By Lindsay Rebhan
Have you felt the urge to work outside, provide for your community and build a resilient local economy? The New Agrarian movement is here, and now is the time to farm. Listen to that calling and take a step–or leap–into it! No money, no capital, no land? Join the club. Join the growing community of those seeking creative solutions and opportunities to enter into farming.
I’ve had the pleasure to get to know an amazing group of individuals building a local food community in Amery, Wis. It’s a story of hope, community, determination, and ultimately the ancient ethic of hard work and perseverance.
Meet Heather Saliba and Brandon Wiarda of Sleepy Root Farm, a young couple making their way as beginning farmers.
When did you start farming, do you come from farming backgrounds?
Brandon: I started farming with Kevin Karl in the spring of 2011. I come from a conventional corn and soybean operation in South Dakota, and also lived in La Crosse and went to college at the University of Minnesota. I wanted more practical skills, and to get back into the countryside. I interned for two years at farms around Minnesota. We started renting land in Howard Lake, Minn. with Jerry Ford of Living Song Farm.
Heather: I grew up in Oklahoma riding horses and helping my parents grow large vegetable gardens. I met Brandon and began helping him farm on nights and weekends. In 2013 I gave up my career as a head chef. It was a beautiful natural transition from making food to really making food.
Brandon: Even though Heather does not have a formal farming background, she has brought to the table things that most new farmers don’t: managerial skills, timeliness, and efficiency.
How did you come to find your current farming opportunity?
Brandon: We were renting land at Living Song Farm at a very fair rate, with water and equipment sharing. The main issue was that we didn’t have any housing. In the winter we were working odd jobs in the city, and then living in the country in the summer. It was very inconsistent. We needed a place to continue the operation, but also have a home. An opportunity to farm as the dedicated supplier for a restaurant came up. We made our plans to move, and wrote business plans for the restaurant farm, but in the end it didn’t work out. We were in an extraordinary position in February 2013: no farm, no prospects.
There’s an awkward situation in the farming world where you don’t want to go work on the conventional farm, aren’t making enough money on your pilot operation yet, not making enough to get capital or loans, and trying to move to a more permanent position. You need money to amend the soil, and work the land. It could all go away when you move. We want to have money to get land, to have a small farm, and produce on scale.
Around this time my original farming partner, Kevin, had decided to continue his education, starting with a natural building course in Canada. He had made a contact with a couple, Kari and Peter, in Amery, Wis., who were looking for people interested in permaculture and sustainable farming. When the restaurant deal ended up not working, we called Peter and Kari. We explained our plans had fallen through, and we had heard they wanted people to work the land. They asked for business plans. We went through a vetting process, and it felt like we could work well together from a shared vision. Within two weeks, we visited, met, and signed a lease!
Tell us how this emerging incubator model works?
Brandon and Heather: Kari and Peter run an organization called Resilient Northern Habitats. They are taking steps to build a local food economy around Amery, to provide the ability for farmers to get set up and farm sustainably. The farmers all own their own businesses, markets, marketing. We are independent. They want people on the property to get certified organic. We all have fertility goals, composting goals–it was in the business plan we agreed upon. So they feel good about the future care of the land.
Kari and Peter own land, have built infrastructure, have equipment, and are willing to acquire more equipment for the needs of a general vegetable operation. We get general use as part of our rental contract for the house, land, most of the equipment. Anything we use that has an engine, we pay an hourly fee. Any of the implements we use for free, (hand tools, etc.). We can rent a larger pick-up truck–we pay the gas. They needed to put in a bigger well from the house to irrigate the fields, and so they put in a 50/gal/minute well for everyone to use. It will always be here for future farmers.
What does your current Sleepy Root Farm operation look like?
Brandon: We are a 100-member CSA with a small amount of restaurant sales. We also participate in the Amery Saturday farmers’ market (which Peter and Kari established this year). We are running our farm on 5 acres, with 3 of us working full time. Brian Mitchell is our third farmer, working the high season mid-May through mid-September.
What is the dynamic with the other farmers involved in this grand experiment?
Heather: The other farmers are good to know. I was worried when I left my family and friends in the city. I knew we might be the only people under 40 for miles around. We are very blessed to know Kari and Peter. They’ve helped many other young farmers in the community. Although we are all independent businesses, it’s an instant community, within a few minutes’ drive of each other. I understand this is pretty rare. Unofficially, it is a support network. Officially, we share the large equipment, Skidsteer, tractor, implements and wood chipper. There are monthly potlucks that happen. Where there are people getting together on a regular basis, something’s going to happen organically.
There are opportunities for a distribution center in the future. Right now we are kicking around ideas. At some point someone will pick up that ball and run with it.
What are your thoughts about your future in farming?
Heather and Brandon: For the foreseeable future it would be fantastic to stay here. We’ll stay as long as we can make it economically viable here. If we can’t make it here, I don’t know how we can make it anywhere else!! The price of land would be a limiting factor, but there is potential access to other land nearby.
We committed to 2 years on this property, working to establish a small farm and creating systems around it: irrigation, crop rotation, a management system, bookkeeping, record keeping, and tools/equipment sharing system. Anyone who comes after us will have a system set up, and built-up soil. We currently have a hoop house on the property and plan on building a greenhouse next to it. Eventually an education center will be built–so stay tuned!
Meet Kari Wenger and Peter Henry:
What is the vision and scope of your work?
Kari: Our organization is Resilient Northern Habitats (RnH). The project started with a desire to re-establish and protect nutrient-rich, high-organic-matter soil for organic/ecological farmers and the nutrient-rich, fresh food they produce. Then, create a way that this lovely soil is passed from one organic farmer to the next organic farmer, rather than being bulldozed for a housing development or re-chemicalized for conventional corn. The belief is that by having several farms close together synergies between farmers can happen and the farm community may eventually attract the next set of farming-related entrepreneurs as well as more farmers.
Peter: The main entity here is Resilient Northern Habitats. Hungry Turtle is the name of our main farm and education center, but it’s kind of in mothballs right now, waiting for the right people to breathe life into it.
Kari: RnH helped five farms get going this year for a total of four farm couples with six to eight interns working on these farms. All the farmers have multi-year farming experience and established farm entities, but differing levels of customer base–from a couple who just moved to the region to a couple with an establish customer base. I don’t know if I’d call them beginning farmers as much as looking for “good land & good community” farmers.
I’ve heard you are restoring a building in downtown Amery. What are your plans?
Kari: The building in Amery is for some of these farm-related entities that build on the products and/or needs of this budding farming community and bring back some of the local food culture that has been lost in the last 50 years in this rural community. We are not sure who will show up. Some of our imaginings are: green-grocer, deli, restaurant, value-added production, brew pub, creamery, butcher, baker or combination or something we haven’t thought of….
You are demonstrating a diversified response to the immediate needs of farmers. We know that in general, capital, land and resources are the biggest hurdles for beginning farmer. Can you give us a little insight from your research/work in financial structures that could leverage new farmers?
Kari: The capital costs of farming versus the income potential is an equation I haven’t been able to make work. The small-farm infrastructure is a cost often forgotten in the calculations. This infrastructure, if it exists on a farm, has often been run down or repurposed beyond its needed purpose. What I am talking about is fencing for animals or vegetables, wells to water plants and animals, pack shed for safe food handling, refrigeration, outbuildings for equipment, tools, hay, and trucks/trailers to haul food and animals. No easy answers. My current belief is that clean, nutrient-rich food has to become a priority for a community. The community builds, protects and makes available organic farmland in an Agricultural Land Park. Communities make infrastructure, financial assistance, and land available in Business Parks again because of the high barrier to entry. It addresses many challenges for rural communities: attracts young families to the community, brings healthy food to food deserts, and keeps money in the local economy.
Peter: We believe in the power of business to make things happen, as opposed to the government or nonprofits. The reason is simple: that’s the way our economy and our society functions best over the long term. Small markets and small businesses are creative, resilient and continually adjusting their practice to the realities of their customers. We believe in all of that. And, as we have seen with government crises and political conflicts, you have to be independent, carve out a niche and make money to be sustainable over the long term. In any case, a farm business needs to make money in order to continually improve, raise a family, pay its people and bills, and transfer ownership to another generation.
The real story out here is in the farmers themselves–hardworking, knowledgeable, courageous–and, the variety of the different operations, their skill and creativity, and their personal stories. We do not hold up ourselves as anything other than people who believe in the importance of healthy, organic food for every human being and have the ability to put our money where our mouths are. Over time, another narrative might emerge. We are especially hopeful about what might happen in terms of creating a food hub, but it is just too early to tell what will, may or won’t happen with that. Sure, we have hopes and dreams, but as we have discovered, just because we can imagine it does not mean it is going to happen.
We don’t really want to talk very much about what we are doing, mainly because it is so experimental and expensive. There’s just not much for people to learn in all this right now, except: Do not try this on your own!
What this is, no one really can say. But, we need more organic producers. We need chefs, entrepreneurs, visionaries, leaders–there’s no limit to what we need, not just here, but across America. This is the new food economy. It is not premised on corporate concentration, government handouts, or farm consolidation. We believe that the new small producer-local food economy is a better model for the 21st century: resilient, collaborative, creative and grounded in a long-term consideration of what makes a lasting contribution to human welfare. And, it is a far better bet to withstand the ravages of climate change and energy shocks.
Lindsay Rebhan works with Renewing the Countryside in partnership with MOSES on the New Organic Stewards project.