I farm like I cook, always learning as I go

Tomato Galette_cropped

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…)

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…)

Building a business plan that fit our community

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

When coming up with our business plan, we put a lot of thought into what would work best in our community. While most of the country is a decade or more into the local food movement, it is just beginning to take hold here in eastern Kentucky. Two of the most common direct-marketing strategies—farmers’ markets and CSAs—didn’t feel right for our community or our farm.

When we were first making a marketing plan for our vegetable crops, there were a few small and inconsistent farmers’ markets around, but we didn’t want to depend on them for our income (although we do now sell at them some.) Will and his parents were already direct marketing meat through a modified meat CSA program, but as I created a marketing plan for vegetables, a CSA didn’t feel right either.

As a beginning farmer learning to grow vegetables on a new piece of land, I didn’t want to place myself under the stress that could come from striving to maintain the abundance and consistency that a CSA requires. I also didn’t believe that I could require customers to pay a large sum of money upfront in our area. Our region is one of the poorest in the nation, and I did not want to exclude community members by asking customers to pay hundreds of dollars in one upfront sum. Although I understand the sentiment of community support and solidarity behind farmers choosing which items customers receive each week, I also wanted my customers to have a choice in the items and amounts they purchase. I thought it would be easier to convince folks to buy locally via a non-traditional method if they were able to retain their purchasing choice.

After much discussion, we finally settled on a buying club model. Customers join our buying club and are then sent weekly emails with a link to the updated online farm store. Customers choose which items they’d like to buy each week, how much of each item, and then order online. After receiving the orders, we pack the produce, meat, and eggs and deliver to centrally located drop off points. (more…)

The next big thing – BOOTSTRAP AT OLD HOMEPLACE FARM

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

Will and I often throw out ideas for our farm while working; things that we can do right then, things that we can do next year, and big ideas for future years. In these beginning years of farming it seems that every year brings a few really big things to fruition. As the days grow darker and our weekly farm deliveries slow to twice a month for the winter, we work through our list of ideas and decide what will be the next big things, and we re-adjust our long-term vision. Our next big things are:

Farmer partnerships and heirloom cornmeal
We believe that farmers, even with different practices and farm types, can work together to increase financial sustainability and strengthen our farm communities. One of Will’s friends, Spencer, raises row crops about an hour and a half away. He expressed interest in diversifying his operation, and that conversation has given rise to a partnership. With his farm equipment and corn growing experience, Spencer has grown a field of heirloom flour corn. Will and I will take the corn, grind it, and sell the cornmeal. It is a profit-sharing model that we are interested to see develop. We also grew a little bit of our own flour corn in a different variety that we plan to experiment with.

Kentucky Agricultural Leadership Program (KALP)
I’m honored to be participating in this prestigious two year program. Will participated in the previous KALP class and says that he learned more during the program than during his four years of undergraduate education. I know this program will help me understand aspects of agriculture and rural communities better and will push me to be a better leader and better farmer.

Perennial crops 
We will be planting a small orchard and an asparagus patch. We’ve found that the wide range of products we offer (veggies, meat, eggs, and flowers) really play off one another and encourage customers to treat our farm as a grocery stop. We hope that providing even more variety in the future will increase this behavior among customers. (more…)

The bittersweet end of tomatoes: BOOTSTRAP AT OLD HOMEPLACE FARM

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By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

This September I’m feeling the anguish that comes with the end of tomato season. Tomatoes are synonymous with summer for so many people, and they seem to be a crop that draws customers to my buying club and to my market stand, where they will then buy other items as well. This September I mourn the end of the crop that has helped fuel my sales since Memorial Day, but that isn’t the only reason I’m upset this year.

maggie and cosmos_cropFor the first time in my life, I know the joy that eating a fresh, homegrown tomato brings! Those who know me well knew my secret: despite growing up in a family that grew around 1,500 tomato plants each year, I never liked tomatoes. I’ve actively been working to overcome my dislike for years, finding ways that I liked eating them (dehydrated and roasted primarily). This summer, however, I turned a corner and fell in love with tomatoes. I found myself wishing that I had to eat more meals every day for the express purpose of making more recipes that used tomatoes. I even found myself picking and eating tomatoes in the field. While slicing our last tomatoes of the season, I lifted the cut tomatoes to my face and breathed in the sweet, sweet smell of summer one last time.

Bittersweet this fall season is. Autumn brings cooler days, less humidity, and the knowledge that some rest is ahead this winter. Autumn also brings the realization that the main portion of my growing season is ending, and it is time to take stock of what happened this year. A week in my life on the farm is full of emotional highs and lows.

There are so many small (and large) moments of joy and wonder. There are beautiful flowers to be picked and arranged, and the first harvest of any crop brings a surge of happiness through my chest. Working outside during foggy mountain mornings is a treat; I’m pretty happy with my summer arm muscles; I always have my choice of homegrown vegetables, eggs, and meat to eat; and I’m my own boss. On the days that I can see a concrete task accomplished—a fence finished or a new section of field planted, I’m having a good day. Having wonderful conversations with satisfied customers gives me the best feeling. Recently, one of the local restaurants we provide food for hosted a special supper club meal featuring our veggies and meat. It was lovely to see our food prepared for a fancy dinner, and to enjoy it with community members we had just met. I love being paid for something I produced, while working with Will and building our farm for the future. (more…)

New capital for new farmers : BOOTSTRAP AT OLD HOMEPLACE FARM

Garden March 2015 crop

By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

The winter before we started the buying club, we counted twenty-two deer in my future vegetable field over the course of one night. I’m sure you can imagine what we chose as our very first farm investment. Will has an off-farm job as an elk biologist (yes, there are elk in Kentucky), so luckily he already had experience building deer and elk barrier fences. One-and-a-half years later, and we still haven’t experienced any deer damage!

I should back up to the previous summer. The day we decided to purchase land felt much more like a proposal than the day that we decided to get married a few months later. Our very first investment was a piece of land a few miles from Will’s parents. While we began farming with our own land, we don’t think that it’s necessary to own land in order to begin farming. This property ended up being right for our lifestyle and farming goals, and we were able to afford it without going into too much debt. (more…)

The veggie girl marries the meat man: Bootstrap at Old Homeplace Farm

maggie potatoes

By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

Some of my earliest memories involve playing in soybeans in the bed of a grain truck. I thought sliding around in the loose beans was the most fun a kid could have. My parents’ transitioned from raising row crops and running a small confinement hog barn to selling certified organic vegetables, cut flowers, eggs, and pastured broilers during my childhood. My parents instilled in their children that it was possible to make a living and a good life on the farm. They always paid us for our farm work, beginning when we were very small by paying us $0.10 for every little red wagon load of corn we pulled out to the roadside stand and stacked on the table. They strove to make work fun and would reward us with a swim in the creek after cultivating a bed of veggies or playtime in the woods after cleaning a set number of garlic heads. I don’t know how they did it, but their love for the land was transferred to us, and all three of their children are now farming as adults.

Growing up in rural Ohio, I loved my home, I loved my family, and I loved the farm, but I still felt the pull to see what else was in store for me. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have to attend college as the next step after high school graduation, and so the day after my eighteenth birthday I headed off to Earlham College in Indiana. A community service scholarship (Bonner Scholars) put me through college. By graduation I knew that my heart was called back to agriculture, and I accepted an AmeriCorps VISTA position with the Grow Appalachia program, which led to a full time position assisting gardeners in Eastern Kentucky. (more…)

Bootstrap at Old Homeplace Farm: Meet Maggie

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Welcome to our 2015 Bootstrap Blog series! Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to our four Bootstrap Bloggers, who are all in their first or second year of running a farm. Throughout the season, each Bootstrap Blogger will write about the highs and lows, glory moments and curveballs that come with farming.

 

I remember processing chickens on my parents’ farm and scowling. At sixteen, I sometimes resented the fact that I had to work on the farm, but these days I have only gratitude for my upbringing. Gratitude for the knowledge and love of farming that my family passed down to me, gratitude that I found a partner with the same passion, and gratitude that I made it into my second year as a farmer!

Maggie_with_Huge_tomato_cropI currently grow two acres of organic (in transition) vegetables in southeastern Kentucky. I sell my produce through an online buying club, at a farmers market, to our local hospital cafeteria, and to area restaurants. The Buying Club is a similar to a CSA, but modified to fit the needs of our area. Interested people join the Buying Club and are then sent weekly emails with a link to the updated online farm store. Customers choose which items they’d like to buy each week and how much of each item. After receiving the orders we pack the produce and deliver to centrally located drop off points.  In addition, I help my husband, Will, and in-laws with their livestock operation, raising pork, grass-fed beef, and lamb. Will and I own a 55-acre farm where I grow two acres of vegetables and we are currently working to finish the fencing and water systems in order to raise livestock there as well. (more…)