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.
There have been a lot of changes at Barking Moon Farm over the past seven years, but Josh Cohen is convinced – well, maybe not convinced… let’s say hopeful – that everything is finally on track and headed in a very good direction. Although that’s not to say the farm hasn’t been successful during its first seven years of operation. It’s more a matter of reshaping things and staying true to the dreams of everyone involved.
In 2006 Josh and his wife, Melissa Matthewson, bought their property in Oregon’s Josephine County. It’s a picturesque spot, sitting at 1,800 feet where the Applegate Valley begins to lift into the northern end of the Siskiyou Mountains. Josh admits it may not be the best production land in the area, but it’s beautiful, and it’s the place where their kids were born. It’s home. And it’s the place where Josh and Melissa took on the challenge of organic farming.
Josh was coming to farming from ecology and landscaping work. Melissa had just finished graduate work studying sustainable agriculture. And both had completed an internship at another Applegate Valley organic farm. In other words, they had a good idea of what they were getting into, but that didn’t make things easy.
“I think just starting with nothing and having nothing to improve was the hardest thing we faced,” Josh said. “That nothingness. Trying to go a long ways with some spit and a paper clip, basically. And also just learning this site. Even though we had interned less than fifteen miles away, it’s totally different at this elevation. A world different. It’s almost like a zone colder here than the fields we lease just six miles down the road. That’s one thing about the Siskiyous… it’s really diverse in every way possible.”
But start they did. In fact, Josh says they were able to hit the ground running because they were contributing to a cooperative CSA comprised of a group of Siskiyou farms. By only having to contribute rather than manage their own CSA, Josh and Melissa were able to test their property and their infrastructure and figure out what they needed to do moving forward.
Their first year of farming, they planted about an acre of land, which sounds small, but when one considers they both were working full-time off the farm while they tried to remodel a house that had been abandoned for a couple years, an acre was plenty. “We should have bulldozed the house,” said Josh, “but we were stubborn, and now it’s still a work in progress. We also had our first child that year.” That’s a lot for one year, but they made it through.
By their second year they were near two acres in production and had begun selling at farmers markets and to a few local restaurants. Josh was farming full-time, while Melissa helped with the farming and worked as an extension agent for Oregon State University’s Small Farms Program. Good progress was being made, and when – four or five years into this adventure – Josh and Melissa saw what they thought were some good opportunities to grow and get into wholesale, they made the leap and expanded to a dozen acres of vegetable production. That’s the point where things began to unravel.
“The market was there, but we just weren’t ready for it,” explains Josh. “The interesting thing was that we knew by mid-season that it wasn’t working, but we couldn’t really figure out why until we looked back on it retrospectively at the end of the season. We needed a better land base. We didn’t have the infrastructure. We were selling our best produce too cheaply, which just didn’t make sense. All that contributed to make it a very hard year, but it was one of our biggest learning years, so I’m grateful for that experience. I don’t think we could have gotten to where we are now without that. But at that point, it was a matter of going back and finding the sweet spot where everything had been working previously.”
As it turned out, finding the sweet spot entailed much more than reducing their acreage and getting out of wholesale. It also meant rethinking priorities and just being honest about their life goals.
After giving farming a real shot for nearly five years, Melissa had come to terms with the fact that she didn’t really want to farm. Farming was Josh’s dream. Josh says it was always that way, from their first backyard garden. She loved living on the farm, being a part of it and close enough to touch it, but her real passion was writing. A thing she always had done on the side, but never a pursuit she had truly given herself to. It was time to do that. So Melissa enrolled in a master’s writing program, and Josh took full control of the farming.
The first thing he did was cut his acreage in half. From twelve acres down to six. Then he winnowed out all of the wholesalers and decided to concentrate on direct to consumer sales through farmers markets and his winter CSA, while continuing to participate in the cooperative CSA and maintaining his restaurant accounts. The turn-around was stunning.
“I thought that scaling back to about half the acreage that our sales might be a little bit less,” explained Josh, “but I believed our net would be a little higher, or at least proportionally higher. It turned out that by being really efficient on a small space, our sales were higher than the year before – on half the acreage – and our net was just through the roof. We finally figured out how to make money within our little business. Which is key, because I want to do this every year.”
If you’re having trouble keeping track of the timeline for this turn-around, the big year was last year, 2013. And now in 2014, Barking Moon is up another thirty percent just by repeating the same processes it instituted last year. With the success he’s having, Josh is considering shrinking even more while trying to further refine his efficiencies. But there’s got to be a point where that just doesn’t work anymore, and he admits that he’s still trying to find the balance. The point where size and efficiency combine to yield the maximum return.
In the meantime, he now has more revenue to pay his employees, which means he’s able to keep a higher quality year-round staff. And that translates into more time for him to spend with his family and more money to pay for family needs.
Click here to read Part 2 of this profile.
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(Top photo) Josh Cohen, owner of Barking Moon Farm, which is located near the town of Applegate in Southern Oregon.
(Second photo) Josh and Melissa's farm is nestled in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains.
(Bottom photo) A Barking Moon intern from Rogue Farm Corps checks her laptop while taking a break.
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