Learning to Farm

By Liz Brownlee

Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Indiana

Nate Brownlee

Nate Brownlee

My husband, Nate, knew one thing as a high schooler: he would never, ever work as a farmer. His high school summer job was on a grain farm near Franklin, Indiana, and while his bosses treated him well, the work was not, in his opinion, the most fun or rewarding.

   I never even considered farming as an option: my parents had farmed in southern Indiana for decades, but stopped farming in the 1980s during the Farm Crisis. Farming was not, as far as I could tell, an interesting or viable option.

   Fast-forward 15 years, and Nate and I farm for a living. What made those high schoolers eat their words?

   Simply put: We fell in love.

   We didn’t just fall in love with each other (though it’s handy to have a partner to farm with). We fell in love with raising food, caring for the land, and being part of a thriving food community.

   In high school, we saw corn and soybeans in all directions—a combination of monoculture and dying small towns. Now we’re part of a diverse and energetic network of people working to strengthen our communities.

   We wanted to be part of that energy, so we spent five years learning to farm.

   We started by WWOOFing on a farm in Pennsylvania. WWOOF is a nonprofit that stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. When you WWOOF, you trade about six hours of work per day for room and board. Silver Wheel Farm, where we WWOOFed focused on organically grown greens, and sold at an organic-only market in Pittsburg. We had never seen such beautiful food or so many customers. It was a revelation. We WWOOFed for 2.5 months, but as winter approached, we realized that we needed full time work.

   While we were sending out applications, something pivotal happened: Silver Wheel was part of a collaborative, 14-farm CSA that served rural communities in western PA. One day while loading shares, the farmers realized that we were short on onions. Nate and I were sent to one of the participating farms to get 50 pounds more. That particular farmer was Amish, and his onions were stored at his friend’s barn. He jumped in the back of our little Saturn and we drove to the barn. En route, he asked a big question: What did we want to do with our lives? We told him that we would love to farm, but that since you can’t make a living doing that, we’d just get professional jobs and have a great hobby farm on the side.

   He stopped us short and said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make a living farming. If that’s what you want to do, you can farm.”

   Soon after, I landed an AmeriCorps job on a demonstration farm in Maine. We set off for the Northeast, ready to build careers. But the Amish farmer’s words reverberated in our minds.

   We took all sorts of jobs in Maine, from farm educators to crossing guards. One day, Nate was talking with a group of third graders about why we have sheep on the farm. Pete, the head farmer at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, happened to overhear the conversation. He was impressed that Nate addressed the easy answers (Wool! Fertilizer! Mowing services!) as well as the fact that death was a part of farming.

   From then on, Pete took us under his wing. He introduced us to rotational grazing and the idea that you could simultaneously love and respect your animals, treat them well, care for the land, and feed you community without contradiction. He was patient with us, quick with a laugh, and seemed to believe in us from the start. His vote of confidence meant a great deal to us.

   Our time working and living in Maine made a big impression on us, and for good reason: People have been farming organically in Maine for over 40 years, and they have the progress to prove it. There, we attended farm tours and fairs with MOFGA. We saw young people like ourselves—folks with a liberal arts degree and a dream—starting farms, raising food, and making it. It helped that they had a clear structure for success (over 90 percent of folks who go through MOFGA’s multi-year training programs are still farming 20 years later … more on that another day).

   We made a big decision while we were in Maine: Farming could be our vocation and passion.

   We decided we’d need some guaranteed cash flow, though, so I chose to go to grad school to increase my odds at getting a solid job once we started our farm. Grad school took us to Vermont, where we found another thriving food system and more farming mentors.

   Nate worked at several farms while I was in grad school, including the remarkable CSA-only, full diet year-round CSA operation, Essex Farm in New York. But after school, we decided to step back from being employees and instead apprentice. We took the pay cut so that we could ask every question and really look behind the curtain of a strong farm business.

   At Maple Wind Farm, we learned to mend fences, set up a killer display for market, rotationally graze pigs, consider a consumer’s needs, make spreadsheets, and process hundreds of chickens per day. We owe a lot to Bruce and Beth, and we still call them every once in a while with questions.

   It was tempting to stay in the northeast, where the sustainable food community was strong and growing. But our families were in Indiana, as was the family land. We decided that if everyone who goes to Vermont stays there, Vermont doesn’t get that much better and places like Indiana get worse. We resolved to bring our lessons home and try to help make Indiana the kind of place we want it to be.

   Today, four years after moving home, I think we’re headed in the right direction. We just finished the fourth year establishing Nightfall Farm. But we’ll have to tell you about our farm next month.

   This blog was originally posted and shared with us by Indiana Farmers Union. Each week a different blog is posted, written by Hoosier farmers at all stages—from just beginning to long-established. If you’re an Indiana Farmers Union member and are interested in writing for the website or in learning more about the many benefits of joining Indiana Farmers Union, please contact Sherri Dugger at sdugger@nfudc.org.

 

 

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