Full disclosure: young farmers tell all

Later today, Casey and I will be part of a group presentation at the annual Oregon Tilth conference on the topic of ‘Next-Gen Farmers’ (i.e. new young farmers). To prepare for the talk, we’ve been thinking a lot about our first two years of farming: What factors have played into our success so far? What experience would be most valuable to pass on to folks who are just beginning that process?

As we were thinking about these questions, we received the following email question from John Steward of Maple Rock Farm (Orcas Island, Washington):

A personal question that alot of us are wondering: How are you guys pulling this off? There’s non stop conversation about how young people can get into farming and actually buy a piece of land and start up. The conversation normally stops there. It’s an insurmountable task for most young folks these days. But here you guys are, buying land, building a house, starting a production farm, operating a CSA, growing food nearly year round, building infrastructure and all kinds of other stuff. It’s all normal to me but you do appear to be some form of sub super human beings or aliens or something. Please do tell, inquiring minds like ours would like to know.

Since John’s question was immediately pertinent, I took the time to write a really long, ‘full disclosure’ answer that addresses everything we can remember relating to how we got to this point (including the ever important financial info). Why the full disclosure? Two years ago, before we had our own farm, we would visit other successful farms and wonder about the early years: what could we not see in their story? Hopefully the following information proves insightful or useful to at least one aspiring farmer out there. We always welcome questions by email (although we are slow to respond).

Without further ado, our response to John …

How do we do it? That’s a question we ponder frequently ourselves, especially because we’d like to pass on the knowledge/inspiration to ‘do it’ to other young folks. But to be honest, two years ago at this time, farming at all (let alone accomplishing what we have) felt like such a huge insurmountable challenge. We were just barely getting started and didn’t know where we would farm or anything. Getting from that point to today certainly wasn’t just luck or something bestowed upon us. We’ve worked hard these last two years. But here are some more factors in our farm & life that might have helped us get through the last two years (and might make us rare among young people today):

Before venturing out on our own, we actively trained on another production-oriented farm for two years. In that time, we learned a million things about the physical work of farming: how to quickly and efficiently do things like bunch green onions, sharpen a knife, push a wheelbarrow, wash radishes, transplant cabbages, sow lettuce, weed carrots, move irrigation pipe, etc. If I tried to number the significant small tasks we learned for the first time, it would be hundreds. And then we practiced it for two long summers so that by the time we moved on we didn’t have to stop and think through each physical move we made on our own farm. This was huge and we are forever grateful to Mike Finger of Cedarville Farm for sharing his experience with us during those years.

Even before we ever worked on a farm, we were both physically fit people. The winter before we started work at Cedarville, we both regularly ran several miles a few times a week (in the mountains where we lived at the time) and for fun went on twenty-mile day-hikes. In other words, we already knew how to endure hard physical work for long stretches. Farming built new muscles (we were SO sore that first year!), but we could get past that hurdle without stress because we’d been there before. On the flip side, we also knew the value of well-timed and well-utilized breaks (for food, shade, rest, and water). Breaks are still very important to us on the farm. Although we frequently work hours at a time without stopping, we know when we reach our limits and will always refuel before we get burnt out.

Upon deciding to farm, we carried no personal debt: no school or credit card loans. That’s pretty unique these days. How did we accomplish that? We both were raised in professional class families that had enough money to help us buy our first cars and get started in college. However, we also made some frugal decisions early on, such as attending a state university where the tuition cost only $3,000/year. Our parents helped us out at first, but after we got married we qualified for grants to cover our tuition, fees and books. We lived on our own (not in the dorms) after the first year and lived in very inexpensive apartments, ate frugally and never really bought much stuff. Casey got a few good jobs early on in our marriage as well, and we both worked off and on. Also, we saved any extra income and every single monetary gift we ever received (Xmas, graduation, etc.) so that by time we went to start the farm we had about $48,000 in savings. We were very fortunate to have a solid financial start in life (not having to borrow money for school), and we also have lived without frills: no trips to Europe (or anywhere we couldn’t drive in our Honda Civic), no new cars, no new clothes, no expensive hobbies. Our biggest extravagance as young adults was eating out several times a week, which in Bellingham was almost as cheap as cooking at home. An important aspect of our frugality is that we didn’t mind it. We feel like buying used clothes and living without much stuff is a great life choice, which is good because that’s about what we’ll have to do now for the rest of our life. Although the farm is doing well, we still can’t afford much more than we used to allow ourselves in our personal spending. So we’ve prepared ourselves appropriately for a farming lifestyle and saved money to afford that life.

The savings noted above is what paid for our farm the first year: all the equipment and other start-up costs. One huge shift for us was to go from ‘saving mode’ to ‘spending mode.’ That was hard, but we were and are willing to spend money when it is an appropriate purchase for the farm. I think that this can be hard for some new farmers, even if they have the money. By doing things like buying our G the first year, we saved ourselves WEEKS of labor that year, which gave us more physical time for harvest, which is what brings in income (weeding makes you no money). The good news is that the farm paid itself off that year (and paid for our personal expenses), so we had enough cash for a down payment on our land.

The land itself is another key feature in how we’re able to do all of this. And it requires me to backtrack for a minute. We left Bellingham and moved to Oregon because prices for farmland in Washington State were cost prohibitive to us. From what we saw in our land searches, we could not fathom every being able to afford land in Western Washington (or make an income at any other job that would accelerate our finances as fast as land prices were rising).

So, we left. For us, as farmer-wannabes, that was THE MOST significant choice we made — being willing to go to a new place where we might be able to afford land. And Oregon has preserved farmland in a wonderful way through land-use laws that keep taxes low and keep farmland at reasonable prices. It’s still expensive, because it has a lot of value to people here, but it doesn’t sell at development rates. That’s good news for us, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how young farmers will get started in other parts of the country such as Washington.

Anyhow, we came to McMinnville specifically because there was an open niche here: no CSA was serving the community yet and there was no organic produce at the market. For a town of its size (31,000) and interests (lots of foodies) that was a huge hole. We were willing to meet that demand, which gave us a huge instant market. The demand continues to be more than we can meet (more farmers are starting up here, which is great).

The first year we wanted to buy land right away — we felt ready. But the process takes longer than we expected so we ended up renting land, which turned out to be a perfect, low-risk way to get established in the community and on our own. We had so much to figure out that it was wonderful to not have to worry about a mortgage on top of everything else. We rented a cheap house in town and commuted the first year.

We also continued looking for land to buy and kept coming back to the same property — one we had looked at before moving to the area and fallen in love with. At $230k we thought it was out of our price range, but we convinced my parents to buy into it with us. At the time, we thought they would end up living there with us … long story, but that didn’t work out and now we see their $130k as a long-term loan that we will start paying off (with interest) after we’re done paying off the first half … which we borrowed from a friend. We actually did line up a bank loan, which is really difficult to do on bare land over 10 acres, but our friend offered us a better deal. So we have a 10-year loan on $75k from him (we paid the remaining $25k from our income that first year), which has worked out really well. Without those two supports, buying land would have been next to impossible. For people without non-traditional loan options, I think the best option would be to find a farm manager job at another farm or lease land for two or three years to then qualify for federal low-interest farm loans (they usually require several years experience as a ‘principal operator’).

And in terms of all the additional spending we’ve done: almost all of it has been from the farm income. The only exception was the drilling of our new well which my parents paid for — they had agreed to do so when they were still planning on living on the land and decided to do so anyway after they bought a house in town. (We were very grateful to them for that gift.) Because we focus most of our farm energy on things that bring in income (planting and harvesting rather than weeding, weeding, weeding) we have a lot of income. Also, we don’t have to pay for any employees so most of that income is free for us to reinvest in the farm in the form of pole buildings, tractors, implements, etc.

And how do we physically get it all done? That’s the part we don’t really know how to explain, especially since we don’t live anyone else’s life and can’t compare how we spend our time to others. I suppose the first important thing here is that we constantly analyze how we work and how we use our time on the farm. CONSTANTLY. If we feel like we’re wasting out time, we address the problem rather than just continuing the same methods. Hence buying the Gator mid-season last year. (We could afford to make that choice of course.) We’re also super focused, intense, organized and driven individuals. We make a lot of lists & like checking things off. As far as we’re concerned, we’re not out here to walk around our fields barefoot looking at birds. We’re here to grow vegetables for people. That’s where we direct our energy. (And we do enjoy watching birds in the process.)

We also ask for help when appropriate, such as on large finite projects. We have a good group of friends and family that have been out here plenty over the last year to help with parts of the house, big field projects, etc. Of course we also continue working steadily even when it’s just the two of us (which is most days).

Also, we deeply value doing good work, so none of this is painful or a stretch for us (if it were, we wouldn’t last long). We take a lot of pleasure in what we do. And, a big part of that pleasure is that we get to work together. We’ve been together since we were literal teenagers (I was 17 and Casey was 19 when we met), and we have always loved spending lots of time together. We work well together: we have different skills and approaches that make a balanced team. We have observed a million times in the last two years that neither of us could have done of this alone. We have experienced our share of very low, uninspired moments, when it would have been easy to give up. Together, we can talk through what our problems are and work through solutions. The constant interaction and discussion of our work allows us to come up with new ideas, plus we just plain have fun together in the fields. By now we have more inside jokes than you can imagine so most of our conversations would sound like gibberish to someone else. But our jokes keep us smiling on cold fall mornings when our fingers feel frozen to the kale. No question about it though: we are definitely stronger and more capable as a team than as individuals.

For what it’s worth, we don’t have a television. We don’t even watch movies anymore. And we don’t have internet access at home (the internet is a black hole!!!!!!!!).

So, there you go: full disclosure of our finances and energies. It’s not a magic bullet of course. I guess to summarize for another young person, here are a few key words that best signify how we got here: frugality, drive, persistence, humility, teamwork, patience, creativity, compromise, vision, and hard work.

How’s that for an answer? Thanks for asking!

Katie

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8 Responses to Full disclosure: young farmers tell all

  1. alexis says:

    wow! thanks for sharing…if I lived closer I would definetly support your csa.

  2. Dawn Cambrin says:

    Your blog is so great – I regularly check back because you both inspire me so much (I am starting a brand new organic veggie business this Spring). This entry is beautiful: inspiring, revealing, and eloquent. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Dawn

  3. Mark says:

    You folks got it right! I would add that if you want to farm – you don’t need to own the land. In many cases it is unaffordable, but there are folks who own land that want it kept open and that is the opportunity to farm. My wife and our little boy live in an old farmhouse on 3 acres and we farm her folks land down the road and graze additional land nearby. We jumped into farming full time last year and it is working extremely well for us!

    Good luck on your farm. I would like to hear what your AC G set up is. We just purchased 2 this fall and plan on converting them to electric.

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  5. Allison Rooney says:

    I regularly read your blog because I am enjoying the unfolding story…and the good ideas and the inspiration. I will be starting a CSA/market farm this year, a dream ten years in the making, and know full well the dedication and drive it takes. We have 20 prairie acres in Wilsall, Montana, a ranching community 30 miles from Bozeman. Getting the house built had to come first, because we could not afford to drill for water, so we took out a construction loan to pay for the whole package. We are in a dry, overgrazed for decades area at 5300 ft elevation, and feared we would have little water, but were blessed with 50gpm. Getting the house up has taken two years, truckloads of paperwork, lots of stress! But now we are on the land and it is amazing everyday. We will be implementing permaculture design strategies to temper the wind, and catch all the water we can. Remarkably, we were able to buy the land, new house with well, power, etc. for $240,000, which is less than you can get a house in town for. But, we had to fight for it too–we fought an architect to get an affordable simple design for the house, and we wrangled with a (thankfully understanding) general contractor to keep the costs low. Not fun. What were our options if we wanted to be closer to Bozeman? Land on the other side of the Bridger Mountains sells for upwards of $20,000 per acre. 5 acres will sell for $350,000. We could have never paid that! But the community out here has welcomed us. The local ranchers respect the idea that we came here to farm. I suspect they will be eager to taste our produce! I believe that we would not be here but for a long string of small miracles, and given the work we have before us building infrastructure and healing the soil, we will need many more! But there is so much adventure in all of it as well! We have housed our small flock of chickens and duck in a stacked straw bale hut with a sheating scrap for the roof and one for the door, and they are cozy! Cheap, easy! We were able to buy a used greenhouse, 30 x 96 last summer for a steal, and got the posts in concrete and the steel up before winter really hit. My mom loaned us the money for that purchase. We’ll finish that project when the weather warms…We will also plant fruiting native shrub hedgerows, an apple orchard, lots of berries…and look forward to keeping bees. We anticipate lots of trial and error, but like you guys, enjoy experimentation, and will also be analyzing for efficiency along the way. Thanks for the great posts, and all the photos! I get encouragement from them all the time!!

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  7. Hello You Two,
    I met you at the beginning farmers class a few weeks ago. I am the guy that will be farming there by Mcminnville. I just wanted to thank you for being so helpful and open with everyone that is hoping to do what you have done and begin farming. I look forward to talking to you more when we bump into each other again.

    WB

  8. Pingback: You Can Farm! |

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