Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Part-time farmers

This article first appeared in the November/December 2012 edition of In Good Tilth, the magazine of Oregon Tilth. In the interest of full disclosure, when I began researching this article, my wife Leeann was considering subscribing to Lonesome Whistle's CSA program in order to get whole grains to mill at home. After interviewing Jeff and Kasey, the decision was an easy one. The couple's passion for what they do is infectious. The pictures below show them in the midst of harvesting heirloom  Indian Woman Yellow Beans.

As the sun climbs the sky south of Junction City, Oregon, Jeff Broadie and Kasey White finish a simple breakfast on the porch of their modest, sky-blue two story house. A weathered Allis Chalmers All-Crop 60 combine sits hitched to a red-orange tractor a stone’s throw away. Soon, the Sunday sun will have driven the last moisture from Indian Woman yellow bean plants piled for drying in the field beyond. Forgoing a day of rest, the couple will feed the rare, heirloom beans through the combine, harvesting a crop popular with local consumers eager for regionally produced food.

White, from Idaho, met Broadie, a Colorado native, while both attended college in Fort Collins, Colorado. Neither came from a farming background. “We didn’t even know we wanted to farm,” says Broadie, relating how a food-politics course awakened him to food security and sustainability issues and inspired the couple to head to Oregon after graduation, to take advantage of the Willamette Valley’s climate and farming community.

The plight of the modern farmer is well known: an aging population cultivating a shrinking amount of acreage, a younger generation abandoning the farm for work elsewhere, corporations consolidating their control over the food supply. Broadie and White exemplify a more encouraging agricultural trend–young people moving into farming from other industries or straight out of college while working off the farm to supplement their income or build towards a full-time farming career. Though many do not come from an agricultural background, these new farmers bring a strong work ethic, an enthusiasm for environmentally friendly growing practices, innovative ideas and an interest in building community as well as in producing good food.

“My generation wanted to move to the country to avoid the police; this new generation is interested in farming as a business,” says Oregon State University’s Small Farms Program Director Garry Stephenson with a chuckle, adding that many of today’s part-time farmers are idealistic, tech-savvy 20-and 30-year olds launching farming careers with a entrepreneurial spirit similar to that which drove high-tech startups in the 1990s. “We’ve seen an awful lot of people successfully bootstrapping their way into this.”

Jim Fields got a jump on the trend in 1989 when he started Fields Farm in Bend, learning the intricacies of organic agriculture while working on commission as a bicycle builder for a big-box store. Neither he nor his wife Debbie came from a farming background, though he had discovered organic and biodynamic agricultural in California. “Farming just fell together for us,” says Fields, explaining that the couple went from gardening and raising rabbits in their backyard to raising organic produce for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shareholders on a 10-acre property within easy bicycle commute of their jobs.

At first, Fields says, his outside work provided welcome income and the flexibility necessary to farm. After 12 years, he stopped working off the farm in order to devote himself to his farming goals. “All the time I was building bikes,” Fields says, “I was thinking about what I could be doing on the farm.”

Field’s wife, however, never quit her job as a public-health nurse–though she helps manage the farm and pitches in wherever an extra set of hands is needed. Her job provides the couple healthcare, a resource that compels many farmers to keep an outside job or rely on a spouse’s career for. “The real benefit of having one partner working off the farm is not so much the income, but the benefits,” Fields says.

No easy row to hoe


Though off-farm work can be crucial to a new farm family’s success, the extra hours can take a toll. Broadie launched what would become Lonesome Whistle Farm in 2004, growing vegetables on a rented acre, with then partner Tom Murray, while working a part-time job for spending money. Broadie and White spent the next several years farming rented acreage, experimenting with living in a trailer on the farm and commuting to jobs in Eugene, Oregon, or living in Eugene and traveling to the garden, trying to find how best to cut down on time commuting instead of getting their hands dirty.

The couple did not consider farming full time until 2007. “I was killing myself trying to do both (farming and other work),” says Broadie. Even after Broadie devoted himself to Lonesome Whistle full time, White continued her career in social work, gradually scaling down her hours as the farm grew. Eventually, the couple hopes Lonesome Whistle will grow big enough that she too can become a full-time farmer.

Off-farm income can be a crucial safety net for a new farm, says Stephenson. “If there’s off-farm income in the family, hang on to it until you are absolutely certain you don’t need it anymore,” he says, adding that it can be a good business decision for a farming couple to hire extra help when necessary in order for one person to keep their outside career. “All farms should operate as businesses,” he says, pricing their crops to recover farming expenses. Off-farm income should pay for farm equipment or other capital improvements instead of subsidizing the cost of production. Stephenson points to Lonesome Whistle as a good example of a couple using their supplemental income to grow the farm.

In addition to finding the time to farm, Broadie and White had to become expert farmers. It was a struggle. Broadie worked a single season at Grateful Harvest Farm in Junction City before striking out on his own. At first, the couple only used hand tools and small garden methods. “The farm itself wasn’t at a scale to be profitable enough for all the effort,” says Broadie. “It was a lot of work because we didn’t know what we were doing.” After several years of experimenting, the couple found mentors in the farming community and discovered the value of farm-scale tools like cultivators, which reduced what had been hours of work to chores lasting a few minutes.

According to the USDA’s 2007 agricultural census, new farms are smaller on average than other farms and produce less. “Further, the average age of the operator is younger and (each is) more likely to have his or her primary occupation off of the farm.” Starting out with a garden-scale plot and leveraging the knowledge of established growers can be strategies for new farmers without agricultural roots to draw on. “I would say to anybody: ‘start out small, especially if you haven’t grown up on a farm,’ there’s a whole lot to learn,” says Brent Searle, special assistant to the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, adding that those without an agricultural background can benefit from having a part-time job as they experiment and learn. Ten Rivers Food Web board member Andrew Still of Open Oak Farm says that he sees a lot of new farmers starting their careers by apprenticing on established farms while also working off the farm. “What I’ve noticed with the newer farmers starting out is that it (part-time farming) tends to be a stepping stone to full-time farming,” Still says.

Buying the farm


In addition to the long hours and steep learning curve new farmers must plow through, scaling up farm operations and buying land can present a thorny financial problem. For White and Broadie, getting a business loan was not an option. “Nobody would give us a small-scale loan like that,” says White, adding that Lonesome Whistle did not have enough income records to prove profitability. “The banks would just laugh us out the door, actually. You can’t sell the bank on potential without any numbers to back it up,” adds Broadie.

Large-scale operations like the Willamette Valley’s grass seed farms, which have a well-established international market, may find banks more receptive. But even they can experience difficulties securing financing. “It’s a challenge even for people who’ve been in the business [for many years] to justify their loan every year,” says the ODA’s Searle. 

Luckily, White and Broadie met Jerry and Janet Russell, who invest in farmland they believe to be undervalued. “We basically hit the jackpot when we found them,” says White. After meeting regularly over the course of a year to discussed plans for Lonesome Whistle’s future, the couples went shopping, settling on a 26-acre farm with a house and barn that needed work and additional features that made the property attractive. The investors bought the property and gave Lonesome Whistle a 20-year lease with an option to buy, plus an equipment loan and additional money to help renovate the house and barn. Later, the Russells bought a contiguous 18-acre parcel. Broadie and White are now farming 32 acres of the 44 the acre farm.

“We feel small farms are the path of the future,” says Jerry Russell, adding that mega-farms, overly dependent on massive inputs of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and fossil fuel, will not be viable in the long term. “The world will belong to the small farmer and we’re trying to prepare for that.”

Though startup farms may struggle to find financing, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the national Farm Credit System, a congressionally created network of agricultural credit cooperatives, administer programs to help new and small farms access credit. This July, former special education teacher Jeff Bramlett and GIS apping specialist Carri Heisler used the FSA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers program to buy the 15.5 acres near Albany, Oregon, they had farmed since the fall of 2010. “It’s a pretty amazing program,” says Heisler. The loan took significantly more paperwork and time than a regular mortgage, and required three years of business taxes, she says, but the FSA was helpful in navigating the process.

Building community


Bramlett and Heisler launched their farm, Pitchfork and Crow, in 2009 on two acres rented from Oakhill Organics, on Grand Island, Oregon, after joining Oakhill’s CSA the year before. “They were building this amazing community around their farm,” says Heisler of Oakhill’s founders, Casey and Katie Kulla. “We didn’t feel like we were having that kind of impact in our work.”

Heisler says she and Bramlett have worked to develop a similar community around Pitchfork and Crow’s CSA program. Each week, members mingle at the farm as they pick from an assortment of freshly harvested produce, connecting over shared taste preferences and parenting experiences, and meeting fellow customers with acquaintances or experiences in common. “It’s almost like you can’t help but build community around it,” Heisler says. “People seeking community get involved with CSAs. It’s been really cool to get to know the people that have been with us the longest but also to see the connections that develop between members.”

This community-building, personalized approach is typical of the new generation of small farmers, who leverage CSAs, farmers markets and social media tools like websites and blogs to build unique brands and market their crops. “They are energized; they are passionate; they are tech savvy,” Searle says of these new, ecologically minded farmers, adding that they have social marketing smarts and are eager to engage customers directly as they challenge preconceived notions of farming.

The more established of this new breed, pioneers like Fields, can leverage the community of customers they’ve built to help newer members. Fields offers his experience in organic growing as a consultant on a sliding scale. He also directs customers searching for products Fields Farm does not grow to other ecologically minded farmers, devoting an entire section of his website to local sustainable meat producers. “Our whole take is sustainability and concern for good health,” says Fields, adding that he is eager to use his notoriety to benefit other farmers with similar values.

Everybody’s doing it


According to a USDA typology of farms, 92 percent of farms qualify as small and account for 70 percent of the assets and land involved in farming nationwide. In Oregon, Searle says, 70 percent of farms gross under $10,000 each year. Lynne Fessenden, Willamette Farm and Food Coalition’s executive director, says she can think of few farms without some outside income stream, especially newer farms. It’s pretty much the norm now for young farmers to have off-farm work,” she says, adding that the trend raises questions for her about farming’s economic viability in the current economy. 

While running a small farm may be challenging on many fronts, OSU’s Stephenson finds encouragement in the trend towards increasing numbers of small farms. These farmers are small-business people who invest heavily in their communities, he says, economically and civically. In time, he says, these farms should grow into medium-sized operations as the demand for local produce increases, benefiting the surrounding communities and growing food with ecologically sensitive practices that benefit the local ecology as well. “There’s a lot of research that communities that have a lot of small farmers around them are more vibrant and viable,” says Stephenson. “We’re trying to change the world.”

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