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A Beginning Farmer Goes To A Farming Conference

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Kat is Farm Aid’s Program Assistant. In the fall of 2011, she transplanted from an organic vegetable farm in Kansas to the Northeast. She enjoys a full-on life as a yogini and graduate student in agricultural policy at Tufts University

I’m still high from gleaning little tastes of that farm life I dearly miss. I am a beginning farmer who is spending two seasons in graduate school … without a farm. I don’t need an M.S. to farm, but a wise farmer once told me that everything I do makes me a better farmer. Earlier in January, I attended the NOFA-NY Winter Conference, which included a workshop track specifically for beginning farmers.

My experience began with the full day intensive session Get Your Boot in the Door: Defining, Planning and Starting Up Your Farm on the Path to Long-Term Success. Most folks in the room planned to start farming in one to two years. We heard the presenters’ stories of how to make goals, plans and mistakes; of how to find the right land, restore unhealthy soil and convert historically conventional farms into diversified, organic farms.

Melissa Madden and Garrett Miller of The Good Life Farm shared a comparison of two actual farm situations in the Finger Lakes region. Farm A had little farm training before starting a small farm with low debt. Farm B had significant farm experience before starting a large farm with high debt. Yet both farms have similar net incomes, great farmers and reliable markets. At The Farmer’s Calendar workshop on Saturday, Mark Kimball of Essex Farm recommended 12 years of education on diversified farms before starting a farm. If I follow that prescription, by the time I complete graduate school and the rest of my farm-based education (I have two seasons of experience to date), I will be 37 years old. Ugh.

The point is the importance of gaining enough experience to feel confident going into debt later. But I am not patient, and from my experience, farmers are not patient. We get this itch to dive in—to jump off the cliff. Mark and Kristin Kimball did it (they started 11 enterprises their first year). Melissa and Garrett did it, too. Although they sat and observed their land for a year and planned diligently, they still moved quickly and made mistakes. Isn’t this process valuable in a profession of lifelong learning? Mark’s answer: we need to figure out how to farm bigger and better rather than recreate the wheel. For Essex Farm, I think this means sustainably providing a high quality, full diet—grown on 600 acres, and powered by draft horses and solar panels—for as many people as possible.

The Kimballs apply a lens to farm planning that considers how everything on the farm has peaks and valleys (the seasons, the budget, the stress, the physical labor, etc.). The higher the peak, the deeper the valley you will need for restoring balance. Being reminded of this reality helped me finally accept the difference between building a farm and farming. These workshops asked mostly first-generation farmers to be honest with our goals and missions. For many, community is part of the dream. We want and need relationships to start sustainable farm enterprises, and the theme of this year’s conference, The Cooperative Economy, echoed this value.

Hearing the personal stories of struggle and resilience on farms in New York state reminded me of the bigger picture, and the irony in my worries about how, when, where and with whom to farm. The stresses we impose on ourselves prevent us from enjoying life. For beginning farmers, the key is to know where we are now, where we are going in the long haul and to have faith through the peaks and valleys. I know what little steps I can achieve this year—even off the farm.