Bike Trip Across Rural America Results in Techie’s Conversion to Sustainable Farmer
July 2, 2012 | Hana Lurie
How does a Los Angeles-based techie completely disconnected from food and agriculture end up a passionate sustainable farmer? It’s really quite simple. The techie-turned-farmer in question, one Nathan Winters, strikes out on a 4300-mile bike ride across America’s rural landscapes to find inspiration. He works on a number of farms along the way and ends up with a passion for organic “bootstrap” agriculture that leads him to start Relly Bub Farm in southern Vermont.
I recently spoke with Winters to learn more about his embrace of agriculture, how his cross country trip shaped his philosophy on farming, his words of wisdom for new farmers, the challenges he faces and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Nathan Winters: (laughs) Well, I got into farming four years ago when I was biking across America. I was working on farms and interviewing farmers of all shapes, sizes, colors, practices and philosophies. When I wrapped that journey up, I moved to northern Vermont and started working on an organic diversified farm – Applecheek Farm – and I just became really in touch and attached to the farming lifestyle in a very intimate way. I really enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of farmers. Essentially, I decided that if I was going to put in hours a week, that I should start farming on my own. So the quest was on in terms of finding a place to farm and [sufficient] resources.
I found myself moving to southern Vermont and started out really small – basically, one third of an acre of garden, and some hens and chickens. That went pretty well, and I started to build a pretty solid rapport in the community here. I felt like I would be supported, so I decided to expand. I ended up toiling about an acre of soil and I’ve got an acre garden right now. I’ve got two batches of meat chickens – 300-something total – and 100 laying-hens. It’s been a pretty interesting journey in terms of finding some folks who believe in what I’m doing and who are providing me with some support [with] CSA memberships and slow money investments.
Q: Did you intentionally set out on your cross-country trip with a plan to explore some pre-existing interest in farming?
Nathan Winters: No, I was actually completely disconnected from food, farming and agriculture altogether. In fact, that’s one thing that I talk about early on in a manuscript that I’ve started based on this. I worked in technology – mostly software development and project management in Los Angeles – and in 2008 when the economy took a dive, the greatest thing that ever happened to me was that I got laid off from my job (laughs). It gave me the opportunity to travel, and I was interested in exploring the rural countryside of America. Of course, once I started to travel the country, it was very apparent that agriculture is certainly a timeless profession here and that it defines the backbone of our economy and culture. My curiosity was piqued.
Q: Is your farm certified organic?
Nathan Winters: Not certified, but organic. I don’t mess with any kind of sprays that are on a “NOP” list. I stick to hand-weeding, squashing pests, and mulching. My values are pretty straightforward, and I don’t use synthetic chemicals or feed my animals GMO crops. I’m not certified organic because I personally feel that the USDA has watered down the criteria of what is organic. I understand the value of certifying your farm organic from a consumer standpoint, but I’ve been pretty successful in having a consumer base that knows me and understands my values.
Q: Can you describe some of the sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Nathan Winters: I think that one of the most unique aspects of my farming endeavors is the fact that I can apply my tech and marketing background to farming. Because I’m savvy with social media and software development, I am able to create a really solid web presence, which builds transparency and allows consumers and customers to follow the farm along.
In terms of practices, I have been sort of forced into a bootstrap mode where I have to rely on recycled materials, barter, help from my neighbors… so there’s a lot of ingenuity here. If you see my chicken coops or my greenhouse made with recycled windows and rain barrels, [you can see that] I spend my days finding junk and turning it into something useful. I also apply straw-mulch – I found 75 bales of straw-mulch for free on a barter with some veggies, and I’m going to mulch about an acre of vegetables.
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Nathan Winters: Why don’t I look out the window right now… I’m looking at peas, mesclun greens, fennel, leeks, arugula, three varieties of kale, shallots, onions, tomatoes (about 300 tomato plants of multiple varieties), 5 or 6 varieties of potatoes, hot and sweet peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, snap beans, melons, pumpkins, cilantro, basil, thyme, dill, romaine – everything. Of course I’ve got seven old-spot pigs, at the moment 150 meat chickens, and 100 Golden Comet lay hens. I’ve got six Peking ducks for eggs and meat.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Nathan Winters: (laughs) You tell me! To be honest with you, I’ve been fully reliant on support [from] community members, friends, believers. So at this point the farm is not profiting. I’m on a three year plan: if I can survive the first year – which I have – then I can put myself in a place where I won’t have to incur those first year expenses and can start to build a customer base and generate sales. If the farm breaks even this year, it would be successful.
I don’t do a farmers market. I don’t know that a farmers market fits into the style of farming that I’m interested in. It’s great community building; however, it’s also a lot of work – you have to wake up at 4 AM, get everything ready to harvest and package, set up, and if the weather is crummy you don’t make any money. I see the value in it; it’s just not for me.
I’m much more interested in the CSA model where I already know who the customer is, what they want, and [that way] I can plan for their harvest. Creating good rapport with the chefs in the local area is the business model that I’m looking at, too. Also, transparency in a community comes along with the CSA. You’re able to have conversations with people and it gives them a chance to be educated in terms of why the cucumbers aren’t ready or being patient about the laying hens – those types of things. So if you’re really looking to rejuvenate a local food economy and trying to make a shift in the paradigm of how food is valued, the way to do it is through transparency and education.
Q: What kind of challenges does the farm face?
Nathan Winters: I think one of the main challenges is expenses – everyday is misleading. If I had any advice to a newbie farmer, I would say go ahead and create your business plan/spreadsheet, and then fry it up and eat it for breakfast. You might as well just double your expenses and cut your profits in half. [For my farm], there’s predation in terms of animals – I lost one piglet and probably 16 chickens so far. So there are losses. It’s all kind of contingent on the weather and Mother Nature.
Q: What are your future goals for the farm?
Nathan: The ideal situation [would be] a five-acre mid-scale meat production CSA farm with 60 members. Horses instead of rototillers, permaculture practices, perennials, biomass.. all types of things. But as of now, I just do the best I can.
Q: Can you tell me about the book that you are compiling about your interactions with American farms and farmers?
Nathan Winters: The book has really taken a lot of twists and turns. In the beginning, it was going to be a collection of vignettes from the farms that I had visited. But the story has a lot to do with the evolution of how I got into farming, got over a lot of fears/doubt, and wasn’t afraid to go after something that I was passionate about. What I’d really like to do is to share the voices of these people who are making a difference all across the country, but it’s also a personal journey. It was much more than asking about practices or philosophies – it was more about unraveling as I encountered these people and how they shaped my view of the world, specifically food production. It’s kind of like Jack Kerouac and Michael Pollan hop on a tandem bike and go across the country. I have been blessed to have been working with some freelance editors that have helped me a lot, and now it’s time for me to put my heart and soul into the last leg of the journey.