Dec 12 2013

Farming Together

"Farming” in America holds many meanings, and only a few have anything to do with food. Our country holds a particularly complicated and skewed view of farming, conflating the actual growing of food with notions of national identity and history, political and personal independence, environmentalism and naturalism, family and wealth. Farming, perhaps more than any other profession, belongs in the mental world of the “Real America”. It’s a vision of farming that becomes even more pervasive during election season. Candidates eat hot dogs at the Iowa County Fair and hob-nob with a selection of American soy and corn farmers before traveling to Kansas cornfields to lecture about the state of our nation’s agriculture. Once elected, the victorious politician enters the halls of Congress to discuss expanding crop insurance in the Farm Bill.

It’s hard to imagine a successful politician exploring farming’s less industrial side: a politician who shops predominantly from farmers’ markets or cooperatives. One who would abstain from eating a hot dog of unknown origins, and who would look beyond subsidies in order to create infrastructure that would benefit smaller farms. That’s behavior unbecoming a real American.

Despite efforts to squelch the unfair elitist tint painted on local, seasonal food, it’s still widely assumed that eating this food or joining a CSA is reserved for a specific group of people: an honored group that has time to cook and energy to devote to connecting with a farmer. These stereotypes extend even to the farmers themselves. The men and women growing food organically, holistically, and biodynamically on smaller plots of land are labeled as idealistic, uniformed, or even “nostalgic".

The industrial food system wants the “real American” to reject any curiosity in traceable, local, whole food. Curiosity takes money from their pockets and returns it to a local, traceable foodshed. When these companies feel consumer pushback, whether in the form of a question about labels, animal welfare, or even just more information on the farmers growing the food, they make minor tweaks to policies and definitions to maintain a profitable business.

"Big Food” has a unique ability to take a word or phrase that previously had a clear definition, and twist it around to fit a singular purpose: profit. Consider “natural”, “local”, or even “organic”: these terms are now either devoid of meaning, or have been manipulated to the point of being hopelessly opaque. Because we lack clear-cut, meaningful definitions in agriculture, the onus falls on consumers to tease out the ramifications of their dietary decisions. But even as consumers look to discover more about farmers and their practices, Big Food stays two steps ahead. Recent campaigns from organizations like Walmart and Fred Meyer have slapped up billboards featuring images of smiling farmers and their produce, with tag lines like “Greens Grown by Guys Around Here” and “Cherry-Picked by Local Growers”. By substituting a headshot and a local claim for the detailed, nuanced story, Big Food works to cut consumers’ research off at the pass, forcing them to spend even more time and energy to understand what they’re even buying.

This past summer and fall, I met farmers whose personalities, methods, and reasons for farming can’t be assigned a label or quick blurb, and whose products won’t be processed into unrecognizable forms or sold on a national market. While the average age of our nation’s farmers is reported to be around 60, the average age of our organic farmers is 34. These farmers are cultivating their land in meaningful ways that extend beyond fresh food. The Oregon couples I met aren’t farming because it’s trendy, and they have no interest in someday rejoining "the professional ranks". Farming is their profession. And for these couples who farm together, it’s a mutual passion.

Stronger Together

It’s reported that nationwide approximately 30% of couples work together on businesses as varied as a massively successful toy company (Melissa and Doug) to one of the world’s preeminent philanthropic foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). Working together as a couple, no matter the profession, is frequently met with incredulity – how can these partners avoid growing sick of one another? What’s less reported is the strength and security that can come from working daily with the person who knows you best. Across the board, the farming couples I observed and interviewed are members of trusting, supportive relationships. This trust and support means that communication can happen with a glance instead of needing detailed instructions. Tasks can be divvied up without egos involved. Suggestions can be aired without fear of dismissal.

On my multiple visits to Boondockers’ Farm, I rarely saw Evan and Rachel in the same place for more than three minutes. The Boondockers farmers divide many of their tasks according to their skills and interests: Rachel spends most of her days with the animals, and while Evan also works with the animals, he also markets and promotes the farm, and delivers wholesale orders. Though time together is rare, Evan and Rachel use those moments and quick conversations as fuel to tackle the rest of their day: a single glimpse can communicate an entire day’s experiences. Running an animal farm is almost uncomfortably unpredictable, and minor issues can quickly snowball into a crisis – a sick pig is an immediate, stressful concern. But despite the daily uncertainty, the Boondockers’ farmers avoided directing stress at each other.

While Evan and Rachel divide many of their tasks, the other farming couples I interviewed found themselves performing many of the same duties. (Evan and Rachel were the only couple I met operating a predominantly animal focused farm, which may explain the difference in the way they divided tasks and interacted. Though Working Hands Farm keeps chickens, two cows, and a small group of pigs and piglets, and Rainshine and Diggin’ Roots raise sheep, these other five farms all focus predominantly on organic vegetables.)

The only consistent gender difference I gleaned during my interviews and observations stemmed from who operated the heavier farm machinery: at Pitchfork and Crow, Rainshine Farm, and Working Hands Farm, the male half used the tractor, and at Tumbleweed, Taylor operated the rototiller. All other tasks – planting, sowing, harvesting, washing, and interacting with customers – were mostly shared. Task division came from individual strengths, not gender roles. Working Hand’s Jess is in charge of their newsletter because of her skill in communication, not from a desire to add femininity to the farm’s appearance. Andrea of Tumbleweed Farm creates recipes and posts photos because she’s passionate about simple, fresh meals, and eager to share her creations. Pitchfork and Crow’s Carri takes the majority of photos for their website because she uses her iPhone as her creative escape and as a way to see their farm in a different light.

Farming together doesn’t mean every day ends with a homecooked meal and a high-five; some days end by staggering into bed having forgotten to eat. Often, caring for other things – whether vegetables, animals, CSA members, or a baby (in Diggin’ Roots’ and Rainshine’s case) – means that farmers run out of time to care for themselves. But that’s where the strength of their relationships plays a key role: because each farmer has another farmer by their side, homecooked meals become more likely and individual mini-celebrations (I staked all those tomatoes! I successfully harvested honey for the first time! Our pasture was finally seeded!) transform into mutual accomplishments.

Customer Cultivation, Media and Standing Out

All of the couples I met were drawn to the sheer physicality of farming tasks, and savored the shared experiences of farming together - including the long days where the only human contact they had was with each other. Each farm was actively aware of the challenges of attracting and maintaining customers. Their farm-fresh-food comes into other people’s hands, kitchens, and dinner plates in a number of ways:

  • Four (out of six) run CSAs
  • Five sell food (in varying quantities) to restaurants
  • Three sell at farmers’ markets (a fourth, Pitchfork and Crow, stopped selling at the Salem Farmers’ Market in order to focus more fully on their CSA)

A farm’s specific choices about how to sell their products, to whom to sell, and how to communicate reflect differences in each couple’s personal farming mission, personalities, and the local communities that surround the farms. Rainshine Farm’s Rachel and Elias recognized that Corvallis is a “word-of-mouth” community and that their customer base would grow as soon as the right person spread the word, so they designed their CSA pick-up as a community farmers’ market. With the goal of inclusivity, members pick up their shares while other people buy individual ingredients, drawn in by the sign at the end of the street or from a coworker who passed the word along. Rainshine sells their food without the aid of Facebook, twitter, or even a website.

In contrast, Working Hands, Tumbleweed, and Pitchfork and Crow share different aspects of farming life (and those rare moments away from farming) via their Instagram feeds, with subjects as varied as on-farm-archery, beers in the field, and pigs eating watermelon. These farms also nurture their customers and attract interest through their online interactions in blog posts and Facebook updates. As a first year farm, blog and Facebook postings allow Tumbleweed’s new Parkdale and Hood River community to gain insight into their farm and farming practices, which can translate into stronger customer relationships at the farmers’ markets. Diggin’ Roots’ communication pattern will likely evolve as they settle more fully into their new town and customer base: Conner and Sarah spent their first season at the Silverton Farmers’ Market focused on in-person connections, while sharing occasional updates with their new customers via blog posts and emails.

Working Hands has CSA members pick up at the farm because Jess and Brian want their members to feel a sense of ownership of the farm, and to experience a mutual commitment to eating locally. They believe that when members take five minutes to watch the chickens run around or rub a pig’s belly, then that extra visual or tactile connection makes it more likely for each member to cook with the ingredients in their box. The on-farm pick up also means that Working Hands’ customer base stems directly from the community that surrounds the farm, instead of across the Portland metro area, deepening the relationship between each member and their farmers. These multiple points of entry mean that the farmers are still connecting and staying in people’s minds away from the market and CSA.

Boondockers’ community extends beyond their Beavercreek location to include every farm and homesteader across the country who has received a shipment of chicks and ducklings or purchased a Pyrenees puppy. Because Boondockers is laying groundwork for other farms to raise heritage animals and for consumers to seek out such breeds, their community engagement constantly morphs and adapts, whether in the form of touring the just-completed Roman Candle Bakery (which uses their duck eggs), helping at another farm’s stand (Gathering Together Farm), or bringing chicks and ducklings to the farmers’ market.

Though much of farming happens in the untweeted, unphotographed, and unreported moments, gone are the days when farming means isolation and martyrdom. Working Hands’ Brian for one is “tired of people patting [him] on the back for being a farmer”. Instead, he and Jess want to create a self-sufficient farm where the idea of taking time off in the winter isn’t unheard of. The younger farmers I met, and farmers across the country, have a vast network of ways to connect, ask questions, commiserate, and take part in a greater community of farmers. On a national stage, organizations like Greenhorns, Beginning Farmers, the Stone Barns Growing Farmers’ Initiative, and the Young Farmers’ Coalition offer message boards, articles, photos, seminars, and conferences. And more locally to Oregon, OSU Small Farms and Friends of Family Farmers work tirelessly on research and on organizing events and conferences that directly relate to operating a farm in Oregon.

Land Access and Capital Access

The National Young Farmers Conference lists land access and access to capital and credit as the most common problems young farmers face. While money is a sensitive subject no matter one’s profession, my conversations with these farmers illuminated a wide range of experiences with land acquisition. Five out of six of the farming couples own their property (Tumbleweed was renting when I interviewed Taylor and Andrea, but have since purchased property in Parkdale, Oregon). Working Hands Farm “rents” their land from a LLC formed by friends and family, which gives them the freedom to make decisions as if they owned. Before I met them, Boondockers’ Rachel and Evan had farmed on seven different properties before landing in Beavercreek, Oregon. But even after land has been acquired, in many cases, the stress and worry related to land acquisition remains. After a tremulous period of transitioning away from renting to owning their land, Jeff of Pitchfork and Crow still expected to see their former landlord show up and make himself at home on their property.

As they enter their sixth season renting their farmland, land acquisition is at the forefront of Rainshine farmers’ Rachel and Elias’ minds. They recognize the exceptional situation they have (one that allows them to farm their current land for as long as they want with supportive landlords), but they also have “lofty dreams” for their farm lives, dreams that include planting an orchard and expanding their vegetable production. Along with the frustrations of trying to find suitable land for a suitable price, they face the worrying proposition that their land search might ultimately take them away from the community they’ve built in Corvallis.

When Tumbleweed’s Taylor and Andrea decided to farm in Oregon, they used a program run by Friends of Family Farmers, iFarm, that connects farmers seeking land with landowners seeking someone to cultivate their land. They visited several properties on their trip to Oregon from Massachusetts, ultimately choosing to rent the first piece of property they visited. In fact, this first stage of land acquisition – land rental – seems to have fairly comprehensive programs nationwide. Along with iFarm, programs like New England Landlink, Iroquois Valley Farms, the Columbia Land Conservancy, and Agrarian Trust, all serve as resources for new farms to find land to farm.

The transition from renter to owner is the stage that remains inordinately stressful, complicated, and dotted with unknowns. A 2011 study by GrowNYC illustrates the desirability of land ownership among farmers: 53% of New York City’s Greenmarket farmers reported they wanted to buy land but faced significant barriers; 86% reported affordability as the primary barrier to ownership. This fact is especially highlighted by Diggin’ Roots’ land search, an agonizing process that took four years, involved family loans, and prompted Conner to become a part-time agricultural realtor so he could help other farmers with their property search.

Along with the anxiety of renting and purchasing, and the dark chasm in between, many newer farmers work off-farm jobs to help make ends meet. The Young Farmers Coalition reports this number to be around 73%, a number reflected in the experience of the farming couples I interviewed. Taylor and Andrea both work in the restaurant industry (he bartends and she waitresses). Diggin’ Roots’ Sarah works as the Organic Conservation Specialist with Oregon Tilth and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. It was only recently that Pitchfork and Crow’s Carri left her job as a GIS analyst to become a full-time farmer.

Breaking even is very different from being profitable, and though all six farms I met have loyal customers, none are profitable enough to feel secure. Several farmers have relied on food stamps, while others joked about being profitable because they broke even by a dollar. Most can’t afford to eat in the restaurants that source their food. As a result, they spend their days straddling the present and future: while in the field or posting updates or chatting with a customer, another part of them is thinking about steps to become profitable, and how to lay the groundwork to take a day off. There’s no easy answer to this complicated problem. The USDA provides loans to farmers wanting to purchase land for farming, but it is often difficult to get approval even with good credit. Additionally, their $300,000 loan limit does not go far in the current real estate market.

These Oregon couples don’t speak for all young farmers in the country, or even across Oregon, but their combined experiences and stories shed a more nuanced light onto the identities of young farmers across America. These particular couples operate with an innate belief that sustainable farming, community building, breed preservation, and nurturing healthy soil are vital. They start each day imbued with intention.

As I meet farmers, both new and experienced, I’m frequently struck by their core similarity: despite monetary hardships, ninety hour work weeks, and land access stressors, all of these farmers are choosing to farm. Their choice can have a powerful effect on future generations. Most of the farmers I meet don’t come from farming backgrounds, many have degrees unrelated to farming, and most have had other career and life experience. Since becoming farmers, their varied knowledge is reflected in their educated sustainable farming practices, innovative communication methods, and even their unity as couples. When I was a child, my only connection to farmers was through my school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) program, which had the unfortunate label of a “redneck” program that attracted kids who liked hunting and didn’t want to take algebra. As a result, I never considered farming as a potential profession. Today’s generation can interact with younger farmers who’ve had diverse life experiences, who encourage them to visit the farm, who are eager to teach. These children – these future adults – can learn from these experiences, and perhaps choose to become farmers themselves. But even if they pursue careers outside of agriculture, they’ll have a knowledge of farming and food that goes beyond labels and slogans.

In tasting vegetables grown on each of these farms, I can attest that all are flavorful and colorful and grown organically. While each farm has a few stand-out crops, if someone lined up all of their bright, lush food in front of me, I’d see an amazing bounty, yet have a hard time distinguishing which farm grew what vegetable. The differences in each of these farms stems from the farming couple behind the farm name, and the community that supports and surrounds each farm.

I see each of these small farms, and the hundreds I don’t know about, as coils in a sustainable agricultural DNA strand. Each farm coil plays a pivotal role in their own communities, from the people they feed, to the soil they nurture, to the ripple effect of education and inspiration. But when you start linking these farms together online, the impact grows, and smaller sustainable farming transforms from a localized movement into a network of farmers across the country supporting and helping each other. A farmer in Oregon can inspire a farm in Virginia to start or adapt their methods, or encourage a consumer in Michigan to join a CSA or shop locally. As the network grows, so too do eaters’ options, making it ever-easier to reject industrially produced, faceless food in favor of more flavorful choices.

And maybe, when nuance is brought back into the conversation, it will be harder for words to be co-opted, and easier for the “real American” to be a member of a CSA. The primary motivation for shopping at a farmers’ market can be something other than a sense of duty – a focus on convenience, connection, pleasure, or even cost. A future election cycle can feature a helpful discussion around supporting younger farmers. And perhaps someday (in the far distant future), a candidate can seek out a local kale salad without being labeled an elitist.