Two Young Farmers Discuss Their Sustainable Farming Enterprise, Offer Advice to Aspirants
January 21, 2013 | Pamela Ellgen
The following is a candid conversation with young farmers, Matt Hyde and Sarah Wertz about their operation, Rabbit Run Farm in Skull Valley, Arizona.
What compelled you, especially as a young couple to get into sustainable farming?
We both enjoy working outdoors and eating good food. The farming lifestyle represents our values and beliefs. Also, we took the class Small Scale Agriculture at Prescott College held at Whipstone Farm in Paulden, Arizona. Following the class, we talked with the farmers Cory and Shanti and asked if we could work for them the following season. We really enjoyed it! The next season, Byrnie at Ridgeview Farms offered us land to use as kind of a trial for farming on our own The next season we were offered the farm manager position at Jenner Farm in Skull Valley and moved our farming operation there. We’ve been farming ever since.
How do you fit within the growing trend of young people choosing to enter the sustainable farming trade?
As the public’s interest in knowing where its food comes from, and as the farming population ages, farming provides an opportunity for a stable career for young people — even if it may take a while to become financially sustainable. Most people have this romantic vision of what farming looks like. We’ll have people come out to the farm and say, “It must be so nice!” It is a great life, but it’s a joke among farmers — the romantic vision of the sun setting and the birds singing while you’re out in the field after a hard day’s work. It takes a lot of work to get to that point.
The reality is, you’re doing lots of crazy things that people don’t realize, like getting up at 1AM and strapping on a headlamp to harvest lettuce at night because it will be 100 degrees by morning.
There are a lot of aspects that are romantic, such as pulling a carrot out of the ground and eating it. That is amazing! But again, it requires a lot of work before you get to that point.
The actual number of young people we know who are seriously trying to make a living at farming is still small. Although there is a lot of curiosity toward this way of living, young people don’t have land being handed over to us; both Matt and I grew up in families that didn’t have farmland. However, there is a push to connect retiring farmers with young people who are interested in farming.
How did you acquire your land and what do you grow?
Presently, we are farming in Skull Valley at Jenner Farm, which we manage for Prescott College and are allowed about four acres of it for our own commercial farming operations. We grow arugula, basil, beets, bok choy and tatsoi, braising greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, melons, cucumbers, cut flowers, eggplant, garlic, green beans, lettuce, salad turnips, Italian flat leaf parsley, kale, leeks, okra, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, salad mix, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tomatoes and squash.
What sustainable farming practices do you use?
We use organic practices, but are not certified organic. We do not use synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. Drip tape has proven very efficient for low water use, as well as cover cropping, crop rotation, allowing fields to lay fallow to let the soil rebuild for a couple years, managing weed barriers for pests to eat and to keep habitat for beneficial insects and birds.
How have you achieved economic viability?
The farm pays for itself, but it’s not paying enough for us to live without other income, so we have off-farm jobs in the winter. We started out with nothing, no tools, no money. We didn’t get a huge loan, so we’re slowly acquiring the tools we need. We’re hoping eventually the farm will become economically sustainable and we will be able to grow more in the winter. To that end, we recently received the NRCS Equip Grant and just finished putting our high tunnel up. We never could have afforded it without the grant.
We’re really appreciative of people who have supported us, offering land or tools or knowledge. For us, it’s hard to ask for help when we need it, but farming is such a community thing.
What advice do you have for other young farmers?
Work on a farm, better yet a few different farms, particularly with farmers who are doing something you may want to do. What you think you want to do and what you’re able to do are two different things, so be flexible. Seek out people who are experts in your field. If you want to run a farm, the best way to do it is to first work for a farm that pays the bills at the end of the day.
Don’t get too attached to one farm place, especially if you don’t own it; we’ve had so many people offer us land to use, but it’s not always a permanent offer. Many of our friends have left Arizona because it’s challenging to find land here.
Finally, don’t rush to get into debt to purchase land or equipment, especially if you don’t have farming experience.