Part I: I am a diversified livestock and vegetable farmer with six acres of land, where I now run a full time farm business called The Little Homestead. While I’ll be covering various aspects of food and farming in future articles on CUpS, I figured that first off, an introduction would be in order. This post, and the next in part 2 will share my background and my philosophy to farming, and how I approach agriculture in my business.
Who am I and how did I get here?
I have a small farm in Mulino, Oregon, located about 20 miles south of Portland, Oregon, in the northern end of the Willamette valley. We, my boyfriend Harold and I, moved out to Mulino in the early 1990s when he decided to buy some emu chicks from a brother of his in Missouri. It was the height of the emu breeder market and we figured that, while the birds he bought would not be mature enough to breed until the tail end of the breeder market, we’d still have a fairly good income in the slaughter market over a long period of time. Even if we couldn’t support ourselves full time raising emus, the birds would still be able to bring in enough income to at least help pay for the property. Long story short, for various reasons the emu slaughter market collapsed, but we still decided to stay in Mulino and kept the birds for our own use.
I have an extensive background in working with a wide variety of animals, both domestic and exotic. I study animal behavior, various animal husbandry methods/systems, and intraspecies and interspecies communications and how they relate to animal/human interaction and various husbandry systems. The behavioral and communications study I do isn’t formalized, but does relate directly to how I handle and manage the birds and mammals we raise on the farm. It is also, by far, the most fascinating aspect of farming for me.
In addition to farming, I am an independent construction contractor doing work in the Portland, Oregon metro area. While I specialize in tile and stone installation and fabrication, the skills I’ve learned working in construction come in pretty handy around a farm and enable me to do a wide range of jobs from fence building to constructing run-in sheds, greenhouse building, etc.
What do I farm?
I grow a variety of produce, herbs and fruit here. I’ve also been granted access to fruits and nuts at another location that I’m allowed to pick for my subscribers. In addition to this I keep a flock of laying hens of various breeds, some are commercial egg laying breeds and some are heritage breeds, for a mix of white, brown and green or blue eggs. The extra roosters are sold to subscribers.
For red meats I have emus and goats available to subscribers and non-subscribers, and will be offering custom growing of rabbit, turkeys and other poultry/fowl in 2010.
I believe in growing a range of plants and animals for my subscribers for several reasons, variety being chief among them. I enjoy a lot of variety in my foods, and believe many others do as well. Then too, not all subscribers like the same things, so it’s best to have a range of produce, meats and eggs for them to choose from.
I live for challenges, and growing many different types of plants and managing many types of animals definitely provides that. Growing a range of plant crops and animals also presents new opportunities to market to new customers, as well as to more fully integrate various systems on the farm, so that each supports the other. I feel that diversified farms are also more adaptable to both short range weather/climate changes and to customer preferences.
This also supports another one of my passions – cooking. I love to cook. Trying out and developing new recipes isn’t work as far as I’m concerned. It’s the kind of product R&D that I can literally sink my teeth into. An avocation which helps me to market new crops. It’s difficult to just present someone with a new food that they know nothing about. Some people are adventurous cooks, but most, while interested in new foods, are more likely to feel comfortable trying out a new food if you provide them with a recipe as a jumping off point.
Why do I have a diversified farm incorporating livestock, poultry and produce?
I farm this way for a variety of reasons. I like variety in food, and my subscribers do too. I want to be able to offer my subscribers a variety of meats as well as vegetables, herb and fruits, eggs, etc.. There are several other reasons I have livestock and poultry on the farm.
They add another set of revenue streams and do jobs here that we’d have to either use manual labor or use mechanical and/or chemical means to do here in order to support the row crops. Our laying hens help pay for various aspects of the farm with their wonderful eggs. We eat them, and my subscribers love ’em. The hens also help keep the insect population at bay, both flies and other pests that are harmful to some of the row crops.
The goats provide meat and brush/grass control. They may provide replacement milk for other young animals next spring as well. I also use the goats to clean out some of the row crop areas, called gardens out here. At the end of a particular garden’s season, the goats are turned into the area. They go to work cleaning up crop residues and weeds. When the goats are done they are moved out of the garden and the ground is prepped for another crop cash crop or a cover crop. The emus provide meat and oil for us and for those customers who want to buy a bird. They also lay wonderful blue green eggs that, while edible and great to eat, can be blown (dleaned out) in order to provide crafting substrates.
The horses control the grasses in the field, which we’d have to mow mechanically to reduce the fire hazard in the summer as well as occasional income in the form of a foal for sale, and back up horse power if we never need it for work out here.
As I said earlier in this article, I’m very interested in animal behavior and communications issues/systems, both between individuals within a species (intraspecies communications) and between individuals of different species (interspecies communications). The work I do with the animals out here furthers my understanding of these issues and helps me resolve problems that people may have in working with their own animals.
Harold brings compost to one of the gardens, then hens’ scratch, looking for worms and also spreading the compost. One of the most important things the animals do out here for us, however, is to provide fertilizer. That green gold that comes out of the south end of a north bound critter….. Manure, when properly handled, can be a great boon to a farm. While we do use some artificial fertilizer in specific areas, and for specific and limited reasons, the two primary sources of the fertility of our soils in the row crop areas are composted manures, mostly from the horses, and wood chips. Those two materials are the primary reasons we’ve gone from just a couple of inches of topsoil over hard pan, to between 6 and 14 inches of top soil, and growing. As the cropping areas are expanded, which is happening at an accelerated rate how that I’m ‘officially’ farming, they will continue to provide that service.
Also, I’ve been working with animals ever since I was a little kid. My mom used to tell a story of finding me out in the garden when I was just a few years old. According to her I was bent over, doing something. When she went out, she found me ‘petting’ a worm. When she asked me what I was doing I replied “Petting ‘Opah the friendly worm’ “. For me, my farm wouldn’t be complete without animals. They’re an integral part of a whole system.
Why do I farm?
So, why do I farm in the first place? It would certainly be much easier to purchase foods from the store, or if I wanted to support local agriculture, which I certainly do, I could join a CSA, shop at the local Farmers Markets in Colton, Canby, Oregon City, Woodburn, etc.. I can also source a surprising number of local and regionally produced/grown foods from the grocery stores, from poultry to butter. Then too, we have 6.67 acres, which enable us to grow a large portion of our food at home.
Farming is a lot of work, and I’m not just talking about the hours spent selecting crops, ordering seed, greenhouse work, planting, weeding, maintaining the crops, harvesting, etc.. Farming means that you’re in business for yourself, dealing with finances, book keeping, marketing and promotion (if you’re selling direct to the consumer), dealing with bulk buyers, distributors, etc. (if you’re selling into the commercial distribution and/or commodity markets). In short, more work than you can shake a stick at. Why bother? I mean, it’s not like I don’t already have a job, right?
To answer that question I have to go back to the end of 2005, when I found out about about the USDA’s proposed National Animal ID System (NAIS). The system is controversial among many of us involved in animal agriculture, and I’ll not debate the advantages or disadvantages of the system in this article. There is plenty of information out there on the net both for and against the NAIS for any of you who are interested the subject. Suffice it to say, that in late 2008 and early 2009, it looked like full mandatory implementation was a real possibility, and I figured that as long as we might be pulled into the NAIS and treated as any other business as far as livestock and poultry ownership goes, I might as well register as an independent business and start acting like one. I certainly wasn’t about to give up my animals, or my way of life.
I’ve also wanted to find a way to support myself from home in a business other than construction. Most construction work is done in the cities, and living in Mulino, that involves a fair amount of commuting. While I like driving, and don’t have a problem with it, the shorter commute the better in my opinion. I prefer the commute to the garden areas and the barn (50′ to 300′) over the commute to Portland and other cities (20-50 miles). The hours are longer, but it’s home.
Being the owner of sole proprietor businesses as well as having partnered in businesses with other people, I was well aware of the risks and responsibilities of running a business, meeting expenses, etc.. Having been involved in one aspect or another of agriculture for the bulk of my life, I was also aware of the risks involved in entering the business end of agriculture.
New businesses have an alarmingly high rate of failure for a variety of reasons, and agriculture brings to the table some risks that other non ag businesses, be they manufacturing, service, or distribution, may not be prone to. Those risks include the vagaries of weather, diseases, pests, predators, and some aspects of long range planning for markets that one may not be completely familiar with.
I’ve always been a big fan of challenges and someone who is used to overcoming those challenges. Having worked as a woman in the masonry trades since 1985, I’m used to blazing my own trail, so to speak. I’m also used to acquiring and assimilating new skills and information rapidly. I like to say “I’m used to vertical learning curves”. Starting a small agriculture based business was something I believed was doable for me. Not easy by any means, but definitely something I saw myself being as capable of.
So, armed with a ‘Can Do’ attitude, and a fair amount of experience running businesses, I registered a business name, The Little Homestead, with the Oregon Secretary of State’s corporate division in late 2008, and embarked on my journey in farming. This actually isn’t my first farming business. Harold and I were ‘Emus R Us’ when we moved out here in 1991. Having experience in the failure of that market, the emu slaughter market, and having a better idea of the risks involved in that type of market, which was to be a commodity market, I decided not to target any commodity market. We’re on such a small acreage that commodity farming isn’t really something that would be financially viable anyway, at least not for anything I’d be interested in growing anyway.
How did I evolve into becoming a CSA farm?
My involvement in issues surrounding the NAIS led me, over time, to issues surrounding food production in this country, international trade issues, and finally to the local foods movement. I learned that, for the past couple of decades, local foods, farmers markets, CSA (community supported agriculture) farm/business models etc. have become very popular. In addition to shielding farms from the fluctuations of pricing in the commodity markets, they also provide a market for, and a higher return on, foods grown and produced by farms. Retail is always better for the financial bottom line for a business, especially a farm business, than wholesale, if you can get it. I considered selling at farmers markets, but settled on the CSA model as it seemed more stable over a longer period of time such as a growing season, than the market, for a variety of reasons. I also felt that selling at a market was a bit more than I could handle this year, so it would be better for me to leave selling into that venue until I had a few more years under my belt farming.
I didn’t want to lock customers into a contract that I might not be able to deliver on, so I decided to initiate a pay as you go type contract with ala carte ordering for each week’s delivery with payment on delivery. That way, customers could order what they wanted, as much as they wanted, and if there were shortfalls in the harvest that week for a particular item, I could adjust their bill to reflect that. As I’ve learned, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this particular model and for the farm. It’s nowhere near as secure as the traditional CSA model where subscribers pay up front for their share each season. But as I hadn’t ever run a business like this, I decided to err on myself taking on all of the risk.
I’ve since transitioned to a CSA model, that while still ‘Pay as you go’, requires that subscribers sign up for a set sized share of the farm’s production. New subscribers are required to fill out a questionaire that lets them know what the farm is currently producing and what I may add, they’re given the option of suggesting things that they’d like to see in their share but that I don’t grow, and they can indicate foods that they either do not want or should not receive in their share. For instance, diabetics may not want a lot of, or very many, potatoes in their share, as eating these could adversely effect their blood sugar. People sensitive to eggs would not want those in their share. Others who like unusual greens, root crops, etc. that I wouldn’t think of growing can indicate on the survey that they’d like to see those items in their share. I love growing new things, but I really don’t want to grow more than I can use if no one else is even interested in them.
I’ll be operating under this system untill next spring. I plan to grow year round, so I’ll see how things work out during the winter.
In future articles, I will share my experiences and views on a variety of issues related to small scale diversified farming, animal husbandry and behavior, as well as what’s going on around my farm in beautiful Mulino, Oregon.
Next time, part 2 of my introduction, I will discuss
- My philosophy for small scale farming.
- What I can do on this small farm?
- What I can’t do on this small farm?
- What are some advantages and disadvantages to combining livestock and row crops?
- What do I grow now, and what are my plans for the future with this particular farm?
- What I don’t grow and why?