Meet Harrison: “There was nothing to do but irrigate and start dating.”

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Welcome to the arid West! For the next six months, four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico will be blogging about their experiences with water access and explaining everything from what it feels like to clean a 400-year-old acequia to how they’ve learned to make the most of the water they have through conservation and crop selection. To help you understand the terminology around water access, we’ve put together a short glossary at the bottom of this blog post.

 

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Three years ago I made my first fruit sale from my family’s orchard in Colorado. It was my first year managing a fruit crop after years of farming vegetables for a CSA in North Carolina. That first year, friends, family, and community members assembled from across the state to pick and store ton after ton of plums and cherries. The crop was bound for a fermentation start-up business in Boulder, CO called Ozuke.

It was an unbelievable success for me as a first-year orchardist. And to make things even sweeter, our fermented plums went on to win an Alice Waters Good Food Award.

The next year I ambitiously leaned into preparations for the season, having learned more than a few lessons about perennial fruit farming, labor, water, and wholesale marketing. I was busy finalizing my organic certification, honing my irrigation system, planting understory crops, lining up reliable workers, and expanding my markets. But, on April 13th, with the trees in full bloom, I lost my entire crop to a spring freeze. I was constantly reminded of the loss every time I switched the gates of our irrigation pipe or walked from tree to tree looking for pests.

Topp_blossoms_v-croppedThere was nothing left to do but irrigate and start dating. I found myself taking every chance I could to leave our little town of 1,300 people and travel across the mountains to Denver, Fort Collins, or Boulder, a four-hour journey. The urban landscape was a good distraction. And better yet, I could use Tinder and Okay Cupid. I coined the term “farmer-sexual” and was beginning to suspect that I was the only one who fit that orientation.

But boy-howdy, thank you Tinder, because after about six months of swiping right, I met the rancher of my dreams, Stacia Cannon. Now we’re back on the western slope together. This season we’ve managed to entwine ourselves in some new and very unique situations. (more…)

I farm like I cook, always learning as I go

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

One of my absolute favorite pastimes is cooking. I recently realized that one of the reasons I like spending time in the kitchen is the continual experimentation and learning, as well as the satisfaction when I finally get a certain dish “just right.” I have become a much better cook than I was in my college days, and I often tell Will that my goal is to be an exceptional cook by the time I’m an older lady. Since it is a task I enjoy, I spend a lot of time thinking about it, looking up tips, trying new recipes, memorizing recipes I love, and learning patterns and methods so that I don’t always need a recipe to prepare a meal.

While washing the dishes the other night (and thinking fondly back to supper), it dawned on me that I love cooking for some of the same reasons I love farming. They both start out with trial and error and challenges that I can work through myself, at my own pace. I can gather information from experts, but then I get to try things on my own. I’ve become a better farmer over the past two years, and I know that I will do even better on the farm over time, just as I have become much better in the kitchen over the last ten years. Both activities also reward me with good food at the end! (more…)

Looking back at our whirlwind first season

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By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

As we head into our second year as a farm, I am amazed at what we accomplished in just one short year. I remember back to our first few weeks on the farm, when our main field was just a cow pasture; we had yet to put up a deer fence, hoophouse, or wash station; and were thick in the process of starting up a business.

When we got started in January 2015, I was often overwhelmed by the amount of work we needed to put in to turn our leased property into a production farm. The list of tasks seemed endless, and I was dubious of our ability to get it all done, especially on top of working our off-farm jobs. But with the help of our friends and family, we created a productive 1.5-acre plot that successfully provided for a 15-member CSA, two farmers’ markets, and multiple wholesale accounts.

Looking forward through 2016, I am thrilled to not be putting up a deer fence and buying all of our tools— instead I can put more energy toward planning, advertising, and fostering business relationships and new possibilities. We can also focus on our relationship with our team of horses; our goal is to not have to rent our landlord’s tractor for any field work this year. (more…)

My first year farming: the highs, the lows, and the future

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Preparing for this final Bootstrap Blogger post, I went back through my earlier posts and was immediately reminded of just how far we’ve come in a matter of months. The first few posts were all about digging fence postholes and scrounging for cash, and now we’re on to funny piglet stories and taking orders for grass-fed beef. When you’re down in the “day to day trenches,” it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of farm chores and forget to celebrate the mini-successes along the way.

I encountered a few “oh god” moments over the past year:

  • A barn-building back injury turned into lots and lots of doctors visits and physical therapy.
  • Juggling off-farm professional opportunities (income producing) with farm responsibilities (not yet income producing).
  • Budget cuts meant the loss of a contract employment opportunity that had been covering my farm expenses (forcing us to dig deeper in our already empty pockets).
  • It turns out piglets are Houdini-like escape artists.

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And I made some wonderful memories:

  • Sharing our farming story with half-a-dozen community groups and agriculture publications.
  • Feeling the pride of owning a self-funded (and debt FREE!) farm for a full year.
  • Joining Kansas Farm Bureau’s Ag Advocacy SPEAK team.
  • Sleeping in the barn when the piglets arrived (I’m pretty pumped about my piggies!).

(more…)

The greatest crop I’ve ever grown

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

The winter in south Texas isn’t a time to take off or slow down. Thanks to a mild winter, we are lucky enough to grow all 12 months of the year. Take that, California! Our winter is pretty much like what I think the rest of the country experiences during spring. Thanks to the mild weather, farmers aren’t the only people in south Texas who grow food.

More and more I meet people at the market who come up to my table and tell me they are growing everything I have, discuss growing notes, and leave without a purchase. While at times this can feel like a low point, I have begun to understand that the more people try to grow their own food the more people will realize the amount of effort and time that goes into growing crops, especially on a larger scale.

As gardening and homesteading continue to rise in popularity, folks will concede that battling farmers over the small amount of money we charge isn’t unreasonable. Being haggled for $1 is frustrating.

I recall meeting a guy in Jamaica last year—while on what seems like the last vacation of my life—who said something that really stuck with me. He was selling cheap, beaded bracelets for $5, which was more than they were worth. But I was in the buying mood, so I offered him $3. Dejected he said, “Man I’m broke, I’ll take whatever.” It caught me off guard. (more…)

More Old McDonald than Superman? A Day in my life

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

A Day in My Life I get up early—6 a.m.— and go for a quick run. I also print off lecture handouts and skim Wall Street Journal over breakfast (the digital version—it takes days to get the printed version delivered out here). Then I don a suit (but don’t bother with makeup) and pack my satchel with the days’ necessities.

My university classes start at 8 a.m. As a student, I wasn’t all that fond of early morning classes, and I can certainly sympathize with the glazed, “don’t call on me” looks my students’ project at the podium. After class, I skedaddle out to faculty parking and crank up my 20+-year-old pickup truck (it’s the only one in the lot with a hay spear and mud flaps).

hannah_barn_ladder_cropI shift gears from business professor to marketing consultant and spend the next few hours pounding out social media strategy for a client. I work through lunch and start client calls at 1 p.m. The beginning of the year is big in my business, so I’m hoping to land three more retainer clients. Maybe then I can start putting a “dent” in my student loans and building a savings nest egg.

At 3:30 p.m I swap the business suit for Carharts and cowboy boots. Hooking up my peeling stock trailer, I drive out to a rural farming community west of Bushong, Kansas, a Depression-era ghost town with a Cold War missile silo perched above the desolate remnants of the town. It’s a fascinating and eerie place—oh, if only these Flint Hills could talk…. (more…)

Here’s what I need you to know about farming

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

As I begin my third year as a farmer, I find most of my thoughts divided between two major categories: farming is really hard, and farming is really rewarding. But it might help if I break those ideas down a little more. Here are the top five things I want you to know about being a farmer:

1) Local food advocates often tell people to get to know their farmer, but it is really nice for farmers to know their customers as well. As someone who is direct marketing the majority of my products, it is a joy to meet the folks who eat my food. It is heartwarming to hear what customers are cooking with food I’ve raised, to learn what their favorite vegetables or cuts of meat are, and to know that their toddler requested more okra after being offered ice cream. I love knowing that someone bought an extra dozen eggs because he recently bought a pasta maker, and that he has perfected is mother’s pasta sauce. I treasure these moments, and these relationships.

I believe that I am often more excited about my regular customers than they are about me (I’ve had to stop myself from trying to hug a few of them after not seeing them for a couple of weeks)! If you are someone who knows your farmer, just know this—your farmer values you too!Will planting apples_crop

2) Farming is physically, emotionally, and financially difficult. Farming means long days; hot days; cold days; wet days; and many, many muddy days. Hopefully I’ll get better at delegating and time management as I grow as a farmer, but right now farming means that the words “weekend” and “evening” are not in my vocabulary from April-October. Farming means that during the main growing season, I probably won’t be attending any cookouts, I will not be preparing supper until after the sun has set, and I will be responding to emails and doing record keeping after 10 p.m. (more…)

Funding our farm: loans, grants, and a gamble

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By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm 

When Brandon and I decided to start Furrow Horse Farm last January, we knew we were about to spend a lot of money. We were moving onto leased land that had no infrastructure, and we needed to build hoop houses and put up a deer fence.

Since we had both been working for other farmers in the years after graduating from college, we didn’t have very much money saved, nor did we have inheritances or farmland in our families. We didn’t have so much as a wheelbarrow or a hoe. So how could we raise the roughly $10,000 we knew we needed to successfully start our farm?

We began by asking our family members for small loans. Most turned us down, as they did not view farming as a real business venture and did not think we could actually make any money growing vegetables. My parents, however, believed in us and have supported us all along, and they were willing to loan us money for tools and equipment.

Next, we applied for a Kiva Zip loan through the Greenhorns, and were approved. Kiva Zip Loans are crowd-funded, but the lenders are paid back every cent. And as borrowers we are charged 0% interest. Within 24 hours of posting our Kiva Zip Loan ask on social media, we were fully funded. We began making our repayments in August, and will be totally paid off within two years. At that point we will be eligible for a larger Kiva Loan if we choose to do another.

Finally, at the last minute, I applied for a grant through a private philanthropic organization based in Seattle that is dedicated to helping sustainable farmers in Washington, especially those with financial need. In my grant application, I wrote about our dream of farming with draft horses and reducing our use of fossil fuels on the farm. One month later, we heard back—we had been chosen for the grant! It was a total game-changer, and the only reason we were able to purchase draft equipment and our team of draft horses this year. Even better, we don’t have to pay the money back! (more…)

Our big goal: Giving back to veterans

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

It’s that time of year— a new year, new goals. For many entrepreneurs, the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a time to reflect and clarify goals. What have we accomplished? Where are we headed? What’s the best way to get there?

A quick recap of 2015
Willow Springs Farm has developed from a 24-page business plan to an actual farm. This time last year, I recall telling my husband that, “if we still own the land in a year, I’ll consider it a success.” Both of us have student loans, and we were building new businesses while working full-time in addition to farming. While the farm’s business model was pretty solid, its execution was hampered by multiple financing rejections and two failed crowdfund campaigns. Just seemed like the cards were stacked against us from the get-go.

After licking our wounds from a few setbacks, we revamped our business model, requiring customers to pay upfront for custom beef products. Such limited offerings narrowed our customer base but enabled us to purchase cattle and get the ball rolling.

Here’s where we’re headed
Having lived in the community a little over a year now, I’ve been able to develop relationships with area farmers and land owners. Our goal for 2016 is to grow our little herd to 20 head and enter a five-year lease with neighboring property owners for additional grazing land and water resources.

HannaWithGrass_croppedThe cool thing about this bootstrapped business approach (aka: not qualifying for traditional financing) is that we’re operating a debt-free farm. Have you ever even heard of such?! It’s slower growth, but it is super neat to own 100 percent of a business.

Our farm is located about 45-minutes outside of the Kansas City metro area, which presents a huge market opportunity for Willow Springs. Our current customers are mostly from our rural county, but we hope to expand into the metro area. There are several restaurants in the area that are always looking for additional local grass-fed beef suppliers. Theses restaurateurs aren’t able to order whole beef packages 12 to 16 months in advance; however, they have expressed interest in our products once we’re able to offer retail cuts. It’s exciting to see such expansion opportunities develop.

Double bottom-line
Giving back to our community has always been a “biggie” for us. As members of the military community, we’re keenly aware of the employment challenges today’s veterans and military spouses are facing. While unemployment stats and backlogged VA claims may just be news headlines to most Americans, they’ve been the overwhelming theme of our post-war life. (more…)

A day in my life: 15 miles and one noisy cat

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

A day in the life of this farmer can vary, but since I began farming full time, I wake up in a great mood. I can usually get a few giggles and smiles out of my pre-coffee, drowsy wife, a feat in its own right, I assure you. But I digress. I understand fully how blessed I am to live the way I was meant to, which undoubtedly correlates to my happiness as a human and as a steward of planet earth. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like—torrential rain, freezing temperatures, or Texas’s famous sultry heat—am always excited to go outside and take stock of things.

It may sound crazy, because I am here at the farm all the time, but getting up and seeing what did or did not happen during the night is interesting. Of course there will be days where staying in bed under the warm covers is more tempting than throwing on layers of clothes just to feed the animals, but it has to be done, and I don’t mind it. Ever.

My first breath of fresh air on the porch is always greeted by three waggling tails. The dogs are the first to know when I am awake, but they are always willing to wait patiently for my appearance. After they get some good pats, we all begin chores together with the two shepherds leading the way. These companions of mine are such pros at being farm dogs, they can show most humans how chores are done. As we walk toward the barn to get feed for everyone, our barn cat, who I unfortunately trained to meow to communicate with me, begins her attention-seeking behavior. So while I get the feed, I hear nothing but deafening meows. She only quiets down when I leave the barn area, so I hurry. (more…)