Farm Incubator Experiment is Working for Abundant Fields Farm, Part 1

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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The recently developed incubator program at Headwaters Farm gives new farmers a four-year period to kick off their new farming career. The objective is to use these four years as a springboard to help them advance their agricultural business model. Rick Reddaway, owner of Abundant Fields Farm and member of the incubator’s inaugural class of 2013, is nearing the completion of his second year in the program. And according to Rick, the first two years flew by pretty fast. It is now occurring to him that his final two years will probably speed by as well.

He feels fortunate to have two years left to continue building his markets and to identify a property where he can keep his nascent operation growing. Change has been a constant for Rick and his wife, Heather, over the past several years. As such, this latest seismic shift should be something they can weather.

A little more than three years ago, Rick was working as a project manager for a manufacturing company. But even though his career was on the rise, his happiness wasn’t. He and Heather longed to return to a life outside the city, enjoying country life and gardening or farming… something similar to the way they both had grown up.

For Rick that childhood took place on fourteen acres in West Linn, Oregon. To his dad, it was a hobby farm, but to Rick, it was just a farm… the place where he first learned to garden and tend animals. Heather grew up in Sandy, not far to the east of where they live now at Headwaters. Her parents gardened on three acres there and still do.

Most likely, for both Heather and Rick it was the lifestyle they remembered best. Life in the country “digging in the dirt” is how Rick describes it. They wanted to give their new son a childhood like the one they both had, and every farmers market they walked through honed that desire more poignantly.

“We didn’t want to continue to live in the city, and I had reached the point where I just couldn’t sit at a desk anymore,” said Rick. “So we talked about it and decided to make the leap. We moved in with Heather’s parents and they set aside a quarter-acre plot for me to get started growing vegetables.”

Rick didn’t waste any time getting started. As soon as they moved he started planting, and he applied to several farmers markets. The Montavilla Farmers Market said yes, providing him with a sales venue. Fortunately, Heather’s mother was willing to act as his mentor, imparting her decades worth of experience and helping him develop a planting plan… the first of many new skills he would discover he was lacking.

“I had gardened before, obviously, but that mostly consisted of planting some seeds and growing enough food to satisfy myself,” explained Rick. “Planting enough to fill an entire season at a farmers market and growing produce that will satisfy shoppers was a whole new thing. In hindsight, I’m sure I could have benefited from doing an internship or working on a farm for a year or two. In fact, I’d probably recommend that to anyone else just getting started, but I’ve always been the type to just jump in and do it. There’s some pain involved, but it’s good pain.”

It was at the Montavilla market where Rick met fellow farmer Rowan Steele, who helps his wife, Katie Coppoletta, run Fiddlehead Farm. Rowan also manages the Headwaters Farm incubator program. Rowan saw enough promise in the work Rick was doing to suggest that he apply to join the first set of incubator farmers at Headwaters.

Rick saw an incubator program as a good opportunity, but to transition from the quarter-acre plot at his in-law’s house to a formal business incubator meant he would have to stop shooting from the hip and start getting organized. Step one was writing a legitimate business plan.

“I had never done a business plan,” Rick confessed. “But now I had to because I was applying to start a business. I mean there was some crossover with my project management work. There are processes that have to happen, but now I had to apply that thinking to farming. In the beginning, I guess I was too caught up in the dream to think that way. I just thought I would go start planting a bunch of stuff and sell it. But as the idea of farming started to become the reality of farming, I was encountering logistics that hadn’t occurred to me.”

After his application and business plan made the cut, the next step in the incubator process was the interview. “They were throwing questions at me, and that reinforced the seriousness of it, but I felt okay about the interview after it was over. And then I got the invitation to join the program. Man, I was ecstatic.”

That was how Rick’s incubator experience began. To sweeten the pot, he also was chosen to live onsite at Headwaters and act as the property caretaker. He actually was the only program farmer to apply for that role, but regardless, he sees it as a plus. He, Heather and their young son, Brenner, live on the sixty acres with low rent a trade for work that ranges from helping with construction projects to making a daily walk around the property to check on things.

“My boy loves those daily walks,” Rick said. “He calls it a walk down woolly bear lane because we’re always seeing those little woolly bear caterpillars everywhere. We wanted him to have a chance to grow up in the country, and right now he has a sixty acre backyard.”

At least for two more years anyway. What happens after that remains the question that simply won’t go away. The answer will probably involve money, which Rick admits in spite of the fact that he’s steadfast about the fact he’s not traveling this path for the money.

“What I’m doing now directly touches other people. That matters. And digging in the dirt makes me happy. But I understand we have to make enough to keep it going.”

Click here to read Part 2 of this series.

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

Photo credits: All photos by Lisa D. Holmes. (Top) Rick Reddaway, owner of Abundant Fields Farm. (Middle) Kale: a staple of Oregon vegetable growers. (Bottom) Abundant Fields logo and a lucky horseshoe Rick found when digging.

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