Monday, November 9, 2009

The Search for Good Ground

When we first brainstormed names for our farm business we sat around the table and created a page-long list of possibilities. Apart from some serious attempts at naming there were plenty of jokes and puns in the mix, most of which were based on the fact that when we started the farm we didn't really have a secure piece of land to call our own. Wandering Farmers, Field-less Farms... you get the idea. For the first couple of seasons we were able to begin our dry bean production on a 1/4-acre plot on loan from our former employer, Sauvie Island Organics, with the understanding that if we were serious about farming we would find our own piece of ground eventually. We decided that we were serious, and so the search for good land commenced.

We followed a few leads from friends who knew people who might have some land to lease on the Island, but it can be difficult to find a good fit, even when people think they might want a farm in their front yard. First of all, leasing rates for farm land are not particularly high and often times folks who aren't farmers themselves are surprised at how little the going rate is for farm acreage. And then there is the realization that with a front yard farm comes equipment, and people, and that doesn't always work for everyone. We completely understand. So the search for some good ground is not always as easy as finding an open field that does not grow food at the moment. It's a process that is more like dating, checking out to see if you are a good fit, if you'll get along, if the dog likes you, if it's okay for the parents to come to the farm too. So we dated around a bit, and thought, "maybe there isn't anyone out there for us." Good thing we had a box spring to sell.

Like most good relationships, our search was answered when we least expected it. On a rainy night in North Portland, our new landlord showed up at our house in response to a craigslist add for a queen-sized box spring that wouldn't fit up our narrow stairs to the attic room. Thank goodness for narrow stairways. We had actually met Tom before, over a year before, in the early stages of our landlord dating, before we were ready for a real commitment. But there Tom was, buying our box spring, and there we were ready to dive in for a long-term thing. It turned out that Tom's business had bought a 40-acre farm on the Island instead of a space in a strip-mall to run their field office for their environmental consulting firm. They rented out most of the acreage to one of the family farmers on the Island, were turning ten acres back into wetlands, and did have a few small parcels that might work for us to use. We ended up with three small fields, making up a total of one half an acre surrounding a picturesque and dilapidated falling down barn. We were allowed to use any space that we could clean out so the old milking shed became our storage and pack-out area. Before we could even start prepping the ground thousands of 4-inch plastic pots needed to be unearthed and cleaned out of the fields. Prior to Tom, the land was used for a nursery business, and while his company did their best to clean out the remnants of the old hoop houses, we continue to find pieces of nursery pots, ground cloth, and even steel legs of the houses when we till. It is nice to know we've left the ground better than we started.

This past summer we realized that for our business to continue to grow we would have to get better at growing more in the same amount of space, and also continue to look for a little more ground for the future. We also found out that the old barn would be taken down this winter, possibly affecting some of our fields with heavy equipment in the process. We did get better at using our space well, and we started to date again, to see if we could find a perfect fit. When I originally sat down to write this story, I thought it would end with the frustration of the search, of trying to secure access to the most basic foundation of the farm operation. But today, I'm in the honeymoon stage of a new relationship. Last week our landlord let us know that the other farmer was willing to have us use an acre of the main field on the property. Red Truck Farm may have a new home.

It's not easy to dive right in on new soil (we've done it twice in the past four years!) and we won't know how it will produce for us until at least a season or two have passed, but we are hopeful at the thought of getting to set down some roots and invest in the soil. While the old barn on the property comes down this next season, our crops will have good ground to grow in, and our walk-behind tractor won't have to move too far. Wendell Berry writes in Prayers and Sayings of a Mad Farmer, "the real products of any year's work are the farmer's mind and the cropland itself... Make the human race a better head. Make the world a better piece of ground." We're working on it Mad Farmer, we're working on it.