Hi Folks, Max writing. As the weather finally begins to cool off here, our summer crops are winding down. Siobhan and Declan enjoyed picking some of the last tomatoes from the vines in front of our house, and we are saving the best ones to sell, and making tomato sauce out of the rest of them. We're also picking the last of our eggplant and basil, and it looks like the zucchini will hang on for a bit longer. We did a much later planting of zucchini -- it was a gamble, but it has stayed warm enough and it is paying off now!
One big change for us going into the fall is that for the first time, we are having a wholesale nursery 40 minutes down the road start our fall/winter crops for us. Up until now, we have grown all our own transplant starts ourselves, with varying levels of success. Even when all goes well, it is one more thing to do around the farm, and we are delighted to be paying the nursery $13 per flat of plants, and they show up to our farm in perfect condition. I no longer have to drive out to farm 2x per day including weekends (plants don't stop needing water on the weekend!) just to water the transplants. I simply supply the seeds to the nursery, and then leave them in the hands of professionals, who have the perfect greenhouse setup, and then I pick them up when they are ready. It's been a huge time saver for us, AND we now have increased yields because of high transplant quality.
About a month ago, we transplanted out romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, salanova lettuce for salad mix, spinach, kale, and green onions. We are now harvesting large amounts of all those crops! We are so excited to have fresh greens again, other than arugula, which grows quite well through our hot 100+ degree summers.
A couple weeks ago, Diego Footer from Permaculture Voices spent a whole day with us on our farm, and also driving around with me to all the other farms we partner with to offer produce in Ojai Farmstand. He got a lot of video footage, and just published the first in a series of videos about our farm. This first video is fun, because it tells the story of how we got started 4 years ago, and it didn't happen the way we might have thought! It all started by getting up one morning and driving down to "Rancho Del Pueblo" a 10 acre organic farm nearby that had some volunteer days, and I wanted to get my hands dirty, and gain some experience and connections. The rest is history -- watch Diego's video below to see it in person, filmed on site at Rancho Del Pueblo!
Max here... Just today, Diego Footer from Permaculture Voices, and Curtis Stone from The Urban Farmer published a video discussing 10 farmers to pay attention to. I was stoked to see Ben Hartman on the list whose book "The Lean Farm" has totally revolutionized the way we see and organize our farm. Richard Perkins and Connor Crickmore are two more farmers we have enjoyed following and learning from, through Diego's podcast, and the recently published video "Gracie's Backyard." I need to look up the other farms to learn more about them, except one that really surprised me...
I was completely surprised to see our farm on that list! Thank you Diego and Curtis for the good word, and that motivates us to work even harder to create a farm and business worthy of the recommendation. If you watch the video, fast forward 31 minutes to hear them discuss our farm and webstore.
Hey Folks, Max and Deirdre writing together here...
A few weeks ago, we took an amazing trip with the whole family to Maine. Back in March, our good friend and band member Margaret asked us if our band Hidden Fifth wanted to play a concert as part of a Catholic Rural Life Festival being organized by Fr. Paul Dumais of St. Joseph's Catholic Parish in Farmington, Maine. Although we hadn't played a full theater show in 4 years, we were up for the challenge, and said yes! Boy, are we glad we did!
The Festival spanned 4 days of amazing events from Sept 14-17. Fr. Paul described the event as a "Conversation on Nature and Grace" bringing together Catholics to both reflect on the ramifications of our faith on rural living, and to celebrate that life fully. One good way to describe it was a combination of a spiritual retreat, and a grand celebration of rural values such as food, farms and folk music and dancing. The festival combined common prayer, classes on homesteading skills, lost culinary arts, common meals, talks, presentations, contra dancing, and our concert.
Upon arrival, we were hosted at the beautiful Morrill Farm B&B in Sumner, ME. The B&B is on a working farm with dairy, pastured broilers, and a beautiful farmhouse and barn from the 1700s! The Family has also built their own private chapel on the property, and part of the festivities for the weekend took place there, including a procession through the fields, and blessing of the fields and barn. We got an extended tour the first morning, and were enthralled by the beauty of the farm, and the hospitality of our hosts.
We played our concert on Friday night for festival attendees and the show was open to the public. It was a fabulous evening of music and dance, and we don't know whether we or the audience had a better time that evening! We definitely want to play a show in Maine again! The venue was a beautiful old Church converted to a concert venue.
Saturday night we attended a 5-course farm-to-table dinner featuring food from 14 local farms! The parish provided free babysitting for the kids, who got to eat wood-fired pizza cooked on-site, homemade french fries and homemade ice cream from a local dairy farm. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to eat our meal without chasing kids around, and the nice ladies helping out commented that Declan really knows how to eat a lot of pizza! Since we don't generally feed him pizza at home, we guess he figured he had better stock up! We have no doubt that Siobhan took advantage of the quantity of pizza too, and the fact that Mom and Dad weren't in the room to curtail consumption.
The dinner was followed by a contradance, and we danced every single dance. Deirdre started out by wearing Declan on her back, and then when he fell asleep (we had some late nights that trip!), we put him down on a lambskin in the hall, and kept on dancing! Siobhan danced almost every dance, and did a great job for a 4 year old dancing at 10 pm!
We were also excited to meet 4 staff members from the national non-profit Catholic Rural Life. We have been members of CRL for the last year, and it was exciting to talk to them about our farm, and new website www.youngchristianfarmers.com. They gave some great talks over the course of the festival.
It's hard to convey just how amazing of a trip this was for us. All of our life's passions came crashing together at this event. Folk Music + Farming + Faith + Community + Contra Dancing + Local Food + Beautiful Rural Nature + Traditional Skills + Stimulating Intellectual Conversations. We could not even soak up all the goodness that was happening there in the four days that we had. It inspired us to live out our values to the fullest, and we were so honored to take part in, and even contribute to the festivities. We could go on and on and on, but we'll let some of the photos speak for themselves.
We were inspired to reflect deeply on how our faith compels us to work hard to restore the rural family to the American cultural landscape. We encourage all our Catholic brothers and sisters to work for the same goal, which Pope Benedict considered an important need for our times. "The rural family needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of the social order." Even if we don't all live in rural areas, we all as eaters depend on rural families to provide us with our most basic life's necessities, so we are all in this together, and we all benefit greatly from a robust culture of rural living. One concrete way to do this is to become a member of Catholic Rural Life, which needs members like us to support them in their important work of ministering to these rural communities and building them up.
Deirdre here. I keep on wanting to post but life has been so full recently that I don't have time to even step out of it and talk about it. =)
My family has been rehearsing hours a day for a big show that we have tomorrow at a 5000 seat theater in Redlands, CA! On top of that Max and I have been rehearsing for a show we are doing with our band Hidden Fifth in Maine. The practices have been long but I am so excited because I have not played this much music in over 10 years (since my family recorded their last album in 2006)! It is so amazing to be playing so much! Over the last few weeks I have improved so much just by playing and putting the hours in! This experience has reminded me of the important lesson that in order to get good (or stay good!) at something, you have to put in the hours, and do it a LOT!
Last night, we played for a contra dance and usually my hands are really sore by the time the second half comes around but this time I was not sore at all! Loving it!
I am so excited to be playing so much again and am determined to keep it up! I often get frustrated at our inability to carve out time from our busy life to find time for music, but shows force you make the time, and Max and I are determined to keep it up. Max has even been brushing up his dancing for the shows. I want my fiddle and dance students to hear this, so they are encouraged to put the hours in and get the amazing experience of playing that much better!! :) Keep up the good work kids!
The video above is a shot from one of our many band practices at home getting ready for the show! My three young cousins are joining us on fiddle, cello and mandolin, Max is playing flute, and our good friend Margaret is playing guitar. We have had multiple 8-hour says of virtually non-stop practice like this! It feels so good to practice this much!
More home practicing... Our friend David joins us on the pipes!
My whole family playing for a contra dance in Santa Barbara. We almost never get all 5 of my brothers and sisters together for a Contra dance, but last night we did! It may be the last time in a while too!
My favorite podcast to listen to is Permaculture Voices, hosted by Diego Footer. Diego brings a variety of small-scale, permaculture-based farmers on the show. To quote from his website, his show covers:
"Honest, hard conversations about farming, business, and life with those trying to make a living doing something that they love and dealing with life in the process.
You’ll hear from experts who are far down their respective paths and people just like you who are starting out and making a go of it and learning as they go.
I’ll dive deep into each story, looking at the why and the how, leaving you with practical tools, tips, and techniques that you can put into use right away to be part of the change by doing your work.
Remember… though you may not be able to change the world, you can change your world, so go for it.."
A few months ago, Vancouver Microgreens grower Chris Thoreau called to ask if I would join him for an episode with Diego on microgreens. We ended up recording two episodes, one on microgreens and the other on our produce webstore business. The webstore episode went live this week, and part 2 featuring the microgreens will be published next week. I'm posting a link here, and following up with my comments and afterthoughts on the interview. The episode starts out with the story of how we started farming, and then goes into greater detail on the inner workings of the webstore business and how it compliments out farm.
The interview process was a lot of fun, and Diego is a great podcast host. I was honored to be on the show, especially after listening and learning so much from past episodes. I owe Diego a real debt of gratitude for the amazing archive of shows he has compiled, and I constantly refer aspiring farmers to his site. Diego's insightful questions helped me to go back and think over our whole business, and having to explain it all to someone else help clarify the business in my own mind. I hope you enjoy the show, and if this is your first time listening, definitely check out his impressive list of past shows.
Listen to the Show here
My comments on the interview:
A few more thoughts on Diego's question of why I wanted to farm in the first place:
A huge part of it was that I wanted to follow my own dreams and forge my own path. I hated the idea of getting a job and working for someone else. I wanted a platform for creativity, and a farm sounded like the right place for that. This was something Deirdre and I really connected over -- we did NOT want to live life the conventional way. Not that we think it's wrong to do it that way, but we felt called to do something different. We both preferred putting up with the hardships and relative financial insecurity of getting a farm off the ground, to going and spending our hours working a job we weren't passionate about. We see our farm and farm business as a springboard for all kinds of ideas and plans, most of which are still in the incubation stage.
Also, something I didn't mention explicitly in the episode was the family aspect: we wanted to raise our kids on a farm. We wanted them to grow up with that lifestyle, and learn a good work ethic, and be connected with nature. A farm sounded like the natural place to cultivate those values. When we were kids, we both pined for a farm-style life, and now we want to create it and hand it to our children. Of course, we want to offer it with humility, and we will let them choose their own paths in life. But I really hope at least one of them catches the "farming bug" like we did.
Further thoughts on why I volunteered for free on a farm for several months straight.
Joel Salatin says in numerous places that anybody who is truly willing work will always be able to find a job. On page 44 of You Can Farm, he challenges anyone who says they want to farm to go out and work for a farmer for free. He asks whether you want to do that more than watch movies and hang out at the mall. If you don't want to do that, you probably son't have the desire to see it through on a farm.
When I volunteered, there were multiple motives. One obvious motive I mention in the show is that I wanted experience. But another motive was that I wanted to put myself in a place where I knew opportunity was bound to come up. I think this is key, and is a vital step for anyone wanting to start farming. Put yourself out there where opportunities are likely to come your way. Also, I knew, partially thanks to Joel, that if I was willing to work my butt off day in and day out, I would gain two things: stamina / self discipline, and I would stand out from the crowd. Working hard is not just something you do for your boss. Working hard benefits YOU, because you are building habits and virtues that will stay with you wherever you go, and whatever you get paid, if anything. I knew I would need that stamina and virtue on my own farm, so I was more than willing to put in the hours on someone else's farm FOR FREE, because money was not what I was after. Deirdre and I were both working part time, and that covered the bills, which gave me the luxury of being able to volunteer three mornings a week of my time.
Just as important though, was making myself stand out from the crowd. I made a goal that I was going to push myself to the limit, and show the farmer that I was more serious than the rest of the crew. I tried to weed faster, harvest faster, show up early, stay late, offer to come on other days etc... I knew that if I did that, opportunities would be more likely to come my way. I didn't know what they would be at the time, but multiple opportunities did arise as a direct or indirect consequence of my volunteer time.
Further thoughts on a loyal customer base:
I mention in the episode that while starting the webstore, the most valuable component we were building was the customer base. Our customers are just AWESOME, and Deirdre and I have a real relationship with them that most businesses don't get. Having that personal touch not only makes the whole exchange far more pleasant, but it has even come back to benefit us financially too.
One amazing example from earlier this year:
We needed to borrow around $6000 this past spring for production expenses. We had just gotten a big increase in customers for the webstore, so we needed to buy a lot more packing bins for delivering orders. On top of that, we needed to get lots of plants in the ground, including our summer stuff like tomatoes, eggplant and squash. We needed to buy fertilizer, seeds, compost, and other supplies. We turned to our customers, and asked them if any were willing to pre-pay us for webstore credit, which they could redeem weekly as the season went on. Within 2 weeks, we had $6000 sent to us, and we never had to knock on a bank door. No interest, no forms, nothing but friends coming through for us. It warmed our hearts, and you better believe that when we get really successful as this, those customers are getting a special thank-you. Their money went straight into local production in their own community, and we were spared the hassle of getting a loan. We were able to pay them back over time with product, rather than cash! Incredible. And it was only possible because our customers knew us personally, and trusted us with their money up-front.
Regarding our software choices:
I didn't mention this on the show, but we have been considering lately using a more standard web store service, rather than one of those ones tailored to small farmers like Member Assembler or Farmigo. The main reason is that most of the "farm-specific" features are catered toward a CSA farmer. We started out with a CSA side of our business, but are leaning more and more toward a more "store" based business. We are beginning to think that a standard store host like Shopify might serve our needs better, but that remains to be seen. More on that later! ...
A few changes to how we run the store:
Even in the few months since recording the show, we have switched gears on a few things in the store. We got a third driver, so I am doing very little of the actual deliveries myself. Eventually, I don't want to do it at all, because I think my time could be better spent on other aspects of the business, and on the farm itself.
We also no longer use the spreadsheet system I mentioned. Having switched the way we pack orders, that spreadsheet is no longer necessary -- a great benefit to that system over and above the other improvements I mentioned in the show.
We also no longer go to the Tuesday Farmers market to buy product, and we don't pack at night any more. Both were a huge stress on me and the whole family and crew. We didn't finish some evenings until 10 pm, and that was after being up at 5:00 am to start. As the number of orders grew, it became harder and harder to pull my cart through the busy market to collect items. The market's afternoon schedule was what required us to pack at night, and if I was delayed at all at the market, or in traffic coming home, the whole evening got pushed back. Very stressful!
NOW, we only pick up directly from farms, and that is a lot faster. We also start picking up items on Monday, and store them in our home-built walk in cooler over night, to take some of Tuesday's work off our shoulders a day early. The downside is that I have to order more items by the case, which can be tricky sometimes, and I also had to drop a few items we were carrying. It's not perfect, but for the time being at least, it's a way better system for us. If we get burned out doing it, the whole business will suffer.
I may come back later with more after-thoughts, but that's it for now. Enjoy the show, and check back next week for part 2.
Here's the show link again
I love it when I can do jobs with my kids that they can actually help with!
Hi Folks, Max here.
A couple weeks ago, we started filming short little videos of different things on the farm to help stay connected with our customers at Ojai Farmstand. I realized that the videos will also be a nice addition to the Blog. So, we will be incorporating them here as a "Vlog" aspect to the Blog. (Vlog stands for Video Blog.) The video below is the first one we made a couple weeks ago, and I just explain the idea. We'll show different parts of the farm, and what we're doing there, and also just talk about different things we find interesting.
Hi Folks, Max here. It's great to be sitting down to write again, it's been a while since I felt like I have time for this. The girls are napping on this warm summer Saturday afternoon, and Declan for the moment is keeping himself entertained to give me a moment for writing.
The last several months have been packed with farming, and they certainly have not been without their challenges. I was struck recently with the thought that in our enthusiasm to start this blog, we have focused mostly on the glamour, and haven't talked much about the challenges. I am a very positive-thinking type of person, and I certainly don't like giving off a negative vibe, and I think that was one of the factors that we haven't mentioned the hard times up to this point. But I has some thoughts recently that I want to share with you which lead me to open up a little bit about the challenges as well the fun stuff.
1. First of all, challenges don't have to be negative. It's all about how you choose to see them. This is something our good friend and wisdom-guru Brian Johnson has helped us to see in the last 6 months. Brian makes his living by publishing amazing material that helps people live the best version of themselves, and his advice is stunningly helpful. Two of his insights in particular have been life changing for us: "win or learn" and "anti-fragile" or "the obstacle is the way."
Basically, Brian doesn't ever lose in life, and we don't have to either. He wins or he learns. What many people see as a "loss" Brian sees as valuable data. When things take a turn for the worse, we can take that experience and learn from it for the better. That's how I want to see life! I'm not gonna be a loser!
"Anti-Fragile" means that we aren't just tough, we go one step further. We take obstacles and challenges, and actually turn them into opportunities! When something doesn't go our way, we don't despair. We find a way to take that unexpected circumstance into an opportunity to make us a better person. If approach set-backs with that mentality, something which we thought was an obstacle can turn out to be the means by which we grow closer to our goal.
2. Second, I am a regular listener to Diego Footer's great podcast "Permaculture Voices." Over the last several years, Diego has complied an incredible amount of information in his shows for aspiring and practicing eco-farmers. Two things I appreciate about his show are the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes the need for permaculture-based farms to run themselves as businesses, and he also has no fear talking to farmers about the hard sides of farming, whether that be grueling work, hard start-ups, crop failures, family struggles etc... A regular listener of Diego's show certainly knows that farming is not all romance, and that is really the truth.
So, both those thoughts gave me the desire to share both the challenges and the good times, because we won't be painting an accurate picture of "First Steps Farm Life" if we didn't. We wouldn't want readers of this blog to think that starting this farm is easy. We want people to know it is entirely possible, and we want to encourage others to do it too, but you better know what you are getting into first. Diego does a great job at that. I think we all know, or at least have heard of somebody who started to farm, and couldn't make it work, and gave up. I want to minimize those stories, and having the full picture of farming before starting your own farm can really help.
There are lots of challenges we could talk about, but the one I want to talk about now is fairly unique to our situation. I know that by writing this down, it will help clarify it in my own mind, and help me find ways to turn it to our benefit. In one word, that challenge is "commute."
Let me explain. We don't live on our farm, we live in a two-bedroom, 540 square ft duplex, in the middle of our town. We live on a residential street, with neighbors on all sides, and every day we drive 2.3 miles down the road, to a rural property outside town where we rent 1 acre for the farm. It takes about 5 minutes one way. Not a big deal, right? Well, it has a few consequences that present a challenge to our farm life.
1. First all, we don't get to live on our farm. Emotionally, this may be the most difficult and disappointing for us. Both Deirdre and I have this insatiable craving in our souls for rural living. We want to fully live the farm experience, day and night. We wanted to raise our children on the farm as a way of life, and have that be their home environment. Our home is of such immense importance to us, and we value so much making our home a beautiful, enriching place to live. We want to be able to throw that love and energy into our farm, but when home and farm are two different localities, we find ourselves torn.
Do we spend our precious time, money and energy into building a front-yard garden that will enhance our home, or do we invest those resources into productive beds on the farm, that will return a greater profit to make us financially stable? If home and farm were in the same place, this would not be an issue. Are farm would BE our front yard garden, and we would have the double incentive of knowing that we are making a profit, and beautifying our living environment at the same time!
2. Moving beyond the emotional pull, there are some very practical ramifications too. One is that we have to pay rent for our farm land, AND we have to rent an expensive urban home at the same time. That's a lot of money. We would be willing to live in a trailer on our property to save money while we get started, and that would have saved us tens of thousands over the first 3 years. Too bad it isn't legal, and our landlords like to stick by the rules! We are left with the bill.
A few months after starting the farm, we quickly realized that our 1 car was not enough. We had to buy a 2nd car, because while I commute 2 miles away to go farm, Deirdre needed to be able to get around too, including to go teach her Irish dance class once a week. We tried to do without for the first few months, but after wasting tons of gas and productive time dropping each other off, and picking each other up, and biking with a load uphill in the dark at the end of a hard day on the farm, we had to get the 2nd car. We found a great used van for $2600, but man, we didn't exactly have that lying around to spare! Now we have the cost of registering and maintaining both vehicles.
3. Another expense, whether we bought the 2nd car or not, is the commute itself. We usually end up driving back and forth 2-4 times round trip per day. That's 10-20 miles and 20-40 minutes per day, burning gas, and using our own productive time just to get there and back. Sometimes the trip out at the end of the day is just 5 minutes to turn the the swamp cooler off in the greenhouse, or switch a new line of sprinklers on. But that 5 minute chore turns into a 15 minute chore when you don't live on site!
4. That brings us to #4, which is that sometimes we just don't go out and do that 15 minute chore. At the end of an exhausting day, with cranky kids at 9:00 pm, getting in the truck and driving out to check the greenhouse does not sound like fun. There have been plenty of days that we decided to just leave things the way they were, and then we come out the next day to to wilted plants that badly needed a shower the night before.
5. #5 is kids. If Deirdre and I were just a couple, this aspect of farming would not be nearly such a challenge. It's not too hard to jump in the truck and drive out to the farm with another adult. But once you make a decision that you want to this as a family, and you want your kids to grow up around the farm, then logistics get more complicated. The hat, water bottle and sandwich I would have grabbed for myself turns into baby carriers, stroller, diaper bag, 4 water bottles, snacks, books, baby dolls, and the kitchen sink. A 5-minute prep becomes a 30-minute packing routine. By the time you make it out to the car and get it loaded up, somebody has to go to the bathroom, or is crying because the car-seat buckle is too hot. The bottom line is that it takes a LOT more time to get out there with the family!
6. You can't have two sets of everything. With all the constant hauling stuff back and forth between home and farm, something often gets left behind in the wrong place. I use my tools at home and at the farm, and all too often, I forget that I left that wrench behind, and need to hop in the car to go get it.
That gives you an idea of what "commute" means in our context. Most commuters probably don't load their family into the car and take them to the office each morning. I admit, this challenge is definitely a unique set of circumstances!
On the flip side, here are some positives, and also ways we deal with it.
1. We came to this farming dream without any home or land to our name. By being flexible and willing to consider the commute, we were able to get started without owning anything.
2. If we lose our ag lease, at least we don't lose our home!
3. We get the advantages of living in the city, like parks, easy shopping and community, and have a private rural spot outside of town!
4. We live only 2 blocks away from our downtown weekly farmers market. Being able to run the kids home mid-morning for a snack and bathroom break is a huge advantage over growers that have to drive to get there.
5. Sometimes getting away from the house and kids lets me focus on farm work without family distractions.
There are several ways to cope with this handicap and make it more workable.
1. Most importantly, better planning ahead of time. Know what you need, pack it up first. Plan what needs to be done, and get it done all at once, so you don't need to drive out again later because you forgot.
2. We bought a timer for our sprinklers which we can set to turn on and off at a certain time. We still need to open up the right lines manually, but at least we don't need to drive out to turn them on AND off every time.
3. Some days I just bring my lunch out with me, and don't come home until the end of the day. That is hard, because I miss my family, and one of the main reasons I am farming is to spend more time with them. But some days, it just has to happen, and it helps cut down on gas and time, and lets me focus with no distractions.
4. For the future, there are more things we could automate and get hooked up to timers. That is a goal for the future.
So, that's our commute! Finally, we know that if we can succesfully handle the management challenge of a farm-at-distance, we will be all the more equipped to set up a productive, profitable hometsead farm in the future. Remembering that we are building a skill-set now that will stay with us wherever we go is the encouragement that keeps us going when the going gets tough.
One final note: although this is a challenge, it is a necessary one for us if we wanted to start farming in our current situation. I would not want others to be scared away by this challenge, and if a distant farm is the only way for you to start farming, then go for it! Take this advice to know ahead of time what you will be dealing with, and take these as suggestions for ways to make it doable.
That's all for now folks. Until next time...
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!