The thing that was important for me when I was looking for internships was not working for anyone who supplemented their farm income with an off-farm job. If they had outside income, not an option. I wanted to know purely: How can someone make a living on a small-scale farm?
Our goal is not just to get by. A lot of farmers I run into take the approach of homesteading, and they just want to make enough to get by and grow their own food. We want to be earning enough to put in our pocket and live on.
It’s really high risk to take a 20-year-old kid, give him 40 acres, and say make a living. I don’t want to come across sounding really conservative, but I think someone’s got to prove himself first on some kind of level.
It definitely takes a certain kind of person to do this. It gets hard, it gets trying. If you don’t enjoy that, it’s not for you. I’m a welder, I’ve been a cook, I’ve worked since the age of 14. I don’t think everyone has those kind of skill sets that apply to farming. Everyone can learn them, but not everyone can enjoy them.
Don’t make it out to be super easy and really romantic. You have to look at it like a job. You’ve got to enjoy the simple things. Waking up, looking out on dewy grass on a beautiful morning, those are the things you get, not monetary things.
The CSA model is not a training ground. It’s graduate level. If you’ve never grown for a farmers’ market, don’t grow for a CSA. I even know people who want to start a CSA but have never grown vegetables before. It’s the easiest way because you’re selling an idea—you aren’t selling produce. To be frank, a lot out there are not doing a good job, and I think a lot of people are getting turned off to the idea. When we have been out marketing [other CSA’s members have told me] that they have been disappointed with either quantity (i.e. a whole box of arugula or a few weaselly bunches of radishes and beets) or quality (dirty, or otherwise not saleable produce).
We aren’t big on the idea of the touchy-feely side of ‘supporting a small farm.’ We are selling vegetables. That is the first thing we have to prove. We have to reciprocate members’ trust and money with that much money’s worth of vegetables. Some farms think you don’t have to because they think a CSA is a model where you are taking a risk with the farm. I don’t believe in that.
We wouldn’t see any monetary gain to doing all the extra paperwork to be certified organic. I’ve been trained as an organic crop inspector, and they just train you to ask for paperwork.
The first thing people ask us is: “Do you use fertilizers or pesticides?” The more important thing is, not what are you using, but what aren’t you using? It’s really about, are you building your soil? What are you doing to do that, what does the whole system look like? That is more important in the end than anything else. We don’t say anything in our publicity about organic because we aren’t allowed to. If you want to know, come out here.
The Wisdom of Young Farmers is an ongoing series where we talk with the new generation of farmers in America about raising food and figuring out how to make farming a viable profession in 2010. Absorb more wisdom of young farmers.