As the owner and operator of Rock Spring Farm, Blanchard raised 20 acres of vegetables, herbs and greenhouse crops, marketed through a 200-member year-round CSA, food stores and farmers markets. He started his agricultural career on student farms as an intern before becoming a packing house manager, plant breeding assistant and farm manager then consulting for a major organic processor in California, Wisconsin, Maine and Washington.
Blanchard’s workshops, writing and consulting throughout the country about farm business concepts, food safety, organic vegetable production and scaling up have gained a reputation for fresh approaches, down-to-earth information and honesty. The first episode of the Farmer to Farmer podcast went live in February 2015 during the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Three years and 160 episodes later, Farmer to Farmer’s online archives reach more than 40,000 listeners across North America and beyond. The podcast was discontinued in early Fall 2018.
How did Farmer to Farmer start?
I was in the process of selling my farm, winding down that operation for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I was in a long-distance relationship with the woman who is now my wife, Angie. Driving to a friend’s farm for a “field day” tour, we were listening to some podcasts and Angie turned to me and said, “You know what? You should do this. You would be really good at it.” So we sat in the bar and hammered out the concept for the Farmer to Farmer podcast. I had no expectation that it was gonna have the kind of reception in our community that it turned out to have. I thought a few people would listen. Somebody would Google and they would find it and it turned out to just be a pretty darn big deal.
Why do you think the Farmer to Farmer podcast has a large and dedicated audience?
I think, for one, organic farmers tend to be geographically — and I might even say temporally — isolated from each other. We’re busy. We don’t tend to have neighbors who are doing the same thing that we’re doing. So we don’t get to make connections on a daily or even a weekly basis. I also think that the podcasting format, which enables you to engage with learning while you’re doing other things, is unique. It’s something you can do while you’re washing carrots, driving the tractor and making deliveries. People have also expressed an appreciation for the 25 years of organic farming experience I bring to interviews.
Did you start your farm career looking to others for guidance and mentorship?
Yes, at every step in my career in agriculture. I grew up in Seattle with zero farm experience. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to work with some pretty big names in agriculture who’ve been very giving of their time and their energy.
For instance, Mike Ableman (founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California), made a position for me when I had eight weeks off from school in the fall. He was so giving and kind to create a space for me to come, to work and to learn from him and others at Fairview. Later on, Richard deWilde of Harmony Valley Farm in Wisconsin opened up his farm to me, and later to my family, to come to work and live on the farm. Along the way it would have been really easy for all the different people who’ve helped me to say, “No, I’m too busy.”
I think it’s part of what separates the organic community. Even when I went to finish up my degree at the University of Wisconsin and get a horticulture degree, I camped outside of the office of the dean of research division and basically said, “Hey, I’m going to come to school here and I need a job.” Three weeks later, I got a call from a manager at the research station up in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, with a job. Throughout my career, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to be mentored and be facilitated by and to share information with experts across the country, across scales of farming, across kinds of farming and across disciplines.
What’s the reason for such a willingness to help and share in a competitive low-profit margin community?
I think that it starts with agriculture as a historically cooperative undertaking. I knew farmers who remembered the days of farming with horses and having fleshing machines coming through and working as a community to get jobs done because that was the only way to do it.
I’m part of the Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council and we’re working on an economic impact study of the organic industry here in the state. One of the things that has come out is the huge amount of uncompensated economic activity cooperation that happens between farmers, particularly when it comes to the sharing of labor. I think that when organic farming was originally met with different levels of hostility and misunderstanding 30 years ago, it created what I might call a community of resilience that felt like we needed to band together.
And this origin story is part of what you feel has led to the success of the podcast?
Right! I think that’s just it, because people are so willing to share their successes and their failures when it comes to relationship management, communication techniques and so much more. It’s just so different to just engage one on one. For example, if I was to present at a conference about weed control, I would put together a slideshow and pretend that I know something about this topic. With Farmer to Farmer, it’s about people. The most eye-opening stuff we get into isn’t just technical solutions to farm problems. It always comes back to relationships between people.
For whatever reason, people have been very willing to speak honestly and openly about relationships. The podcast started with me speaking a lot about the pain and frustration that I had experienced in my life and business. It was about the failures of relationships, whether that was personal relationships or employer-employee relationships or even disappointments in my relationships with my children — it was things I wish that I had done differently.
What are people most interested in hearing about in your conversation?
I think that most people underestimate the amount of physical and emotional labor involved in farming, how all-consuming it’s going to be and how different it is from anything else that you’ve done before. One of my guests said, “You discover people in a different way when you start running a business with them.’ There is a huge amount of emotional labor that it takes to work on a farm. At the end of the day, people want to learn more about relationship management and how to be better people. It is such an honor to be a vehicle for these conversations.
What’s the biggest benefit of creating a library of conversations that provide passive mentorship to would-be or current farmers?
Farmer to Farmer challenges my notions of what is up to my standards — likely, it has done the same for many others who tune in as well. Time and again, different guests help shift your perception and understanding of what is acceptable in terms of weed control, scale, profitability and value.
It’s funny. I edit out the long blank spaces as I figure out how to respond to something, but I often get things that really stop me in my tracks. I’ve learned that how much of what happens on any given farm, what contributes to their success, what makes a system work…is contextual and it has to do with time. When did you buy your farm and how much did you pay for it and what kind of markets are you dealing with? What’s your financial situation and how many kids do you have? It comes back to understanding the story. Of the person. Of the farm. Of the location. This only comes out when you are able to sit down with someone and have a conversation. You learn about the person’s parents, their kids, why things happened a certain way, and you never would have gotten any of this human stuff that colors, shapes and makes important everything else unless you had the chance to spend time with him or her.