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Farms with a Future Decodes Farm Success

Farmer Rebecca Thistlethwaite never anticipated that she would start a family farm, scale it 430 percent, and then close it all within six years. But then, who would? Despite their farms closing, the light at the end of their 80-hour farming workweek tunnel turned out to be enlightenment. She, her husband, and daughter took a year off of farming not to rest, but to search for the most innovative and successful farming models across the U.S. Their time off-farm proved invaluable and has manifested into an essential handbook for running a truly sustainable farm: her new book, Farms with a Future. 

Thistlethwaite’s book is a literal farm-business boot camp, for greenhorns and aficionados alike, geared towards diversified farms with the gumption to sell direct to their community. Read it as a new farmer and you’ll avoid many of the pitfalls that new farms make. Read it as an established farmer seeking to transition to local markets, and you’ll reap the benefits of starting your journey to becoming a truly community-supported farm.

I caught up with Rebecca to learn more about her book and to hear about the next iteration of the farm that she and her family are in the process of starting in Oregon.

You’ve spent a few years researching some of the more successful sustainable farming operations out there. Are you seeing predominately new farmers making it work, or are multi-generational farms also making the transition to more direct markets and achieving greater economic viability at the same time?

I have seen both. I have seen many new farmers get started with a lot of enthusiasm, media attention, and high ideals only to succumb to economic realities a few years into it (my own farm in California was probably an example of that). I have also seen multi-generation farms try new growing practices and marketing techniques that are likely going to “save their farms.” And I have seen the opposite too: New farms who are smart and business oriented that will probably last and family-farms that keep repeating the same mistakes.

I would say, overall, that trying to farm without any familial help is extremely difficult. If somebody plans to do that, they should at least have a strong network of friends who can help pitch in (labor and capital). In our own lives, we have moved to a place where we have stronger familial and social networks, giving us a fighting chance to get a new farming operation off the ground. We just did not have that in California, probably because we were working to hard to cultivate relationships well. Writing this book reinforced the idea of social capital, that is, the value of your social networks.

Have you seen any parallels of things that don’t seem to work? What are they and how can new farmers avoid these pitfalls? 

There are more pitfalls to fall into than there are potholes in a farm road. The biggest one is probably not seeking out advice from other farmers and feeling like you have to make all your own mistakes. Yes, there are great books out there, Web sites, videos, magazines, etc., but nothing beats good old fashioned communication. Seek out the farmers in your region, sit next to people you don’t know at conferences, attend trade meetings, call extension agents, chitchat with vendors at the farmers market. The other big pitfall is not taking your bookkeeping seriously. Too many farmers think that if they have cash on hand or in the bank that they are doing just fine. It’s much more complicated than that. Seek out some professional bookkeeping help if numbers aren’t your thing.

Have you noticed a gender division of labor on these farms or are women and men sharing the workload for the same tasks? If you have seen a division of labor, what do females bring to the table that’s inherently different from their male counterparts? (Yes, we’re talking in broad generalizations here!)

I generally see women doing more of the marketing and sales, tending to be more social and friendly. It’s probably a smart fit. I see women really pushing the envelope on innovating. They are often the ones asking the questions such as, why can’t we do this differently? How can we make this job less backbreaking? Why can’t we use fewer pesticides or less water? Maybe it’s because women are not often taught the standard tasks seen in agriculture that makes them more open to inquisitiveness. They may have more of an openness to learning.

Screen-Shot-2012-11-20-at-3.14.32-PM-e1353442612122You talk about the economic downturn as being one of the factors that led you to close down your farming business with your husband in 2010. Are things improving out there for local, small-scale producers? What about in more rural areas where the markets (i.e., shoppers) can’t afford the same type of price bracket for their food?

I still see it as a mixed bag. Most farmers in this country still don’t break even. They are living off the income of outside work, subsidies, insurance payments, inherited land, and free family labor. Yes, there are increasing numbers of farmers’ markets, so-called farm to table restaurants, grocery stores with a locally-grown section.

But, yet the vast majority of farmers are small-scale and not making more than $10,000 a year. I can’t wait to see what the next USDA Ag Census data shows us. It seems that a lot of moneyed players are entering the niche foods market–folks like hedge-fund billionaires, ag-land investment firms, as well as post dot-com millionaires. They start their operations with huge capital resources, slick branding campaigns, vertical integration, and the like. How will family-farms compete with that?

I am not sure. I really hope consumers will see through the glitz and go for authenticity. I remain committed to telling the stories of real family-farmers who are personally invested in the stewardship of their land and communities. This is what I attempted to do with my book.

Do you think that industrial-scale marketing of “local” and “sustainable” foods is impacting farm-direct markets? How can small farms be more competitive than the chain stores that now tout seasonal, local, and small-scale wares?

I do think it’s a real challenge, but a farmer who stays true to telling their story authentically will rise above much of the fluff and outright lies. Using third-party certifiers can also help tell your story because it demonstrates your commitment to certain values rather than meaningless words like natural or sustainable. Heck, even Monsanto uses that word! I also think that more writers and bloggers like ourselves need to start asking hard questions of the stores, restaurants, manufacturers that are using these words without any certification or metrics behind them. Farmers have a harder time calling the bluff of their local food trade for fear of repercussions, but those of us not farming for a living should be more willing to roll-up our sleeves. It helps keep people honest.

Each chapter could be it’s own book in delving into the nitty-gritty details and nuances of farming. Where do you go for practical farming information like determining which feeder to buy, how to lay your irrigation and other answers to the day-to-day farming puzzles that come up? Where did you look for this information when you were first starting out?

Both my husband and I started with a good educational foundation of biology and ecology. That helped us look at each challenge from a holistic perspective and also use biology as the foundation for anything. After that, it was classic books by Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, and John Jeavons where I learned farming techniques. My husband apprenticed with an elderly farming couple in the foothills of California, learning to grow enormous onions, garlic, tomatoes, and other quality veggies. I apprenticed with farmers in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California. So gaining practical, hands-on education without the risk of owning the farm is a good way to go.

Once we started farming, we tried using a few different list-servs, talking to other farmers, but I would say we got the most help from salespeople, believe it or not. Just writing this makes me question my sanity! But, we had an excellent feedman who answered any questions we had about animal feed. We had a couple great seedsmen who would find any crop variety we were looking for, tell us seeding rates, and type of innoculant. We had good graphic and Web designers who would give us all kinds of free advice about marketing. Our fencing supplier always gave us copious advice on setting up the best electric fence.

These jobs are to be on the forefront of agriculture, and in many cases, they will do the research for you. Maybe we were lucky, but they never tried to sell us anything we didn’t want or need. Oh, one last thing–old farming books that predate chemical farming. Every livestock farmer should own a copy of Feeds and Feeding from 1910. That’s where we got the idea to try growing mangel beets and rape mustard for our pigs.

What’s your advice for new farmers or farms looking to transition to more local markets?

Marketing is an art form that must be constantly adapted and honed over time. Be creative, be honest, be professional, and follow-through. If you are trying to sell into local restaurants, call them on a regular day, deliver on time what you said you would bring, pack it well, invoice it properly, and coach the relationship over time. Invite all the chefs for a farm tour, for example. Or meet once a winter with your chefs to find out what they would like you to grow/raise next season. Make it a partnership that both of you benefits from and co-market each other. Also, be patient as many of these things take time. You may not be meeting your sales goals right away, but you have to earn the trust of your customers and make them fall in love with you.

Anything else that you would like to share with us?

“Don’t reproduce error in bulk” was one of the best bits of advice we got on our trip from young farmer Jerica Cadman of Jefferson, Texas. Start small, experiment, hone your skills, create efficiencies, and then grow if the market is there.

One thought on “Farms with a Future Decodes Farm Success

  1. Seems to me we are not marketing “local” or “sustainable” because all sorts of farms of all sizes can accomplish that so what Rebecca is describing is how to sell personal service. Isn’t that what her customers drive so far for and pay so much extra for? We are selling the story, the sizzle. Rebecca confuses who really profits from selling “fluff” — it’s not Walmart, who sells the actual product…it’s us who profits handsomely from selling the happy story along with the actual product. Just a nice welcome bit of “fluff’ only we direct marketers can sell convincingly. That’s how you grow a small farm.