No stone unturned
A new farmer reflects on her 1st year in business
By Zoë Bradbury
When I think back on 2008 – the first year of running my own farm – it summons one image to my mind’s eye: A big field strewn with boulders, and I’m standing alone on the edge of it, blindfolded. One by one, I’m rolling over every rock I bump into in hopes of unearthing the essential things I need to get the farm off the ground, namely credit and technical assistance. Also: equipment, key infrastructure like an irrigation system, and tools and supplies. It seems that no matter how many stones I flip over, there are still a hundred more that I haven’t gotten to in a landscape that feels vast, random, and overwhelming. I long for a map, a bird’s-eye view.
Cut to real life: it is a late night in April of 2008, and after a 14-hour day on the farm, the USDA web page I’m trying to pull up is taking forever to load. Here, my proverbial field of stones is the World Wide Web, where I’m hunting down resources on a slow-as-molasses dial-up connection, agency by agency, website by website. A screen finally pops up after a five-minute delay, during which I’ve swept the floor and balanced my checkbook. Three words appear: “Page Not Found.”
It seems that no matter how many stones I flip over, there are still a hundred more that I haven’t gotten to in a landscape that feels vast, random, and overwhelmingI grind a little more of the enamel off of my teeth and give up for the night, wishing that there was some kind of central, umbrella program to help beginning farmers get their start in Oregon. I have this intuition that many of the resources I need are out there, but they’re spread scattershot amongst a maze of organizations, agencies and websites. When you’re farming solo, it’s hard to navigate that tortuously slow cyber-world after a long day in the field, or to burn precious daylight inside making cold calls during business hours. So I daydream about a one-stop-shop that would orient me to a menu of start-up resources and allow me to easily access the ones I need – whether it’s land or a loan, cost-share options or technical assistance, regulatory and legal information or suppliers and market opportunities. Imagine. All in one place. Dial-up friendly. It’s no pipe dream, because I know that at least 15 other states around the country have “farmlink” programs that do this sort of thing for beginning farmers.
But in 2008, Oregon wasn’t one of those states. Instead, my first year of farm start-up was a haphazard year of groping and hoping, as I sought out assistance and scrabbled through on a lot of grit and a little money. I put my shoulder to a thousand boulders, some of which revealed little-known gems like the Individual Development Account (IDA) matched savings program (see page 15). Other stones that I had assumed would be foundational failed me. Take, for instance, the day I went to the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) seeking a low interest beginning farmer loan for my irrigation system, but was turned away because I was operating on leased land (no matter that I have a lifelong lease agreement with my landlord, aka my mother). Soon after, and sick to my stomach, I had to apply for a zero percent credit card, which floated the farm through its spring cash flow crisis when I was hemorrhaging start-up money and not making a dime.
As it turns out, there were also stones that went unturned because I never knew they were there, like the irrigation cost-share program offered by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). I am still kicking myself over this one, for had I been savvy to the program it could have covered up to 80 percent of the cost of my irrigation project - by far the most expensive infrastructure investment I had to make on the farm, the one that necessitated the credit card, and the one that brought me to the brink of a nervous breakdown last May. The salt in the wound was later learning that the NRCS office was but one door down from FSA, its sister USDA agency. The fact that FSA never sent me over to NRCS - even after they denied my irrigation loan – is baffling. By the time I found out about the cost-share program, it was already too late; the mainline was long charged to the credit card and buried in the ground.
The rocky road I traveled during my first year redoubled my conviction about the need for an Oregon farmlink program. Considering the fact that I was relatively well prepared to take the leap into independent farming, it was still a tough go. I’d spent two years planning; had penny-pinched together $15,000 in savings; was well-practiced at living frugally; had written a business plan; created detailed financial projections and crop plans; was proficient with Quickbooks and Excel; knew production specialists at our land grant university; had contacts at lending institutions; was surrounded by a circle of farmer friends; had family land that I could lease; plenty of moral support; good market access; two academic degrees in sustainable agriculture; and had managed other farms for five years before I took the leap. Hell, I’d even taught farm start-up classes to other aspiring farmers.
And I still scrabbled my way through.
Perhaps struggling through the first year is an inevitable and universal experience for any new business, but I’d like to think that starting a farm could be something shy of impossible for the average aspirant. I’d like to think that even someone who didn’t have the advantage of family land, who hadn’t grown up on a farm, and who didn’t already belong to a community of farmers could – without running oneself completely ragged – have a chance at coaxing a viable living out of the ground.
Why wish these things? For one, because our food supply seems headed onto thin ice as established farmers get steadily older and young farmers get scarcer. The most recent 2007 agricultural census puts the average age of U.S. farmers at 57, and climbing. In Oregon, out of 38,553 farms, the total number operated by people under the age of 25 is 109 – not even one percent. In striking contrast, growers age 65 or older number 11,052, accounting for nearly one-third of all Oregon farmers and ranchers.
At the same time that our farm pop-ulation ages and shrinks, global population is growing exponentially – pegged to reach nine billion by 2050. These population trends, coupled with imminent petroleum shortfalls, have peak oil experts predicting that we’ll need 50 million new farmers by the middle of this century. These kinds of numbers point to the definite – and urgent – need to get more farmers in the pipeline.
I also wish that it were easier to get into farming because it’s a career and a lifestyle that is more grounded and gratifying than anything I’ve ever done, even considering my first bruiser of a year. I am adamant that anyone who has the passion for farming should have a fair shot at it.
And finally, because agriculture – at least the diverse, sustainable, local kind that I’m part of - has thus far shown itself to be a resilient thread in the giant, unraveling tapestry that is our economy these days. Our community supported agriculture (CSA) program sold out in three weeks this spring. The waiting list grows daily. The farm is hiring help, not laying people off. And every other locally-geared farmer I talk to around the country, from North Carolina to Vermont to California, is reporting the same thing. Our humble little economy is growing.
Maybe it’s scary industrial peanut butter and spinach; maybe it’s the realization that buying direct from local farms is usually cheaper than the supermarket; maybe it’s flavor or health; maybe it’s people’s instinct to look closer to home for their basic needs when the global economy is crumbling. Maybe it’s all of these things. All I know is that as the world covers its ears against the engine scream of a Wall Street in nosedive, my daily trip to the Post Office finds a mailbox full of checks and handwritten thank-you notes from the community of people I will be feeding this season. Surviving year one – by hook or by crook - has enabled me to be part of this resurgent local food economy, and to make a living doing what I love.
Fortunately, the clarion call for beginning farmer support is starting to be heard. In February, a statewide summit was held in Corvallis to brainstorm ways to better support the next generation of farmers in Oregon, resulting in the creation of a statewide leadership team on beginning farmer issues. At the federal level, the new 2008 Farm Bill established a host of new farmer programs and authorized funding that will be trickling down through USDA agencies like NRCS, FSA, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and state departments of agriculture over the next five years.
Most hopeful of all, and in answer to my persistent wish, Friends of Family Farmers launched a new program called iFarm Oregon this year, an online database of beginning farmer resources. The site catalogues land opportunities, educational programs, and financial services throughout the region. iFarm is expected to grow and evolve significantly over the coming years, with the goal of serving as a comprehensive farmlink-styled program for the state. This is a tremendous step forward in creating an organized portal to connect Oregon’s beginning farmers to key resources. Indeed, had iFarm been at my fingertips I might not have missed that big NRCS boulder with the irrigation cost share program under it.
In combination, these efforts will hopefully melt down some of the barriers facing the next generation of family farmers in Oregon and make it a little less daunting to bite the bullet. Take heart new farmers, and also take heed: there is money, information and assistance out there. Use it. Trundle those boulders where you have to. But no matter what, don’t leave your grit and determination behind. I can guarantee you’re going to need it…even in year two.
Zoë Bradbury is a farmer, a freelance writer and a Food & Society Policy Fellow. She runs Groundswell Farm, near Langlois, Ore.