Graduation Day for a Beginner Farmer

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By Tracy Sweely

I have been farming for four years. So I guess it makes sense that it’s time for my graduation from “Beginner Farmer” status, kind of like graduating from high school or a four-year Bachelors degree program. It’s not really apples to apples though; I’m inclined to believe the USDA categorization of the beginner farmer as someone farming for less than 10 years. I’ve learned a lot in my four years, but my biggest lesson was learning I have A LOT more to learn.

I guess what I really mean is that I’ve graduated from the “Black-Hole” phase of beginner farming. You know, that phase where every minute shift in the season from March through December is fraught with that gut-wrenching, brain-wracking concern about what could go wrong next.  What could go wrong and how badly could it go wrong…? What of an infinite number of possibilities could happen to any and all the crops that we’ve already promised to our paid-up CSA members? Will we have to tell them we’ve failed and they’ve lost their investment in us? Will we be able to even come close to what we’ve promised them? Spoiler alert: We did fine! And we did it without losing our minds! Hallelujah!

I’ve always been the kind of person who would like to create things fully formed and perfect from the start, like Athena’s emergence from the brow of Zeus. If I just have enough foresight, if I just take the time to study the situation and lay down a well thought-out plan, my creation will be stunning! Or at least functional…it will at least serve its purpose. Well, if I hadn’t learned in all my previous endeavors the underlying illusion of this perspective (you simply can’t prepare for everything…), Ceres the goddess of farming surely has cured me, albeit with a gentle yet firm hand. Yes, you can study the prospect at length, yes you can make a thorough and well thought out plan. But farming will have some big surprises for you, and not just a few. It’s got to be like new parenthood in a way. But again not apples to apples, since whether it was year one or year four, I always refer to the farm plot as “The Newborn.” The world revolves around its needs.

We have a ¼-acre micro-farm in Lafayette CO called HeartEye Village CSA. It’s a pilot study farm for Fantastic Farm Enterprises and while it is small we still have all the same challenges as larger market farms because we are growing multiple vegetable crops and we market them in the usual channels: CSA, farm stand, and sometimes wholesale. Our actual cultivation space is about 4000 sq ft, and on that we provide for 25-30 CSA members during the main season. In the winter we grow in a high tunnel with 606 sq ft of cultivatable space and provide for about 9 CSA members.

I intuited early on at the end of year one that we didn’t have sufficient space to make our operation financially sustainable. Essentially this meant that it didn’t appear that we’d be able to pay for a full-time farm manager. We opted for providing an advanced internship program instead. Even though our full-time intern has guidance, they are responsible for carrying out all aspects of our operation.

It was in year three, during a small farm financial sustainability study that we had obtained funding for, that we began to understand all the factors that caused us to fall short of the smallest unit of acreage needed to achieve financial sustainability. But we continue to avidly work on that question. Our goal is to assist beginner farmers in setting up sustainable farming operations from the outset, especially on small acreages. We continue to view HeartEye Village CSA as an appropriate testing ground even though we don’t quite fit the bill. Sure, we don’t have enough space to be financially sustainable in terms of being able to meet all our expenses AND pay for a full-time farm manager. But we effectively deal with everything that larger direct market farmers contend with and we do it with the fresh eyes of a beginner farmer each year.

The fact that I rely so heavily on my intern every year brings us closer to an apple to apple comparison with most beginner farmers. Our intern is responsible for all aspects of the farm, yes I’m the farm manager but mostly in absentia (did I mention that I have a full-time job…). My intern is my arms and legs. They have my guidance, but being newbies themselves, they also have a wide capacity for errors of the sort that are generally not made by farmers beyond their first year. But in all four years we have always been able to provide an abundant harvest to our super-satisfied CSA members. The planning tool suite that we use and that we’ve made available to beginner farmers everywhere, has steered us right and kept us on track every year. Good planning is critical because there is always “what really happens.”

In April of this year, after we started implementing our plan for the year, I began to have my first suspicions that I might have a handle on things. Confirmation replaced angst as each minute shift in the season progressed. Yes, it’s Fall and not Spring when “Graduations” usually take place. But this is a newbie farmer’s graduation and I have to take it when I can get it. The main season production is over and our winter production promises to go well. I can finally, after four years, breath a sigh of relief and throw my farm hat high into the air. We’re doing it!