Well, I mentioned in the last post that although our family is relocating from Ojai to Maine, we are keeping a very active presence here in Ventura County through our online local produce store. I couldn't be more excited to have found a fellow farmer and entrepreneur to partner with me as we continue to grow what I consider to be a key component of the future of farm direct marketing. We put as much time and energy into developing the store that came to be known as Ojai Farmstand as we did into the farm itself. I'm taking some time in this post to walk through the concept and development of Ojai Farmstand since its founding five years ago, and what's in store for the future, along with my continuing role in it.
As I've already mentioned, Joel Salatin was my primary influence and mentor in the few years leading up to the birth of our farm. There is a video that Dr. Mercola interviewed him for, and somewhere in that video I remembered Joel talking about the concept of selling products from local farmers through an online store. It sounded so clever, and the idea stuck with me. What was unique about this type of store was the local customer base. Joel sold many of his farm products online, but rather than ship them, he had his own local delivery route that did not go further than four hours from the farm.
A couple years later, I was volunteering my time at a farm three days per week trying to learn the skills I would need to start my own farm. I could see there was more produce growing on that farm than what the farmer was able to sell, so I asked him if I could try selling the excess. He agreed to the idea, and I started with just an email list of friends and family and did deliveries in my pickup truck. The first week we only had tomatoes and peppers to offer, but I made several sales and was encouraged to continue through the summer.
Within a few months, I was offering all the crops from that farm to my growing list of customers, approached a second farmer to offer his products, and created a website for customers to order from. Around the same time, we broke ground on our own farm, and added our farm products to the selection in the store
The next two years, we experimented through trial and error different ways to create an efficient, streamlined process that could take customer orders in, turn around and give those orders to local farmers, pack the items into boxes, and organize them into separate delivery routes. There were some weeks where we barely made it through, but every time something went wrong, we saw a new area that could improve the process. Our customer base was growing, and loyal, and I began to see the potential of an online local Farm Market.
In the Thomas Fire of December 2017, we were evacuated and suffered loss of equipment, crops and several weeks worth of sales on the farm. When the fire died down and we got back in town, we had to organize a plan to survive financially. We made an ambitious goal of adding 100 new customers to the Ojai Farmstand weekly list, and actually added 120 in a ten day period through a carefully planned promotional campaign.
At the same time, Deirdre and I were discussing the possibility of moving our family to Maine, for reasons discussed here. Especially after the new influx of customers, and the success we were seeing in Ojai Farmstand, I couldn't bear the idea of closing down the business, and telling our customers and farmers we would not be working with them anymore. I saw so much potential in this model to grow the local farm movement.
The trip we took in summer 2018 had a two-fold purpose. We were going to further explore whether we actually wanted to move to Maine. We also wanted to test the possibility of actually continuing to run Ojai Farmstand from the other side of the country, since so much of the management is done online and over the phone. Two months into the trip, we saw hope for this possibility, and I knew I needed to find a partner to make this happen long-term. Enter Mike Roberts, founder and farmer of Baby Root Farm in Camarillo.
We kept in touch over the next few years, and followed each other's farm progress with interest. I could tell Mike had the same level of passion for small-scale farm startups as I did. When I mentioned in passing over the phone that we were contemplating a partnership for Ojai Farmstand’s continuation, Mike pounced on it! We discussed it over the next few months, and ran a couple trial weeks from his farm location at the historic McGrath Family Ranch off Highway 101 in Camarillo. Starting January 1st 2019, we formally went into business together with Ojai Farmstand.
I can't convey strongly enough how much this new partnership is going to take Ojai Farmstand to the next level. Mike brings incredible energy, experience, and relationships to the table. He works closely with some other talented energetic young farmers at Baby Root Farm, Matt Palermo and Imlakesh Amor. What I was formerly doing by myself, we are now doing with a team! By moving our center of operations from Ojai to the McGrath Ranch, we are able to share use of their farm facilities and infrastructure. Being located on a historic Ventura County farm at the center of the county, right off highway 101 will enable us to source easily from more farmers, and reach more local eaters.
Mike and I both passionately want to see the number of young Ventura County Farmers entering the farm scene to grow. Our kindred spirit is largely centered around this common goal, spurred on by the fact that we both started farms from scratch in Ventura County around the same time. He grew up in Oxnard, I grew up in Santa Paula - historically two of the most agriculture-centric cities in the county.
To mark the significance of this new partnership, we made the decision to rebrand Ojai Farmstand as Farmivore.
Branching beyond the Ojai Valley communities and neighboring cities of Ventura and Santa Paula, we are taking steps to serve customers in other areas of the county. We want shopping from local farms to become normal and irresistibly easy. We are not shy about our ambitious goal of creating a different kind of food economy. We envision a system where buying directly from farmers is just as convenient (if not more!) and normal as buying from chain grocery stores.
We are only days away from launching a new customer drive with generous sign up incentives, alongside opening up new delivery routes in North Oxnard and Camarillo. If you're local, stay tuned -- more details to come shortly!
Now, I'm sure many of you are thinking it's a bit strange for a guy in Maine to be running an online store that serves a local customer base on the other side of the country! Well, I agree, and I want to take a moment to talk about this! It is a bit strange, and I would be surprised to learn that anyone else has ever done it! I didn't plan it this way, but this is where the circumstances and opportunities of life have led us. If we had not decided to move, we probably would not have sought Mike's partnership, and this influx of new energy, ideas and growth would never have happened.
It's an interesting world we live in, and lots of exciting things that didn't used to be associated with each other have been crossing paths in recent times. Author Allan Carlson has written about the “Curious Return of the Small Family Farm.” After outlining how agriculture has become increasingly industrialized since the 1930s and 40s, he notes that society is beginning to take an unexpected different direction.
“And yet, at this very apogee of the industrial farm, something new - and yet very old - seemed to be stirring within. Capitalistic farming appeared to be “pregnant”: neither with some newly bio-engineered chimera nor with the latest super-machine, but with a new agrarianism, a humanistic approach to agriculture that would reattach people to the soil. The farming future might not lie with the consolidators, speculators, and agribusinesses. Rather, it might rest upon the resurrection of a family-centered agriculture.
On the surface, this would seem to be perhaps the least feasible of twenty-first century possibilities. All the same, land-use expert Eric Freyfogle has enthused that ‘agrarianism is again on the rise’ and that ‘agrarian ways and virtues are resurging in American culture.’ Oddly, there is evidence to back up these claims.”
The phenomenon of the aging farmer is ubiquitous nationwide. The declining number of farmers is likewise a problem in every state. To a certain extent, we are all in this movement together. This becomes most clear at those awesome events where small and family farmers from across the country come together for a conference or workshop and share information, camaraderie and experience. I've been at some of those gatherings, and they are powerful. It makes you realize that although much of the action happens locally, this is a national cultural movement, and it is gaining traction with my generation. It is unbelievably inspiring and energizing to come together with like-minded farmers for a couple days, share experiences, then high-five and go back home with renewed energy to make it happen.
As we come together to communicate what's working and what isn't working, the more we connect and share, the more we all grow and celebrate this agricultural movement as fellow Americans. We celebrate our common agricultural heritage, adopt the best of it, and move on from its more regrettable aspects.
My overall point in mentioning all this is that I want to see this move as an opportunity for new connections and growth, and not as a betrayal of the “local movement” which we celebrate. I can understand the concern some might have that this business is going to have an “absentee owner” or “become too corporate.” Rather then getting up on a local food soapbox and preaching ourselves into isolation, we need to keep focused on the needs of small family farmers and think innovatively about what will cause a farm-centric food economy to thrive and grow. Joel Salatin does not apologize for being a capitalist and building his farm into a 2 million dollar business, and he shouldn't! The success he enjoys reflects more acres placed under regenerative agriculture, more customers eating healthy food, and more power to reach and train and even partner with the farmers of tomorrow. People who rail against him for being a “capitalist” or “businessman” miss the point and don't do the movement any favors.
History provides plenty examples of social trends that react strongly to a certain situation that is repugnant for one reason or another. The local food movement was a reaction to the nationalization and depersonalization of food, the decline of the small family farm, and deterioration of rural culture. It was a healthy reaction, one that intuitively realized industrial farming does more long-term harm than good. We need to keep our eyes fixed on the goal though, and in my opinion the primary goal is thriving farmers able to support their families and steward their land well. We shouldn't be supporting local for local’s sake, but for the farmer’s sake!
Simply because one farm is 5 miles from town instead of another at 10 miles does not mean that the farm 5 miles away is “better” because it is “more local”. “Localness” is not the only factor we should consider when choosing to support a farm. The conundrum which the local farm movement is going to have to face is the fact that most farms are in rural areas, and most eaters live in urban areas. The areas that tend to have the most farmers, also tend to have the least people living nearby. What does this mean for the local food movement? Does it only help farmers that live close to cities? Are farmers in highly rural areas just doomed? Or should we be finding ways to get their products efficiently to where the people are, and in a way that doesn't lose them in the labyrinth of shippers and distributors that don't give a hoot for who the farmer is as long as they can sell his product for a profit?
My vision for a local food system leans more in the direction of “farmer direct” than purely, strictly local. While I firmly believe every region should look primarily to its own farmers for sustenance, a certain amount of transportation and shipping of food products can be necessary and beneficial to certain farms. It is hard to make a living farming in today's world, and as a matter of fact it's always been hard. Since the earliest days of American agriculture, farmers did not only satisfy local markets, they all grew some form of “cash crop” which was shipped away and kept the farm afloat economically. Historically these crops were tobacco, cotton and wheat. The earliest American farmers grew tobacco and shipped it back to England, and that was how they made their money. If we are truly honest about wanting to support farmers and see them thrive economically, we can't demonize them for sometimes taking advantage of distant markets that are willing to pay them for their goods.
In this context, I'm excited to think about the possible connections between California and Maine. Modern urban society has taken most of the people and most of the wealth out of rural farm communities, and crammed them into cities, with plenty of it being crammed into California. California cities certainly have some wealth that could be shared with America's rural communities in the form of more direct sales. That's my kind of wealth re-distribution! I say it's high time to begin reversing the urbanization trend, and find ways to let wealthy urban areas send their money back to impoverished rural farm communities. Farms in rural areas are already sending their products into the cities, so why don't we find ways to do exactly the same thing but actually pay them a fair price by not making their products change hands 10 times before reaching the consumer? That's a noble and realistic goal. And plenty of local markets can be created alongside and in conjunction with more farmer-direct commerce.
Perhaps we will eventually find shelf-stable, regionally specific products like maple syrup produced in Maine and provide those growers with additional markets in California. We could support those growers in the same direct way and tell their story to our customers. Let's just admit it, most of us here are already buying maple syrup from outside California, right? I believe this is the type of arrangement we all need to be open to, as the Family Farm makes its curious return, and finds new ways to support itself in a modern economy. I don't know what it will look like in 10 or 20 years, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if something helps farmers and encourages proper land stewardship, I'm going to make it happen.
I really encourage everyone to see this as something we are all in together, and something that can bring people from very different walks of life together. I get excited to think about working with farms the whole country over, and finding ways to build a robust, personalized network of thousands upon thousands of thriving family farms. Wouldn't that be cool?! I can appreciate the novelty and irony of running a local farm store from a distant location, but if we don't think outside the box, how are we ever going to make real progress? My partnership with Mike is one of the most encouraging opportunities I've stumbled across. Cheers to finding unconventional solutions to everyday problems. Let's get this done together, one way or another, one bite at a time
My last post discussed some of the big picture reasons we decided to move to Maine. Most people we talk to presume we are going to Maine to farm, and that is correct. But the path we are taking to reach that point is different from what most people are expecting. This post explores some of the things waiting for us once we move and how farming plays into the (not-so-immediate) future. And why this is the best way to do it!
Farming is not an easy business to get into, and one of Joel Salatin's wise pieces of advice to new farmers is “Bloom where you're planted.” He specifically says that even if you live in an area with high cost of living and land (like we do), you are better off starting in a place where you have connections than by moving to an area with lower cost of land and starting from scratch. We took that advice to heart 6 years ago when we moved back home to California from Kansas where we lived briefly while Deirdre finished college. We knew we wanted to farm, and this was where we had all our childhood connections, and those connections certainly began to pay off two years later when we actually started the farm. They helped me find my land lease, my volunteer and educational opportunities, my first customers, and my first farm job.
I've mentioned before that we encountered resistance when we used to speak about our desire to farm. I've realized over the years that what people had in mind when I said that was substantially different from what I had in my own mind. I saw pathways to get from where I was to where I wanted to be that were not obvious to the people who thought my ideas were unrealistic. Living constantly with my own thoughts, I can begin to take them for granted and forget that some of them are actually pretty unconventional. Writing posts like this gives me the opportunity to explain more of the details involved in some of the decisions we make that often strike others as risky or foolish.
I just went back now and reread the first blog post I ever wrote. I wrote it in late 2014, a few days before signing the lease for the property we farmed the last four years. This post feels like a flashback to that one, and I'm revisiting some of the same themes I touched on there. It's a flashback because I wrote that post at the dawn of my first farm adventure. Now I'm writing this one at the dawn of our second.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been exposed to the ideas of “You Can Farm” by Joel Salatin before I ever broke ground on my farm. Among all the authors and speakers I have studied in the small farm world, I still consider Joel to be number one when it comes to unstoppable energy and enthusiasm and an uncanny ability to find unconventional ways to get things done.
Once you read one of Joel’s books, or listen to a few of his talks, you start to realize how his brain works. He doesn't think along conventional lines. He doesn't care what people think of him, and has no problem doing things that look weird. He is a self-described “Christian Libertarian Environmentalist Capitalist Lunatic Farmer.” You can tell he gets a kick out of defying conventional paradigms and breaking out of cliche camps. The “Lunatic Farmer” who started with a one-room attic apartment and no capital has now turned his family farm into the most fertile, productive farm in his area. He built it into a two million dollar business.
Joel is a true leader in the group of farmers that have come on the scene in the last couple decades demonstrating alternative ways to farm and helping guys like me get into it from the outside.
I have absorbed many of his ways of thinking by osmosis, but I have to remember that many people consider him a lunatic. When I told people I was going to farm, they didn't know some of the liberating things Joel and others taught me. To mention just a few:
It's that last point that is most relevant for this post and the next chapter in our farm adventure. Most people presume we have already found a farm in Maine, and bought it, and are off to start farming immediately. Wrong!
In the spirit of following Joel's advice, “Bloom where you're planted,” we are going to plant ourselves firmly in Maine before attempting to bloom as farmers there. We are not naive, and realize starting a farm in a new area and harsher climate is going to need to happen in stages. I am just as excited about stage one as I am about the farm we will own someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, but I'm willing to accept whatever comes as the adventure unfolds. Stage one is taking at least a full year off from commercial farming in order to focus on the following priorities.
Unless you are independently wealthy (not there yet), economics are a limiting factor on where you're able to move and what you're able to spend your time doing. Deirdre and I got married with huge dreams and no money whatsoever, and knew we would have to be creative and flexible to support our family without letting all our time be consumed with working jobs we didn't enjoy. Since our wedding almost eight years ago, we have made money by farming, our produce distribution business, musical performing, teaching music and dance, working for other farmers, teaching reading classes, teaching college classes and working as a freelance student recruiter. We had to be flexible, and we still do.
To support ourselves economically as we make this transition, we'll still be drawing from multiple income sources. I took a half time job at the parish we are joining as their director of Parish Social Ministry. It feels strange to be working for someone else again, after being self-employed for 4 years, but I am very excited about this job. Not only will it be an economic support, it is going to introduce us to so many members of the community we are moving into. I'll be working within the church itself, and with other community leaders to minister to the needy. If taking this job sounds random to you, then you don't know Deirdre and me well enough. I'm saving the details about this job for another post, but this ties right into our dreams.
Our other income source is actually going to continue to be the local farm distribution business we started five years ago right here in Ojai (Ojai Farmstand). Since we use online software to sell to our local customers instead of a brick-and-mortar store, we have some flexibility built into the business. We experimented this past summer by continuing to operate our weekly produce delivery while gone for three months. We were already hiring delivery drivers and a crew to pack orders, so now we just needed to add a manager to coordinate them, and receive produce from our farm partners. I was still placing orders, updating inventory, communicating with customers and other admin from Maine over the internet and phone. It worked surprisingly well, and we were testing to see if it were even possible to think about doing this long-term from Maine.
Now, I know it's probably sounding a little weird to be running a business that sells produce from local farms to local customers from the other side of the country. I'm also saving these details for another post, but it's going to happen. We re-founded the business this year as a partnership, owned and operated jointly by a fellow farmer and entrepreneur in Camarillo. Mike Roberts of Baby Root Farm is very excited to be working with us in a dynamic partnership that is going to take this business and use it to connect more local farmers with more local eaters. We poured at least as much energy into building this business as we did into the farm, and it would have been really sad to have to walk away from it completely and stop operations. Our roles in the partnership willl gain clarity over time, but essentially Mike will be running things on the ground, and I will be freed up to focus more on our online presence and functionality, and other administrative tasks which can be done at a distance. I can't convey enough how excited I am about this partnership. We will definitely be writing more about this in the months to come.
So, that in a nutshell is what awaits us in stage one. The farm is our goal, and we will have it, but we are going to take the scenic route to get there. And definitely the road less traveled...
The college recruiting job I worked for a couple years after returning home gave us some opportunities for paid travel for work. We incorporated some visits to friends who were farming, which was the immediate inspiration for us to get going ourselves on our own farm. This photo was from Summer 2013 -- one year before starting to farm.
Deirdre's fiddle teaching brought in money as we transitioned from employment to farming. She tapered back on the number of students she had once we had two kids, but she still has a handful of students, and will presumably teach a few in Maine as well. It makes some money, keeps her playing fiddle, and it's rewarding to see others learn how to play.