Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: The First Obstacle is Finding Land

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

Since leaving my job on a farm, Travis and I have been on the lookout for a small space to rent.  Working on farms can be valuable experience, but it can only take you so far.  There are some things about farming you just can’t learn until you do it for yourself–and Travis and I would rather learn those things without investing a ton of money first.  So rather than trying to take out a loan and buy something, if Travis and I can find a small space to rent, we can begin learning how to grow in central Texas, learning about what systems work for us, and start establishing a customer base without a lot of financial risk.  What I’m finding right now, though, is that small spaces suitable for farming are hard to find.  From water to machinery access to soil quality – a lot of factors need to line up for a piece of land to be worth farming on.

On Saturday afternoon, Travis and I went out to Webberville to see two and a half acres for rent.  Last week I got a tip from the Austin Grower’s Guild that a married couple who lived on the property would be willing to rent out their sizable backyard for $200 a month and a share of the veggies we grew.  It sounded like a sweet deal, and we drove out to Webberville with high hopes.

finding land

When we got there, the yard was dotted with art projects, sculptures, tiny homes, and old raised-bed gardens.  The house was even quirkier–with artwork of various skill covering every square inch of wall space.

The man, Jon, showed us around the yard, but as he began to talk, it started becoming clear that he wasn’t too anxious for a bunch of kids to come onto his property and mess things up.  “This is where I sculpt, this is where I hold bonfires, this is where I like to garden myself, this space I just like the look of, this you might be able to use…but there’s no way to get water out here….”

Hm.  No water.  We might have been able to get away with that in New York, but trying to farm in central Texas without ample water?  No thanks.  I didn’t want to write this land off too quickly, though.  I could see where Jon was coming from.  This was his property, and if Travis and I wanted to do this, then we were going to have to be flexible and accommodating.

Sue invited us into her home, and we began discussing some specifics over pink lemonade.  We told her we were interested in starting a business for ourselves, and the best way to go about it would be to start with something small that had minimal upfront investment.  We wanted to begin by selling most of our produce to small food vendors around town.

“Well how would you start out here?  You’d probably have to rent a tractor or a rototiller or something.”  Sue mused.

“Sure,” Travis said, “you can rent them for a reasonable price, or we might be able to borrow one from one of our farmer friends.”  It may seem trivial, but that statement was the farthest Travis and I had gone in our thoughts about actually starting our own operation. Not in a year, but right now.  It was exciting.

Jon chimed in that he didn’t like the idea of using machinery because it would throw his yard out of balance.  “People farmed for centuries and centuries without machines and they were just fine.”

Hm.  No machinery either.  They also had draft animals, I thought.  But I didn’t say anything, I just nodded pleasantly.

After a few more exchanges like that, we said goodbye.  As Travis and I left, we had the same impression: Sue seemed all about it, but Jon was extremely hesitant.  Any experiment we tried was sure to be an uphill battle.  And for a first experience in farming, we’d like to have a bit more freedom than that.  We met two lovely people, but for our first farming enterprise, we decided to keep looking.

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Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa

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