Andrew Stout's ambitious vision for Full Circle Farm goes far beyond the local delivery service of most subscriber-based organic farms.
In their 20s, and lingering somewhere between college graduation and a career, Andrew Stout and two close friends had an idea.
“We wanted to start a farm and we didn’t really know too much about it,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit really bit us — me, especially.”
More than a decade later, Stout is the CEO of one of the largest organic-produce businesses in Western Washington, delivering boxes of fruits and vegetables to about 16,000 active customers.
How did an idea turn into the growing organic operation that is Carnation-based Full Circle Farm?
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Wendy Munroe, who is married to Stout and co-founded the farm with him, says Andrew’s business savvy is one reason for Full Circle’s success.
“He’s not afraid of the business world,” she said. “He’s very good at it as well, and that’s a trait that you don’t always find in the farm world.”
His appetite for growing the business could extend Full Circle into six states by next year, an unusual reach for an organic farm catering to subscribers.
Stout was no stranger to planting even before Full Circle. With a master gardener for a grandfather and a naturalist for a grandmother, he has also worked in landscaping.
To get more hands-on training before starting Full Circle, he and his business partner at the time, John Huschle, interned in 1995 in Stout’s home state of Minnesota at a farm engaged in community-supported agriculture (CSA). That’s an increasingly popular system in which customers receive produce directly from the farm and share in its risk by paying in advance.
They often worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. Stout said they didn’t complain about the workload, as long as they got to learn what they needed to start their own CSA farm.
Stout, Munroe and Huschle named their business Earthworm, and in 1996 they leased their first farmland: A rocky five acres in North Bend.
And it was a rocky start indeed. Just four of them worked the farm: Stout, Munroe, Huschle and Stout’s brother. Munroe recalls harvesting at midnight by the headlights of their truck. Stout remembers planting potatoes wrong and taking a whole year to get it right.
“We made mistakes,” he said. “You learn … but it was not easy.”
In 2003, Full Circle purchased its own 53 acres in Carnation. By then the farm had grown to more than 20 employees, serving a few hundred customers.
About two years later, Full Circle made its first foray outside the Seattle area. A group in Juneau seeking organic produce contacted Full Circle, and Stout agreed to take those customers on, confident the company would be able to deliver to Alaska year-round.
Brock Mansfield, a Full Circle investor and board member, called it an example of Stout’s business instincts.
“He wasn’t risking the company to do it, but he saw an opportunity. He understands that balance,” Mansfield said. “Not all entrepreneurs are like that … and I think some farmers maybe are more conservative just by their nature.”
Now Alaska provides about 30 percent of Full Circle’s customers. Full Circle has since expanded its customer base to much of Washington and has entered Idaho.
By the end of 2012, Stout plans to serve customers in California, Oregon and Montana as well.
Full Circle now seems like a well-oiled machine: It has about 150 employees, a total of about 400 acres of owned and rented farmland in the Snoqualmie Valley and Sammamish, distribution centers in Seattle and Anchorage, and 475 pickup sites in Washington, Alaska and Idaho.
This year, Full Circle is on track to do half a million deliveries, Stout said. Full Circle declined to disclose its sales, but based on typical delivery prices, its revenues seem to be approaching $20 million.
Most of Full Circle’s sales come through its “farm-to-table” service, where customers can order online a box of 10 to 12 different kinds of fruits and vegetables to be delivered regularly to their home or to a pickup site. For Western Washington customers, home delivery of a standard-size box is $37, while delivery to a pickup site is $34.
In its early years, Full Circle was a more traditional CSA — where what you grow is what you sell.
But it has evolved to also act as a broker for about 150 other organic farms and artisan producers across the country — and some abroad — offering those products along with its own to guarantee of year-round deliveries.
That’s stretching the concept of community-supported agriculture.
“It is blurring the lines between the traditional models,” Bryan Jaffe, managing director of financial-advisory firm Cascadia Capital, who is a Full Circle customer and has studied companies in the food industry. Jaffe predicts Stout’s success “is going to spawn imitators,” but said there are barriers to competition, such as suitable farmland as well as “the logistics and sourcing experience Full Circle has amassed.”
Stout defines the Full Circle business model this way: “We grow it, we select it … we pack it, we box it, we ship it and you eat it. That is the essence. It takes it from farm to table, so it’s direct marketing.”
He said Full Circle sales are up about 40 percent from last year, and the company is looking to grow further with an advertising campaign in Seattle and Anchorage through next fall.
Full Circle raised an undisclosed amount from private investors last year, and Stout said the funds are being used to support the company’s expansion, improve its database system, hire more employees, and improve the balance sheet.
In an age where so-called locavores emphasize eating food grown within 100 miles, Full Circle’s model may seem a contradiction — it commits to offering organic food but sometimes ships products over long distances.
Sometimes, he can’t believe how much diesel fuel he buys, but he says that’s what it takes to get organic food to as many people as possible.
By and large, he said, “every bit of organic produce that we provide is taking … a conventional product off of somebody’s plate.”
“That’s huge; it cannot be underestimated. So the planet needs more of that.”
Stout himself has gone from a farmer harvesting by the headlights of a truck to the CEO and founder of his own company. Stout said that means he delegates more and doesn’t often see tasks to completion like he used to, because he’s constantly looking forward.
“You have to make yourself look back and reflect and say, ‘Wow, we’ve gone far,’ ” he said while standing in the middle of a muddy Full Circle field and enjoying the view of Mount Rainier. “Look what we’ve done.”
Joanna Nolasco: firstname.lastname@example.org