Practicing Agriculture and Building Community at Fiddlehead Farm, Part 1

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent

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.

Rowan Steele is self-possessed and confident. Quick to smile. There’s a natural energy in the way he moves around his farm, sharing his crop rotation strategy, pointing out the worst erosion spots and explaining how they were solved… if they were solved… the coming rains will provide that bit of wisdom. But he believes his new drainage system will work, and I do, too. Because it’s hard to not have faith in this young man.

Katie Coppoletta is solid. Grounded. Maybe a little cautious at first, but you can watch the trust settle in and her easy country manner take over. She’s not a dreamer in the same way Rowan is but she knows what she wants and she’s willing to put in the work. And anyone who’s spent much time on a farm would swear she was born to it. That’s not the case. Not for either of them.

But when Rowan and Katie first began experimenting with agriculture, both immediately felt drawn to it, although they’ll be the first to admit they had no idea what it would take or how far they would need to journey to become real farmers.

Farming is a profession, after all. And, like any profession, one does not rise to proficiency – much less mastery – without years of training, practice, and getting up every morning and going to work. That’s what Rowan and Katie have given to farming. In return they have received a way of living that suits them perfectly. But is it a lifestyle they would recommend to others?

Katie puts it this way: “Farming can be really rewarding, but it takes a certain type of person to enjoy it because there are so many challenges. If you’re a person who can deal with that, it’s a wonderful lifestyle. Much of the time it doesn’t even feel like work.”

She continues by pointing out that she doesn’t mean there’s only one way to go, or that a person has to fit a specific definition. It’s simply a matter of finding the path that’s right for you.

“For me, the key is direct marketing. That’s probably the only way I could be a farmer. It wouldn’t be very fun if we were separate from the people we are selling to. That’s really important for me… it’s like the end result, you know. Knowing people who appreciate what you’re offering them makes it all worth it. If I don’t have that it’s easy to get resentful.”

Rowan explains, “You get that way because you lose sight of the bigger picture and get stuck in the day to day operations. You’re mentally and physically exhausted, and it feels like you’re not getting anywhere. That happens a lot. So you have to step back and take a breath.

“One of my favorite remedies is… on an autumn day like today, end of the season, it’s not super hectic, come sunset, Katie and I just go to the top of the hill and sit and look at everything we’ve accomplished. It’s super rewarding to see that we’re making progress on something we’ve invested so much of ourselves in.”

Like many members of Oregon’s sustainable farming community, neither Katie nor Rowan began their search for a career thinking they would become farmers. She was an international studies major, a field that introduced her to global food systems. And although Rowan grew up in the central valley of California, a sort of agricultural mecca, farming didn’t occur to him until he began studying geography and got exposed to different ideas and different ways of producing food.

Katie first became interested in farming at the same time she and Rowan were students at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, but it probably didn’t happen the way you might be thinking. Even though they went to the same school, they didn’t know each other until they met while studying abroad in Mexico as part of a sustainable development program.

It was there, in 2005, that Katie found her future husband and got her first taste of agriculture.

“I helped at-risk kids develop a garden, even though I knew nothing about gardening at the time. I partnered with a friend who had some farm background, and I just jumped into it and double dug this whole grassy area at the orphanage. I put my heart into that project, and it just felt really good.”

After connecting in Mexico, Rowan and Katie returned to Humboldt where Katie continued working with at-risk youth while Rowan began studying sustainable agriculture and volunteering at a friend’s farm. But Katie couldn’t resist the draw of farming… “I was living vicariously through Rowan’s volunteer work at the farm until I couldn’t stand it any more and started volunteering with him. But they didn’t really need me, so I ended up volunteering for a different farmer down the road who was kind of struggling. I essentially became an unpaid employee on that farm because I wouldn’t accept his money. I did that for a year and a half, which gave me some really good experience.”

During that period, Rowan rose from farm volunteer to co-manager of a sizable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation at Arcata Educational Farm (AEF) – an informal incubator program for new farmers.

“Taking over a 60-person CSA was a challenge and we definitely made some mistakes, but I learned a lot. After that experience, I knew I’d always be working with the earth… working with it in what I deemed a meaningful way. I also knew that I wasn’t really cut out to run a CSA, but I am glad I did it because it put me on the path I was meant to be on.”

Strong words, spoken from the heart, and Rowan waxes poetic when he tries to define that path. “What I realized from my brief two-year stint at the AEF was that farming was extremely gratifying and fulfilled me in a way that I’d never experienced.

“It was productive work that connected me to everything that really mattered to me: community, mental and physical stimulation, delicious and nourishing food, problem solving, creativity, art, system design, skill development, simplicity. It crosses cultures, and is something that connects me to previous generations. Practicing agriculture is participating in a truly universal human experience. It is an activity I am simply programmed to do.”

Click here to read Part 2 of this series.

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

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Fiddlehead Farm owners Rowan Steele and Katie Coppoletta, with their daughter, Ella Luna.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Rowan Steele setting up Fiddlehead’s autumn display at the Montavilla Farmers Market in Portland.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: The peppers in this photo are grown for Hot Winter Hot Sauce, a local Portland hot sauce company.

Read all of John Clark Vincent’s blog posts here.

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