Big Head Farm: Starting Small, Thinking Big

March 15, 2016

“Farmer Karen Warner,” as she refers to herself in her outgoing voicemail message, started what would become Benton Harbor, Michigan-based Big Head Farm on a small patch of dirt outside her Chicago condo in 2008.

Coming from a retail fashion background, Warner “had a thing for organic food. I always think about what I eat and where it’s coming from. So I guess it was an idea that was kind of percolating, and I always wanted a career that took me outside.”

After taking some classes in starting and operating a farm—and a year of business planning—she found an acre in Michigan, making Big Head Farm a reality in 2009. As her vegetables became more popular, Warner secured five acres and expanded Big Head in 2011. Two years later, she moved onto an investor-owned, 52-acre farmstead, and Big Head became a certified organic farm offering vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers, all grown in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Today, Big Head has six full-time employees and serves a wide range of clientele, including retail customers, restaurants, and grocery stores.

Next steps: Planning around opportunities

Once Big Head was up and running, Warner realized she had the opportunity to put technology to work to improve the business. Not every technology plan has to be complex or even wide-ranging; in this case, it was geared specifically to the needs at hand.

“Early on, I knew getting Big Head on the Web was crucial for driving traffic and getting our brand out there,” she says, “but, after a couple years in business, I could see that we could get some great productivity gains with a wider range of tools. We didn’t really need to create a large tech infrastructure, but we did require a plan to help us improve productivity throughout the business. We knew what the challenges were; we just needed the right solutions.”

With that in mind, Warner built a plan based on three key areas: 1) improving the customer experience, 2) streamlining back office functions, and 3) improving internal communications. In addition to planning for those three areas, Warner wanted to tie them together wherever she could.

Warner’s plan was based on Big Head Farm’s core challenges, and here’s how she created technology solutions around them.

  • A disorganized payment system. On the retail side, Warner’s employees had been using “market sheets,” which were essentially price lists on which employees logged purchases. “Those sheets were designed to help us figure out how much money we took in and how much stock we had on hand,” Warner says. “But we never had enough time to actually take an inventory when we were packing, and we didn’t have enough time to actually balance anything to figure out whether we were making money, losing money, or whether there was shrinkage, etc.” The solution was to bring in a point-of-service (POS) system that let employees use tablets, smartphones, and credit card programs to automate all the transactions. The system updates the farm’s accounting program, and lets Warner easily track sales and billing. It has also given Big Head the ability to take food stamps, which mattered to Warner.
  • Cleaning up inventory and supply. Pinpointing inventory and knowing where stock was had been an elusive proposition for Big Head, especially since so many functions had been done on paper. Moving to an online accounting program and integrating it with her POS and other order systems brought immediate clarity. In addition to the transparency of having the POS system tied to the program, which immediately updates inventory numbers, Warner uses it in the field. “I have it on my phone and tablet, so if I’m out talking to a non-retail customer—like a restaurant or hotel—and they place an order with me, I can get the signature on my phone, place the order, and we’re automatically up to date back at the office,” she notes. “Now, I know where everything is and when we need to re-stock or re-order, and I can get those figures at any given time.”
  • Lack of communication. It may seem simple, but Warner makes sure that all employees have smart phones when they’re, quite literally, in the field. “In most businesses, you have access to employees via phone, email, or text, but it’s not so easy on a farm, and it’s not always second-nature for a tractor operator to carry a smart phone,” Warner says. If they’re having problems or they’ve been hurt for some reason, you’re covering 50 acres or 70 acres, and they can be anywhere on the property. Smart phones help GPS pinpoint their locations. Beyond that, our overall communication has improved, which boosts overall productivity.”

“I can’t speak for every business owner,” concludes Warner. “But having—and implementing—a technology plan has kept us from falling behind market needs and demand. I know in our rural area, for example, there are still some businesses that only stick to cash. But you risk alienating customers when you do that. The right technology has done more than just solve challenges like that for Big Head; it has helped streamline the operation overall and made us smarter.”

Karen Warner started her farm from a patch of dirt, but she’s planned out every step along the way, including her technology needs.

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