NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Stoney Lonesome Farm, VA

Coming home
On taking the leap; reflections of a first-year farmer.

By Pablo Elliott



Stoney Lonesome Farm
Gainesville, VA

Farmers: Pablo Elliot and Esther Mandelheim

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables (always lots of tomatoes)

Location: 35 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Marketing strategies: CSA, farmers' market

February, 2005. My decision to take the farming leap was the culmination of various, loosely-connected events. I'll boil it down to three points:

1. I spent the summer of 1999, before my senior year at Vassar College, working as an intern for a start-up CSA on a portion of the college's largely neglected farm. The Poughkeepsie Farm Project was the brainchild of various Vassar professors and the talented farmer, Dan Guenther. Dan was a savvy mentor who taught us that most useful skill for a grower: veggie bribery.

2. Six months of a post-college internship at a Washington, D.C., non-profit/corporate environment will make any reasonable soul yearn for some fresh air.

3. My family’s overgrown farm, just 35 miles west of Washington DC, had an irresistible magic that tugged me to it even as I repeatedly tried to resist the idea of farming. We had moved from Stoney Lonesome Farm shortly after I was born, but held onto it through 25 years of little use. The mystical beauty of the farm, even in its state of increasing decay, pulled me above the cloud of flawed perceptions about farming, and I awoke to a golden opportunity. Above the fears of ‘being stuck’ and ‘hard work’, I saw in farming the possibility of a real freedom unattainable in other pursuits.

So I decided on a three-step plan to get me onto the farm and give farming a whirl.

Season 1: Start a Garden.

Season 2: Sell Something.

Season 3. Make it work.

This basic plan proved a good one. The first garden was about 1/16 of an acre; the second one a quarter-acre; and at the end of Step 3, more than an acre, with 30 CSA members in tow.

The start-up of a CSA program was a dramatic change and a giant leap. Esther, my girlfriend, had no experience farming, and I had little. I became ‘Grower’ and she the ‘Coordinator.’ This was a good way to generally divide the various tasks that comprise a CSA.

We shared much of the work, the big parts being harvest, distribution, and the newsletter. I did most of the planting while Esther was at her part-time job. Esther did most of the newsletter, and neither of us did much weeding! With a little planning and a lot of help from friends, we managed to put a good amount of quality organic veggies in each weekly share. We made many mistakes, and there’s much to improve upon, but we made the leap and landed safely.

Now we are entering the sophomore year of our CSA, with many new challenges ahead. We must take serious strides toward economic sustainability and endure the growing pains associated with this effort.

If I can pinpoint that most important ingredient in the survival of a new farmer, it is character. And if I can pass on any advice regarding the leap into farming, I offer it below. It is advice I have absorbed from farmers, gardeners, personal experience, failures and small successes.

Advice on taking ‘The Leap’

However you want to talk about it, it is a leap. The start-up of a CSA, or taking the reins of any piece of farmland, is a leap no matter who you are. There’s no way around it. The most important thing to remember is that you take your leap from one bank to the other from the best spot possible.

Make your leap easier by constantly peppering experienced farmers with questions. Make your leap shorter by starting as small as possible. Make it smoother by asking for help when you need it, even when you think you don’t. Make it more comfortable by putting some cash in your bank account, perhaps a non-interest loan from your family that will help you breathe easier when you think about some of those capital investments like greenhouse and tiller.

Make your leap stronger by getting loads of compost on your farm, and quick!

Make your leap smarter by growing comfortable with investing. The greenhouse and electric-fencing investments are essential, but don’t lose sight of those $50 to $300 investments that can make a monumental difference: the Eliot Coleman ‘broad fork’; good, pre-made organic potting soil to start seeds (and a well-built electric heating mat, too); a good set of extra-large picnic coolers; farming books and conferences; rain gear. A 100-percent, no-excuses day off each week.

And ensure a good leap by growing as many tomatoes as possible (the best advice I got from a farmer before the start of the season…thank you Shane LaBrake).

In summary, when making the leap, you don’t have to have everything in place plus 10 years arctic survival training. But help yourself by doing some basic planning, building a simple network of support, and focusing on veggies you know everyone likes, with the exception of corn (don’t fight this battle up front), and don’t forget the flowers. Build the other veggies around these essential things.

Finally, make sure you leap with a pick-up truck, the most important small-farm machine, period.