Q & A with Stepheni Norton: Woman Farmer, Entrepreneur, and Food Safety Role Model
March is Women’s History Month—a time to share stories that deepen our understanding of the contributions that women make to farming, the food system, and the world. This month, we reached out to our friend and respected farmer, Stepheni Norton. She’s agreed to talk to the Local Food Safety Collaborative (LFSC) about the obstacles she has overcome and practical tips for small farm success. She shares a whole lot of inspiration in this month’s “From the Farm” blog series!
Q: Tell us about yourself and your farm.
A: Our farm is called W.D. Dickinson and is an heirloom fruit, vegetable, and herb farm, historic event venue, and modern-day general store. The farm was founded in 1888 and revived in 2012. We are a small-plot urban farm located on the historic Wallace D. Dickinson homestead in South Bay San Diego, CA. The farm is located on 0.25 acres, and we actively farm ~2500 square feet. We have a CSA, a on-farm stand, and sell to local restaurants and chefs. In 4 years, the farm has grown and yields just over 4000 pounds of produce annually. It now includes a farm store, small batch pantry and home good product lines, meal prep, home delivery, private event space, monthly public events, and private farm business workshops!
Officially, I’m the “Founder and Operations Manager” for the farm — working in and managing the day-to-day operations on the farm. In reality, I feel like I’m the “Dreamer” and the “Do-er”. I weed, harvest, pack, and sell. I work hands-on with the paper tiger that is a small business. I am the slow life visionary. I am a productivity and compliance nut.
Q: You have an amazing story to tell… Can you share why you decided to become a farmer?
A: Breaking Ground: My farming journey began after purchasing the historic Dickinson homestead, was subsequently deployed, and fell ill. After almost three years of misdiagnosis, I was properly diagnosed with stage 3 Lyme Disease, and promptly started daily IV treatment. After a few months of struggling to find fresh and clean food that didn’t contraindicate with my medicines, I took matters into my own hands – I learned the business of farming, designing a farm layout and business plan from the clinic IV chair.
Business Expertise: A retired Chief Petty Officer and decorated military veteran, with over 20 years of hands-on entrepreneurial experience, I started and ran multiple successful businesses before breaking ground on the farm. Experience and expertise with local, state, and federal regulatory compliance, startup and growth strategies for emerging markets, leadership in transitioning and operational environments, administrative and program development, as well as research and data management has helped make W.D. Dickinson a success.
I am a certified Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Trainer and the author and lead facilitator for “Business of Farming”, a semester-long course at a local college. I also work with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to help aspiring food and farm entrepreneurs build and grow their businesses.
Q: How do your “off-the-farm” jobs relate to your “on-the-farm” job?
A: I work full time on the farm – more than full time – and less than part-time with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) as a regional food safety specialist and the local SBDC as a food and farm small business advisor. With my diverse background, it would have been easy to stay in tech, life sciences, or some other highly compensated field. But for me, it was important to relate my off-farm work back to our farm. I wanted to ensure that during the time I spent working off-farm I was also learning things I could implement on my own farm.
Q: You’ve built a successful business in one of the most competitive markets in the country. How does food safety factor into that success?
A: Food safety is good business practice, and good business practices make for successful businesses. Our biggest key to success is to just do it. We are all guilty of procrastination, but procrastination means delay – delay in implementation, delay in harvest, delay in sales, and ultimately delay in money in your pocket.
Q: You’re a role model for beginning, women, urban, small and organic farmers. Give this group your number one food safety pro-tip:
A: Thank you! You should create a food safety plan, a business model, a schedule, and most importantly a life you don’t feel the need to procrastinate from!
Q: So, you’re a registered organic grower?
A: We are a registered organic grower and we should have our inspection for certification in the next few months. As a registered organic grower, we must follow the same standards as a certified grower. The organic certification process didn’t seem hard to implement – as a new farm we set most of these standards up from the start. The record keeping is the hardest part, not the data —educating and changing the habits of our employees to ensure they keep the records is a challenge.
Q: How did the organic certification process compare to making sure your farm is compliant with the FSMA standards that apply to your farm?
A: The review and understanding of standards were the same. Understanding takes time and focus, which most of us have very little of. But once you understand it, it was quick to realize that we just had to keep a few more pieces of data.
Q: What has been your greatest obstacle in improving food safety on your farm and how have you overcome it?
A: Recordkeeping. (see next answer for how we overcame it!)
Q: Like most fellow farmers, you are wearing a lot of hats. How do you make sure everything gets done?
A: Planning, processes, and delegation. There’s no need to create overly complex processes, but simple ones that are followed by everyone on the farm are best. This allows you to delegate and know the tasks are getting done in a safe and compliant way.
Q: Are there any practical food safety resources that you use or can recommend? A: We use Asana (free online task management tool) that is accessible on our phones and computers. We document our processes in that app. That allows all of us, no matter where we are and what tasks we are doing – in the field, in the store, in the wash shed, out for delivery – to all follow the same processes. We have also started using AgSquared Total Farm this year (for mobile devices and computers), which allows us to create standard activity logs with mandatory fields capturing all the required data points.
And of course, I’m biased but the CAFF food safety website has a TON of free resources: https://www.caff.org/programs/foodsafety/
Visit W.D. Dickinson Farm website: www.wddickinson.com
Follow @stepheni1888 and her farm @w.d.dickinson on social media!