Farm-Incubator Experiment Is Working for Abundant Fields Farm, Part 2

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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The greenhouse Rick Reddaway, owner of Abundant Fields Farm, built on his small farm.  

Click here to read Part 1of this series.

In farming, as in most business endeavors, increasing revenue is the result of successfully expanding your market. But when one is just beginning, it’s hard to know how much expansion is needed. Is the goal to find an acre to lease somewhere? Or maybe shoot for the moon and actually try to buy a dozen acres with a house. Most likely the reality lies somewhere in between the two, but only research will provide an accurate gauge. So to get a sense of what kind of money might be needed and what opportunities might realistically exist, Rick has begun exploring the possibilities.

Recently he spoke with a representative from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency about one of that agency’s farm ownership loan programs. What he discovered is that he’s a long ways from where a loan manager would want him to be in order to achieve the high end of the success scale.

“He asked me what my gross sales were,” related Rick, “so I told him where I was. He didn’t say anything right then, but a little later he said he’d like to see our gross sales in the $30,000 to $50,000 range to start talking about a farm loan. I’m nowhere near that, and I’ll admit that kind of put a damper on my dreams a little. But I have to keep in mind that’s just one loan program. There are lots of other possibilities.”

Those possibilities include operating loans and micro loans among other things. Rick believes getting a micro loan to help with operating expenses might be a good place to start. That would enable him to develop a successful credit relationship and set the stage for something larger like a farm down payment loan down the road. An alternative approach is to step back from the ‘perfect world scenario’ and realize there are a lot of ways to be happy farming.

Rick’s lettuce mix has consistently been one of his best sellers. 

Rick related the story of a young farmer he knows who went through Oregon State’s Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship (BUFA) program but didn’t have a solid plan when he finished. The guy just started looking around and found a small produce market on the east side of Portland that had three-quarters of an acre of land sitting untouched behind it. So he reached an agreement with the market owner to farm that three-quarters of an acre and sell his produce at the market.

Then there was another incubator farmer, a couple actually, who contacted the owner of a vacant lot right on Portland’s Stark Street and asked if they could farm it, and the owner said okay. So now they farm a lot on Stark and an acre at Headwaters.

Telling these stories has to help Rick feel a little better about the future. There was nothing special about these other farmers, so there’s no reason for him to believe things won’t work the same for him. But he also acknowledges that one of the most important keys to any opportunities he may encounter is more sales, which means scaling up his production and improving his marketing efforts.

Currently Rick sells his produce at two farmers markets, and there are a lot of positives in that. He points out that he gets retail prices, and the time he spends at the markets interacting with his customers is one of the most fun and fulfilling things he does. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much he’s been able to sell. So he’s starting to talk to other farmers to glean ideas and learn about other directions he might be able to go.

“Restaurants are something that I’d like to get into,” said Rick. “One friend of mine sells to restaurants exclusively, and he’s doing great, so I’m trying to learn what I can from him. I’m also looking at a few core crops I might be able to specialize in a little more, like peppers. I’ve recently started growing peppers for a local hot sauce vendor called Marshall’s Haute Sauce Company. It’s just one small company, but a hundred pounds of serrano peppers is a lot for me. Plus, I just started talking to another small hot sauce maker who’s a vendor at the Montavilla Farmers Market. His business is called Hard Times Hot Sauce, and we’ve begun making some plans for the next growing season.”

Rick produces outstanding quality vegetables on his incubator farm, but he continues to look for the right product and client mix. 

In addition to expanding the production of some of his core crops, Rick is considering diversifying by possibly adding meat birds or some type of animal component to his repertoire. Headwaters does allow its farmers to include livestock in their business plan, so this seems like it would be a negotiable possibility for him. On the other hand, both expanding crop production and adding other dimensions to his operation begs the question of just how much can one person do? Which means that adding an employee or seeking some type of partnership then becomes one more challenge that Rick knows must be faced.

“There’s all this stuff that I never thought about when I started this,” he said. “I know I keep coming back to that, but it seems like there’s something new all the time. But, you know, every discovery I make, I’m still excited about it. I feel like every step is a measure of success for me. It is kind of scary at times, but it’s all a positive. Out of everything I could be doing, I prefer this. And I do believe that we’ll have our farm, one way or another.”

This profile is excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement. Get your copy now.

All photos by Lisa D. Holmes.

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