Practicing Agriculture and Building Community at Fiddlehead Farm, Part 2

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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Click here to read Part 1 of this series.

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.

The experience he had at the Arcata Educational Farm was Rowan’s introduction to a farming lifestyle and, even at that early stage, he knew it would be his guiding force leading forward.

When their work in Arcata ended, Katie and Rowan did some traveling, including some international farm interning called WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). They both believe it was then – when they were working on a farm in Argentina – that their thinking solidified around the idea of wanting to start their own farm.

After returning to the U.S., Rowan and Katie moved to Portland, Oregon, where Rowan began graduate school at Portland State University while Katie found work at Portland’s highly respected 47th Avenue Farm.

As Katie gained greater experience with a large commercial agricultural operation, Rowan worked on a graduate study program that would benefit not only his own farming future, but the future of many other beginning farmers.

“Much of my time in grad school was spent developing a proposed farm incubator program for the Portland area. I wanted to create a mechanism to help other people get started in farming while promoting scales of agriculture that I believe are beneficial to a community. But I also focused on the conservation piece… making sure that conservation agricultural practices and good stewardship are used. I went to grad school with the intent of doing something with community agriculture, and this incubator study seemed the perfect way to do that.”

Eventually Rowan’s research led to his current position as incubator farm manager for the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District – a position that helps support the legacy he and Katie are building at Fiddlehead Farm. But that legacy doesn’t come easy. Several years in and benefiting from Katie’s retired parents now living on the property and sharing the financial burden, farming remains a genuine challenge. And the biggest hurdles always are the same… dealing with the abundance of work and the scarcity of money.

Rowan believes there’s money to be made. “You can make a living… there’s money to be made, but it just takes a long time. Frank Morton [of Wild Garden Seed] said at a local conference that eventually the poverty starts to go away. You have to make it work with other things in your life. If Katie wasn’t committed to being a full-time farmer, we couldn’t pull this off. I’m just not around enough. And then if we didn’t have my additional income we wouldn’t be building the barns and greenhouses. But we’ve found our balance. I get enough hands-in-the-dirt time to keep myself satisfied, and we’re able to get enough help to keep her sane. That’s how we’ve made it work. I think that each farmer and each farm needs to find their own way of making the operation work.”

For Katie and Rowan or any other young farmers, one essential element of making ends meet and finding success is integrating yourself into the local farming community.

Katie points out that beginning as a farmer means learning to be alone a great deal. “You have to be okay with a certain degree of isolation. Eventually you’ll probably add some employees or interns, but that takes time. I believe that one reason a lot of farmers don’t make it is because they feel like they’re alone and not part of a larger network of like-minded people.”

Rowan agrees, “We’ve been able to be successful as a farm because we came into it with a strong community. We’ve had no problem leaning on that community or being a part of that community to support other people when those times come. We certainly recognize that we’re not doing this in a vacuum.”

Being located close to the Portland metro area helps Rowan and Katie feel attached, which they see as an advantage that farmers living far from a population center may not benefit from. Also, when a person who is trying to farm sustainably is surrounded by neighbors who don’t share the same approach or goals, it’s easy to feel like an island.

Katie sums up community this way… “We know we’re all here for each other. We talk on the phone. We sell each other stuff. We can feel the community. When you find people you like and respect and they like you and have the same vision… you hold onto those people.”

Armed with experience, community, multi-generational support, established markets, personal commitment, and land they own, it appears that Katie and Rowan have put all the pieces together to have successful careers as farmers. But even with this degree of preparation, there are no guarantees for small family farms. In fact, the cards are stacked against them.

Enormous quantities of tax dollars go each year to support our country’s industrial food system, in spite of the fact that it’s been proven repeatedly that the way we grow and consume food in this country will eventually bankrupt us… both financially and environmentally.

But Rowan believes people are beginning to recognize the limitations of the current food system. “From a cultural standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, I think people are beginning to see that things have to change. Or maybe I’m being naive. Maybe that’s just the Portland bubble talking, while most people remain completely ignorant about how it’s impacting their lives.

“To be honest, on this subject I’m kind of a doom and gloom guy, and I think it’s going to take a big market shift. Some sort of shock to the system that will ultimately lead people out of it.

“Food is so complicated. As producers I think we try and do as much as possible… we stick the seed in the ground, we grow our crop, we harvest it, and we bring it to market. That’s our piece, but it’s so much bigger than us. It’s so far out of our control that I think if you tried to look at it from a big scale all the time and tried to base your operation off of exclusively your own values, you’d just be swallowed up by it. It’s too big and too complex. And as long as corporations can invest money in our elections, we probably aren’t even going to get labeling of genetically modified organisms on food packages.

“But we can’t let that stop us. While we’re farming this land, we have a responsibility to do it in a sustainable way. Good stewardship of the soil and the water is about more than just us. Will our child want to farm this land? Who knows. But if she doesn’t, we both hope that someone else will. Our job is to create a farm that will sustain life for many generations to come. And that’s what we intend to do.” 

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

Kindle version now available for $4.99.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: A view of Fiddlehead Farm from the northwest corner of their property. Fiddlehead is located in the northern Willamette Valley where the valley rises to meet Mt. Hood.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Kale is a major crop at Fiddlehead. Originally, Rowan and Katie supplied a kale chip maker, but now the majority of their kale goes to local grocery chain, New Seasons Markets.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Garlic is another mainstay crop for Rowan and Katie… including seed garlic. They also make excellent garlic powder.

Click hereto read Part 1 of this series. And you can read all of John Clark Vincent’s blog posts here.

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