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Apprentice Orientation discussion circle

May 17th, 2015

Fiddler’s Green Farm

Marshall, NC


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Ryan Clark shows us around Fiddler’s Green Farm

Each year we hold a special apprentice or farm worker only CRAFT gathering toward the beginning of the season. We started these for a few reasons:

  1. To give apprentices a chance to get to know one another. Many apprentices come from outside the area and working on a farm can be isolating
  2. To show appreciation for the path they’re choosing to take, by considering a career in farming. It’s not an easy or popular one, but it’s incredibly vital
  3. To build a support network where they can speak freely about challenges they may be facing, without their bosses around.
  4. To let them hear from new farmers that were in their shoes not too long ago so they can make the most of CRAFT and their apprenticeship, as they begin to shape their ideas and goals for their own farming future.

This year Ryan Clarke from Fiddler’s Green was our host! He is a newly minted farmer still in his first season farming on his own. After working as the assistant farm manager at Ivy Creek for two years, he was able to buy his land in September 2014 and got his garlic and cover crop down before the winter came. He walked us around the farm starting with the layers & broiler chickens. Then we stopped over at his four rambunctious pigs and saw the acre of produce he planted with spring crops, next to freshly cultivated soil awaiting his summer crops. Ryan is working on developing his markets. You can find him now  currently selling at the Biltmore Town Square Tailgate market or join his CSA.

Ryan was joined for the new farmer panel by Andrea Van Gunst & Tim Gallagher with Down to Earth Farm and Kate Cummings & Ean Rice-Mitchell with Balsam Gardens.

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Andrea Van Gunst with Down to Earth Farm telling us her start-up farming story.

Andrea & Tim are in their 5th season farming on their own at Down to Earth Farm. Andrea interned on three different farms in WNC, before branching out on her own, to experience a mix of growing, marketing, and business styles. The diversity of approaches gave her a chance to see how labor and scale work on farms and what would suit her goals best. Her first year she leased a ¼ acre to grow vegetables while working part time. The 2nd year she expanded to 1 acre on newly leased land and was able to get into the Brevard Tailgate market and several good restaurants. In their 5th year, they are shifting gears as they await a new addition to the family and are letting the veggies go focus on dairy sheep.

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Kate Cummings & Ean Rice-Mitchell from Balsam Gardens.

Kate & Ean have a unique set up with Balsam Gardens that is helping them make a graduated entrance into farming on their own. Kate has spent the last two years apprenticing at Ivy Creek Farm and was a co-crew leader the 2nd season while Ean did the same at Balsam Gardens. This year Balsam Gardens expanded their production and has shifted their business model a bit, creating an opportunity for Kate and Ean to step in. They are now leasing one acre to grow veggies on their own while also managing the livestock Balsam Gardens. They are marketing the veggies under the Balsam Gardens name through wholesale markets and a few restaurants. So, Balsam Gardens is functioning more or less like an incubator farm for Kate & Ean. They have some paid work, but are also leasing land and have access to equipment & established markets as they hone their farming and business skills.

Although each of these farms has different starting places and goals, the challenges and advice the farmers had to share followed similar themes. Here are some of the words of wisdom we discussed:

  • Advice when starting out:
    • Start small!! Don’t try to do everything right out of the gate.
    • Take some time to get to know your land. For example, Ryan is using his pigs to help turn up one field to see if there are less rocky spots he could use for planting later.
    • Don’t worry about finding implements tractor – there is an abundance on craigslist, especially if you’re willing to drive a bit
    • A new reality is that not everyone can be a market farmer in WNC, need to be creative in how you structure your markets
    • It can be challenging to figure out your finances and workload. Try and be as realistic as possible about what it takes
    • Think about your markets early, if you don’t have a way to sell everything once you’re in the midst of the growing season it can get stressful fast
    • It can be hard to have apprentices in the beginning, even though you may need the help. Sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind if you’re still figuring out your land.
    • Important to consider if are you a manager type? Do you like that or like the solitary thing?
    • Markets are more saturated when it comes to annual veggies if you’re considering that it may be harder to get into tailgate markets especially. Try to find a niche. What could you do that’s different, and be able to charge what you need?
    • In your first few years, you often have to work around inefficiencies as you figure out your systems. When starting you don’t have basic data on production yields, etc. When working for other farms they tend to have their systems in place – but when starting you have to figure all that out for yourself and your land.
    • Read up on and talk to lots of people before you go into a new enterprise.
  • Important skills to build during an apprenticeship:
    • Having some construction experience and having some basic tools helps keep your overhead lower & saves time because you can fix and build things yourself, and there are always things to fix.
    • In the beginning, it’s easy to just be excited about being able to grow and sell and that seems like enough. But, at a point if you’re in for the long haul  you begin to see farming as a career and need to be professional about it. Asking, how can we make this work for the long term? You do it b/c you love it, right? It’s not about the money, right? But the money is important to be able to meet your basic needs, for the long term – security, insurance, house payments, etc. Andrea suggests asking more about how the farmers she worked with managed their finances – how’d you send your kid to private school? What about health insurance? Etc.
    • Get in the habit of keeping records now. Kate, for example, kept a weekly journal at Ivy Creek where she recorded what they planted, when they sowed, insects, etc. Even just keeping a basic calendar of when you do things will help later on.
    • Learn some basics about fixing things.
    • Ask a ton of questions – be aware of what you’re doing and why and learn what not to do. Don’t be afraid to ask why the farmer is doing something. You might think it could be done a different way, but they may have already tried that and can explain what it didn’t work.
    • Make use of CRAFT! Farmers in CRAFT are amazing resources. They are often willing to share their records, plans, etc. And, they’ve seen all diseases, pests. Andrea, had farmers go look at land ti help make assessments. CRAFT farmers want other farmers to succeed here and they’ll give advice, talk through problems, bulk buying
    • A lot of farmers have past lives which can provide good experience to share too
    • If you can work on a farm over the winter do it. You’ll be able to see different sides of a farm, construction, building, essential things about infrastructure different from growing food.
  • When looking for land to buy/lease:
    • Reach out to folks in the neighborhood that know about the property to learn about the history and growing conditions to get a different take from the owners or the real estate agent. It might also help create good relationships with your neighbors that can be invaluable, or even open new opportunities to leasing land nearby if you expand.
    • Leased land is a great way to get into farming when land in WNC costs $10,000/acre, but then it’s a question of infrastructure. How can you plan for it to be mobile, simplified?
  • Financing strategies:
    • Personal savings
    • Private loans from family
    • Credit cards – maybe not the best option, unless you can be sure to pay them off by the end of the season
    • WNC Ag Options grant – not usually awarded to farmers in their first few years, but good if you’re looking to expand or bring on a new enterprise in year 3+
    • Think about what you have that makes you loanable when approaching creditors.

Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2015! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow

Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.