This week on Live Like the World is Dying, Elizabeth talks with Brooke about running a small scale farm, including what goes into feeding over 700 families year-round, the importance of community accessible farm space, how climate change continues to mess things up, and how taking care of the soil really matters.
Brooke can be found on Twitter or Mastodon @ogemakweBrooke.
This show is published by Strangers in A Tangled Wilderness. We can be found at www.tangledwilderness.org, or on Twitter @TangledWild and Instagram @Tangled_Wilderness. You can support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness.
Live Like the World is Dying: Elizabeth on small scale farming
**Brooke ** 00:15
Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times. I’m your host Brooke Jackson. And today we’re going to be talking with Elizabeth Miller, a farmer, about her work in having an organic farm and some really cool stuff that she does that’s worth all of us learning how to do a bit of. But before we get into that, we’d like to give a shout out to another one of the podcasts on the Channel Zero Network. So here’s a little jingle from one of our friends. Doo doo doo doo, doo doo. [Singing a simple melody]
**Brooke ** 01:29
And we’re back. So as I mentioned in the intro, I have with me today, Elizabeth Miller, a wonderful lady who owns a farm. And Elizabeth, I’ll hand it off to you to tell us a little bit more about yourself.
**Elizabeth ** 01:46
Thanks for having me. I’d love to talk about farming and my community. I’ve been running Minto Island Growers for about 16 years here in South Salem. My husband Chris and I started the farm way back when. We were passionate about environmental science and community food systems when we met in college, and I grew up working on our family farm and it was the kid who always wanted to come back and work with plants. And when Chris and I formed our partnership we were ready to come back here, in 2008, after working at a farm in California and really building a community based organic farm. And I can delve more into what that means to me. But one of our primary works that we do on our farm is centered around our CSA program, which is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture that’s practiced in lots of different ways all over the world, really. Every farm does a little bit differently but you have a subscription based weekly produce box. And we do a main season and a winter season for that. And I can, again, talk more about that if that’s of interest. And we have a farm stand where we also do lots of food: woodfired pizza and berry milkshakes and salads, things that we hope reflect all the beautiful abundance and diversity that you can grow and eat here in Oregon. And it’s also just a wonderful community hub for families to come and gather and join and connect with nature and really connect with the earth. That’s what I firmly believe food can do for us and feed our souls and bodies in all the really most profound ways. We do organic plant starts and we do mint propagation and we used to do native plant work that were projects that I grew up doing, but we don’t do any of that anymore. And that’s a short summary. And I’ll stop talking so we can get into more detail.
**Brooke ** 03:46
No worries, thank you. Now listeners, you’re listening to this and you may be wondering why we’re having a farmer come on and talk and we’ve definitely talked a lot about gardening, at home gardening, growing your own garden. We’ve talked a little bit about community gardens. And what intrigues me about what Elizabeth’s doing and what I think is useful to us is that she and her farm operate on a fairly small footprint. They grow an incredible diversity of food. And it’s a fairly small staff. And when I think about the future and climate change problems that we’re having and the number of food chains, food supply insecurities that we have, I’m concerned a lot about how we grow food to feed a community. And I feel like what Elizabeth does with her farm does feed a large community and there may be parts of that that are replicable for the rest of us. So if we find ourselves in a time in which our supply chains have broken down or we can work together to develop a farm, there’s a lot of insights from what she does that would help create those kinds of things and replicate them in other places, because she’s not a large scale industrial farmer and is not mono-cropping. And really does, like I was saying, a lot on a small footprint with a small staff. So. Elizabeth, would you tell us a little bit more about some of the specifics of the farm like how much land do you farm? How much food do you produce? How many different crops? What’s your staff size? Some of those kinds of things to fill in the details of what I was just saying,
**Elizabeth ** 05:46
Sure, happy to. We lease about 29 acres. A lot of that encompasses non-production areas where we grow our plant starts and have our washing station and a commercial kitchen that supports the food cart. So in any given season, we are probably cultivating between 8 to 12 acres of land and that also includes lots of fallow fields that are either not in the rotation that year or hopefully are being cover cropped to add more nutrients and organic matter to the soil and to just practice good rotation. And one of the most amazing things about growing in the Pacific Northwest is the huge amount of diversity that you can grow here in this temperate climate, even with climate change. And that’s going to stay true even within a climate change context. And I feel like having a diverse…a business model based on a high level of diversity can provide a lot of resilience within, you know, socio-political changes, climate change, context environmental extremes, you know, that…. Even though diversity is challenging, because it means you have to have a greater skill set per crop. And the complexity, the number of successions, and the complexity with the number of crops makes it difficult to run as lean and efficient and profitable of a business, it still provides a lot of resilience and it’s really what our business model is based on. So we grow, you know, about 30 to 40 different crops and within that, over 100 different varieties. You know, just with pepper, eggplant, and tomato alone there’s probably 30 to 40 varieties there, which is a little bit insane, but it’s also incredibly exciting because there’s so much diversity out there. And as a farmer, you know, it’s just…it keeps…it’s just exciting to delve into the world of diversity within varieties. And we do that both for fun, to expose our customers and our eaters and for ourselves to more options and things you don’t get in the store. That’s one of the fun things about gardening at home or working on or buying from a small farm is just getting access to more interesting varieties. We do that also because there’s a lot of great plant breeding that goes on and can–depending on what the breeders are focusing on–there can be more resilience within a variety. That’s especially true with the hybrid brassicas. So, you know, we love the seed saving. We love open pollinated varieties and heirloom varieties. But as farmers who rely on growing food for our economic living, we do buy hybrid seeds–nothing GMO, of course, because we’re certified organic and we wouldn’t do that anyway. But we do see it with certain crops like the hybrid brassicas–like the heading brassicas, like broccoli, cabbages, etc–having options with hybrids is really important for just vigor and yield and consistency. And even with tomatoes, we love growing the beautiful diversity of all the open pollinated heirloom tomatoes but, you know, now that we’ve been farming for over 16 years, we’re seeing diseases we hadn’t seen before, especially with the extreme…. Well, we had already seen late blight in our tomatoes, but I’m sure that it would have been…. Our very, very wet spring we had last year, we saw a bigger increase in fungal and bacterial diseases and we’ve seen resistance to those things in different varieties. So that’s been an interesting thing we’ve observed in the last couple years. So yeah, our CSA model, it’s changed a little bit over the years but essentially we do 22 weeks of a main season. And then we do about 7 weeks of a winter season. And our main season is June through the end of October and winter being November through February. And we could easily do a year round CSA in terms of what we’re able to grow. It’s those bridge months, we call them, from like February March, April, May are challenging but we have farmer friends who are really successfully do a year round CSAs because you can grow so much diversity here, especially if you utilize covered spaces really strategically, like hoop houses or even lower tech stuff like caterpillar tunnels–which are also important in a climate change context, even more so than then they have been in the past. So we do a combination for our CSA program of pack [unsure of spelling] shares, where we decide what goes in those shares. and we do two different share sizes to make it more…give more options to the community. And those get delivered to drop sites still relatively, you know, the farthest…. We used to go to Portland and then we realized at a point that we could fulfill all of our CSA shares here in the community. And so we decided to just deliver into the Salem area, which is so much better for many, many reasons. So the farthest we go out is Kaiser. But many of our drop sites are really pretty close to the farm. A few are five minutes away. Some are 10 minutes away. And that’s because we really do cater to our local Salem community. And we are so proud of the relationships we’ve been able to build with our community over time, which I can talk more about because it’s really its own thing to discuss. And then we do a market-style option, which again, different farms define this and do this in different ways. But for us it means setting up our produce at our farm stand two nights a week from four to seven. And we have a combination of fixed and choice items. And so the fixed items allow us to just have a little more reliable crop plan and make sure that we’re still getting that good level of diversity out to our customers. People have to try to eat bok choy at least once a year, not five times a year, but once a year. It justifies us growing it too, which is good, you know. You want that diversity. It’s good for our bodies. It’s good for the soil. It’s good in many, many ways. And then they get their choice items which they get to choose amongst. And like we’ve found that market-style option to just be incredibly popular, both for our customers and for us as a farm. It gives us so much more flexibility. It allows us to…. It justify us growing more specialty crops too because we can pick those really small amounts of like a specialty crop fully and put it out for market-style choice and we know that it’ll all get taken and chosen versus like not being sure that that would all get enjoyed in our packed boxes, because we want to make sure that folks are really enjoying their CSAs. One of the big pieces…the most consistent piece of feedback we’ve gotten over the years, and many other CSA farms we hear this too, is that folks aren’t able to fully utilize everything that’s in their share. And they’re usually joining a CSA because they value that local produce so much. And so trying to find ways to fit different people’s needs within the CSA, you know, do the combo and fix and choice and also not…still grow specialty items but not have to grow huge quantities of it, you know. We’ve really fine tuned our model quite a bit over the years in the options that we’ve created. And then the winter season’s every other week with a bigger break in the winter. And that’s a combination of storage crops, but a lot of crops still coming from the field, which is really one of the things I love to talk about when I do tours is talking about just the amount you can still eat fresh from the fields where your nutrient density is still so high because things are fresh. You know, you lose a lot of your nutrients when things are picked and sit on the store shelves or, you know. They can be…not all frozen things are bad, you know. You can capture nutrients with certain types of processing techniques. But if it’s not being processed in a certain way and it’s just fresh, sitting on the shelf, you can lose a lot of your nutrient density that way. So the winter CSA is a really fun eating because it’s still very, very diverse. And a lot of it’s still really fresh. And there’s some folks that just do that CSA. They might be really avid home gardeners, but they either don’t have the scale or the storage capacity but they still want to eat a seasonal diversity and eat local and fresh. And so they’ll come to our farm just for the winter CSA which is really neat. Yeah.
**Brooke ** 14:13
And you do garden, or excuse me, "garden…" you do farm year round basically. It’s not that you’re…you’re not working throughout those months when there isn’t the CSA, right? Your farmers are still quite busy.
**Elizabeth ** 14:29
That’s very true. And yeah, you had asked to talk about our staff. So we–
**Brooke ** 14:34
Yeah, hold on, let me back up before you get into the numbers just because I want to review. Okay, so you’re operating on eight or nine acres a year generally. And you’re growing how many different crops, not including sub varieties?
**Elizabeth ** 14:48
I’d say 30 to 40. I haven’t encountered the actual list in a few years, but it’s definitely between 30 and maybe 45.
**Brooke ** 14:58
30 to 45 crops. 8 or 9 acres. You’re sort of actively actually farming and yielding stuff from May/June through winter.
**Elizabeth ** 15:10
Well, with our covered spaces, honestly, it’s almost February now. February or March through…. We had a really big success last year in growing a much greater amount of food fresh from the soil but in the covered spaces with the addition of the caterpillar tunnels. We were harvesting quite a bit starting in early March.
**Brooke ** 15:32
You didn’t say numbers on the CSA, but I just happen to know that it’s about 250 families that sign up that get that weekly produce box through the summer. Plus, you still have a farmstand that people come and buy fresh at. Plus, you have wholesale. Do you know how much food you produce? Like I don’t…. You know, I know sometimes I hear about tons of this or that, but….
**Elizabeth ** 15:54
You know, I don’t know the statistics and I really should. We keep them all in our harvest spreadsheets for our own record keeping and for Oregon Tilth for the organic certification. And I should know some of those stats because it’d be really…. What I really should know is per acre and by crop, you know, per bed-foot yield. But it’s changing. I mean…. I have two really talented…. Shoutout to my two head farmers, my harvest manager, Arabella, and my field manager, Justin, are in their fifth and sixth year of farming on our particular farm, which is important to say because you have to really learn how to farm a particular farm. You can be a talented grower, but knowing a particular farm’s soil, experiencing multiple seasons of variations, both in disease, pests, cropping patterns, weather patterns, learning that level, you know, you have to know a lot about many different crops. It’s a huge breadth of knowledge that you need. And so you only really get that depth by farming many seasons. So they’re just at the peak of their game in their trajectory this year. And so many crops statistics that they have reported have been double or more. I mean, just…. And it was a quote, unquote, "normal year," you know, with no big climate extremes. No, you know, heat dome. No raining for the first three months of spring so that, you know, the soil tilth was so much better than last year, for instance, where we had one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. And we saw the effects on crop health, and especially disease, but just crop health generally because of the tilth of the soil. The roots…the plants just were never as healthy, especially the one-time plantings that you would have to establish in the beginning of the year when we were so pressed to get things in the ground. So this year has just been so incredibly positive and more bountiful than normally even so. It’s really turning my head of what’s possible growing wise, you know, because there’s so much variation within a crop year-to-year. And you know that with a large level of diversity, you’re never going to grow each crop perfectly. There’s always going to be something that’s going to have a challenge or be better than expected or have some unusual circumstance. That’s the challenge but also the wonderful curiosity of farming is you’re always learning something new because soil systems and ecological systems are so complex. So I should…I’ll get some of those steps under my belt for the next time I have a conversation like this.
**Brooke ** 18:39
Well and that diversity, you know, another example of why that diversity is so important is that you’re going to have some kind of crop failure or problem going on, right? Okay, so the CSA feeds something like 750 families. So if you had to take a guesstimate with, you know, Saturday markets and farmstand and wholesale, what do you think…. Like how many additional families worth of produce do you suppose that you put out?
**Elizabeth ** 19:12
Oh, gosh, I mean, I’d say there’s, you know, probably 700 to…. I don’t know if we should say 1000 family units that come through the farm. You know, some people come to just have a milkshake with their kids and play on the playground, which is wonderful. My single biggest driving factor in starting the farm was that I wanted to continue a deep, and deeply important to me, and long family tradition of working within natural resources in Oregon. But most importantly, I wanted to keep the soil productive and in agricultural production so that it could be farmed for a few generations because we will need that soil and once…. If you can’t afford to keep land in agricultural production and it’s developed, you can never really go back from that. And two, was to give people the same opportunity to connect with the land that I had, you know? My family happens to own it. But of course the white people took all the land from the Native Americans and have abused it in many different ways over the years. And thankfully, the family tradition I was raised in, generationally it shifted, of course, because we’ve learned so much more about how to treat the land well. But there was always a history, like when my family was in timber. And that’s where my family got its start was, you know, getting to take advantage, in some sense, of Earth’s, you know, capital that it had grown for hundreds of years. And that’s given me, in some way, the opportunity to have. But there was always an ethic of conservation and stewardship within my family’s relationship to the land or to the natural resource that they were able to have the privilege to get to interact with. And I believe firmly that I’m so passionate about the Earth because I had the opportunity to connect with it. And so many people just don’t have the exposure. They don’t have the opportunity to either be out in nature or to have a garden. And of course, many people, you know, encounter that and experience it and find inspiration on their own. But it’s hard…it can be hard to find that connection and that care for the earth and that perspective if you don’t have the opportunity to interact with nature and with the soil. And food is such a fundamental way that we can all do that. And it connects us all. We all have to eat. So I just felt that our farm at Minto needed to be a community farm. People needed access to it. They needed to be able to connect to it and we needed to be able to connect to each other through that mechanism of growing and eating food. So that’s always been a driving principle of our farm and our business.
**Brooke ** 22:08
Yeah, and I’ll say, you know, as an indigenous woman, how proud of you I am and how grateful I am for your ongoing…. You know, and you don’t shy away from the awareness of the privilege that you have and where it came from and then the commitment that you have and have had towards land preservation and restoration and the way you take care of this piece of land. Yes, it is a business. But I think you would do things that would help the land and hurt the business because of your priority structure. Not that you would generally have to make that choice. But like if that’s…if it came down to a decision between the two, I know that you’re always going to take care of the land and make sure that it’s healthy and strong and sustainable for generations. And that’s really important culturally to me. So I’m, I’m grateful for that and to be a part of it.
**Elizabeth ** 23:05
And thank you for that comment. I have so much learning to do. But I am so thankful for my family and especially my father for giving me that opportunity. He’s my greatest hero and we share the same passion for plants and for soil and really the idea of stewardship that we just happen to be lucky to be able to have this relationship and that it’s, you know, really…. I really wanted to examine what the idea of ownership is…. It’s never made sense to me that we have the ability to own land, you know, and so there’s so much more soul searching and seeking of…questioning of what that means. But I definitely see it as there’s a huge responsibility when you do have the opportunity to try to do the best you can. And I’m thankful that my dad’s been able to learn from me too. He still thinks we’re crazy with all the amount of work that we put in. But he also understands. He sees how responsive the community has been to it. Because I believed…I knew that the community would come for this because it’s just so fundamental. It’s so fundamental to our wellness to be connected to the earth and to each other and to do it through food. It’s like you can’t really argue with it. And I am not…. This is not a discovery I’m making. This discovery has been fundamental to how we’ve interacted as a species since we’ve been evolving, you know? So um, yeah, so back…. I didn’t really get to talk about the team that that makes it all happen because I–
**Brooke ** 24:53
Yeah, you must have a massive staff to produce this much food and be working this long and year round and so much land that you’re doing. It must take an army to get that out, right?
**Elizabeth ** 25:06
Yes, I simultaneously feel that it’s huge and tiny and huge. And you know, my conception of it, my concept of it, expands and contracts depending on how I’m looking at things. But I just want to say that the people who choose to work on organic…small organic farms–or any farm really–are just some of the best people around there. They’re in it because they’re passionate about plants and soil and feeding their community. They’re not in it because they’re trying to make a bunch of money and they’re sacrificing. Agriculture is often a lower paid profession. And there are very few farms, unless they’re in a nonprofit structure or have figured some things out that I’m really trying to figure out, but there’s usually not a benefit package to support, you know, these worker populations. And so it’s just, it’s a labor of love, the people that choose to do this work, and I am so humbled and proud to work with them every day. So we have a team of year-round managers. That’s about four or five. And then we have a seasonal staff that expands quite a bit and quite a bit more so even this year to about between 20 and 30. But that encompasses all the farmstand staff and food cart and our perennial crew. And I haven’t yet spoken about the fact that we grow blueberries and strawberries and we also have a neat tea project. Camellia sinensis is the tea plant and all the types of teas, black, green, oolong, ect… come from that one plant. And my dad has a real innovative approach to plants and agriculture, always has, so he, with a partner, in the late 80s planted tea, and so I’ve gotten to try to move that project forward. And so we have managers that kind of head each part of that farm. We have a CSA manager. We have a CSA logistics person. We have a field manager. We have a perennial manager. We have a farmstead manager, a food cart manager. And often those folks will take on many other roles too on the farm or have done other…. So, it’s a small but mighty team. And since we do farm year round, that core managerial staff is often working in the winter still, which is wonderful but also challenging because they work so hard during the main season that then to continue to work when it gets so much colder and wetter and muddier and everything is hard and you can’t necessarily warm up and recharge your body during the day, it’s…. I’m at a crossroads with our business where I’m really trying to build longer term sustainability. And we’ve been doing this for 16 years, so that’s quite a long time and some big lessons learned and there’s still a lot of resilience needed in our business model to keep going. And our managers are really the heart of the farm. I can’t physically do all the work as a mother of two younger kids. My husband, Chris, now works as a mint breeder and he still is able to work from the farm but for a totally different company. And he really supports my ability to keep farming because the economics are really challenging with small farms. So I’m just trying to think very creatively with the newer perspectives I have of how people can do this work year round, long term, and what they really want to do during the winter. I think it’s an incredible niche for other folks that are interested in this as a business model. There are some beet firms that only do winter farming because so many fewer farms there do it and you can do so much. But I’m thinking of different options and different models for our farm, but that’s probably a level of detail we don’t need to go into today but it’s…. Yeah, I’m really looking at our business model from all angles to try to build in long term resilience, just in terms of the model. Yeah.
**Brooke ** 29:24
Well, I might love to have you back sometime and talk about some specific things like winter farming or maybe…. I would love to do a whole thing on potatoes and I don’t know if you want to come back for that but….
**Elizabeth ** 29:35
Well, I might stop throwing them so I don’t know if you want me to. Not fully. Not fully. But if there’s one crop I know we lose money on its potatoes.
**Brooke ** 29:47
Wow. Okay, that’s really interesting because potatoes are–
**Elizabeth ** 29:49
I’m not sure. My numbers will tell me this year but…. Yeah, we could do a deep dive on potatoes, even later in the episode if we have time, but…. People love potatoes, though. So that’s a thing. There’s like…. You want to grow what people love and you know they’ll use. And they’re nutritious. And they store. And they’re so versatile in the kitchen. But….
**Brooke ** 30:12
**Elizabeth ** 30:16
Yep. But we’ve had such a difficult time growing them consistently well. Last year, we doubled our yield from the previous year, and grew them better than we ever had. And then this year, it’s kind of back down to, "Ehh?" normal yields. We’re like, well, did we learn anything? What were the factors, you know. Sometimes there’s trajectories in crops and trends and you’re like, okay, I’m steadily getting better at this. I’m learning things that I’m applying to a consistently better outcome. Potatoes are not one of those crops. There just seems to still be so much uncertainty and variation in the end yields. And to me, you know, I like to think about what is really unique about a locally grown vegetable. And often there is something really special, whether it be a variety or the fact that it doesn’t store well or it’s super delicious, or it’s more perishable, or, you know, many, many things. Potatoes, in my mind, unless it’s a really interesting variety and it’s a new potato, to me, potatoes are almost…. There’s not that many distinguishing features that make a fresh, locally grown potato that different in comparison to everything else we grow. To me, it’s more of a commodity type thing. Same with onions, but I love growing alliums and I will never stop growing them. But I could deep dive into those specific crops if we wanted to.
**Brooke ** 31:43
Yeah, I think I’ll save that for probably another one. But that is really interesting to know. And some of our audience members are going to have some strong feelings about not growing potatoes. And I understand that. And we’ve done episodes around…. Well, I don’t know if we did it. I know Margaret, who’s one of our other hosts who originally started the podcast, has certainly done a deeper dive on potatoes on one of her other podcasts. Anyway, sorry. If you said it, I guess I missed it, you talked about your management team but then like the harvest staff you have kind of at the height of your season, how many folks do you have?
**Elizabeth ** 32:25
Yeah, I’d say six to eight. I mean, you know, on a…Tuesday is our biggest harvest day, and there’s probably, you know, six to eight people out there. Some of the managers come in to do half days, but you know, on a Wednesday, that’s the second biggest day of our CSA, we’ll have four or five in the morning and then three in the afternoon. So it really…it really varies.
**Brooke ** 32:50
So less than one person per acre? Not that that’s how…. That’s not a great measure. But, you know, if you’re growing eight or nine acres, you have–
**Elizabeth ** 32:59
It’s difficult to talk about the stats because you’re growing…you have to do…. There’s so many steps that go into the full execution of a crop. You know, onions, for instance, your crop planning in November. You’re starting the seeds very, very early, actually. We used to do it in February. Now it’s March. Because they’re relatively slow growing and you have to grow quite a bit. You know, one onion plant is an onion versus a potato plant grows multiple potatoes. Same with a kale plant. You know, so lots and lots of seedlings, many, many flats. And then they are in the greenhouse for a long time. Then they get transplanted out and they grow all season long. They don’t get harvested for storage until…. Of course we’re taking spring or fresh onions out of the field starting in maybe July, but the bulk of the allium harvest isn’t until August/September. And then they’re stored all winter. So the labor that’s spread across that whole…. You know, it’s almost…. I mean, we have onions year round so sometimes an onion will be a seedling or in storage for almost an entire year. So it’s difficult to fully, accurately allocate your labor across an acre or crop just because–
**Brooke ** 34:15
**Elizabeth ** 34:16
You know, but yeah, in peak season from June through September, I would say that there’s six to eight people on average that are full time growing those crops. Growing, harvesting, delivering, etc…processing, delivery, ect…
**Brooke ** 34:36
And that’s what it takes to grow enough food to feed more than 250 families a weekly box of produce, six to eight folks.
**Elizabeth ** 34:43
It probably could be quite a bit more. I believe, you know, with better farming techniques and, you know, I don’t know if we want to go into no-till philosophy and practices on this episode, but from the learning we’ve been doing about some of these no-till farms that have been in operation for quite a long time. Singing Frog is one in California that’s pointed to a lot because they’ve been farming for so long. The yields that they’re getting per acre, it’s almost like double or triple or even quadruple sometimes what even the best, you know, organic producers are saying they’re getting. So I believe on our footprint we could be growing a much higher density of food per bed foot or per acre than we even are now, but it’s very labor intensive. It’s a very…. Which I think is good and challenging economically. But it’s good that there is the opportunity for people to grow food for a living as their job. It’s extremely enriching and gratifying on many levels. I think the economics are the hardest part. And I believe farmers should be making as much as doctors are making. I mean, maybe, yeah. Ehh, maybe not a specialist surgeon, you know, but you know what I mean? It’s a very undervalued profession, especially for the crew position versus a managerial position. It’s incredibly important and incredibly difficult. And food prices in our country, and across the world, it’s just the way that we perceive food value is challenging. And affordability is incredibly challenging too. But there’s just many things that should change in our food system to value, you know, to value food better. Not necessarily that it should cost more money for people, but the way that that work and that product is valued, there’s a lot of improvement that could be made in that and you know, we could talk all about government subsidies and policy and all that another time. But I believe there’s a lot…. I believe the federal government should be subsidizing small to medium diversified organic farms, not just large scale commodity farms growing GMO soy for a stupid faux green biofuel, you know? I mean, there’s just so much wrong with our agricultural policy. But, again, another episode in the making maybe?
**Brooke ** 35:06
Yeah, there’s so much to get into there. And that’s interesting. So you’ve had 16 years of learning and growing and it’s a nonstop process, it sounds like. Partly with just because some crops are fickle and because of climate change. So, I want to rewind for a second all the way back to 16 years ago when you and Chris first started and compare, you know, what your staff size looked like, how much of the land you were farming, what kind of yield you were getting in those first few years as you were learning and developing.
**Elizabeth ** 38:04
Again, I don’t have those statistics. They’re all anecdotal at this point. The big context for when Chris and I started the farm was that we were both more steeped in native plant and restoration work. Chris did, you know, he did Environmental Science at Colorado College and I was on that track as well but switched to more social sciences and music and…. But, you know, that’s what I grew up primarily working with on our farm. We had a native plants nursery, and my dad did forestry research. And you can still see some of the cottonwoods, the native and the hybrid cottonwoods on the farm, which are an interesting thing that isn’t active really anymore. But you know, those woody perennials and their kind of environmental uses, you know, from both just standard restoration to bio energy and phytoremediation, like toxic metals and wastewater clean up. And Chris and I were really interested in green roofs and urban use of plants, you know, and that…. So when we started the farm, we were passionate about food systems and we started a small CSA. We started with five people, five shares. And LifeSource was actually our first sale of Romaine. I still have the receipt framed. We sold them some romaine. And we’re not currently selling to them right now. But we have sold them quite a bit in the past. And Marion Polk Food Share is currently our large wholesale account. But yeah, we started with five members, one who is still an active member of our CSA, which I love. And we actually had a largely Latino crew. Pedro and Maria were husband and wife. Pedro used to work with my dad doing the hybrid poplar harvest. And Maria and her sisters and her nieces were our core crew for quite a long time. And they are amazing people who I miss on the farm. And that’s another whole topic, of just agricultural labor and how that’s changed so much. But it’s interesting to think back to that because that’s a very different population of people. And they are such skilled agricultural workers. And I miss so many aspects of that on the farm. And currently most of our worker population are young students. It’s a lot of Willamette students, other students, people who are transitioning to other professions, people who are going into horticulture, you know, who are plant and science based people all mostly in their early 20s or 30s. It’s…. How to do this work into your 40s, 50s, and 60s, and 70s is a whole nother thing that I’m thinking about quite a bit now as I’m entering my early 40s. But yeah, very different demographics of people who were working on the farm. And Chris and I were doing so many native, woody plant-based projects at that time. We were in mint propagation, and that was both really positive because we were really passionate about that work and it’s really interesting work, and Chris had been working at a living roof ecological restoration company down in California before he moved up to Oregon. And it also spreads really, really thin across the farm and across many projects. And it didn’t…we didn’t have the…. Now, in hindsight, I realize it. Doing too many things just doesn’t allow you to really focus in and hone your skills and get your discipline, especially with the economics, in your key project areas. And so we grew our CSA model and the direct-to-farm model really quickly. I think we said, "Yes," to everything. Like "Yes, we’ll do the Wednesday farmers market. We’ll do the Salem public market, we’ll do the Salem Saturday market. We’ll do the Tuesday OHSU farmers market and then oh, while we’re up at the Tuesday OHSU market, they want to do wholesale for their institutional bid at OHSU, and they need a new CSA farm for all of their drop sites. And I thought, well, what an opportunity. They’re one of the largest employers in Oregon there. They have an in-house nutritionist who is incredible, who’s still there and still passionate about food systems, and what an amazing opportunity. And it was. I mean, I don’t know…. It felt to me at the time it was, but really, it just, I think, spread us too far and wide and thin. And so that’s one of the biggest hindsight reflections I have at this point of just…. And I encourage anyone who’s interested in this type of farming model is t to make this model successful, to actually not burnout with an injury, to burnout psychologically, like my husband, Chris did, and physically doing this work, to not get into debt, you know, to have a good business plan, and to be disciplined about your numbers, you just have to plan well, and you have to be diligent about your expansion. And I think we just…we had so much enthusiasm and so much demand for our products, so we just grew really fast without really understanding the economics of that growth. And so there was a mid period where our first really…. Tim, who’s now a farmer in…he was a Willamette student and now a farmer in New Orleans. And a very wonderful farmer himself, now. He and his partner, Madeline, also a really talented farmer, they’re both from Willamette. But Tim was our first kind of longer term staffer who became a manager. And he really…. He and Lindsey, another wonderful Willamette student, they were so gung ho about scaling up our CSA, and also doubling our market sales at the Saturday market, you know. They had these personal professional goals that they brought to the business. And we had never before had the capacity for that kind of growth because we hadn’t had folks that were like, you know, quote, unquote, "like" Chris and I, that kind of had that same bird’s eye view perspective and were really interested in the business side of things and the strategy and we’re kind of doing the business planning with us and really had the capacity to take on that growth. And so they wanted to expand the CSA by like 40 shares one year and they were in their fourth year of farming. They had the capability. They’re both incredibly bright and incredibly hardworking. And they were also young. They had that 20 year old energy. It’s really something and it’s unique, you know? And so those were some of those mid years of growth, really came from those strategic managerial staffers that really when I look at the peak, the growth spurts that we’ve had over the business as the business has expanded and also gotten better and more efficient and gained the knowledge and depth, it’s because of these…it always has coincided with the peak of these managerial staff that have come into their third and fourth and fifth seasons. And they go in cycles. And they eventually have to cycle through because they want their own farms or they can’t physically, they don’t physically want to do the work anymore, or, you know, there’s a combination of reasons, but it’s always a cyclical thing. And that’s a pattern that is now known to me, but it also is still a vulnerable pattern. So those are the patterns I’ve had, yeah, the kind of patterns I’ve been able to recognize at this point. Yeah.
**Brooke ** 45:49
So if people are doing this model, either for business or, you know, in the context of trying to develop a small farm like this for community support and perhaps a climate collapse situation, knowing that sort of rotation that people will go through and helping make sure that, you know, whoever’s…. Even if you’re collectively running the farm and everyone sort of equal partners, knowing that there is sort of that learning and burnout cycle to be aware of and, you know, having the members of your community that are doing this together supporting each other and taking some turns with it over time, like that sounds really important.
**Elizabeth ** 46:29
And trying to build structurally into the business ways to prevent that burnout. So even this next season that I’m looking towards, where those two key managers are moving on, and we’ve known that and we’ve been planning for and they’re going to help us transition at the beginning of the next season, thankfully, but we’re looking towards, you know, training a new set of managers. The expectation for that new set of managers is going to be completely different. I want every manager to be able to go on vacation during the peak production season for at least like a week or a long weekend, a Friday, Monday, or four or five days. They need that. They need that physical and psychological break. They need that recharge. Everybody needs it, everyone deserves to go on vacation and to not work, especially farmers. And there was never that…. Our previous managerial staff, they’re just, that isn’t a common expectation on most farms. You’re just sort of expected to to work your ass off, excuse me, and you will anyway. So, it’s up to the owners, or to the collective leaders, to find ways to build that structure of balance into the structure from the beginning, but this is the advice I would give. Because the work is hard no matter what. It’s some of the most challenging work you’re going to do no matter what, especially in a climate change context. The extremes are here. They’re not predictable. You might have experienced one extreme, but you don’t know what the next extreme is going to be like or what it’s going to do in your ecological system. So you can’t even really plan for it. That’s the challenge of farming in a climate change context is these extremes. I’m sure there’ll be some similar ones. Perhaps we’ll be able to apply lessons learned. But that’s been the biggest challenge of experiencing these climate extremes over the last five or six years is that it’s been a new extreme each time. And so the learning curve is immense and it’s stressful and it’s costly and there’s so much uncertainty. So that’s a challenge.
**Brooke ** 48:35
So really quickly then as our last thing on this, before we wrap, you’ve mentioned some of the climate issues that we’ve had, and I know I’ve mentioned these on other episodes of the podcast too, that, you know, for instance, last year, we had a really long, cold wet spring that went well into the first part of the growing season and it really screwed a lot of things up in a lot of different ways. And then two years ago we had some really extreme heat in that summer or a couple times over temperatures that have, you know, record breaking heat temperatures here. And so now we’re looking ahead at the world and we know that there will continue to be climate issues and to some degree, you can kind of predict for your own area what’s most likely to happen and what’s somewhat likely to happen and what’s not very likely to happen in terms of your individual climate extremes. Is that something that you actively work into your plans or is it something you deal with as it comes up? You know, how much are you looking ahead and planning for that and practicing for that on your own farm?
**Elizabeth ** 49:43
Yeah, I think that we’re planning for it to the extent that we can, you know. Like you’ve said, there is some predictability and now that we have experienced, you know, the heat dome…. The wildfires were so, just almost a completely totally different scenario, because you could hardly be outside safely, you know, but you we had to keep…some crops had to continue to be harvested or else it would make them unharvestable for a period after. You know, farms like ours, you have to continually harvest many crops. And then flooding has been really…. Wet and cold is always something we dealt with, but the extremes of last year were just far and above. And then flooding has been also greater and at times that we had never experienced before. Like we had some really intense flooding in April. I think that was like six years ago now. And so, yeah, ways that we’re adapting and planning for that, you know, where we have floods…we have fields that are more flood…that are more…. All of our farm fields are in the floodway, actually. It’s a pretty extreme flood plain designation from the Army Corps. But some of our fields are lower and they farm, you know, almost every winter. And so to the extent we can, we plan our rotations so that our winter crops are now, like I mentioned before, we had some crops, some of our first crops of the season in April, flood. So to the extent we can, we try to be cognizant of where that flooding might happen and try to put more vulnerable plantings in higher fields. But that’s difficult for us to always do, but we try our best at it. Season extension, you know, through covered spaces is something that farmers have been doing all over the world forever, because it just gives you more flexibility, extends your growing season, and you can control your environment better. Sometimes you have less…you’re less prone to pests. Those diseases can be much greater risk. So,you know, we had never had a huge amount of covered spaces. They’re expensive to put in. And they’re more difficult growing environments. I always like to say that they kind of expose all your weaknesses. And so since we’ve been spread so thin across so many projects and so much diversity and probably more scale than we should have expanded to too early, we have not always been the greatest hoop house or covered space growers. But our team’s really improved in that area in the last few years. And so we’ve really benefited from partnerships with the NRCS. They administer the organic equip program and they give dollars towards conventional and organic farmers, the organic equip program specifically for organic farmers for many projects like cover cropping, restoration projects, hedgerows, and, most impactful for us, hoop house infrastructure. So all of our hoop houses and our caterpillar tunnels, including two more that we bought that haven’t been put up, were all partially funded by the NRCS, which is really, really great use of our tax dollars. We can all at least maybe feel good about that for the use of our tax dollars. Yeah. And so that’s…. Those spaces have been really instrumental in our bridge season growing, would you like to call it, especially the early season. Like, we all know Oregon springs can be cold and wet in a normal year and relatively unpredictable, and so because we are building our farm model on a CSA that starts in June, which actually really isn’t that early, and people are really ready to eat seasonally from the farm in June. They’re coming to us in April and May like, "When does the CSA start?" Like they think it should just all be available. And yeah, certain crops are. But to have the level of diversity and scale in June to feed that many people does take quite a bit of planning and land space. And so having just those extra covered spaces so that we can just fine tune our planting schedule and our planting mix in those early months, has been really key. And then methodologies that were even kind of pre a climate change context but just for better spring farming, like there was a practice that we were following, many farmers are doing, with preparing beds in the fall, tarping with silage tarps, and then that allows you to just pull back those silage tarps in the spring when you have a couple days of dry out. And then you can direct seed and transplant right into those beds, as opposed to having to wait for a one or two week dry window and leaving soil uncovered without a cover crop, which you don’t really want to do anyway. So that completely changed our spring growing. And then adding in extra covered spaces this year was what allowed us to have such a wonderful early diversity. And then pushing, being pushed more towards no-till and regenerative practices that are, we feel, can just provide even more resilience in a climate change context, and in any in any context, you know, when you’re building up the quality of your soil with the microbiology and organic matter. And from what we’ve researched and seen, the potential for healthier, happier crops that are produced with less fossil-fuel-based equipment and don’t release carbon because of tillage, and just myriad other benefits that we’ve been seen and been hearing about, we were motivated to start our own no-till experimental plot. And so we had our first crops on that this year and they did well. And the soil–we didn’t know how our heavier clay content soil would respond to no-till practices and from what we’ve read and understood, really the benefits of no-till don’t take in massively so until years three to five. It takes a while to do your weed control and for your microbiology to get in there and add all that soil health. It just takes a while for the soils to adjust. Yeah, it’s like how to…. How I say this to kids on tours is like, “How do forests feed themselves? How do those big old growth trees get so big? Humans aren’t coming in and fertilizing those trees. It’s just decomposition and micro organisms and all those amazing nutrient relationships between the micro organisms.” It’s like they’re just all working in this beautiful, and even more so we know now, because of these really cool scientists that are doing forestry research showing how these forest communities are this huge interconnected network with the root systems and the fungi and bacteria. It’s just so much more complex and interconnected than scientists ever even thought. And so it’s the same principle applied to annual or perennial farms. So we’re only in…this will be year two. But we were already interested in those practices and some folks on our staff, Garabella, had studied that in college at Willamette and was already really passionate about it. We’d been doing some experiments with it, but this was our first year really biting the bullet and saying, okay, this is our no-till plot. And we’re really, really enthused by the results and how well the soils responded. It’s hard to break that addiction to tillage. I love tillage. I love tractors and PTO shafts and rototillers. But it’s also really disruptive. SO it’s breaking those habits. Yeah.
**Brooke ** 57:11
And I know you can talk about this literally, for the rest of the week, but we should probably wrap it up here for now. It’s been really great having you on and I do hope that we can have you again to talk about some more specifics of this and other things so we can continue to learn how to develop some of this in our communities and encourage the farms that are doing it.
**Elizabeth ** 57:35
Thank you so much for having me and exposing and educating our community.
**Brooke ** 57:40
Absolutely. And, you know, also to the world over because we have listeners internationally as well. And we love you all very much. Elizabeth, is there anything that you want to plug or promote here before we say goodbye?
**Elizabeth ** 57:57
Just in relation to our conversation earlier, just really taking many, many steps back and looking at the communities of people that had a relationship to this land for generations before us. And there’s an awesome nonprofit here in Salem run by Rose High Bear, and it’s called Elderberry Wisdom Farm and they’re an indigenous based nonprofit. And I’m not going to get their mission statement right. But they’re educating about indigenous plant communities and knowledge bases and practices of those communities in relation to land. And I’m looking forward to learning more from Rose about their work. And obviously, they’re working specifically with the elderberry plant but also indigenous youth. And so if you’re in the Salem community, check out their work and support them.
**Brooke ** 58:47
Wonderful. Okay, thanks so much for that, Elizabeth. We also want to say thanks to all of our listeners who check out our podcasts. If it’s something that you are enjoying, please like it, share it, let others know about it. That’s how we reach more voices and help more folks. If you want to comment at me about any of this you can find me on Mastodon @ogemakweBrooke. Brook with an E. Especially if you have any follow up questions for Elizabeth because she’s pretty easy to get ahold of and likes talking about her farm and so I will probably try to drag her back around. So if you want specific questions answered, I’d be so happy to share those with her. This podcast is brought to you by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness publishing collective that produces podcasts, zines, books, posters, comics, and many other forms of educational leftist media. You can check us out at Tangledwilderness.org You can find all of our latest publications there. And if you really love our work and want to help us continue, especially with the podcast production, you can support us on Patreon. We do a monthly zine mailing to our Patreon supporters. That’s a really wonderful mix of stories, politics, and poems. It’s a different thing that comes out every month. And we especially want to give thanks to some of our patrons who support us at the $20 month level. And those wonderful folks include patolli, Eric, Perceval, Buck, Julia, Catgut, Marm, Carson, Lord Harken, Trixter, Princess Miranda, BenBen, Anonymous, Funder, Janice & O’dell, Aly, paparouna, Milica, Boise Mutual Aid, theo, Hunter, Paige, SJ, Dana, David, Nicole, Chelsea, Jenipher, Kirk, Staro, Chris, Micaiah, and as always, Hoss the Dog. Thank you so much.