A Self-Proclaimed City Boy Is Helping Farmers Grow Their Businesses
A Self-Proclaimed City Boy Is Helping Farmers Grow Their Businesses
April 24, 2017
Written by Erin Booke, The Dallas Morning News
Nick Burton is a self-proclaimed city boy, a businessman first and a farmer second. He’s also an educator, a mentor and the kind of friend that wants others to succeed.
When someone is struggling with their business and needs some advice, people often say, “Oh, do you know Nick? You should really talk to Nick.”
Burton, 39, runs Blue Collar Paris Victory Gardens in Paris, Texas, where he grows vegetables hydroponically and in soil. It used to be a nursery but now functions as the source of his subscription-based salad delivery business, Victory Lunch Club.
A New Mexico native, Burton moved to Texas in 2001. He started a lawn and landscaping business and grew from there. The “self-development junkie” says he became addicted to business coaching, which ranges from speaker training to technical expertise to image consulting.
“Whenever I got outside coaching, that’s when my business took off,” he says. “And whenever I couldn’t afford it was when I needed it most.”
State of The Soil
Now Burton's the coach. Earlier this year, he launched another business, a passion project called State of the Soil. The series of virtual seminars is designed to educate farmers on business and marketing tactics. Recordings of the webinars are available any time online for a fee, but live webinars are available for free a few times a year. (The next free weekend is May 26-28.) As a farmer, Burton feels obligated to pass along where he has made mistakes and to give back to the agricultural community.
“Farmers are not used to having to pay for training because of the USDA and other programs,” Burton says. “But with that they are not getting great education, especially when it comes to the business side of things.”
Farming, by nature, can be a solitary career choice — and a calling for many — that’s full of trial and error and a lot of learning the hard way. Farmers are not used to networking or asking for help, and they're driven more by pride in their work than by market demands.
“I want to give people permission to tell their story, and sometimes I have to give people permission to make a profit," Burton says. "But a lot of these are small family farms, and if they don’t succeed, they are going to lose it all.”
No Whining Allowed
Burton is all about the tough love, however. He wants to help farmers build a community full of collaboration, innovation and support, but only if they are willing. No whining allowed.
“When we didn’t have good sales, I didn’t blame the market, I blamed myself,” he says. “Many people just grow what they like, but they have to grow what the market demands. It’s not about the farmer, it’s about the client.”
Burton doesn’t advocate one type of farming, even though there’s often infighting and debate among farmers about topics such as hydroponics vs. soil. “Whenever farmers say these things publicly, they are not helping each other out,” he says. “Everyone is so passionate about what they do, but there’s no one right way to do everything. Unless you’re out there just spraying chemicals on everything, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Network of Experts
And while Burton runs State of the Soil, he doesn’t do it alone. He has tapped others in the agriculture community to share their stories and expertise. There are about 38 speakers for 2017 (and more than 40 for 2018) who will talk about such topics as market development, funding, restaurant sales, farmers market sales, media relations, food trends, farm-to-table events, social media, photography, technology and even work-life balance. An all-access pass is $129, and you can watch the webinars any time.
Jeff Bednar, owner of Profound Microfarms in Lucas, teaches a seminar on agricultural real estate for State of the Soil. He owned a real estate company and then branched out into real estate education before deciding to buy land and start growing. He, his wife, Lee, and his two young daughters grow vegetables, mostly leafy greens, hydroponically, aquaponically (with fish) and even vermiponically (with worms).
Andrea Shackelford, executive chef at Harvest Seasonal Kitchenin downtown McKinney, teaches a seminar on selling to restaurants and developing relationships with chefs. Tim Kelly of SunTx Capital in Dallas offers details on funding and investing. Other speakers are from across the country and around the globe.
Not Just for Newbies
State of the Soil clients have ranged from newcomers with no growing background to longtime farmers looking for that extra push. “I see it as a very healthy mix,” Burton says, “people interested in farming for all kinds of reasons.”
Terry Foster of Houston runs Home Town Roots, an urban, indoor vertical farm that specializes in greens and supplies restaurants. Foster, 60, left his corporate job in the oil fields in 2014 to start a second career because he’s “old, tired and crusty,” he says, and “has lost all his mind but still has a strong back.”
He heard Burton speak and then signed up for State of the Soil. He says what he learned was worth much more than he paid.
“The knowledge I had of social media would fit on half a pinhead,” Foster says. “He’s trying to show us dinosaurs how to use social media to market ourselves.”
Foster has since updated his website and developed a Facebook page and and Instagram account.
In 2016, Piper Klee of McKinney started Urban Dirt Co., building raised-bed gardens for people in their backyards and helping maintain them. Klee had a background in corporate sales, not farming, so she needed to pick someone’s brain.
“Nick is full of information and knows people. He started giving me information, and we spent hours driving around, meeting people,” she says. “People give away information for free in this industry. They want people to succeed. They are generous with their information, and Nick is more generous than most.”
Her biggest takeaway from the State of the Soil classes was encouragement. “It was good to see that I’m not the only one doing this,” she says. “And it wasn’t just people who’d been farming their whole lives. There were accountants and bankers turned growers.”
Klee is originally from Colorado, where she says almost everybody grows food in their yard. North Texas is on the cusp of this movement, she says, and there’s just enough information to get going.
“That’s why we have to have State of the Soil because we are not Colorado or Oregon,” she says. “We have to find a way to share information.”
And Burton clearly doesn’t mind sharing. He sees it as an obligation. “I’ve got a complete abundance mentality,” he says. “I think there’s room for everyone.”