New Storage Facility Increases Efficiency at Laughing Child Farm

Tim and his daughter, Magnolia

Tim Hughes-Muse with his daughter Magnolia. Photo: VHCB

Tim Hughes-Muse and his wife Brooke, owners of Laughing Child Farm in Pawlet, knew they had great idea for their farm when they enrolled in VHCB’s Farm & Forest Viability Program, but weren't so sure about its feasibility. “When we came across sweet potatoes, we thought it could work," recalled Tim, "but we weren’t really sure about the business part of it. So we looked for outside help. That's when we got in touch with VHCB.” The business planning process “really helped us figure out how make decisions that have long-term payoffs. We kind of knew the day-to-day decision making, but where to invest money, that was probably the most valuable part of things for us,” Tim explained.

After completing their business plan with assistance from Intervale Center's Sam Smith, “we knew we needed to expand our business and scale up because a large part of our business plan was to capitalize on efficiencies,” said Tim. “We identified early on that we needed a storage facility, partly because of the food safety regulations but also because of the working conditions […] The storage conditions were just not ideal. It was also very inefficient in terms of our time. That was a barrier for us to expand.”

sweet potato bin

Each bin holds approximately 1,000 lbs of sweet potatoes and was difficult to move and stack in the old barn.

So Tim and Brooke applied for a Business Plan Implementation Grant through the Viability Program and were awarded funds for their project in spring 2015. “We used the money to build a new storage facility that can hold quite a bit more [product], but also has controlled environmental conditions; it also has proper food safety equipment,” said Tim.
“It’s got great lighting and heating [and] an internet connection for systems monitoring.”

One of the biggest changes at Laughing Child Farm since building the storage facility has been a 400% increase in processing efficiency. “[The barn] decreased our handling time of bins," says Tim. "We were processing 1,000 lbs of sweet potatoes [in about] three hours in our old barn. In our new barn we got it down to about 45 minutes. Now that our business is so much larger, we’re still spending the same amount of time washing, but we’re getting a lot more done.”

Having developed this product storage expansion project as an outgrowth of their business planning work with Sam Smith, Tim and Brooke are finding that it has benefits that will come in handy down the line. “The barn has really been a central piece to our quality of life, but also for the future development of the business,” said Tim. “It has checked off a couple key items in our business plan. We built it with GAP certification in mind. We’re going for GAP certification in the fall, and that will open up access to supermarket chains and markets we haven’t had access to in the past.”

The increased space and efficiency has also allowed them to consider new partnerships. “We’re thinking about ways to do cooperative growing," said Tim. "Now that we’re able to process so much faster, can we grow more? Or, can we get other people to contract with us?”

Now that processing and storage are taken care of, Tim and Brooke have time to focus on other parts of their business. Tim told us, “The next part we have to focus on is harvesting. It’s a long and hard process. [The completion of the storage project] freed us up to think about that more. It’s also given us the tools to figure out how to approach those hurdles.”

The Vermont Farm Viability Program is a program
of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.