From grapes to great greens, Frank Fitts could tell you a thing or two about the value of building connections, taking a leap of faith, and pairing a cheery chardonnay with some crunchy kale.
Frank comes from a professional background in the wine distribution industry. He was wooed by wine in his late senior year at Southern Methodist University. This passion for wine led him to become a certified sommelier, working at a wine shop and transitioning to a full-time career as a wine distributor. He loved the industry and wore many hats, meeting with restaurateurs, planning events, and networking with industry professionals. He saw longevity in his chosen path.
He now owns and operates Yellow Hammer Farms, a 2250sq ft indoor vertical farm in the urban area of Birmingham, Alabama, a city with a foodie reputation and renowned wine bars. Frank is the farmer, distributor, and business developer, while his wife Jillian has taken on an administrative role.
They predominantly serve restaurants and grocery stores directly by providing them with a steady supply of fresh hydroponically grown produce. The business is 90% wholesale focussed.
The 420 Towers of their ZipFarm are housed in a leased warehouse space with additional space for offices and storage.
Inspired by his grandfather's legacy
It's been just over 18 months since Frank left his wine industry career to become a fully-fledged modern-day farmer, but the idea was sparked several years ago.
It was only after his beloved grandfather passed away in December of 2016 that Frank considered a lifestyle change. Reflecting back on his childhood, his grandfather, who spent his adult life as a corporate lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio, always talked about retiring on a farm, "He had never touched anything farm related in his life. It sounded relaxing to him," explains Frank.
And he did just that. In the middle of nowhere North Carolina, he built a house complete with a pool and a pond and started a corn farm, and not just any corn, but a specific strain of corn grown for popcorn. "We would visit, and it was so much fun. As a kid, it was a blast."
It was these memories that first sparked the idea that he would want to follow the same path of retiring on a farm. At that same time, while working as a wine distributor, he would talk with restaurateurs, and they would have conversations about distribution issues for produce that was fresh.
'I could hear just how much they loved to use local produce, but they had issues changing their menu because they couldn't rely on supply."
Demand was certainly there, and fortunately for Frank, he was in an industry where he was already well-connected to the very people who needed this service.
And the dots connected…
"I thought, hey, I would love to retire on a farm, and I have all these folks saying I need fresh produce…If I can control each variable, I can control the output and have it all year round."
So in Early 2017, he did his due diligence and began crunching numbers drawing up spreadsheets, and looking into the viability of starting a controlled environment agricultural business in his region. He also discovered the innovations of ZipGrow and the advantages of growing truly vertically in Towers. He took that same analytical and educational approach to the wine industry, taking every opportunity to get a solid footing of knowledge of the Ag-Tech industry and ZipGrow systems.
He continued to work full-time and educated himself through UpStart University along with additional business tools to see if it made sense for him to plunge into entrepreneurship as a modern-day farmer.
He talked to some of the restaurateurs that he had built close relationships with to pitch the idea "some of them were saying, are you ready right now? Do you need a downpayment for rent? Let's do this!"
Planning a business
Yellow Hammer Farms raised 435k in start-up funds with the assistance of Harvest Returns, a Texas-based ag-financing company that connects businesses with passive investors who have a passion for agriculture.
Frank created a substantial business plan and worked with the Alabama Small Business Development Center (ASBDC) to hone it. He explains that having a good understanding of the costs, yields, and growth plans on his spreadsheets, along with the data provided by ZipGrow, helped with funding "it's been pretty dead-on accurate."
His advice to other growers. "You have to figure out where you are going to sell first because if you don't, it will be an uphill battle."
He also recommends establishing a good relationship with key community members, using all resources possible, and starting conversations with suppliers and the county early and often.
The development of the business has not come without its setbacks. Frank says they didn't foresee how tough it would be to launch a business during the pandemic. Supply chain challenges and a rare compressor issue set back their original opening date and tested their resilience as entrepreneurs.
Frank secured a small warehouse space in a business park in Birmingham, Alabama, where he relies heavily on the connections he has built to foster a strong business-to-business model and relationships. On June 18, 2021, they officially opened Yellow Hammer Farms.
While the business model relies mostly on wholesale contracts, Yellow Hammer Farms is also open to serving customers directly.
With his knowledge of the wine industry, he understands firsthand the connection that people have when they see a working farm and then experiences the fruits of its labor. "I wanted to give people the opportunity to see the farm for themselves."
State Laws in Alabama also allow consumers to purchase fresh produce directly from suppliers tax-free. They built the area with direct-to-consumer options in mind, complete with a gallery area so that their local community can see an indoor farm in action.
"When you visit a winery or a brewery, you have this unconscious connection to it, so I loved the idea of bringing that to farming. Very rarely do you see a named farm on a menu that you can go and visit."
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