The 2011 Season (Year 3 of ?)


The way the farm season felt sometimes.

I'll start this with the obligatory acknowledgment of it being that time again to reminisce about the past year's farm season. It's that time again.

Our winter months were dominated by our little girl, as we navigated the new terrain of parenthood. When I have a moment to reflect, it's remarkable to me that we somehow know how to take care of a baby, with no prior experience. I suppose it's a lot like our farming adventure. We've done our fair share of research, but so much of what we do, we do without a clue. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. We're raising plants and a kid, but in farming, the season is less than 12 months, then you get to start all over the next year and correct your mistakes. For our child, the season is a lifetime.



In May, I quit my job off-farm job. In January and February, my lovely wife and I struggled to figure out just how I was going to work a full-time job an hour away (plus multiple-day trips for meetings), raise a baby, and work a diversified farm. She was able to find part-time online work. We went out on the open market to look for health insurance and despite the awful experience that was, we found a plan that would cover all three of us (but not for cheap). And finally, we decided to have the farm pick up our house rent and the health insurance. Up until then, the farm had only been paying for itself with very little overlap into our personal finances (it pays my cell phone bill and our internet). With those three pieces, I was able to give my 2-week notice in May, just in time for spring planting.

It's been extremely tight for both the farm and our household each month, but I think we made the right decision. If I were still working the off-farm job with the great benefits, it's unlikely we'd be able to operate the farm, which is the real benefit.

The CSAs and Crops

As our little girl Willa grew this season, the relationships among the house, the farm work, the family, and the rest of daily living changed along with her. As she crawled about, she picked up anything she found and promptly put it in her mouth. So, we couldn't let her roam the farm while we worked. She also needed multiple naps throughout the day. With nowhere to put her down on the farm, we ended up either keeping her home with Courtney, or Courtney would drive out in the car where Willa would fall asleep. We'd leave the car running with the air-conditioning on until she woke up. Courtney and I started out the season thinking we'd share the labor of the farm and of taking care of Willa, but it quickly shifted to her doing most of the Willa-care and me doing the bulk of the farm-care. Both jobs are more than one-person jobs.


No skunk problems here.

So, though I tried to keep up with the weeds in the vegetables, by mid-season, there were some vegetables swallowed and some on their way to being swallowed by weeds. We had some part-time help, a vegetable CSA member and friend who traded her labor for her vegetables, but it just wasn't enough. On and off throughout the season we had friends visit, who usually ended up helping for the day or two that they were at the farm, and that was surely welcome. At one point in the season, I was so desperate for help hoeing the corn and milk thistle that I tried to hire high school kids at $10/hour. Nobody showed up.

This year we dropped the farmers' market and we didn't regret it. We no longer had to get up at 3:30am on Saturdays, spend the majority of the day at market, and come home with leftover vegetables. That allowed us to increase our vegetable CSA membership, gave us our Saturdays to work or take the day off, and generally increased our quality of life. Despite the lack of labor and prolific weeds, we delivered our shareholders fresh vegetables weekly, without fail - a real success.

Our 100+ turkeys did well. We again lost far too many - some to a dog and a few to coyotes - but the survivors were healthy and ultimately very tasty. We have much to learn in turkey care and we have to find that balance of still being able to learn and develop a solid enterprise while growing to meet the demand. As it stands, a little over 100 turkeys is about all we can handle, especially when it comes time to butcher them. This year we had about a dozen friends help us the Saturday and Sunday before Thanksgiving, but they were long, arduous days and if we raised more turkeys, we'd need at least one more day to butcher. That's a lot to ask of our friends.

Our field crops this year had some successes and some absolute failures. Our emmer did well (what we're now calling Prairie Farro, "farro" being the Italian word for emmer). We planted our buckwheat and chickpeas very late when the soil had dried after all those spring rains. The chickpeas produced a crop, but just enough for seed for next year. The buckwheat flowered, but froze out at first frost in early September. I had also planted a northeast heirloom flint corn. It struggled all year and never produced a crop. The milk thistle I planted was doing very well, but when I flood irrigated the field, I accidentally killed it, not knowing that milk thistle doesn't like standing water. The roots rotted and my entire crop was wiped out.

We will be delivering our Grain and Seed CSA shares this coming January or February to our 30 or so shareholders. We have also been in contact with a number of co-ops and grocery stores around the state who have expressed interest in carrying our grain. A brewery and a restaurant are also interested in using our grains.

This year we also continued to sell the bulk of our farro to a wholesaler, while keeping a few hundred pounds for ourselves and our Grain and Seed CSA members.

While expanding our vegetable enterprise by increasing our CSA membership, and increasing the number of turkeys we raise are fairly straightforward ways for the farm to grow, a less straightforward and uncertain way is with of our grains. Nationally there is a growing demand for local staple crops such as wheat and barley. Simultaneously and often coinciding, is a demand for heritage and ancient grains, such as the farro or the Sonora wheat we grow. We can see a huge potential in focusing on our grains, but it's not as clear cut. It's one thing to grow the grain, but one also has to successfully clean it, store it, and above all, market it.

We've quickly realized that we are too small a scale to get our grain cleaned by someone else (unless they are also buying the bulk of the crop), yet we grow enough grain that we need specialized cleaning equipment. Because we feel our heritage and ancient grain have tremendous potential, we spent the latter part of the year focusing on our grain processing infrastructure. We successfully applied for and received a grant and are currently in the process of procuring cleaning equipment. We will likely set it up in one of Courtney's dad's buildings, 15 miles south of the farm. Since we don't know where we might be in two years (when our lease runs out on the farm), it didn't makes sense to try to set it up on the farm where we have no stake, or rent a building in town in case we don't end up near Conrad in two years. We at least know that Clyde will be on his place for the foreseeable future.

The Farm Search

Over the summer we continued negotiations to take over all or part of the farm. In the early spring, I sat down with our local loan officer with the USDA Farm Service Agency. I've visited with him before, and he's always been very good to work with, despite his obvious incredulousness at what we're trying to do. I filled out a beginning farmer land loan application for the farm's 80 dryland acres. But at some point in the summer, we decided that maybe just purchasing bare ground might not be the best route. But there was no sense in stopping the application process. We decided to let it run its course, allowing us another option should we need it. Like many government agencies, the USDA moves very slowly and I put the application process in the back of my mind.

Sometime mid-summer, after visiting with a local bank to find out what sort of home loan we might qualify for, we made an offer for the second house on the farm, most of the outbuildings, and the 20 acres we're currently leasing (there are 2 houses on the property - one in which the owners live and one that is part storage and part office). In subsequent meetings, the four of us talked about the difficulties of such a scenario (shared domestic water, a shared driveway, and other things), but in the end the timing just wasn't right and there were just too many complications.

Since our FSA loan process was still going on in the background, I decided to call the FSA to see where they were on it . Turns out we were approved for the 80 dryland acres. My thinking shifted and I started trying to figure out what it might mean to live and farm on 80 bare acres. The first issue was water, of course. The farm has a certain number of water shares from the canal company, that are tied to specific acres, but they can be transferred within a farm. Any transfers have to be approved by the canal company and they would have to occur before we bought the land. We again sat down with the owners and proposed purchasing a few acres-worth of water shares for the dryland. They agreed it would be possible to transfer 10-20 water shares to the dryland acres, though they had concerns about what it might do to the value of the remaining farm ground. So, if it worked out, that would leave us with 60 dryland acres and 20 irrigated acres, more than enough for vegetables, turkeys, and specialty grains.

Another piece to the puzzle was power for irrigation since the dryland is uphill from the canal and watering vegetables would require power and a pump. And yet another piece was the living arrangements. Conceivably we could build a house, but a house needs power, domestic water, and a septic system. I visited with our local sanitarian about a septic system, the power company about power lines, the canal company about water shares, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service about pump systems, and friends and family about the idiocy of this idea.

In the end, between transferring water shares, getting power to the property, installing an irrigation system in the canal, building a house, and farming, it was pretty clear that it would both be very expensive and time consuming.

Not long after, and coincidentally, we came across an opportunity to lease with the possibility to buy a small farm southeast of where we are now. We visited the place and it was pretty remarkable: a wonderful old house, a great shelterbelt, good buildings, 30 or so acres of dryland farm ground, good domestic water with the ability to irrigate vegetables and close to our current customers. In the end, the timing wasn't quite right. There's still a chance, but we'll have to wait and see.


In a homemade chicken snow globe, when it rains glitter, it pours glitter.

In both instances of opportunities fallen short, we can understand the position of the other and certainly don't fault them for the issues they have to consider. When out of frustration, Courtney and I go to the internet to look at farm listings in the area, we wonder how in the world we'll be able to ever go through traditional channels and mortgage a property for what some are asking. Sometimes it seems our best or even our only chance at putting down roots and building up a farm is through landowners who are willing and able to work with us.

Though there was the opportunity to lease more of the current farm (which would necessitate scaling up our equipment), we've decided to continue with what were currently farming and not tackle any more. I think if the possibility to ultimately own the entire farm were more real, we would consider leasing a bit more each year.

Right now, there doesn't seem to be a clear path forward. We have two more years on our current lease. The plan is to see that lease through and continue to rent the house in town during that time. After that, we are not sure what we'll do. At five years, we will certainly have put in our time on temporary ground. Ready as we are now, we will be that much more ready to set down roots and turn a house and farm ground into a homestead. This sense of rootlessness has surprisingly been one of the greatest mental challenges in all of this. Any advice, dear readers, would be much appreciated.

Next year, I think will be the year of the grain for us. I also think it will be the most difficult for us in a lot of ways. Willa will be nearly 2 years old, we will be trying to expand enough to pay our bills and farm expenses, we will owe the most on our debt to date, we will likely have to spend money beyond the grant funds to set up a modest seed cleaning facility, and we still have no secure labor.

As I look back on what I've written, I realize that it sounds like a lot of struggle and anguish, but there is a whole lot of pride and joy that went with the season, too. But as an unsuspecting blog reader, you lucky souls get to be the sounding board for the nitty gritty of what we're experiencing. And for taking on that role, I thank you.

Stay tuned for a 2012 full of farming misadventures.

5 comments:

  1. My advice - move to Wisconsin!!!

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  2. My advice -- stay in Montana, even though it stretches creative and energy resources at times!

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  3. Wonderful, complicated analysis of just how hard it is to do what you and Courtney are doing. I don't have any answers since I struggle figuring out my one raised bed, but I wish very, very hard for your success in navigating the rootlessness and finding "home." We're all pulling for you!!

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  4. We don't plan on leaving the place we were born and bred. I think Wisconsin might fit inside Montana sideways. Can we do that instead, and use its good soils and good weather?

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  5. Thanks, Jule! Let us know when you're ready to start a commune.

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