing base in america, it’s not coming back… don’t rely on anybody else… those types of things … they’re not coming back … rely on your self you’re the single most amazing… amazed at the power that you have let’s take the bull by the horns, don’t leave it to anyone else…
thats our mantra
let’s take the bull by the horns …
we have a very large vision
Rasied beds are just one part of it, because raised beds produce things, it wont stop it will continue … its an important component… it’s gonna be hard to go wrong… staple product … odds for success… We’re not trying to make the next best dot.com thing… anytime
community aspect of food growing and gardening touches everybody everybody has a connection to it. You don’t always see negativity as a business. … we only deal with honest people … gardeners and growers are very honest people … you don’t get that bait and switch… it’s all good will … were’a ll doing this and it’s all good people
Awww this has been awesome… I know listeners are gonna like it because you sound totally like Matt Damon and be like I could listen to this guy all day long…
Final question – Creating a Greener World
If there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
If I had
the biggest change I would like to see
this hyper consumerism
crushed into a million pieces
we kind of slipped
we had this love affair with materialism, we got caught up in it, we didn’t realize the impacts on the large scale, becasue we have almost sentenced future generations to a really difficult life and I would like to see people say, this isn’t what we’re meant for … we see everywhere… your advertised to 700 times every single day… chanign your so to see people to wake up from that …. come around the fire and shake hands and repurpose … for sensibility …
It’s like reasonability is gone?
Right, our country has gotten so greedy, what happende to what can I do for my country…
get out of that
its so funny I was looking at this quiz and it was like I’l show you a picture and you say what state am I in and they would show the same big avenue
what state am I in
who knows every state has that
they all look like that now … we’re losing the identity to these corporate brands and branding is very important, I understand all those things… but as a whole … Michigan used to be the auto-capital of the world…
I think you are getting a gardening reputation… didn’t I see Detroit has more community gardens then anywhere in the US?
There is a real resurgence … for urban farming … Im glad you brought that up … Vincent smith is a former running back for University of Michigan… he has a group called
given about 5-6 city lots in one of the worst neighborhoods in Flint… building an amazing community garden in Flint … having a great impact …
I have not dipped a toe in that world … for different reasons… it is a thing … Reurbanization of Detriot ….a very positive …
So you know him… maybe you could introduce me to him.
Part of my team, I’m part of his team….
Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I can’t believe your not a millennial because I just I love how you care about our planet and creating green jobs…
From the millennial aspect my oldest children are 23 & 19:? call me the bridge between the old and the new… digital world… they know considerable more of it because they are immersed in it since birth… but that connection is a very strong one and that’s probably why folks around our age group …. we take this very seriously ….a touch more experience … we failed more ways so stay steer clear of this …
It’s Henry Ford’s Museum and I am just really inspired by Henry Ford, there’s always the good when it comes to automobiles how he was able to elevate the living standard of Americans, he’s always been an inspiration … didn’t get his business started till he was in his 40s and there’s a quote not by him but by Daniel Webster, it’s on my website too:
“When the tillage begins all the arts can follow”
The person who gets the food growing, all the other arts can follow, … so the farmer is the person who creates civiiliation because the food has been taken care of … so I take that very seriouslly…
So I say let’s found something new here… there needs to be the next step …
analog way of doing things
shepard it don’t whip it… shepard it… we can create something very special and put our own mark in history… this is our opportunity to do it…
it’s very clear if something does’t change, the writing is on the walll. so let’s do this.. that’s my motto…
I was thinking it was a Henry Food quote you were gonna say is that Whether you can or you can’t you’re right…
Whether you believe you can or you can’t you’ll be right…
How do we connect with you?
Reach me at Farmworks Ann Arbor
I’m on Facebook
All the typical digital stuff
I like to talk to everybody we can all improve our knowlege..!
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Remember you can get an Organic Gardener Podcast discount at organifi.com use promo code OGP16 at checkout for a 15%discount!
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