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.