Women Farmers: Sally Herbert of Altius Farms Talks Being a Woman in the Industry
According to the 2020 CEA Census Report, women in agriculture are on the rise, representing 43% of the world’s agricultural labor, with around 5% operating within controlled environment agriculture - and Sally Herbert, owner of Altius Farms in downtown Denver, is one of them.
But Herbert wasn’t always a grower. She left corporate America and was thinking about a career change, which later led to the launch of Altius Farms in 2018. Making her farm the first Tower Farm to establish itself downtown was no small feat.
Herbert sat down virtually with us to discuss being a woman within the industry, the impact COVID-19 has had on her farm, as well as what empowers her within her work.
Q. What made you decide to start your own farm?
Herbert: I found myself serving on a board of directors of Veterans to Farmers and met Jeff and Toni Olson, and learned more about Tower Garden. I really felt that the technology was interesting, and knowing we have to change the way we grow our food, I thought maybe I could be a part of that in Denver and beyond.
A lot of our food, especially produce, has so many food miles on it. You know how many times you opened a crappy bag of lettuce, if it's good for a day then you’re lucky. Of course, the nutritional content and flavor degrades. Growing closer to points of consumption in our urban centers is what we really want to do. And it’s what we are doing.
Q. What made you decide to start growing with Tower Garden versus other gardening products?
Herbert: We have a small greenhouse. It’s 8,000 square feet. I just felt like the Tower technology was approachable. It’s not a threatening technology. It’s pretty simple. The nutrients go in, there’s a pump, and a float value that tells you to fill it back up again. It’s a simple concept. It grows the heck out of leafy greens and herbs. It’s just a great technology.
Q. Was there any fear of going into this industry as a woman?
Herbert: I have never felt looked down upon as a woman within this industry. I have not. I think that often there are family farms where women play a solid role. I think the only difference is that women are owning their own farms now, but women have always had a role on farms. I think the opportunity is rich, and it’s a good time to be in this space. This is the boom of vertical growing. In five years, the big players will be established.
Q. Do you have any advice for women farmers in the industry making their way into the space?
Herbert: We have a really diverse and broad team here. I started out with almost all men on my team in leadership positions, and now we are women. It was a natural evolution. What I have noticed with women in this space is that, first of all, we are nurturing by nature. I think that nurturing and caring aspects are helpful when you are responsible for living things.
I also have seen a real strength in the women on my team, and I think we have an inner strength from either our experiences or our nature that is helpful in an entrepreneurial setting. I think you could look across the industry and see that more women are finding their way into entrepreneurial roles. I think in my generation we were not taught that was even an option for a woman. I am older, but I think that now the women who work on my team know that's an option. I think younger generations of women farmers are seeing that there's opportunity there. All of the women [who] work on this team, and the guys too, understand that this is hard work.
Q. How has growing gone in the last year? Can you tell us a little bit about your COVID-19 experience while running Altius Farms?
Herbert: When things started to hit New York in January and February of last year, we all met as a team and knew it was coming here. How are we going to handle this if we were to lose most or all of our restaurant customers? We had four main channels to go to market. Those were restaurants, grocery, direct to consumers (DTC) through CSA share, and institutional buyers like museums. We had to figure out what would be there for us, and grocery and DTC were where we had an opportunity to expand. We did lose about 60% of our restaurants. Some hung on, but most of them closed. Our grocery business just went through the roof.
It took us time to get through that. There were weeks of trying to have those conversations and reach out to more grocery stores and build a DTC channel. We built a curbside program where people would order on Wednesdays and Thursdays and come and pick up on Fridays. We could sell somewhere around 30-50 pounds of product a week just through that. It enabled us to stay close to the community. We donated in that timeframe as well, which we thought was really important to ensure the underserved communities received our product. A lot of our restaurants are coming back, so we are now starting to see things balancing out.
Q. Now that we are almost a year from the start of COVID-19, how are things currently going?
Herbert: All of our volunteer and community outreach has stopped. We want to start that back up again, but how do we go about that? We want to make sure we are all vaccinated here before we invite anyone in. We are hoping to ramp back up for events and things outside. We think people will be hungry for that outdoor garden space.
With COVID-19, all of our packaging and cleaning supplies just had to dramatically increase the volume of consumption. That really hit us from a cost perspective, and for restaurants too. The overall cost just went up. We kind of took the slower months in the winter to look at our processes for a bit, to see if we were doing things as efficiently as we could. We made some changes on how we do propagation. We are not going straight from a tray under lights to a Tower. We are actually doing something called a Step Up. You take the seedlings and put them in a container and let them harden a bit before they go into the actual Towers. A lot of Tower Farmers do this today.
Q. What empowers you within the work that you do?
Herbert: There is this beauty that is present in this greenhouse, and knowing that we are producing something that will nourish someone else is a pretty big force. There is pride in seeing our product on a grocery shelf, or a restauranteur that has created a dish with our product. And, of course, the fact that we have created a family team is also important. I have created jobs for people, and I want this company to be successful. That is a driver and pushes me along as well. I own a rooftop greenhouse in downtown Denver, no one has done that before. Other Tower Farmers can say that about their farm too. This is still early stage stuff. It’s a frontier, which is really exciting too.
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