Listen to an interview with Rebecca Thistlethwaite on what it takes to be a farmer. We knew Rebecca when we lived in Santa Cruz, and had the pleasure of eating eggs and pork she and Jim produced.
Here’s a little bit of our story in relation to the interview.
Like Rebecca, we left California to be able to afford to farm. We knew we wanted to start a business, and that business was going to be growing some kind of food. We realized that Santa Cruz was a wonderful place for the farmers market shopper, with a bustling market filled with many choices of certified organic producers. For new farmers, however, you’d never be able to afford land. If you somehow did get land, then you’d have to wait on a list for several years before you could get into the local farmers market. Chefs at restaurants weren’t going to be excited by your oh-so-special farm, because they had so many choices already. Sustainable, Local, and Organic were hardly buzzwords in California anymore. So we moved to Florida to be closer to our families, closer to affordable property, and to somewhere we could be special.
We sensed North Central Florida was just at the right point in the growth curve of the local food movement when we entered. Other small farmers had paved the way, creating farmers markets and interest in local food, but there were few certified organic operations. There seemed to be a number of small farms that served the Gainesville area, but metro areas like Jacksonville and Orlando seemed to be a sea of unmet demand. People were looking for the “real thing” and wanted a meaningful experience when making their farmers market purchases or joining a CSA. We were overwhelmed by the number of people excited to give young farmers a chance; people who signed up for our CSA and paid us money before we had even one seed in the ground. We knew we could do something special here and stand out in a way we could not in California.
We looked long and hard for land. John studied USGS soil maps online for hours and hours, and we drove around Alachua County and beyond looking for places that could grow crops, were accessible to markets, and were affordable. People tried to sell us wetlands that legally could not be farmed due to conservation easements, land that had no topsoil, and acres of beach sand that would be “great for farming!” There is no “perfect” piece of land, but we have done the best we can with what we found, which was six acres near Orange Heights with a house, a well, and power.
We were only able to purchase land by a very special convergence of factors and timing: getting a mortgage based on income from jobs we were leaving in California, finding land with a house on it so we could get a traditional mortgage (nobody was lending money for raw land after the mortgage crisis), having virtually no debt, some money saved up, and financial backing from a few very close friends to help with our down payment. We took a big risk, but so far we have been able to make our mortgage payments, tractor payments, and employee payroll on time for nearly three years.
It has not been without its challenges and struggles. We have faced freezes, flooding, workplace injuries, storms wrecking farm infrastructure, pests and diseases, fertility challenges with newly farmed land, and the ever-present challenge to manage cash flow. We have also been lucky in that we have been able to move through these challenges with support from our community in many forms.
Rebecca is right, you have to be willing to roll your sleeves up, stick to it, and be patient. Three years seems like a long time when you are living it, but in the business and farming world it’s a blink of an eye. We depended heavily on off-farm income for the first couple of years to offset farm losses. It was a struggle every time John left the farm for a job, as it meant traveling away from home and missing a few days of putting time into the business. He’d get home from the road and get right onto the tractor, sometimes after driving or flying for hours. Cash flow from his job, however, meant that we could pay our personal bills and purchase equipment for the farm, or cover payroll. As our daughter grew from a baby into a toddler, we made it a priority for him to spend more time at home for her sake and for the farm’s.
This year we’ve moved into depending less on off-farm income. As the business grows we are paying down the debt we took on to start up, buy equipment, and build infrastructure. We can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Our first tractor is more than halfway paid off. We’ve purchased more equipment that reduces hand labor. We’ve raised salaries, and promoted and retained great workers. Our goal is to one day be able to pay ourselves a professional wage for the production and business management work we do every day. To us, that would be a truly sustainable business model: one that can sustain professional and living wages for the work of everyone involved. We’re not there yet, but we are making progress.
Sometimes, when the going gets rough, you start to wonder if there is an easier way. This is usually when the hours get really long, a complicated problem presents itself, and suddenly you are either crying, yelling, or just needing a day off. Then I remember that the “easier way” is being ignorant of how my food is produced. The easier way is to blindly accept whatever is offered by the conventional food system and to have no control or hand in the food that I eat. The easier way is to forget about how my food has affected the lives of the people who touched it all along the production and supply chain. The easier way is to forget that the chemicals and fertilizers used in growing food can poison our water, our air, and give people we love cancer. You pull yourself together and keep doing your work because nobody else is going to do it for you. Yes, it would have been much easier to avoid the risk of starting a business. But how easy is it to look back one day and wonder what you could have done with your life if you had just really tried?
When John and I have these kinds of conversations, he tells me he considers this farm to be the most important thing he can do with his life right now. One day it might be surfing or playing guitar, but right now it is growing healthy food for people. When I think about why I am here, I remember how much I love food and how it brings people together. Food is part of what got me into farming in the first place. Then comes the motivation of the personal challenge of being an entrepreneur and serving your community – proving to yourself that you can live well by doing good for others. At that point, I plunge back into my work and try to find real solutions for making our business run better. I can’t wait to see where we are in three more years.
We hope to build an example of a business that serves its customers, its community, its employees, and the natural environment in which we operate. We hope to create an example of being profitable while still achieving these other goals. We appreciate everyone who has supported us in this mission in some way: past and present CSA members, customers, volunteers, interns, apprentices, employees, family, friends, lenders, and other farmers and businesses in our community.
If you read this far, thanks for taking a few minutes of your day to get a little perspective on what it takes to run a farm and produce your food. I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to Rebecca’s interview or our story.