Friday, June 14, 2013

‘Farms with a Future’ Decodes Farm Success

Farmer Rebecca Thistlethwaite and her family never anticipated that they would start a family farm, scale it 430%, and then close it all within six years.  But then, who would? Despite their farm's 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 allowed Rebecca to manifest the essential handbook for starting and running a sustainable farm business, Farms with a Future.

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

Not only does Farms with a Future get real honest, like Rebecca’s blog, but the book divulges farm dos and don’ts from a variety of farm types. Farms such as Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington, which grow and market heirloom grain varietals, share their discoveries over the years. And the dairy, Butterwork Farm, which is touted as “one of the most successful organic farmstead creameries in the nation,” is featured as a prosperous model despite the volatility of the dairy industry.

If you want to serve your community food, you will need to get business savvy to do so. This is one of the main take aways of Farms with a Future. Each chapter will get you started on various considerations such as accounting and infrastructure, but clearly each chapter could have been its own book. Just know going in that you’ll have to go elsewhere for additional reading on the chapters’ themes, but as it turns out, this isn’t a bad thing. Creating the right foundation for your farm is an essential beginning to your business and this book covers it all.

Rebecca opens by recounting how she and her family closed the farm to explore what successful farm businesses look like all over the country but is far from dreary – by the end of the book she and her family are taking what they learned to start a new farm. And this is great news. After all, we need more farmers to grow our country food, to be equally connected to community and land, and that can revel in the slightly-controlled chaos that is farming.

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

FJ: After reading your book, sustainability really takes on a new dimension as you include the farmer, local community, environment and economic viability in your definition. How have your thoughts of sustainability changed throughout your journey as a farmer and writer? 

RT: I first viewed sustainability just through an environmental lens until I had the opportunity to study abroad in Belize and do extensive traveling throughout Latin America in the 1990’s. Developing countries teach you that there is no separation of 'man' and 'nature', and that you can't have environmental conservation without addressing issues of power, poverty, land distribution, access to education, and other social issues. I also came back realizing that new models must be created here because sadly, most of the world tries to emulate First World consumerism and industrialization. The planet is doomed if everybody tries to live like a suburban soccer mom, to use the euphemism. We need more sustainable models- those are what I hope the rest of the world will emulate. Not our opulence, consumerism, and complacency.

FJ: 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?

RT: 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), and I have 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 & 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.

FJ: 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."
RT: 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, websites, videos, magazines, etc. but nothing beats good ol' 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, etc. 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.

FJ: 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!)

RT: I generally see women doing more of the marketing and sales, tending to be more social and friendly. It's probably a smart fit- you don't want a cranky male farmer sitting at your farmers market booth trying to sell anything. I see women really pushing the envelope on innovating – they are often the ones asking the questions like, 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 have more of an openness to learning.

FJ: You 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?

RT: 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, free family labor, etc. Yes, there are increasing numbers of farmers’ markets, so-called 'farm to table' restaurants, grocery stores with a 'locally-grown' section, etc. 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.

FJ: 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?

RT: 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 (sustainable)! I also think that more writers and bloggers like ourselves need to start asking hard questions of the stores, restaurants, manufacturers, etc. 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.

FJ: Now that you’ve landed on your new farm in Oregon, what are your plans for starting your business? How do you plan to find that work/life balance that didn't happen last time?

RT: Well first off, we are planning more of a glorified homestead than a commercial farm. We will sell a bit here and there, mostly within our little 500-person community. In my business plan I put together, one of my goals was that between my husband and I, we would not spend more than an average of .5 of our time on the farm activities (20-hours a week). That will help solidify our work/life balance. Sundays are fundays and we have three camping trips planned for the summer. We are going to get our irrigation system on a timer and never have more animals than a neighbor kid could not care for while we’re away for a few days. That is our threshold. We are also making the homestead a fun place to hang out so more of our social life can center around our ‘farm.’ We are making a disc golf course, installing a zip line over the pond, treehouse, guest studio, and maybe someday a nano-brewery! We are really inspired by authors Sep Holzer and Mark Shepherd, doing more of a permaculture model of annuals, perennials, animals, fish, mushrooms, education, and more. Our land really dictates that we keep things small and diversified. Half our acreage is in a pond and wetland forest, so we can't really do anything big even if we wanted to.

FJ: 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?

RT: 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, type of innoculant, etc. 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 peoples’ 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.

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

RT: 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- 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.

FJ: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

RT: "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.


  1. It's great to know people are making small operations work without in a sustainable way -- without toxic chemicals.

  2. I am so glad a friend recommended this link with this interview. I have started the business planning process for expanding my 1 acre hobby farm into a 10 acre production-for-my-community farm and sometimes I think I am crazy! I look forward to reading "Farms with a Future". Maybe while it's raining today...

    1. Good luck with your expanded venture -- although luck has little to do with it. Knowledge makes all the difference and, between your one-acre experience and your willingness to learn, I'll bet you do fine.