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So many eggs, and so many buckets…

By Pamela Monnette, small farmer in Oregon

I write this the day after Christmas, after coming back inside from sweeping the greenhouse of snow and surveying the damage on our low-tunnels. The tunnels don’t look good but at least the greenhouse held.

Many small, diversified farmers utilize season extension techniques over the winter in order to be able to sell a product during a longer period of time. But as a beginning farmer, I’m wondering if this off-season angst is worth the effort.  Is my off-season time perhaps better spent in a job influencing the policies and decisions made about how to allocate resources to our farming community?  Can I do both?  And maybe more importantly, how do I make a living from seasonal farming without burning out?

Extending the Season: Is it worth it?

I know farmers that have been up ALL NIGHT on Christmas sweeping off their high tunnels and greenhouses so that they don’t collapse. They were not able to cozy up with their families after Christmas dinner, watch the snow and work on a puzzle. It’s not a big surprise the farming life has its fair share of trials with inclement weather and storms taking out crops and infrastructure. But as a farmer, if that is your livelihood – you better be damn sure we’ll be out their sweeping snow off of high tunnels on Christmas night. We’ve worked SO HARD to put that crop in the ground at just the right time and continued to protect it for overwintering. We do this so that we can extend our season earlier by a month or two so that we can actually have some income during that time. This is all part of the reason of why local food costs more than your conventional super market produce. It take work and sacrifice.

Technology and production techniques have come a long way in agriculture. It’s allowed us farmers to produce more with less input. But sometimes I feel that we are fighting nature every step of the way of “extending the season” and there is a human toll. Especially, for small farmers who may only rely on their immediate family for labor during the off-season. As farmers’ profit margins get squeezed tighter, our “rest” time during winter becomes almost non-existent. Overwintering crops does bring sweet rewards in spring however – the stress of maintaining the infrastructure to protect these crops is high. But season extension is another creative way that farmers have been able to manipulate their climate and grow longer through the season. Additional income yes… but I liken it to asking my friend who teaches elementary school to work through the summer. I dare say she might slap me.

A seat at the table influencing policy and resources

To me so far, farming has been a serious game of risk and reward. How much money, time, stress, and sweat am I willing to put into this so that maybe I might get a slightly bigger pay-back. After ten years of working in agriculture with Oregon State University Extension Service, I am now a flower farmer in Willamette Valley Oregon. I also work a part-time job for a local food e-commerce company, Food4All. Two jobs that add up to way more than full-time during the height of the growing season. But so far, having that off-farm job has given me piece of mind and a stable income when farming can seem so volatile, especially in the beginning.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE farming and many of us wouldn’t have it any other way. We farm because we are able to connect to one of the most fundamental practices of human society. We farm because we feel that we are a part of the natural cycles of nature and not just a voyeur in a city high-rise. We farm because it gives our kids a sense of belonging and hard-work and they can see first-hand the joys of the first flowers to bloom. We farm because of the lifestyle- the quiet, beautiful unfolding that is cultivating life itself through plants. But in our modern society, just farming may not be enough for many of us to really thrive.

Farmers also have a super unique voice and need to be at the table when policies or decisions are being made about how to allocate resources to our farming community. Having part-time jobs within the farming landscape is a way for us to ensure that we are the ones influencing those decisions. There are many ways to have an impact within agriculture. Some have found success as social media influencers, many are involved in teaching about agriculture and others have found fulfillment working for non-profit organizations. Only farmers know what we really need and the only way to make those things happen is to be represented across the board.

Early year economics

So, why don’t we just raise our prices? Then we wouldn’t need that off-farm job and we could actually make a living from just a small farm. Many of us are farming in order to provide fresh, healthy products for our region and play a part in the local economy. Many of us are not shipping our products because we are trying to create local markets that are not reliant on fossil fuels. If we are close to urban centers, there are markets with high price-points that will pay us a fair price for our products. Build those relationships as much as you can! But if we are farming for local consumption especially in rural areas, our community may not be able to afford the prices that we need.

I am beyond thrilled that I can provide a beautiful product and farm experience for my community. I can take care of the land and ensure that it won’t turn into another housing tract. The work that we are doing is crucial to our ability to live on this planet. I am also comforted by the fact that even if my overwintering crops don’t make it through this latest storm – I can still pay my bills. Each year, we can make the decision to keep farming but know that if we fail one year, we won’t lose the house. The off-farm job has given me the freedom to farm without crushing stress or mounting debt as a new farmer. Because if I’m not able to enjoy the outrageous beauty of growing flowers for a living, something is wrong with this picture.

Now, I know that I don’t speak for every small farmer and families need to do what’s right for them. I just want to make sure that beginning farmers know that there are a few different ways to skin a cat. Especially if you are just starting out in farming, maybe try just dipping your toe in the water so to speak.

Here are some things to consider: Start by farming seasonal, without investing in costly season-extension infrastructure right away. Don’t take out loans in the beginning just because you can and they are marketed for farmers… instead look for cost-share programs or grants. Make sure that you enjoy the work and are willing to do that hard work day in and day out. Get a few seasons under your belt to ensure you choose the right crop enterprise that works best for your soil and climate. Get to know your market and start building relationships with customers and wholesale buyers. Rest when you need it and take any help that you can get!