Covered Bridge Produce

News from the Farm

Friday Aug 11th, 2006
Annus horribilis

Back in 1992, Queen Elizabeth intoduced me to the term "Annus horribilis" in a widely quoted speech. She was referring to a shocking series of scandalous revelations about the doings of various members of the Royal Family and to the fire which almost destroyed Windsor Castle. Covered Bridge Produce is now experiencing its own Annus horribilis.

Before the season started, we marvaled at all the people who wanted to join our service -- something we had never before experienced. At the end of the 2005 season, we feared that we might have to close because of a lack of customers. Surprisingly, we found ourselves seriously oversubscribed even though we returned many people's checks and established a waiting list of over one hundred and fifty names.

The 2006 season got off to a late, but pretty good start with a nice selection of offerings. Then the fates (or maybe our just deserts) intervened. An early season cooler failure turned our best broccoli crop ever into a rather undesirable offering and a great crop of spinach into a PR disaster. The spinach looked OK when we packed it, but turned into compost on its way to shareholders. We have never received so many complaints (and all well justified) in our entire history.

All this bad produce led to a meltdown in customer service, as I was unable to read and respond to dozens and dozens of emails. Phone calls piled up and our phone mailbox was filled making it impossible to even register a complaint by phone. Next, our voicemail service started deleting stored messages as they aged. Perhaps a hundred customer inquires or complaints went unheeded.

By the third week of the season, our prospects had gone from rosy to rotten. Our interns and other workers become dispirited by all the trouble and a sour attitude settled over the farm. The larger than expected number of shares added significantly to the labor of harvesting and packing. As spirits lagged, the workdays grew longer. One memorable harvest day, we began as usual around 6am, but didn't finish packing until 1 am. Of course, our workers took a few breaks, but some probably put in 15 to 17 hours that day.

We had planned on employing ten interns and recruited only six. The punishing work schedule, poor results and the resulting tension led to three early departures. These plus one scheduled departure reduced our intern census to two. This was especially galling since we had invested over twenty thousand dollars in improved facilities for our anticipated large contingent of interns.

We filled the growing labor gap with local contract labor which is competent but three times as expensive as intern labor. Our original 2006 budget looked more and more like a fairy tale at each payroll.