Park Ridge Organics

Park Ridge Organics, “Female Strong” Business with Customized Share Program

Sandra Yerges

“It would have taken us ten years to do what we were able to do in two” is not a statement you hear everyday. However, this was the reality for Robyn Calvey, owner of Park Ridge Organics, as she recalled the success her business found with the USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG). Taking over the vegetable farm in 2013 from her parents who started it as a way to keep themselves busy, Robyn has always been committed to building up the company in whatever capacity she could.

In the early 2000s when the business was established, Robyn’s parents initially had their eyes fixed on selling their harvested vegetables at their Wisconsin farm store. As time went on, however, they added a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option to bring in more revenue to the farm. Although it has fluctuated in size over the years, it currently operates with the support of 375 weekly shares.

Unlike many CSA programs, Park Ridge Organics offers a customized vegetable share program that places an emphasis on customer preference. With the help of Harvie, a sophisticated algorithmic software, the farm offers a selection of their harvested vegetables and sourced offerings, such as bread and mushrooms, to those participating in the program. The customer is able to opt in or out of any of the offerings on the list, which ensures they are not stuck with any product they do not want.

Adding to the flexibility of this support option, there are seven locations within 40 miles of the farm for CSA share pickups. Being that not all customers are from the Fond Du Lac area where Park Ridge Organics is located, these pickup locations allow CSA members to receive their food closer to their homes. The success of this customer-centered system allows this program to be the largest source of revenue for the company.

The remaining sales this business receives comes from their wholesale orders at restaurant and grocery outlets and through their long-running farm store. Park Ridge Organics strives to offer this on-site shopping experience to familiar faces and tourists not only in the busy season, but also through sporadic pop-up farm store openings in the winter months.

Technology supports efficiency within the farm store through the self-checkout kiosk. There are iPad systems accessible to easily pay with cash or credit cards, which makes the process simple and eliminates the need for someone to be staffing the store. Robyn expressed that this was the way the company has always managed the farm store, and it has been successful for both the customers and those working on the farm.

Of course, even a small-scale business with automated help requires the labor of many hardworking individuals. There are currently four full-time employees, one apprentice, and four part-time workers who help Robyn with various tasks around the farm. Whether it is working hands-on with the upkeep and harvesting of vegetables or working with the CSA program, the staff is well acquainted with what it takes to make a small-scale farm operate smoothly.

Aside from the company’s delivery driver, Joe, and Robyn’s father, who helps with all things maintenance, the farm happens to be operated mostly by women. “It’s a very female strong crew,” Robyn noted.

In addition to the employees on the farm, the company offers a worker share program that allows CSA members to work in exchange for a Park Ridge Organics’ CSA share. Having a short, one day a week time commitment, the worker shares are able to spend their time supporting the farm from which they receive their produce. It is a win-win for the farm and those wanting to help out.

The impact this company has on the community does not stop there. This past year, Robyn was interested in sharing her gardening advice as she noticed there were many customers with questions surrounding the practice. She decided to host two on-site classes that covered plant upkeep during the growing stage as well as end-of-season garden maintenance.

Because so many of her customers are growers themselves, Robyn’s classes provided them the opportunity to learn how to grow the foods they are passionate about while also supporting the business by buying what they do not grow. “I think it’s just people who tapped into their local food,” she explained.

To continue reaching those who have a love for community-based agriculture, Robyn has been working to enhance the aspects of the farm her parents established over 20 years ago. One way she has done so is through her work with the VAPG in 2020: her first grant writing experience in over 15 years.

Although this was a new feat for Robyn, she enlisted the help of a grant writer connection who was there to answer any questions she had. Not only did she help direct Robyn’s attention to the application formatting, but also which areas of the business to highlight in her writing. 100 hours later with helpful consultations along the way, Park Ridge Organics’ application was successfully submitted.

Within the same year, Robyn found out her application was approved and began operating with the grant funds in mind. Being that she was informed of the paperwork requirements during her time in the application stage, she was equipped with the mindset for how to approach the reimbursement process. “Once I got a feeling for it, I really had a system down,” she shared.

The system she set in place truly benefited the main focus of the grant funding: the farm store. To appeal to the growing number of new customers making their way into the store, the funds were utilized to make branding changes that would stick in the minds of these visitors. Just as the updated logo and recognizable product packaging made all the difference for Park Ridge Organics, the technology upgrades for the self-serve checkout system helped continue to make the farm experience both enjoyable and easy for customers.

Funding the labor of the farm store stocking staff was another emphasis of the grant. By supporting them financially and updating product labels, these workers are now able to expand and manage the wide selection of products available to customers during each visit.

After seeing sales climb 50% this past year, Robyn has recognized the positive impact of the VAPG-funded changes for her business. She pointed out, “Getting just shy of $50,000 in additional funds is pretty impactful when you’re on a small farm.”

No matter how big your farm is or how much experience you may have with grant writing, the VAPG can fit a wide variety of business-related needs. For Robyn, she chose to work upon an existing element of her farm that would not have reached the level it is at now without the grant. She explained, “We didn’t have the capacity to make it what we knew it could be.”

Equipped with a new perspective of the farm store’s potential, Robyn is now hitting the “repeat button” and pursuing another grant opportunity to add to the farm store experience for those in the community and beyond.