Want to farm?
Prepare today to grow tomorrow
By Katie Kulla
My husband Casey and I are “young farmers.” At 28 and 29, we are almost half the age of the average American farmer (57.1 in 2007). Farming has been our first and only career, and today we are full-time farmers. 2009 is the fourth season we’ve been operating our farm, Oakhill Organics, and we grow vegetables for over 90 households through our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Our farm dream began several years ago, while we were still in college. Neither of us came from farming families, but agriculture found its way into our life anyhow. Catalogs filled with fruit trees found their way next to the textbooks on our shelves, and we grew eggplant in pots in our city apartment window.
Going from the early dream to today’s farming reality has required more work, money and time than we ever anticipated. There were many challenging moments along the way when we doubted that we’d ever be farmers. We were so young and inexperienced — how could we ever achieve the dream? But, we made it.
Today, we frequently meet other people who foster farm dreams but who also worry that they will never achieve them. They ask Casey and I how we made it happen.
In retrospect, we see many ways that we were preparing to farm, before we were fully conscious of doing so. For the benefit of aspiring farmers of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve analyzed our successes (and failures) thus far and compiled from our experience a list of practical things you can do today or in the near future to move towards being a farmer yourself.
Pay off debt & start saving money
When Casey and I were married nine years ago, we committed ourselves to living frugally so we could save money. At the time, we weren’t entirely sure what for (down payment on a house? graduate school tuition?), but we knew that whatever we pursued, savings would benefit us.
By the time we started our farm in 2006, we had a healthy savings account ready to use to buy tools, tractors, seeds, and pay rent on leased land. Having free capital up-front allowed both of us to work full-time on the farm from the beginning.
If you’re already thinking about farming, start saving now! If you have consumer or school debt, pay it off as fast as possible. Even if you’re not able to save, you’ll be in a better position to borrow for your farm without the burden of too much debt.
Plus, as you work towards starting your own farm, eliminating debt and saving money can help you get the hands-on farm experience you need, even if it means working for minimum wage. Compromising on your lifestyle will probably be necessary to meet these goals.
Although Casey and I have found growing direct-marketed vegetables to be a profitable venture, our life continues to lack many of the expensive standard American trappings. Living with less has allowed us to do more without the burden of constant financial stress. To farm, you need to be able to take financial risks.
Get in the best physical shape of your life
The year before Casey and I first worked on a farm, we lived in the mountains where we regularly hiked and ran the hilly terrain. We were probably in the best shape of our life, yet after our first week of farm work, we were exhausted and sore in places we didn’t even know existed.
Farming is physical work. Imagine squatting, kneeling, bending over, carrying forty-pound bins, pushing a tiller … these are just a few of the many regular positions and tasks your body needs to do on a farm. Someday, perhaps you’ll want to hire people to do the physical work, but most new farmers work harder, longer hours than any employees.
When starting your farm, you want to know your body will be up to the challenges ahead. Casey and I found our first farming season to be emotionally and psychologically exhausting — add physical fatigue to the mix and each day became an endurance test. We were continually grateful that we began our farm in relatively good shape so that we could focus on the work and not be distracted by overwhelming pain and fatigue. Being weak could have also been dangerous, as we were tackling physically large tasks that required strength.
If you know you want to farm, get in shape now! Add an exercise regimen to your life that combines strength training, flexibility, and endurance. Although Casey and I stopped running in order to preserve our knees and backs for farming, long-distance running was great training for farming. Every time I kept running up a steep trail — even though my body screamed stop! — I was preparing to farm.
Learn about the reality of farming
Early on, our farm dreams were composed of disconnected, brief experiences — picking pumpkins, catching a whiff of fresh arugula at market, passing through farmland on a trip. All of these experiences were pleasurable and led to a vague sense of longing, but at the beginning Casey and I had no sense of the reality of farming.
Fortunately, we realized how little we really knew and sought out information from as many sources as we could. Before we gave up our non-farming life, we read books written by farmers: Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon and more. We pored over seed catalogs and learned how different vegetables required unique growing conditions.
Finally, we got a job working on a farm in Bellingham, Washington. We worked there for two seasons, where we performed many of the routine tasks we would later have to do on our own farm: harvesting, washing, tilling, weeding, hoeing and marketing. As we worked, the things we’d read about started to connect in our heads. We saw the seasons progress, watched seeds turn into starts and then into full-sized plants. We began to understand the labor involved in maintaining a five-acre farm.
If you think or know you want to farm, find out more about that reality. Read books, farming journals and newspapers. Ideally, work on an established production farm doing something similar to what you’d like to do.
If you can’t work on a farm yet, visit farms. U-Pick farms and farm stands are a great place to start — walk around, stick your hands in the dirt and check out the infrastructure. The more farms you visit, the more you’ll learn about the big picture reality of farming — how all the moving parts fit together and work to produce a bounty of produce every season.
Know yourself (and your partner)
I am an even-tempered person, and I never thought I would want to throw a tool — let alone throw a tool directed at my husband. But, in the midst of building a farm from scratch, the thought has crossed my mind more than once.
No matter how hard you prepare yourself, the path to farming (and farming itself) will always contain unexpected obstacles and challenges. On a day last January, the challenge was simply screwing tech screws into metal bows for a new greenhouse. Later in the summer, the challenge was receiving news that our irrigation well was broken and we needed to pay thousands of dollars to have another well drilled immediately.
Hard news, hard times, hard work — how well will you handle the challenges? Have you had a job with real constant stress before? Have you dealt with crises? What is your emotional response to bad news? How well do you problem solve? Can you admit mistakes and fix them?
If you have a partner with whom you plan to farm, getting to know each other better in all situations is important as well. Although I cannot imagine ever farming without Casey, starting the farm risked both our finances and our relationship. For us, the stress has brought us closer together as we’ve leaned on each other during the difficult moments. But an already rocky relationship with a partner (or oneself) could be exploded by the farming challenges.
Prepare yourself by building your confidence through other achievements and finding a stable emotional base. Prepare your relationship by talking through how you communicate, what your individual working styles are, and what your farm and life goals look like. You will need to learn to be generous with yourself and your partner, because you will both make many mistakes along the way.
Set goals and persevere
When we tell the story of our farm to others, it’s hard to avoid making it a linear narrative, though our path to farming meandered for many years.
Eventually, we started setting goals and priorities, which speeded up the process. For example, we decided we wanted to work on a small organic vegetable farm with a CSA enterprise. Having a goal allowed us to pursue the job we eventually found on a farm doing just that.
Sounds simple, but of course it was not obvious how to make that happen at the time. If we told people all the failed attempts along the way to our farm, the story would be much longer. In this case, we approached five other farms before finding the right fit for us.
What’s your goal? Is it simply to read more about farming, or to find a job on a farm, or to buy land? Regardless of how far you are down your farm dream path, make your goals explicit for yourself and then stick to them.
Even though goals were important for us as we started our farm, we had to simultaneously stay open to opportunities. Our goals and priorities guided us, but we often found that the actual solution or end product we achieved differed from anything we imagined.
For example, when we were working at the farm in Bellingham, we wanted to buy land and farm there. We felt emotionally attached to the place and people, but options were limited. We were forced to reevaluate our goals: did we want to live in Bellingham, or did we want to farm? Eventually, we made one of the hardest decisions of our life: we left and looked for opportunities elsewhere.
Our search led us to Yamhill County, Oregon, where we found an open niche for organic produce and a supportive community. Our first year in the area, we rented land on a small farm that already had some infrastructure and tools. Because we didn’t have to worry about paying an expensive mortgage or building structures, we were able to focus our energy on growing vegetables. We sold at market and had a 48-member CSA that first year. Later that year, we bought farmland nearby through the help of family and friends.
In the end, our successes look very different than the farming life we first started dreaming about. We farm in a beautiful place that I didn’t even knew existed; we rented land at first rather than buying right away; we work harder than I ever imagined; and our life is richer and fuller than I thought possible.
So, what opportunities are awaiting you? Chances are they will surprise you as much as ours surprised us at every turn — but if you’re serious about your farm dreams, begin preparing for those opportunities now so that you’re ready eventually to jump head-first into your own farming reality.
Katie Kulla and her husband Casey operate Oakhill Organics in Dayton, Ore. More stories about starting a farm can be found on their farm blog: www.oakhillorganics.org/blog.html.