Starting Farming on the Cheap: An interview with Kristen and Nate Johanson of Wolf Lake Farm
April 16th, 2009
As Kerry Trueman pointed out earlier this week in her post about young farmers (and would-be farmers), there are a lot of them out there, but most lack the funding to realize the dream of contributing to a cleaner, greener, more sustainable food system. While some may be inclined to give up, others get creative, investigating a variety of programs designed to help young agrarians gain experience and even find land to steward. These sites include but are not limited to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service and the Greenhorns’ Serve Your Country Food site. (Find more on page 20 of Cultivating the Web, available for download here).
I really works. Witness Kristen and Nate Johanson of Wolf Lake Farm outside of Pittsburgh, who I met at this year’s Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference, where they presented a panel called “Start Farming with Virtually Nothing: unique arrangements between existing and entering farmers.” Almost exactly one year prior, the Johansons had just returned to the US from a stint in England with a small nest egg, but not nearly enough to buy a place of their own. Shortly after attending their first PASA conference, they placed ads on a few sites, looking for someone who might be willing to share their land with a pair of enthusiastic newbies. It was the note they posted to the PASA listserv that finally connected them with Kim and Dianne Miller, a couple of established poultry farmers who were looking to buy a second farm but needed more hands to keep up the farm they already had.
The Millers didn’t want to take on interns, with the belief that everyone who works on a farm deserves to be called a farmer. After deciding to make a deal with the Johansons, they didn’t want to see them fail and in addition to passing on their customer base, they helped guide Nate and Kristen through their first year of farming.
A year later, speaking at the conference about the experience, all of them agreed they would happily repeat it. Nate and Kristen shared some of what worked well (recycling durable but landfill-bound billboard ads as covers for mobile pens, white side up to keep the birds cool). Diane Miller related some of the organizational tips she’d shared with them over the course of the year, and it was clear that she was proud of how far they’d come.
About halfway through the discussion, the man seated behind me raised his hand and said that he, too, had land to share with a young farmer. At the time, the Johansons were planning on moving to a different farm, so the Millers chimed in, saying that they were looking too, and then about a half dozen other established farmers stood up so that the prospective farmers in the room, many of whom looked quite excited at this point, could identify them and talk to them afterwards.
As an aspiring farmer myself, it was an incredibly hopeful moment, to witness the potential beginning of so many “unique arrangements.” I decided then and there that the Johanson/Miller story needed to be told to more people. What follows is the interview I conducted with Nate and Kristen Johanson, who’ve since decided to stay on another year at Wolf Lake Farm. At next year’s conference, I hope to hear the success stories of the people who stood up during their panel, inspired by their story and in hopes of making a similar connection.
LH: What kind of farming experience did you have before you started your poultry operation at Wolf Lake Farm?
K & N: We had no farming experience whatsoever. Once we decided that we wanted to farm, we read several of Joel Salatin’s books about farming and raising animals naturally on pasture. We also attended our first PASA conference in February, 2008 where we attended several workshops on pastured poultry as well as a hands-on track where we learned how to process chickens.
LH: What sold you on farming in general and poultry in specific?
K & N: Our desire to farm was fueled by our suspicion that this economic failure was on the horizon and by our disgust with the commercial food system. We were in search of a more self-sustainable lifestyle and give credence to the proverb, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Poultry farming wasn’t something we had ever considered but in reading Salatin’s books we learned that poultry was good for beginners who want to make a living farming. This was important to us since we didn’t have a lot of the necessary farming skills and we wanted to start out with something that had the potential for success during our first season. Learning about the horrors of confinement poultry operations contributed greatly to our becoming vegetarians. Due to health reasons we decided to start adding meat back into our diets but were dissatisfied with the quality of natural meat available. To us it was a motivating dissatisfaction which led us down this path. We became excited and inspired to learn about alternative, natural and humane methods of raising poultry and felt drawn towards it because it was so different from any type of farming we had heard of. Farming is hard work but being able to provide ourselves and others with high quality, natural and humanely raised food is well worth it.
LH: What were the sites you looked at/posted to?
K & N: Upon returning from our first PASA conference we posted an ad on Craigslist, on the Western region PASA listserve and in the Horse Trader. The ad stated that we were a young couple looking for small acreage to start our own natural, pastured poultry operation. We mentioned that we were looking for a situation in which we could use the land in exchange for work on the farm. We knew we couldn’t buy a farm nor did we want to having no farming experience. Kim Miller, the past president of the board of PASA replied to our PASA ad immediately.
LH: Were you surprised at how easily you managed to find established farmers who were willing not only to lend you their land, but also help you get started?
K & N: In addition to the Millers, we got several other responses and yes, we were very surprised. Our hope was that there were older farmers who were having trouble keeping up with things on their own. We had heard the story of the folks at Blackberry Meadows who purchased the farm from the owners who were ready to retire. They spent a season working alongside the owners and transitioned to owning and running the farm themselves. That particular situation was very inspiring to us.
Our particular situation was a little different. The owners of the farm, Kim and Dianne Miller, very generously offered us use of their land, tools, equipment and poultry experience in an effort to help new entering farmers. We feel extremely lucky to have found a situation like this and spent our first season learning a lot.
LH: Now that you’ve got a year of farming under your belt, what’s next?
K & N: We’re going to spend another year here while expanding our operation slightly with more broilers, layers and hopefully some pasture-raised lamb. It would be great to start growing some vegetables as well. Our dream is to have our own farm so we will spend this season searching for our next destination. We would love to eventually have a farm co-op with several people involved. That way we can really diversify while having shared responsibility.
LH: What advice would you give to someone who was looking to start farming?
K & N: I think our advice would be to just see what’s out there. Put the word out and see if you can find a farmer in need of some help or who wants to share their land. We feel it’s a great way to get your feet wet and to see how you like farming without making a huge investment. Talk to friends and family about your dreams and see if you can gain their moral and/or financial support. Otherwise, learn how to write a business plan for use in applying for a loan. We really feel that there is a bright future in sustainable farming. Unlike a lot of professions where bigger is better, small local farms that focus on niche markets will undoubtedly have an upper hand in this new economy.