Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Posts Tagged ‘beginning farmers’

The Greenhorns: “How Not To Buy A Farm”

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

We’re thrilled to finally have our hands on “Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers,” a new book by our friends, The Greenhorns. Editors (and fellow Greenhorns) Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, Zoë Bradbury and Paula Manalo have gathered up 50 compelling, funny, heartbreaking and hopeful stories from beginning farmers around the country. Each story gives the reader the opportunity to spend some time in a farmer’s boots, and each tale reveals an aspect of the challenges and triumphs new farmers face. These are great stories that can be passed along for the lessons they hold.

The following excerpt is from a story that is right up our alley. It illustrates perfectly the American farmer’s ingenuity, tenacity and disregard for the concept that something is “impossible”. Teresa and her partner, Packy, dreamed of owning their own land to farm, and had finally found the perfect property for them. They were ready to buy and started the process in what they thought was the “right” way. Turns out that the “right” way wasn’t going to work for a farmer. The excerpt picks up there:

I’d like to meet the farmer who can buy a piece of land, till it, prepare the soil, sow the seeds, grow the plants, harvest the crop, take the crop to market, sell it, deposit the cash in the bank, and write a check for the mortgage all in one month. In October. On the Oregon coast.

Hoping to talk to people who at least understood the physical realities of farming, we called the USDA Farm Service Agency about its small-farm loan program. The FSA agent we met with listened to our plans, then paid us the compliment of saying that it seemed like we actually had our act together. But she went on to be brutally honest about the FSA small-farm loan program and our chances of actually getting a loan to buy land for our farm. To her, a small farm was one growing four hundred acres of grass seed or running three hundred head of cattle. She told us that our proposed five or six acres of cultivated land growing mixed vegetable, fruit, and flower crops, and raising chickens with some off-farm income rounding out the economic edges fell into the USDA category of a “lifestyle farm.”

“We don’t normally make loans for lifestyle farms,” she told us politely.

“It’s a damn hard way of life, not a bloody lifestyle,” I muttered, annoyed, on the subdued drive home.

The seller of the farm we loved still wanted a crazy amount of money for it, and we had no loan options that would let us even begin negotiating, so she stopped talking to us and we sadly tried to accept that we were just never going to farm that land.

We spent the next six months scrambling, trying to come up with some way to keep farming on the Oregon coast. We had market customers calling us with land-for-sale referrals and offering to sign up for a CSA program before we even had a farm to grow the food. We explored many, many ideas: buy land with a group of people and start a nonprofit education farm; temporarily lease another piece of land; find a cheaper land option; renegotiate with our current landlords; borrow money privately. Each option was explored and each gradually disintegrated as we tried to cobble together a solution to keep our dying farm alive, all painfully in the midst of our best market season ever.

A grim day in June found us sitting at the kitchen table facing the bleak reality that we were going to have to quit farming. It was a painful moment for me. At forty-three years old I had finally found work I loved, work I was actually good at and that I cared passionately about. I could grow plants, I could feed people, and I could teach them how to grow plants and feed themselves. The support from our community for the farm we wanted to have was heartening to us, but it couldn’t get us the loan we needed. With deep resignation, we each made phone calls, went for interviews, and accepted “real jobs” with the understanding that we would start part time to allow us to finish out the current farmers’-market season, pay off bills, and put the farm into hibernation.

Farm or no farm, we needed to find a new place to live. While cruising around online to figure out what kind of house price we might be able afford with our new job income, we stumbled across a local real-estate company on whose home page under the heading NEW LISTINGS was that farm. The farm we loved. The farm we’d tried to buy for more than a year, the land we’d dreamed about and planned for and had finally, depressingly given up on some six months ago. Still for sale. Price reduced to something we could now maybe afford.

In a daze, we called a local bank and made an appointment to talk about a straight-up, super-normal home loan. We told our long story to the very nice broker, reassured him about our commitment to our regular-paycheck “real jobs,” described the down-payment fund we had waiting, and explained our plan for keeping the farm going part time to help with additional income to pay the mortgage.

“No farming,” he said sternly. “Quit the farming, right now. Only work the regular-paycheck real jobs. Then, maybe, we can make it work.”

So that’s what we did. The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land to move our farm to stuck in our craw, and was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written reassurance to the lenders (nervous about our worrisome “history of farming”) that although we had indeed spent five years running a “hobby farm,” we had seen the error of that life path, now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a “rural lifestyle.”

It wasn’t a legally binding document, and besides, I had my fingers crossed behind my back when I signed it. I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership, but it worked, and I’m not ashamed that that’s what we did. The shame I feel is for a country that makes it virtually impossible for hardworking beginning farmers — people who are willing to devote their lives to growing healthy food for their communities — to own land.

We’re still working off-farm to make ends meet, slowly building our soil, rebuilding our infrastructure, putting down roots, heading back to being farmers again. Challenges are still there every day, and they always will be. Some of them seem impossible in the moment.

“Do you really want to keep farming?” we ask each other.

And the answer is always, “Hell, yes.”

In 2003, Teresa Retzlaff and her partner, Packy Coleman, began farming on the north Oregon coast. Six years later they managed to purchase land near Astoria, and now live and farm on 46 North Farm in Olney, Oregon, where they’re building both their soil and a very big elk fence.

“Excerpted from Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement (c) Zoe Ida Bradbury, Severing von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.”

GIVEAWAY: To be entered into the drawing for a copy of the book, leave a comment telling us your story: What is a “how not to…” story from your farm, garden, kitchen or home? Tell us how you made “it” work by ignoring what others said was  “impossible.” We’ll choose a winner on Monday May 29th.

It’s Official. We’re Looking For Land… A Guest Post

Friday, March 9th, 2012

It was so uplifting and exciting to read Vanessa Jean‘s member blog, so we wanted to share it here, too. Good luck Vanessa Jean!!

It’s official. We’re looking for land.

It’s been unofficial for a while. Like the few years of dreaming in Portland, when I didn’t quite know how the farm would fall into place. Then I met N in Boston, and we formed a shared vision for our farm while also acting superbly academic through two very-hard-to-sit-behind-a-desk years of grad school in Boston. Ick, Boston. There is only so much farming to be done in Boston, so we created an academic project allowing us to work with farmers on business planning and development for more hands on experience. Cheese in Vermont. Rabbits in North Carolina. Cost-share for irrigation development on leased land in Wisconsin. Then graduation and back to the real world, kerplunk in Madison, Wisconsin. Somehow one step closer to farming, but still not actually that much closer.

I’ve been pondering this lately. The idea that we both possess foundational skills for starting a farm: growing vegetables, small business development, finding markets, goats, chickens and a wee bit of dairy to name a few. We are smart and hardworking and overwhelmingly stubborn. We even earned actual degrees, from which we can cite you the ins-and-outs of every United State Department of Agriculture acronym related to starting a farm: EQIP, NRCS, NIFA, FSA, BFRDP, CAFO, CRP, NPDES (ok, that one is EPA) and on and on and on. And despite the fact that we know all the steps and all the hoops we have to jump through to get there…the farm still seems far away.

Yes, I know. Secretary Vilsack called for 100,000 new farmers. The 2008 Farm Bill appropriated $75 million dollars of funds for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs to provide education and training to get new farmers started. And of course, we have Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and inspiring advocates like USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan leading this movement to get more people farming. Not to mention the growing market and awareness surrounding local foods. And yet, to be actually in it, planning a farm as a born-and-bred city kid without ties to the land (more specifically a specific piece of land), it feels so so so far away. Creating all these funding opportunities and support systems doesn’t just magically create new farmers…it still takes lots and lots and lots of work on the part of the aspiring farmer.

Please do not get me wrong. I am so grateful that new farmer programs are a priority. I am thrilled to be enrolled in the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, and working my way to a business plan, community ties and as much experience as I can gain in raising animals on pasture in this home that is still new to me. But the leap from learning and planning to actually farming feels so far away because we don’t have land.

However, that changed a bit today as we hopped in the car for a much-needed day of fun and adventure. The plan: visit New Glarus Brewing, enjoy some cross country skiing in the fresh snow and just explore some new territory southwest of Madison. Wisconsin’s landscape is still new to me, usually inspiring constant awe, and today was no exception. I didn’t know what to expect, but found promise in New Glarus‘ title (the city, not the brewery) as “America’s Little Switzerland”. Replica Swiss-style village, bakery, meat shop and all…count me in.

In short, as we drove the county roads and admired the freshly-snow covered landscape past Fitchburg, we sort of fell in love. Yup, kind of head-over-heals in love. The rolling hills, the beautiful and out-of-our-price-range farmsteads, a sense of ‘rural’ I haven’t yet seen here. (Yes, ok, I realize the snow was covering vast acres of corn and soy fields, and provided sufficient pretense to imagine instead lush pastures underneath. But let a girl dream for a few minutes). For some reason I liked this area, we both liked this area. It felt like the best parts of Vermont mingling right here with the highlights of Wisconsin.

We’ve decided to tell every person we run into that we’re looking for farm land, preferably with a house, barn and other structures. And yes, because we’d like to start a farm. This makes us look like starry-eyed crazy women to a lot of folks, but that’s fine with me. I just thank goodness for those who actually take us seriously and offer sincere advice. This includes the woman who was looking forward to when we’d get married and share our passion for farming with our husbands. I take their land and farming suggestions with a double meaning. Here is information about land that may help you. I am telling you this because I believe you might actually be able to farm, and I support that. These are the good people.

Today we ran into lots of the good people. The owner of The Cottage Goddess shared the basic landscape of real estate in the area, recommended agencies to work with based on her land purchase experience and provided inside scoop on an upcoming auction. We felt a wee bit, well, excited. She even suggested a visit to the Paoli Bread and Brat Haus to learn about their tiny baking enterprise and relationships with local millers and growers. And Cherri at the Haus was just as helpful as she served us free cookies (January was free cookie month), showed us her facility (including the tiny “EZ Bake Oven”), shared the story of her space (the original town mill) and how she got there (an inspired idea on a bare bones budget). And more stories about land, where to find it and where to plant ourselves. Thank you world for showing us people successfully pursuing food passion and how to make it work!

Our mid-day activities were buoyed by such positive real estate and farming encounters. A fun hour or so at the brewery, which looked oddly like a Disney McMansion rendition of a Swiss chalet with the cleanest and most modern brewing quarters I have ever seen. There were tastes of Wisconsin Belgian Red with hints of cough syrup and sparkling cider (sorry) and the seasonal Golden Ale that tasted “like insect repellent” (sorry again). There was beautiful, sunny, exhausting skiing at New Glarus Woods State Park which reminds me how grateful I am to apply sunscreen in January. Also cookies, prairie and lots of cute cows. Nothing to complain about in there.

A good day indeed, and a sufficient kick-in-the-pants to officially(as in actively and intentionally) look for land on which we can raise delicious and savory food and run a small business (which is, don’t forget, what a farm is). And so today it starts – with orienting ourselves to the real estate world of brokers and bankers while sending out good energy to find that little piece of soil to call our own.

Wish us luck.

Why We Farm: New Farmers are the Heart of the Food Movement

Friday, May 13th, 2011

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.

Just a few days after I left my position at Johnson’s farm, Travis accepted a new job at another farm in Austin.   I found out they were hiring, and I encouraged Travis to apply.  What’s nice about this new farm is that they have animals—pigs, goats, chickens, and sheep.  Neither of us have much experience caring for farm animals, so this is a good opportunity.  The position is full time, and though Travis doesn’t have a specific job description yet (those are hard to come by on farms), I hope it’s a good experience for him and he learns a lot.

I was tempted to apply, too.  The farmers, a married couple, seem like activists at heart and two people I’d really like to get to know.  But as much as I’d like to work there, the reality of health insurance, rent payments, and just being able to go out to dinner once in a while is pushing me to look for something else.  More often than not, this is the quandary young farmers find themselves in: work on a farm and gain some experience and contacts, but lose the financial capacity to begin a farming project of their own.  Or, work a desk job in order to have disposable income that can be put toward a farming side project, but lose out on the important contacts and relevant experience.  At the heart of this issue is that most farmers do not or cannot pay their employees a living wage, much less offer any standard benefits.  Until young people can both work on a farm and be competitively compensated for it, I’m afraid young farmers are going to remain a rare breed.


Why is creating new farmers important?  Because new farmers will be, must be, at the heart of any meaningful change in our food system.  Currently, the United States does not produce enough fruits and vegetables for its own population to eat the USDA-recommended 5 daily servings.*  How can we move forward on any food issue until this most basic problem is addressed?  How can food activists encourage people to buy local, to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, to look for sustainably grown foods, when the supply of these products simply does not exist?  How can the major voices in the food movement—Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, the Huffington Post, food and sustainability blogs like Grist and Politics of the Plate, even Michelle Obama—how can their words be anything more than meaningless rhetoric until they seriously talk about the simple point that Americans simply cannot start eating better if we don’t first grow better food to eat.

But while it’s a simple problem to understand, it’s a difficult one to fix.  Because American farming has been neglected for so long, corporatizing and conglomerating into a few hands, it has stagnated.  For young people who would like to go into farming, there is no way in.  For older farmers who would like to retire, there is no way out.  Within farming, there is no upward mobility.  In short, the industry of farming is not just ailing, it’s dead.  It’s been dead.  The question we have to ask ourselves now is how can we revive it.  The answer is to focus on creating new farmers.

You might ask, what about all the media stories that highlight young farmers, champion resources for farmers, and show men in plaid shirts with dirty hands?  Aren’t these signs of a revitalized farming community?  Media stories like these rarely tell the entire story.  They consistently highlight only two kinds of farmers: middle-aged career-switch farmers, and young farmers with land in their family.  What this does, essentially, is gloss over the two most important, all-but-insurmountable obstacles for young would-be farmers: land and capital.  For those with one or both of those items, farming can be a reality.  But for the majority of young people with neither, beginning a successful farm is nearly impossible.

What about farm internships or farm work?  Can that be a realistic entry into becoming a farmer?  While logically you might think so, working on farms can sometimes be detrimental to beginning an independent farming operation.  Because farm work offers a lot of work with little pay, young farm workers can easily find themselves in a rut–perpetually working on farms but never having the skills, money, or space to farm for themselves.

What about finding small urban spaces to farm?  An abandoned lot or a community garden?  Can this be a cheap way for new farmers to get their start?  Urban farming, gardening, and rural farming are all vastly different things.  For a farmer who would like more than one or two acres, good farmland is difficult to find, and expensive once you find it.  In addition, land in and of itself is not enough.  Just to begin farming in any real, professional sense, you need at least: a good piece of land, a good well, a barn, a greenhouse, irrigation equipment, a washing station, a cooler, a tractor, fencing, seeds, and other miscellaneous tools.  Most young Americans do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to drop into a start-up business, nor do they have the experience to run a successful farming operation.  So they begin working on farms instead.  However, they soon find that working on farms provides few opportunities to begin a farm of their own.


So to cut to the quick, serious talks about young farmers need to enter the food conversation.  There are ways to help young farmers.  And the way I see it, they’re called incubator programs.  Much like incubator kitchens, an incubator farm would provide the space—land, infrastructure, tools—for young people to farm without the massive startup costs.  It would train them in running a farm, not just doing farm work.  It would allow them to build a customer base and learn what grows well and what doesn’t.  If you have land and you want to help the food movement, do not try to start a farm for yourself.  Create an incubator program, and you will help train an entire generation of future farmers.  Create nonprofits with the mission of educating young farmers.  These are the kinds of programs we need, government or privately run, to make real change in our food system.

The current journey young people make through farm internships, low-paying jobs, and aimless searches for land is not sustainable, not fun, and not attractive for the smart, dedicated young people who can feed America in the future.  The key to the most basic and most effective change we can make to our food system is in the young Americans who, despite every scrap of common sense they have, have decided to try to make a career of farming.

* Marion Nestle, Food Politics

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