Organic Broadcaster

Second-career farmers offer advice to others entering field

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Shoppers at People’s Food Co-op in Rochester, Minn. quickly snap up locally grown sweet potatoes produced by Sandy and Lonny Dietz at Whitewater Gardens Farm in Altura, Minn. As they enjoy the bounty, customers support a family that didn’t start out in farming, but now thrives on the fruits of a diversified vegetable operation.

“We are very lucky in being able to do what we love,” Sandy Dietz said. “I hear about a lot of people that are working at a job they hate—for the paycheck, health insurance, or to get a good retirement. And then, when they get to retirement, they are so stressed they can’t enjoy it.” Lonny Dietz agreed. “We are here for such a short time, we are grateful to be spending it doing something we love.”

Lonny and Sandy both left professional jobs—Sandy working for the Farm Service Agency, Lonny in the automotive industry—to follow their hearts and become full-time farmers. Although neither grew up on a farm, their interest in rural living led them to purchase a 136-acre farm between Rochester and Winona, Minn. in 1990.

“Even though we lived on the farm, all of our time was spent in town,” Sandy recalled about those early years. “It just wasn’t working. I wasn’t happy working in an office.” After much thought, they decided to take a chance, and in 1996 Sandy quit her job to stay home on the farm with their three young children and expand their half-acre garden to grow vegetables to sell.

Whitewater Gardens Farm now sells vegetables year-round via farmers’ markets, a 20-member CSA and wholesale accounts. Over the past 18 years, the Dietzes have refined their operation to specialize on a few crops that they do very well, including sweet potatoes. Both Lonny and Sandy enjoy working full-time on the farm, and they hire 2 to 3 full-time and several part-time employees each year.

Advice to Beginning Farmers

Lonny and Sandy got into farming by expanding their passion for gardening, but they emphasized that anyone toying with the idea needs to try it out before they commit. Being an employee or intern on a farm will expose you to the way of life, and allow you to see how the work flow feels.

“Farming is really hard work, surprisingly so for many,” Lonny said. “You have to be out there in the heat, the rain, the snowstorms. It won’t be for everyone.” The Dietzes have seen many interns and employees come on the farm with “a fairytale picture” of what they are getting into. And, Lonny cautioned, “Just having a lot of money doesn’t mean you’ll succeed at farming.”

Taking new things on gradually, learning and growing as you go, is key. “You need to explore as you go,” Lonny explained. For the Dietzes, this meant having Sandy full-time on the farm first, with Lonny joining her evenings and weekends. They figured that if Sandy could bring in $5,000 in vegetable sales, that would cover the costs of her leaving her job since many expenses associated with off-farm work, such as childcare and vehicle expenses, would no longer be needed once she was on the farm. Lonny’s income in those developing years helped them pay the bills as the business was growing, and allowed them to try new things and make the invariable mistakes that came along.

By 2001, they felt ready for Lonny to take the plunge and leave his town job, too. “My 10-year-old nephew died of cancer, and I realized that I needed to be home more to be with my family.” Lonny at that point was away for 12 hours each day, and could no longer stand missing the sporting events and dance rehearsals. They were able to adjust for the loss of his income, and have gradually expanded and diversified production.

Starting out in farming is generally hard work with low pay, but adds other value to your life. “Our employees probably take home more money than we do,” Lonny laughed, but he then lists several intangibles the family has gained. The farm owns and pays for many things, such as the truck and land, and even though the Dietzes’ personal draw was only $24,000 last year, their grocery bill is almost nil and their quality of life very high. “There are some sacrifices. There are a lot of things people may routinely spend money on that we don’t have, but we don’t need them and don’t miss them,” he added.

The three Dietz children felt the peer pressure of not having some of the things their friends had growing up, but now that they are on their own and off the farm, they appreciate the quality of their farm upbringing, Sandy said. “I see the impact of the farm in many of their life choices,” she added. Both Dietzes have stories to tell about the value of the farmers’ market as a social training ground for the children. “They learned a whole lot more about dealing with people at the market than they did in school. And, their strong work ethic makes them very employable,” Lonny added.

Lonny and Sandy continue to refine their operation and invest in improvements to expand the business and increase income. Their ideal goal for their personal draw from the farm is $40,000, but Sandy pointed out that they are purposely staying small so they can both still work the farm and not have to become full-time personnel managers. “We are aiming for that sweet spot where we can make a comfortable living but not have to manage a lot of people.”

Learn From Others

Sandy said she was blessed in finding neighbors with similar interests and more experience to act as “unofficial mentors” in the early days. “We’d get together every spring and order seeds, I learned so much from their choices,” she said. “I wasn’t shy in calling and asking questions.” Sandy also found other vendors at the farmers’ market to be really helpful. “Organic and sustainable farmers generally love to share what they know,” Lonny added. ”Don’t be afraid to talk to people. We’ve learned more from other farmers than all the consultants we’ve talked to.”

And, they mention how important gatherings such as the MOSES Organic Farming Conference have been. “The MOSES Conference is a huge piece of our success,” Sandy said. “It is an important time for building our energy and networking.” They wish the MOSES Farmer-to-Famer Mentoring Program had been around when they started, and recommend it as a great program for new farmers.

Sandy mentioned that successful farming means developing a large knowledge base, and being able to manage a lot of things. “Like bookkeeping,” they cried in unison. Learning about growing conditions, understanding cover crops, soil management, insect control, marketing, and advertising are on the list as well. “When you’re small like us, you don’t have the resources to hire a lot of outside expertise, and so we’ve generally had to learn it ourselves,” Sandy said. She doesn’t think of this as a negative, just as a complexity of the job they took on which can be underrated by those considering farming.

Lonny pointed out that when they bought their farm, they weren’t sure they’d actually be farming, or what kind of farming they’d do. They ended up buying a farm that had been severely mistreated in conventional production, with very poor soil. “An agronomist friend dug a pit, and we found a 2-inch layer of hardpan 8 inches down, with the plant roots all stopped right there,” Lonny sighed. Even with the land in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grassland for 10 years, there was no topsoil and very low organic matter. Lonny had to learn a lot about soil management, but has managed to bring the organic matter from 1.2 to over 3 percent.

Sandy and Lonny feel that they have gained a lot by working with a great set of advisors—their banker, their accountant and their soils consultant. “It can take a while to find the right people,” Lonny said, pointing out that the previous banker they worked with wasn’t nearly as helpful. But, they kept looking around and found a banker that has innovative ideas and is willing to understand their business and help them think things though. “But, be careful,” he cautioned. “You can get too much advice, and get confused by all the messages, spend a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to do things.”

The Dietzes were excited that in 2010 they’ve started with the Riverland Community College Farm Business Management program, which gives them a farm financial advisor who visits their farm a few times a year. This has been very helpful in their understanding how to assess investments and returns, they said.

Finding Success

The Dietzes are passionate about their goals of being innovative farmers with a focus on quality and a good example to their community. They prefer to sell within 50 miles of the farm. It is important to them that the people around them understand how food is grown. Over time they have decided to focus on a few major crops that they can do very well, and to expand into four-season production so they take some of the work and financial pressure off of the summer season. They hope to bring an educational element onto the farm in the coming years.

They attribute a lot of their success to doing background research to lead them into new things. For example, four years ago they put up a large innovative greenhouse which is partially heated by a geothermal system. “We did two years of research before we put the greenhouse up,” Lonny explained. Although they’re still excited about the opportunities the greenhouse has brought, there have been a lot of surprises and challenges with the huge project. “We probably should have done two more years of research,” he laughed. “This has been an expensive research project, but I think it will eventually pay off. I recommend you look into things deeply before you jump.”

“We get pressure from the bank and FSA to go back to off-farm jobs, but if I devote that 6 to 8 hours a day at $10 to $15 per hour toward building the farm business, I can generate a much better return,” Lonny concluded. “I see a lot of farmers leaving the farm to become janitors, etc. If they spent that time learning how to do things that aren’t their natural strengths, like how to work with people, they’d be better off in the long run.”

Lonny also pointed out that starting a farm is like starting any business, with all of the stresses and challenges. “We took on a big financial responsibility in 2010 with the greenhouse, at a time when many other businesses failed. It means a lot that we are still here.” He is very excited about what they have learned about utilizing the greenhouse, and sees the crops they produce there getting better and better each year as their understanding of the management deepens. “We’ll be the first in the area covering our greenhouse with bubble wrap,” he laughed.

Sandy concluded that full-time farming can at times be very stressful and frustrating, but that they wouldn’t choose anything else. “Starting up farming can be very scary, and you need to be careful, but if you are really passionate about it, and do your research, you should
go for it—it can be totally worth it.
It has been for us.”

Visit Whitewater Gardens Farm on Facebook. 

Jody Padgham is MOSES’ Financial Director and Associate Editor of the Organic Broadcaster.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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