Finding Ground

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Young Farmers Find Creative Ways to Grow Their Dreams and Feed the Community

STORY BY KATIE CHAMBERLAIN
IMAGES BY NOLAN CALISCH

In early March, thick raindrops fall as we duck in and out of shared crop houses full of promise. “It’s basically a giant scallion,” observes Dan Sullivan, 32, of Black Locust Farm, as he points out the two beds of Spanish onions he planted during a sunbreak the previous day. “Nobody grows these except Conserva PDX.” Now starting his third season at Black Locust, Dan grows regionally adapted specialty vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs on three and a half acres for Portland restaurants and specialty retailers.

Oregon boasts some of the best farmland in the country, with a diversified crop base producing an estimated economic impact of $8.2 billion in 2015. Agriculture directly accounts for 18% of direct and indirect employment, so the stakes are high as much of the current farm operator population approaches retirement. In fact, the average age of Oregon farmers and ranchers is now 60, making it imperative to attract and nurture a younger generation of farmers.

According to a 2016 report by the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, fewer young people are entering the farming profession in Oregon, and those who do consistently cite land cost and availability as the most significant barriers. While leasing land requires less capital and is more affordable when starting an agricultural business, traditional leases do not build equity and may deter long-term investments in buildings, perennials, and soil quality improvement.

Further, beginning farmers who list farming as their sole occupation, like Dan Sullivan, are declining, according to a 2016 OSU report. That means most farm operators have at least one off-farm job, an approach that can enable a new agricultural business to grow without the pressure of immediate profitability, but poses challenges when it comes to balancing time and growing the business.

Black Locust is one of 14 small farms that are part of the Headwaters Farm Incubator Program, in the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, which leases out plots of the 60-acre Headwaters Farm for a maximum of 5 years to beginning farmers. It provides resources such as peer support, agricultural training, access to land and equipment, and graduated lease conditions which are heavily discounted early on and reach market rate by the end of the “incubation” term. The goal is to create successful independent farmers by the end of the term.

Before launching Black Locust, Dan had amassed agricultural experience impressive in both depth and breadth. Growing up in Vermont, he learned to drive a forklift at age 16 and spent winters as a teenager pruning at a friend’s family orchard. Following several seasons at Walker Farm in Vermont after college, he spent four and a half seasons at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, where he was in charge of composting and fertility, operated equipment, and worked at the farm’s booth at the PSU Farmers Market. There, he gained skills in food handling and presentation and forged relationships with local chefs.

“I’m not an idealist,” he says. “I always strive to do better and I know that no one will pay my bills if I don’t make a profit.” He harnessed this work ethic and past agricultural experience to strike out on his own with Black Locust in 2015. When he applied for the Headwaters program, his vision was to grow for and supply small restaurant kitchens in Portland with specialty vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs. Three years in, business is good.

“We sold out of everything last year. This is the dregs left in the fields,” he says pointing to overwintered arugula in early March (he harvests the spicy tips for Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty). He added a partner, Jesse Ackemann, 30, to the business in 2016 and will farm an additional acre this season to keep pace with the demand.

“I’ve been collecting what I think will do well in restaurants for years and have always been interested in cuisine,” Dan says. “I think of this as my creative expression as well as vegetable farming.” He’s particularly passionate about more obscure varietals such as agretti, an early Italian spring green; spigariello, one of his flagship greens; Spanish onions; and chicories. He also grows regionally adapted classics like Little Gems lettuce, various brassicas, along with an eclectic array of herbs and edible flowers.

Moondog’s

Shelley Bowerman, 29, and Dan Schuler, 30, intentionally built an agricultural model that includes off-farm day jobs. Dan teaches at the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm and Shelley is the manager for Heart of the Valley Grower’s Cooperative and coordinates the annual Local Food Connection. “We’re not economically dependent on [farming],” Dan explains. They rely on the farm for supplemental income and food — and have the flexibility to take time away, preventing burnout. “I didn’t want to build a system and then make sacrifices later because I wasn’t realistic in the beginning,” Dan says.

Shelley and Dan’s agricultural system has evolved through thoughtful creativity in the five years they’ve actively grown food. Shelley began working with the Eugene-based Ant Farm, a participatory, food-based community model in which local landowners offered the Ant Farmers backyard garden space and unused acreage outside of town. “That was our model: working with what we had,” she explains. “At its most chaotic moment, we had seven sites dispersed around Lane County: a 5,000 square foot patch of squash and garlic in Coburg, onions and tomatoes at Nettle’s Edge Farm in Santa Clara, and a few other sites.”

Shelley found that many landowners were more than willing to trade the use of good soil for taking care of the land and supporting the community. “There is land to grow food on and people who want to support that and understand the financial precariousness of the venture,” she says. As news of the Ant Farm spread, they received more offers than they could manage. “Access to land hasn’t been a challenge for us,” Dan says. “If you’re coming into a new community and expecting the picture-perfect piece of land, it may not be ready when you want it. But if you’re willing to be creative and think about different ways you could run your system or tie pieces of land together, there’s so much land out there – especially in Oregon.”

For beginning farmers, the Ant Farm model also teaches accountability. “You can’t care take someone else’s ground and then not show up or not water,” Shelley says. “For me it was major evolutionary time in my life: I learned to be accountable to myself, the land, and the community.”

In the spring of 2017, Shelley and Dan laid the groundwork for their newest venture: Moondog’s, a three-acre farm leased on a friend’s property in the Mohawk Valley near Marcola. Moondog’s utilizes a crop share model, carried over from Ant Farm: Participants work two days a month April through October in exchange for shares of the harvest. “We love working in the community and don’t want to farm by ourselves,” Shelley says. Ideally, they’ll work with 10 others on the land this season to grow staple and storage crops intended to be cured or preserved to sustain their small community through the winter. “We’re essentially growing a pretty substantial homestead garden. But we’re doing it in community.”

After noting how much energy many farmers spent tracking down customers, they opted to add a niche market to support the farm: organic vegetable seed. They aim to supply seed companies, which frees them from marketing to the target consumer. “We’d like to focus on the farming, produce high quality food, and keep our ethics and values at the forefront,” Dan says.

Fair Valley

Farther south in the Willamette Valley, Berkshire pigs root around in the forested edges of a property that stretches west overlooking the Fern Ridge reservoir and the blue-tinted Coast Range just beyond. From April to October, Cornish-Cross broiler chickens rotate through the pastures, moved daily in large bottomless pens. Cattle and sheep graze in the back field, stretching out across the farm’s 75 acres. “After just three years of rotational grazing, we’ve seen a big improvement [in soil structure],” Jenni Timms explains.

Jenni, 34, and her husband Scott, 34, relocated Fair Valley, their grass-fed and pasture-raised meat operation, from 15 acres of leased land in nearby Veneta three years ago, overcoming a hurdle that stymies many young farmers: land ownership. “From a purely economic standpoint, I would say rent forever,” Jenni says. “But there is something about having your own land [in terms of] security and investing in it.”

While working as engineers in Texas after college, Jenni and Scott started getting interested in the sources of their food. They joined a pasture-raised meat CSA in Houston and started volunteering at the farm on the weekends. Eventually, they traded cubicle life for a year-long internship at Afton Field Farm in Corvallis.

When they struck out on their own and launched Fair Valley, they opted to lease. “We’re low-risk people,” Jenni explains. “We found a rental house in Veneta and literally knocked on doors within a five-mile radius trying to find an available field.” They found an older couple with 15 acres and started farming for next to nothing, eventually trading use of the land for pasture restoration from their livestock.

In two years, they built a steady clientele by offering pastured chicken, Thanksgiving turkeys, beef, and lamb. “We started to figure out that we’d outgrow the space and wanted to do more beef,” Jenni says, recounting the challenges of living on a different site from the animals.

“We wanted to settle down and put in more permanent infrastructure.”

The mechanics of their vision evolved during these nascent years. Like Shelley and Dan, off-farm jobs have largely contributed to the success of their venture, especially early on. “We had grand ideas of being full time farmers,” Jenni says. “But we quickly realized that it wasn’t feasible after a year.” Scott went to work as a brewer at Falling Sky in Eugene and Jenni worked remotely for her old engineering company initially, which provided the pair with a steady income while establishing Fair Valley. “We would not have been able to purchase the property otherwise.”

But their path to land ownership was anything but straightforward. After nine months of trying to arrange financing and with another season rapidly approaching, the sellers pulled out, leaving Jenni and Scott heartbroken. Soon after, some longtime customers heard the story and offered to carry the loan. “They see themselves as stakeholders in our farm,” Jenni says. “We’re very fortunate.”

Fair Valley currently sells their meat through a Eugene farmers market, CSAs in Eugene and Portland, and a growing list of restaurant and wholesale accounts. Like many small farms, distribution presents a constant challenge. After years of maxing out the limited space in Jenni’s Prius, they recently acquired a delivery van and helped pioneer the Heart of the Valley Grower’s Cooperative. “Our goal is to make pastured meat more accessible,” Jenni says. “It’s behind the curve compared to organic vegetables.”

All across the state, the next generation of farmers have slogged through a particularly cold, wet spring. They’ve problem-solved, forged on, and nurtured new life. They’ve plotted out new beds, devised cover crop strategies, weaned piglets, and protected baby chicks from unseasonably cold nights. Finding creative ways to nurture and support these young farmers as they find their footing — and preserve diversified, family-owned farms for the next generation will not only foster resilient local food systems, but will keep agriculture firmly rooted in the state’s economy and identity.


Katie Chamberlain is a freelance writer focused on food and agriculture based in Eugene.

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