This year with CRAFT we have tried to increase our support for farm apprentices and aspiring farmers with a few extra events held over the growing season including an Apprentice Orientation, CRAFT Farm Olympics, and an End of Season camp-out. Our goal for these new additions is to create a stronger support network for farm workers here in WNC because we realize it’s not an easy job! Whether or not they continue down the path to farming we value the time, energy and heart the apprentices put into their work for the growing season, and many of our local farms depend on their work to manage the farm each year. As we continue to grow and nurture the next generation of organic farmers in WNC we want to be able to encourage apprentices to make the most of their educational farming experience, the local resources available, and help prepare them for the realities of farming and the transition from apprenticeship to farmer.
Our first Apprentice Orientation was held at Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester, NC on June 1st 2013. We started things out with some good ’ole get to know you icebreakers, and then took a walk around the farm, guided by the apprentices at Gaining Ground, Cate and Catherine. As a way to get this year’s CRAFT apprentices thinking about how they can make the best use of CRAFT and their Apprentice experience as they begin to shape their ideas and goals for their own farming future we invited three former apprentices that have made the leap to farming to share their stories and lessons learned.
After apprenticing at different farms in WNC for three years Elizabeth Goldsmith started Fiddlesticks Farm in Old Fort, NC two years ago. She is currently doing all the work herself growing vegetables on 1 ½ acres of family land and selling her produce through a tailgate market and CSA. In addition to the farm, she works 5-6 days with an off-farm job. Andrea Van Gunst apprenticed for two years in WNC before starting Down to Earth Farm on a quarter acre of leased land and is in her 3rd season. She moved to Bend of Ivy last year and expanded her vegetable production to 1 ½ acres, and has hired apprentices of her own. She markets her produce through a tailgate market, CSA, and local restaurants. Our third apprentice-turned-farmer was Joe Evans from Paper Crane Farm. He apprenticed for four years. Two of those were spent farming in the Western U.S., and two in WNC. Three years ago he started growing vegetables on 1 ½ acres of leased land, and each year since he’s not only increased his acres farmed, but farmed on different pieces of land. Joe has also begun to hire extra help on the farm, and markets through two tailgate markets and a CSA.
All three have followed a different path to farming, and all have faced a variety challenges in their first few years. One of the themes that surfaced during the discussion was realizing the importance of having a business and marketing plan. “I can work in the field all day long,” Elizabeth said, “but, managing finances is the biggest issue.” Andrea echoed that sentiment saying, “As an apprentice, I didn’t anticipate being a business person [as a farmer].” Being a small scale diversified farmer oftentimes means you’re responsible not only for raising the produce but managing all of the marketing, and business arrangements – two full time jobs in one! While being a sales person isn’t why they got into farming, it becomes a necessary component for a profitable small farm that is different from commodity farming where prices and market outlets are standardized and crop failures supported by government subsidies. Andrea and Elizabeth both recommend being realistic about your personal needs and factoring them into your farm and business plan. It’s important to think about what you need and what you want to do then pick and choose crops and methods that fit those needs, paying attention to how time consuming each enterprise or method will be. For Andrea and Joe managing employees has been a learning curve as well. It can be challenging to pay employees, let alone yourself as the farmer, when markets can be inconsistent over the course of the year causing ebbs and flows in income.
Balancing the rhythms and nature of farming was another learning curve we discussed. Andrea expressed that she wished she had worked on farms a few more years, living there and working for more than a year in order to see how the farm changed and be more directly involved on a daily basis. Additionally, Joe recommends learning the art of letting go. As a matter of scale, as your planting increases, the potential to lose crops increases, too. And, crops are going to die. As a new farmer especially, it’s hard to know when to let go and make that decision to till it in and start over after you’ve put so much time, energy and money into it. But, as Joe put it you have to cut your losses and embrace the crops that are doing well instead of trying to nurture a lost cause.
For beginning farmers all across the U.S. leasing land is the easiest way for landless farmers to get onto land and start their farm business. Many established small farms WNC also lease a portion of the land they farm as they expand since buying land has become more and more difficult as land prices continue to rise. While it may be the quickest way to get land, it is also a risky one. It can be hard to know the quality of soil you are inheriting it might be contaminated or depleted after years of use. It takes time and money to build soil and put in infrastructure like a watering system or fencing. And, when the lease is up a farmer might have to start all over again on a new piece of land losing their original investment each time they move – another lesson in letting go. Joe likened finding land to a courtship! It’s important to find land owners that you are compatible with and create open communication trying to be as up front and explicit as possible. Then, be sure to get your commitments in writing to offer both parties some protection, and insure you’re on the same page.
Additionally, our three beginning farmers were inspired by the farms they worked on in WNC and felt those farmers were their best resources noting how important it is to create as many connections as possible in the farming community and having a support network. Despite the learning curves they have experienced when asked if they would do it all over again, all three replied they would still choose to farm! Our thanks again go to Elizabeth, Andrea, and Joe for joining us and sharing their honest stories and sage advice, and to Gaining Ground farm for hosting our first Apprentice Orientation!
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. 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 dancer, baker and avid adventurer.