How One Alumna Is Embracing Zenn Through Farming

Through Zenn Naturals, first-generation farmers Jennifer Kauffman ’09 and her husband are cultivating relationships with Central Florida restaurants.

Jennifer (Schaffner) Kauffman ’09 rises with the sun every morning and walks her 30-second commute to work to complete her first task of the day: release 60 chickens from their coop.

The hospitality management graduate tends to the seven goats; waters rows of microgreens while her tortoise, Flash, putters around her rubber working boots; and checks on crops of garlic, carrots, broccoli and other assorted vegetables.

Kauffman veered from the traditional hospitality career she was destined for to start a farm with her husband, Zach, to approach the industry in a more individual way.

“I had this general dissatisfaction with the industry, seeing all this mass production of food coming from all over the world,” she says. “There are people growing stuff here, and I thought, why isn’t that utilized more?”

So nearly four years ago they moved to Eustis, Florida, to start their own farm, Zenn Naturals, and have been partnering with local restaurants ever since to sell their products and grow their business.

“Our knowledge of the hospitality industry is a leg up for us as farmers and producers,” says Zach, who moonlights as a bartender for Mount Dora’s 1921 by Norman Van Aken restaurant. “I think that’s one thing farmers struggle with is knowing who and how to market their stuff to because they don’t know what kind of goldmine they are sitting on. Or even necessarily what to grow. For us, that was such a driving force for getting into doing this because we like good food. I learned about fine dining long before I learned about the food-production side of things. It gives us a good idea of products to produce and who to market those products to.”

 

Jenn Kauffman wears a torquoise shirt while holding a brown chicken and stands next to her husband who is wearing a dark green shirt.Jennifer and Zach Kauffman are first-generation farmers who are trying to make a living off the land by providing food for local restaurants. (Photo by Austin Warren)

A Farm Built By YouTube

The couple met once when they were 12 years old through Zach’s cousin, Crystal, who happened to be friends with Jennifer. They next crossed paths again in their early 20s, thanks to the same cousin who was driving to South Florida and offered Zach a ride to visit family. Jennifer was along for the trip, and they’ve been inseparable ever since.

They were living in Orlando’s Colonialtown neighborhood when a Craigslist ad led them to the 5-acre property in Eustis.

When they arrived for the first time, the farm was overgrown with weeds that reached well above their heads. The house on the property was more like a bunker, built into the side of a hill with just two windows to let in natural sun.

Jennifer says it was out of character to take the risk, but she was ready for something different.

Jennifer says it was out of character to take the risk, but she was ready for something different.

“I saw potential,” she says. “Zach was like, ‘Are you sure about this?’ I said, ‘Yeah why not? You only live once, right?’”

Although they like to joke that their farm “has been brought to you by YouTube and zip ties,” Jennifer had a base of farming knowledge after spending the previous year working and learning on an acquaintance’s farm. Zach’s background as a former biology major at Valencia College helps, too.

 

Three images: one of a baby carrot recently pulled from the ground, another is of a row of green leafs in the soil and the third is a white goat with blue eyes At Zenn Naturals, the Kauffmans grow assorted vegetables and raise goats for milk and chickens for eggs. (Photo by Austin Warren)

Feeding The Community

They had previously dabbled in growing carrots and tomatoes in milk crates in their backyard for fun. Then they expanded to a few chickens of their own. When they showed their eggs to some of their chef friends, they were impressed by the quality and offered to buy the Kauffmans’ products if they grew them.

“It’s all about relationships. There are people that can sell things for a lot less than us who have a giant farm, but between relationships, quality of product, freshness, we’re able to make it work,” Jennifer says. “It’s funny, even though Orlando is huge and there are so many restaurants, we continue to keep bumping into the same chefs. They might leave one restaurant and go to another one then we get a new account.”

“It’s all about relationships. There are people that can sell things for a lot less than us who have a giant farm, but between relationships, quality of product, freshness, we’re able to make it work,” Jennifer says.

They make deliveries twice a week to Kabooki Sushi, Prato, Luma on Park, Umi, The Smiling Bison and other Central Florida restaurants.

The hours certainly can be exhausting and trying. They lost two greenhouses and a whole crop of tomatoes to Hurricane Irma. They have had to learn about birthing goats, caring for sick chickens, protecting their animals from hawks and foxes, pest management, and saving their crops from hard frosts.

“Being a farmer – you’re so much more than one thing. You wear so many hats. You’re a contractor, you’re a vet, you’re an entomologist. You’re doing all this calculated and crazy stuff,” Zach says. “To be successful in this world you need to have such a diverse skillset. The stuff that Jenn’s learned and she does now, I never would have imagined.”

“Being a farmer – you’re so much more than one thing. You wear so many hats. You’re a contractor, you’re a vet, you’re an entomologist. You’re doing all this calculated and crazy stuff,” Zach says.

But then there are the moments like when Jennifer cries out in relief and excitement because, after days of endless waiting, the ricotta cheese she attempted for the first time tastes perfect. Or she notices one of their radishes on a plate on an Instagram-worthy post. Or Zenn Naturals receives credit on a menu for one of the ingredients in a dish.

“I probably have 10 copies of menus that I’ve kept that say our name on it. Seeing other people enjoy our food means something to me,” she says.

They are currently looking at expanding to a bigger property where they can continue to build upon all the plans they’d like to see come to fruition.

They would like to participate at a weekly farmer’s market and offer agritourism experiences like farm-to-table dinners, goat yoga, and classes on the basics of maintaining a personal garden.

“We have so many ideas it’s hard to fit them all in there,” Jennifer says. “The future goal is to be able to give back some way. Maybe working with local schools and helping build gardens.”

 

Jennifer waters vegetables in one of Zenn Naturals’ several beds. (Photo by Austin Warren)