Little Hat Creek Farm
Heather Coiner and Ben Stowe own Little Creek Hat Farm in rural Roseland, Virginia. Sitting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the farm produces vegetables, breads and baked goods that it sells via farmers markets throughout central Virginia. Even before getting married and moving to Virginia, the couple had discussed going into business together. Ben had considerable vegetable farming experience and Heather had run a bicycle-delivered bread subscription program in Toronto, Canada. Heather notes, “from the very beginning, we wanted bread and vegetables to be hand in hand… we were really clear on the products we wanted to focus on.” The couple started the business in 2013, renting land from an already operable farm. Heather and Ben immediately slipped into the previous farmer’s spot at three different farmers markets and were immediately able to earn a weekly income. Their start-up costs were low, but they were paying rent on much of their equipment. Slowly, they began to make investments in equipment to produce enough to sell.
Heather had started baking bread in her home oven, but the quantity produced and demand for her baked goods soon outgrew her home kitchen. They had first built a brick oven in the middle of the field, harkening back to Heather’s history baking bread in a historic brick oven at a city park in Toronto. The oven worked well for a season cracked. It was then that Heather and Ben decided to make one large investment in a commercial kitchen with a professionally built brick oven. Ben would also use the building and concrete foundation to wash and cool his vegetables.
The building cost $120,000 in total. Heather and Ben used “letter loans” to pay for half of the building, asking for small loans from members of their community. The couple pays 2.5 percent interest annually to their stakeholders. They found financing for the second half of their loan through an SBA 7(a) loan from University of Virginia Community Credit Union. The loan was disbursed in 2016 and the couple is close to fully paying it off. The impact of the commercial kitchen project was transformative for their business. Heather remarks, “There was no way that what we were doing before was sustainable. Without the project, we would have had to rethink our business model. We produce way more with less labor. It has allowed us to diversify our product.” Heather also notes that the commercial kitchen has improved the couple’s work life balance, separating the baking and business office from their home, “achieving that delineation between work and home.”
Since the building was complete, the couple used the Farm Service Agency Slow Money Microloan to buy a sheeter, further increasing their pastry production capacity. The couple also recently invested in a new greenhouse for vegetable transplants. In the past few years since the commercial kitchen project was completed, Little Hat Creek Farm has become a fixture in local farmer’s markets, especially known for their croissants, sourdough bread, and seasonal vegetables.
Heather and Ben look forward to their business’ season of steadiness. Ben is eager for the completion of the greenhouse and the potential to increase the scale of his vegetable production, especially winter vegetables. Heather mentioned that she looks forward to “chipping away at the inefficiencies and getting better at producing the things we like to produce.” She notes, “I’m looking forward to the next stage of our business, what I feel like we’re on the cusp of right now. Using the driving analogy, shifting into high gear and reaping the benefits of knowing what we do well, having established a customer base, and having made all of our major investments already.”