BABE #95: SHELBY STEC,
Owner @ Dog Day Gardens
When Shelby was nominated to be featured by several hustling babes we know and love, we knew she'd be a perfect match for us. She has not only opened our eyes to what the day-to-day challenges and victories look like for full-time gardeners, but has equally inspired us to avoid complacency in our work, no matter what that looks like. Shelby is an awesome example of a Babe who knows how to work hard and get her hands dirty, but isn't afraid to be open about the shortcomings that come along with working the job of her dreams as well. Thanks for chatting with us, Shelby! You are most certainly a hustlin' babe.
Hometown: Orlando, Florida
Current city: Saint Augustine, Florida
Alma mater: Florida State University
Degree: B.A. in International Affairs
First job: Chocolatier
Hustle: Owner @ Dog Day Gardens
Babe you admire and why?
I admire my mom. My parents separated when I was really young and she raised me 10 months out of the year by herself. She worked multiple - usually crappy - jobs, went to school, and maintained the house when I was a kid. She gave all of her time, money and love to make sure I had every door open to me that she didn't. By the time I was 19, I had traveled to eight different countries with her help, even though she had never been abroad. I've been able to experience every luxury as a young adult that she forfeited to raise me. She taught me to be independent and think critically about the world. Most importantly, she encouraged me to take risks and be different.
How do you spend your free time?
I love anything that involves swimming - the beach, springs, pools, etc.
Go-to coffee order?
Go-to adult beverage?
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Sushi... if it’s really good.
Three things we can always find in your fridge?
Vegetables, shrub and chocolate.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Howard Zinn, if he was still alive.
What’s one thing you wish you knew more about?
I wish I spoke multiple languages.
Tell us about your hustle:
I own Dog Day Gardens, an organic nursery, market, garden and composting business in Saint Augustine, FL. In season I grow organic, open pollinated seedlings for home gardeners and sell vegetables out of our gardens. I collect food scraps and sell compost year-round, in addition to teaching gardening classes and installing organic garden beds.
What does your typical workday look like?
I am the entire business, so it varies pretty drastically depending on the season. In a typical week I will spend a full day in the gardens, a full day doing compost, a full day in the office and the rest of the week between garden installations, teaching, and nursery work.
How were you introduced to gardening and when did you decide to seriously pursue it?
I volunteered in a youth community garden when I was in college, and fell in love immediately. I wasn’t feeling very challenged in school and had just found out my major was cut, so I started spending all of my time volunteering in gardens and reading everything I could get my hands on about organic farming. I don’t think I ever chose to pursue it as a career, it just happened.
When did you get the idea for Dog Day Gardens? What were the major motivators that pushed you to take the leap and start your business?
My partner Skyler and I moved to Saint Augustine for his job. I had quit my job as a farm manager, where I was always stressed out and unhappy, and decided to take a low-stress, easy job locally. When I started looking for soil, plants and general gardening advice, I realized Saint Augustine didn’t have any great options for organic gardening. I started to grow seedlings for myself and some friends and everything else grew out of that.
How does working with your hands affect the mindfulness within your work?
My favorite task at Dog Day is nursery work. Sometimes I’ll spend an entire day up potting plugs (aka tiny plants.) Since it’s so repetitive and done entirely on feel, it’s almost meditative.
What sense of purpose do you have behind your work? What makes you passionate about gardening?
On the one hand, I love the actual work of gardening. I still get excited when seeds sprout and am amazed that I can create beautiful, black soil from people’s garbage. On the other hand, food production is connected to almost all of the social and environmental issues we currently face. The current question is always “how do we push a broken system to produce more?” when it should be “how can we fix this so it serves all people and the environment?”
Do you have any advice for Babes looking to start growing their own food?
Just start! Everyone thinks they have to be experts before they give it a try. As long as you start with good soil and plant/grow things at the right time, you’ll be successful. I killed my first two gardens before I figured out what the heck I was doing. It's all trial and error.
What is your favorite thing to grow and why?
Tomatoes and kale! Tomatoes take a lot of effort, but I love to eat them and I love how excited people get when they’re ready. Kale is the complete opposite. I plant it in October and it grows until June without any effort. It’s my favorite to eat because it’s so versatile.
How does working outdoors affect your motivation and work ethic?
It depends entirely on the weather. If it's nice, I can be outside from 7am-7pm and wish I had longer. You’ll find me dragging my feet in the dead of winter and over summer, though.
How has your hustle evolved from what you originally thought it would be?
I started Dog Day to be an organic nursery and market garden. Over time, the education and compost components grew into something much bigger than I anticipated based on demand. I never expected to be selling our shrub mixers either, but that has turned out to be a real blessing during the slow months.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
The construction and landscaping industries are very male-dominated and it shows a lot in the amount of respect I receive in my day to day. Going to hardware stores is a complete nightmare. I have to have my partner call for prices because I’ve been quoted double for being young and a woman. 90% of the time, people assume I have no idea what I’m doing. I once asked a gentleman if he could pull down a pallet of 2x10’s for me and he told me I didn’t need them and tried to hand me 2x4’s without even asking what I was building. It sounds small, but constantly being questioned in your profession is exhausting. I originally had a difficult time getting customers to take me seriously, but it’s getting easier as my reputation improves.
What are some of the everyday struggles with your job that we might not see?
Farming has become "cool" in the past several years, and the common perception is that it’s an idyllic career choice where you get to spend all day outside in the sunshine. In reality, I have to work in the rain, the cold and the extreme heat. Most of my work is physically taxing, and I’m constantly reading or researching to stay on top of new organic techniques. At the end of the day, the average American will spend $6 on a coffee and look at farmers on Instagram but aren’t willing to spend the same money on produce that will last them a week. The same carries over for garden education or home garden installations. We have a long way to go before the hard work that’s put into this field is appreciated and compensated the way it should be.
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
A large portion of my business is centered on education. Unfortunately, everyone wants information but very few people want to pay for it. I have a really difficult time figuring out where to draw the line. I want my customers to grow their best possible gardens, but I honestly can’t afford to talk on the phone for 30 minutes with 20 different people each week. I always like to compare it to calling your doctor and having them diagnose you over the phone rather than paying for an appointment. It’s difficult for me to demand my worth, especially when I love what I do and want to share it with others, but it needs to be done.
What would you say is the skill you most need to improve?
Letting go! I am a perfectionist to the core and I’ve realized it can be a negative trait. I need to learn to let go of the little things and concentrate on what actually needs to be done in the moment.
What’s your ultimate dream job? Do you plan to expand your business in the future?
I’m lucky enough to say it’s what I’m doing. We hope to build up our market garden and expand our compost production, but at the end of the day, if my business can support me and my partner, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
What does success look like to you?
Success is being able to spend time doing the things you love, whether it be work, travel, or something creative. I’d rather love my job, have a small house, an older car and a reasonable lifestyle than work myself to death for material objects. Those things have never brought me joy.
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
The beach is always a huge release for me. I practiced yoga regularly for close to a decade, and that helped immensely with stress, but I’ve gotten away from it in my first two years of business. When I’m extremely busy I try to take five minutes every day to stop, sit and breathe deeply. It’s not the same, but it makes a difference.
What are your goals for the future?
My partner Skyler and I are in the process of purchasing a 2-acre property in town, where we will be able to build a home and expand Dog Day. My main goal is to organize and streamline as much of my business as possible while keeping my expenses and lifestyle affordable, so Skyler and I can take time off every summer and winter to travel. I want to continue to grow my business and serve Saint Augustine, but never to the point where I miss out on the important experiences in life.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Pick a career that you love instead of one that looks impressive on paper. This process has taught me that I'd rather be broke and happy than wealthy and unfulfilled. At the end of the day, if you're passionate about your work, others will be drawn to you.
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