Company to Watch: Randall’s Farm and Greenhouse
Karen Randall Reinvents the Family Farm
Maintaining a viable family farm is a pursuit subject to many different variables, Mother Nature and changing markets among the top contenders. Maintaining a successful farm store is no different, said Karen Randall, and it presents all the complexities of running a business — in addition to agriculture.
But Randall has had good ideas on how to keep both the family farm and a farm market not only viable, but a growing enterprise that has been evolving over time. It’s a tradition that she has been fine-tuning for the past few decades, but she thanks her late father, Bill, for starting the trend.
As the second-generation owner of Randall’s Farm and Greenhouse on a rural stretch of Center Street in Ludlow, she told BusinessWest how her father was not only a good farmer, but a good businessman as well.
Starting out in the 1950s, the operation was originally an egg farm, and Bill would travel the Pioneer Valley delivering his goods. “On his travels,” said Karen, “he would bring home cider, apples, asparagus, things like that, to sell with the eggs.”
Spotting the opportunity to become what Randall called a “convenience store before there were such things,” her father built a small roadside stand where he sold a little of everything.
“Everything you’d possibly imagine,” she continued, “from batteries and fuses to other convenience items. And because of the perishable nature of the produce, we were open all the time, seven days a week all year ’round. I remember on Christmas morning my dad and Uncle John would go open the store for a few hours.”
It wasn’t always her plan to take over the family business, though. After graduating from college in the 1970s with a degree in Childhood Education, she said that a tough job market plowed the way for her to help out on the farm and in the farm market, located in what is now Elsie’s Creamery, named after her mother. She stayed on, became a key employee, and, when her father passed away in 1987 after a short illness, found herself running the operation with her mother.
Life on a farm is all about adaptation, said Randall, from those variables that one can’t control to the decisions that can make or break a business. It was in the mid-1990s when the time came to face another epoch in the history of the farm, and Randall had to decide what to do next.
“I had a milestone birthday,” Randall explained, “and I thought to myself, we have outgrown our building at the creamery. We had gotten out of the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s. So the questions were, ‘do I take this to the next level — not create a new business, but modernize what I do have and expand certain departments, expand on different ideas? Or do I get out?’”
The answer, of course, was not the latter, but rather the beautiful structure that Randall built in the winter of 1996 to expand the farmstand into an expansive greenhouse and marketplace that also incorporates a kitchen and deli.
“There were other businesses in the eastern part of the state that had done similar things,” she said of her decision to take the farm to the next level. “It was the time for agricultural businesses to grow. There aren’t a lot of them, but there had been some successful expansions, in places like Lexington and Acton.”
Randall came up with a business plan and strategy, borrowed the capital necessary for such a venture, and hired Associated Builders to handle the design and construction to realize her business goals. The 20,000-square-foot structure houses both retail greenhouse space and a post-and-beam market, and gave the business breathing room for those expanded operations, but also some new ventures entirely.
Produce and plants had always been the basis of the retail operations, and the small kitchen she built for the bakery and deli reflected that. “I thought, we’ll make a few sandwiches, sell some deli items, some pies,” she remembered. “Never would I have expected it to become the number-one department in sales for the business.”
It’s a trend that Randall’s has adapted to, she said, to reflect the changing nature of shoppers’ preferences. “People’s lifestyles have changed so much,” she said, adding that “the bakery and deli department grows in sales every year.
“And it’s not just the prepared foods, either,” she continued. “I guess I grew up cutting my teeth in a different environment. We used to sell a lot of 50-pound bags of potatoes, half-bushels of apples, and cases of produce. Well, that’s a thing of the past. We sell a lot of single potatoes now. My dad, who has been dead for 20 years, could never have imagined that we’d be selling out of cut and peeled butternut squash. And green beans already snipped, ready to go in the microwave.”
The downturn in the economy hit the retail greenhouse, Randall said, citing the discretionary nature of such purchases as houseplants. But, keeping true to the adaptive nature of this business over the past few decades, the space today not only houses flowers and plants, but gives the staff a chance to showcase seasonal products and displays.
“And it’s a great place for people to take their deli items and enjoy them all year,” she said.
From spring flowers to the homemade ice cream at Elsie’s, to the popular maze through the cornfields in autumn, to the twinkling holiday trees up now, Randall’s has continued to be a full-year business, and a testament to the success of locally-grown produce — a key concept that’s remained from the old days.
“There are times in this business where you’re selling things that spoil in just a few days,” Randall said, reflecting on the past decade. “You say to yourself, I’d rather be selling cars or refrigerators. Well, I have to say that in the past few years, I take back all of those words, and I’m happy to be selling things that people love to eat.” n
— Dan Chase