Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.
“It’s hard to do this year after year and to continually do without,” said Josh. “Like not be able to buy kids clothes. Take a vacation. Have time to be with my kids. Decide if I’m going to bathe, or eat, or spend time with my family, because I can’t do it all. But with the way things are going at the moment, the skill of our employees is alleviating a lot of the pressure that was on me. We even bought a canoe recently, and believe me, that’s been a big thing… just going to the lake and cooling down on the weekends.”
As Josh and Melissa have struggled and learned and grown through their first seven years of farming, Josh feels like they’ve learned a great deal – both about what to do and what not to do. So I asked him what advice he would give other folks who are thinking about giving farming a try.
“We’ve definitely learned that it’s important to have a partner who supports you,” he said. “Your partner doesn’t necessarily have to help you farm, but they have to be supportive of what you’re trying to do. And you have to return that support. You both need to be happy and fulfilled or in the long run, things just won’t work because there’s too much pressure.
“We’ve also learned that getting bigger is not necessarily the path to more money or a better return or a better quality of life. You don’t have to stay small to succeed, but you have to make the choices that work best for your operation. Like we discovered that wholesale doesn’t work for us. It actually puts a lot of small farmers out of business. That’s probably what would have happened to us if we tried to stay with it, but it was important to try it. You have to try everything to find out what works. Different markets, different crops, different varieties. That’s how you find out what works best for you.”
Another point that Josh makes echoes the comments I’ve heard from so many farmers… first and foremost, if you’re going to choose farming, make sure you love it. To help you figure that out, Josh recommends doing an internship. You could just get a job as a farm laborer, and you no doubt would learn a great deal over time. But internships provide more of a big picture educational component. You get a glimpse of the many different aspects of farming that just working in the fields doesn’t provide.
Barking Moon Farm typically accepts one intern each year from Rogue Farm Corps. According to its website, RFC’s programs combine hands-on training, classroom learning, and farm-based experience on family farms in Oregon’s Rogue Valley and the southern part of the Willamette Valley. ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is another source for both people wishing to be interns and farmers seeking help.
All of the tasks involved in farming, the growing, the marketing, the bookkeeping, managing employees, acquiring and maintaining equipment, it’s a lot to wrap your head around when you’re just getting started. That’s why Josh feels that any new farmer will have best chance for success if he or she starts small.
“It’s so important to start really small,” he said. “Partly because there’s so much to learn, but also because that makes it easier to diversify your income by having some sort of off-farm job, at least in the beginning. Farming isn’t going to provide a return very quickly, and diversity helps manage risk. Income diversity, as well as diversity in your markets and your products. What we’ve found really helps us is spreading things out. Unfortunately, this approach means there are no major wins, but there also are no major losses.”
In other words, stability translates into sustainability. And sustainability means making enough money to pay the bills.
“You know, a lot of people talk about being sustainable in terms of farming practices. And we do, too, but for us, first and foremost, we base our decisions on a model of financial sustainability. Because we want this to last. We love being here, and we love doing it. Money’s a real part of that, and we quickly found that out. So for us what feels most comfortable is being able to pay the bills. I don’t have to be a rich guy, but we still have debt from our start-up, and I don’t like owing people money. It makes me uneasy if we can’t come through and pay our bills. So having more coming in than we have going out is what feels sustainable to us.”
Listening to Josh makes it clear that farming’s not for everyone. He believes that what gets a lot of people into it is all the romantic notions, and he admits that he never thought his foray into farming would lead him to this farm. “Initially, I kind of thought maybe we’d be weekend warriors. We’d do a farmers market with a couple heads of lettuce. My notions were sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee in the morning looking down and saying that everything looks good.”
He didn’t realize he would be an employer or doing payroll or negotiating leases. In fact, Josh says that much of the time he doesn’t even think of himself as a farmer. He sees himself as a small businessman who happens to be doing farming. But regardless, farming is what he definitely wants to continue to do for as long as he can.
Josh grows thoughtful as he projects his thoughts into the future… “I think I want to live here forever… on this particular property. I just love it here. Both our kids were born here, and I feel like they want to live forever, too, or so they say right now. But they’re three and seven. But I am a little frightened to lock myself in and say that I’m going to be a farmer forever. Our business may change later in life. Just as I get older. I don’t really know what will happen down the road, but for now I’m trying to take care of myself so that I can do this for a long time.”
Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.
(Top photo) The Applegate Store and Cafe in Applegate, Oregon reflects the character of the Southern Oregon region.
(Middle photo) A Barking Moon intern from Rogue Farm Corps checks her laptop while taking a break.
(Bottom photo) Josh Cohen leases these highly productive fields that are located several miles east of his house.
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