Aimee Burton, 30, founder of The Vege Plot, talks harvesting vegetables to order and how an ultimatum from an employer got her started on her business journey.
What does your business do?
The Vege Plot is in its second season. I started selling spray-free vegetables and it grew from there. Now I sell a whole range of things including fresh bread to free range eggs. I don't sell the vegetables I grow at weekly markets, I send out an email every week with what I've got available, people choose whatever they want and then we harvest everything to order and I deliver the veggies once a week.
The business is based in the back paddock of my parents' farm in Glentui, an hour inland from Christchurch, and began in September 2016. We have around 50 types of different vegetables available. I also love to grow things that are a little bit unusual such as brown cucumbers, sweet Indian cucumbers, yellow cucumbers and all different-coloured heirloom tomatoes.
What was the motivation for starting the business?
I was working in a corporate environment full-time and out of the blue one day I woke up and had this really random headache. To cut a long story short, it stayed around for two years and it meant that I couldn't work full-time so I had to cut down my hours to 20 per week.
There were times where my headache was so bad that I couldn't watch TV or read a book. I've always had a veggie garden, and so I found myself spending more and more time in it, and I began to realise that this was the dream job for me.
When I first approached the subject of growing veggies for a living everyone thought I was crazy. The idea sort of all came to a head when the company I was working for said I could no longer work 20 hours per week and that I either had to go back to working full-time or find a new job, and that was the moment I had to make the choice. I've always wanted to own my own business but was scared, I think, but I was pushed into the situation where I thought: 'Right, I'm going to set up a veggie business', and I really haven't looked back.
It's hard work growing veggies for a living but I absolutely love it.
How big is your team?
It's just me, but my parents John and Denise Burton also help out. My parents were semi-retired when I asked to start growing veggies in their back paddock but they are now an integral part. Dad does all of the maintenance jobs and heavy grunt-work and Mum does all of the weeding and helps me wash all of the veggies and prepare them to be packed. We're now looking for a part-time employee.
Ever since we started two years ago, I pretty much haven't been able to keep up with the customers that want spray-free vegetables, and so we've always had a waiting list, and so my goal in the next few years is to expand to be able to meet the demand. Mum and Dad have 20 acres at their farm so I'm eyeing up another paddock. I started with one tiny plot that was 10 metres by 10 metres. We now have just under half an acre, and growing.
How many hours do you spend working on the business per week?
I currently work six days but try to have Mondays off as I've found it's not efficient for me to work seven days a week as I end up achieving less if I don't have a rest.
How much competition are you facing?
I don't really see anything as direct competition. For me, the supermarkets can't really offer something that is harvested to order. In terms of other organic growers, I'm of the opinion the more the merrier and the more people that can get access to good quality, organic, spray-free vegetables, the better for the world, I guess.
What's been the hardest part about running The Vege Plot?
The amount of work there is to do when you are setting up a small market garden - there's always a to-do list far longer than the time you have in a day. Also, starting on a shoestring budget was a challenge. I was saving every penny I had from my part-time income so I really didn't have a lot of money to get going, and I just had to put one foot in front of the other and buy things when I could afford them. It was tough but also great that I didn't take out a big loan.
What's your business model and how do you charge people?
The model is every week I send out an email of what is going on in the plot and what we've got available and then our customers jump online on our ordering cart system and order what they want, but they don't have to order every week, and can order as much or as little as they like.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
Get a mentor. I have one through Business Mentors NZ called Ross and he's great. When I first started we were meeting every two weeks, and that was amazing. We now meet about once a month. Being a small business owner and trying to do everything is tough so it's good to have someone else to be held accountable to.
Sometimes you can get lost in the details and forget the bigger picture so it's been great having a mentor to keep me in check.