Evan and Rachel Gregoire run Boondockers Farm in Oregon.
Give a description of your farm and how you got into farming:
Evan: Our background is not too vast in terms of agricultural experience. Six or seven years ago we started to save seed and have plant in our front yard and about two years ago we finally made it full time. We started by getting ducks about five years ago because Rachel was trying to find a way to get rid the snails in her squash patches.
Rachel: We originally worked in restaurants. I worked in the back of the house and he worked in the front of the house, and we both had different experiences in the food industry. We were working for chefs at the time. After we moved up here, we had enough money for a big yard. We grew a massive garden and the chefs were jealous. So, we would bring them tomatoes, and we started expanding. We had friends that wanted starts and we really got excited about the varieties of tomatoes and had overwhelming amounts. So our friends would ask us, “Oh hey can I buy this off of you” and so our seed catalogue was born.
I was trying to grow squash and the snails waged war. It was late one night, I mean like really late, and I was asleep and he read about ducks as predators to snails and slugs, and obviously the fertilizer. And I had been complaining that I wanted chickens for eggs, and it seemed like the perfect fit. So early the next afternoon, we got in touch with Dave (Holdridge?) who’s the world renown waterfowl conservationist. He happens to be in Corvallis, and by noon the next day we had two, little ducklings.
Evan: We started and totally permacultured-out our yard, put corn in the front yard and someone told me about Master Gardener’s and I said, “what is that?” The local weatherman was a master gardener and everyone would go look at his yard. And I said, hey, I want to be a master gardener. So in 2007 I became a master gardener in Lane County, and still work with them. We lost the funding for the for the extension service in Lane County, so they had to dissolve the complete program. We’re trying to bring it back to try to bring the whole extension service back. So we can promote food security, to teach people how to grow their own food and preserve their own food. When they dissolved the extension service here, it was a real component of the community. The community just didn’t realize what that bond meant on the tax ballot. Certain communities just don’t see how food security is really important. We have a food justice conference in Lane this year, and we do an event about each week to promote seed saving and food security in general.
Our ducks are our main income source. We sell all forms of breeding stock. We got a grant from Animal Welfare Approved last October, and we bought a James Bray, which is a large aircraft looking incubator from the 1940’s. It holds 150 duck eggs per try and it has 15 trays. It’s the first year with our flock size increase from last year that we can actually produce enough hatching stock with the rare breed that we have.
Rachel: They’re still critically endangered, so we have the primary flock of them, and we only have like 100 females. We’ve worked really hard to re-popularize the breed. They’re really the central focus of the farm, is promoting them. We got the ancona breed by recommendation of Dave Holderidge. We put into his hands, “hey tell us what ducks you think we should have” and those two ducks procreated. It’s the perfect duel purpose bird for a small farm. They’re extremely prolific both with eggs and then are also decent for meat, they’re not huge, but the meat that they have is extraordinary quality. We sell meat and eggs. The chefs desire both, and also duck fat. And the chefs that we sell to, use whole birds because there’s a much smaller breast on these birds than a pekin or a muscovy, so these chefs that appreciate whole foods.
Evan: Using the whole animal, the feet and the head, the entirety, not cutting out anything. And they appreciate the freshness of the product and how local it is.
Rachel: And they highlight it too, they say “ancona” duck on their menus. That’s something we feel strongly about. We’re butchering these boys because they are ambassadors of the breed.
Evan: 80-90% of our sales is to restaurants. We have some local food co-ops . As well as Eugenelocalfoods.com is new software program that our friend is setting up.
The chef connection and really working with the chef is very important to us. It’s all about relationships.
We also grow heirloom squash and tomatoes, stuff that was kind of pre-1950. We collect stuff too, some tom wagner’s tomatoes, some of the new creations. But we really have an interest in collecting rarities and things that are in need of preservation.
I have a business degree in marketing and information technology, so what I do is kind of the back component. I put together the website and the marketing and all of the media by myself and with the help of some interns. And Rachel went to culinary school, so she’s the culinarian, So we use our two talents, in terms of our backgrounds to really focus on what we need. So you know, we needed ducks to get rid of the slugs, and now there’s a demand for duck meat, and there’s a demand for duck value-added products. We really love tomatoes, and love to grow our own food. The rarity of the products s really important to us because of the biodiversity that we are helping to foster.
Rachel: I think the farm in general, the way it ended up, we did in a sense stumble upon it. He thinks he stumbled upon it more than I do. I planned this more than he did. He’s a city boy and didn’t think he was going to be a farmer, but I had always planned on living this type of a lifestyle.
What difficulties have you had, or are you overcoming, and how?
Evan: Funding is hard. I hadn’t heard of all of the programs you mentioned. Essentially what it is, is it doesn’t fit the bill, or you haven’t been farming long enough, or something just doesn’t work out.
Rachel: I think one of the biggest reasons funding has been such a big issue for us is that we’ve had a lot of problems with accessing land and resources. We’ve had some serious setbacks. When we first started with our kind of home permaculture project, when we had the first to ducks, the landlord didn’t like the kind of permaculture we were implementing. Once we had seven ducks, it was kind illegal. The country talk show radio host of Eugene told us to move to the country. So we found a place in the country, but it was foreclosed on, and we didn’t know that.
Evan: And we didn’t know how bad the water was. We moved there three years ago, and the last three seasons we’ve been there. It’s been amazing to have three continuous seasons without too much interruption. We know how to approach landlords a little bit better now. We know what to look for, and how to be clear with our intentions.
Rachel: We’re renting acreage from a ryegrass farmer who’s renting that acreage, and the ryegrass farming is very conventional, and politically controversial. And that farmer ended up driving over half of our land with his roundup buggy. It’s been hard to find an environment that’s conducive to what we’re doing, which to me is shocking. When you put yourself out there and say this is what I believe in and this is what I want to do… We’ve had people say that there are people that will give land, but we’re not finding those people. Accessing land that is for intended to be used in the ways that we want has been a challenge.
Evan: I think the trust factor is big. People need to trust young farmers; there has to be some sort of equity in trust. We’re putting a lot of knowledge, time, passion, and effort and we’re going to take care of your land, we’re going to heal your land. We try to describe that to them, and that does help a lot. It’s also been a challenge to work with and alongside the neighboring farms that are not organic.
Rachel: Well because most farms now a-days aren’t really farms. They’re not functional. You go out to farmland, where the best soils are and where the best farms should be, but it’s not farms, it’s people that aren’t farming, and aren’t necessarily respectful of farmers.
Evan: As the community grows, it’ll get better. That’s the positive side of all this. Growing the community is so important, and we want to empower other people to grow their own food, and understand what we’re doing. That’s the most important piece, it’s the education, and the empowerment.
Rachel: and conversion of this wasted space back into active agricultural lands, growing food.
Have you made use of any Federal USDA programs? and What other existing programs have been useful?
The Master gardeners program, Friends of Family Farmers is a great program in Oregon. They have a farmer-chef collaborative that I have been a part of the last couple of years. Animal welfare approved has been a good program for us, for pasture-based farming. We got an Animal Welfare Approved grant last season. E –Dev a micro business program. We haven’t gone through this program yet, but as we start to write more grants, we are going to work with a grant writer from that program. There are programs out there, it just an issue of finding the time and money to get into some of the programs. People don’t think they have the right background for farming, but they do.
What are the important potential actions that should be taken to help beginning farmers?
Evan: Subsides, trying to get the subsidies out of the mid-west, and expanding some of them, or making some of them allowable for small farmers. Because even just small bits of capital are really helpful. Any type of available grant money, scholarship money. Like the EQIP grant. They didn’t offer it here last year. They just started it this year.
Rachel: A lot of the programs too, you have to own your land, or be there more permanently because they’re willing to give you money back for organic certification, energy efficiency improvements, and water conservation, but they’re not going to give you money if you’re renting.
This year was the first year that we didn’t have off farm jobs. We’re hoping that the seed company and the ducklings will bring in a lot of income in the next couple of months.
Rachel: We’re in the process of moving closer to Portland, and need to find new markets wherever we go.
Evan: But we know the markets, we’ve made a name for ourselves here, in Eugene and Portland. So people know us, and they’ll buy our product.
What advice do you have for other young farmers who are just starting out?
Rachel: Diversify and find a niche. If you go into the game with something unique, there are so many species that are in need of conservation, you can start there. We’re one of the only farms here that breeds. And the way I see it, if the farmers aren’t responsible for keeping breeds, who is? Start with biodiversity, something unique, something special, and market that and make it work.