February 14, 2003: Sitting at a table on
the front porch of the Buck’s Harbor Market in Brooksville,
Maine, on a perfect July afternoon four years ago with a grilled
ham and cheese sandwich, a copy of Henry Miller’s Big
Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and NO
CLUE, I decided it was time to affect a positive change in
my life. I would become a farmer. An honest, functional philosopher.
Now, at twenty-one, I was a two-time college dropout giving
consideration to a different whim every five minutes. So when
I called my parents, on whose small organic farm in southeastern
Pennsylvania I’d grown up, and in which I’d previously
shown little if any interest, I met with not unexpected skepticism.
But it was July, and everything was beginning to get a bit
ahead of them, as happens. So they were at least amenable
with, if not quite grateful for, my revelation. (They had,
after all, footed the bill for my miseducation and now I was
moving back home. Again.)
“Do us all a favor, though, and stop in on Eliot,”
they said. “Have a look at what he’s up to.”
Eliot Coleman, for those of you not yet familiar with this
pioneering champion of small-scale, local-organic farming,
is exactly that. And then some.
When I paid Mr. Coleman a visit the next day, I was warmly
welcomed, and what most immediately struck me wasn’t
his achievement over the past 30 years of a seamless cooperation
of planting, harvesting and packaging systems carefully tailored
to fit perfectly his local markets—he wasn’t even
in production in July! He farms three seasons, Fall through
Spring. Winter! In Maine!
But it was neither that seemingly unbelievable fact, nor
the number of books with his name on the spine on the rack
that did it. What got me was who he is. I don’t think
I’d ever before met such a vital character. The fullness
of his communion with and stewardship of the land came back
to me just standing there listening to him speak.
And I realized for the first time that there are more of
the same different breed of people out there. People like
So I went home. And a few long, sun burnt weeks later I left
for Flickerville Mountain Farm and Groundhog Ranch in Dott,
PA. My parents’ friends and mentors, Ward Sinclair and
Cass Peterson, had started up an organic vegetable subscription
service, or modified CSA, at Flickerville a few years ahead
of my folks’ own undertaking. Over the years, Ward and
Cass successfully transformed their subscription service into
a booming business of restaurant deliveries and market sales.
When I arrived with a notebook and instructions to “pick
their brains” as well as their tomatoes in the middle
of August, Brian Cramer, Flickerville’s field manager,
and Cass Peterson were looking to the end of what was to be
their last season. Ward had passed tragically of cancer a
few years earlier, and this was, as always, a particularly
hard year. There hadn’t been rain in months, it seemed.
And the interns had left early. (And I might as well tell
you now, as the sooner you hear it the better: Good help is
hard to find. And, unless you live in California and exploiting
Mexican laborers doesn’t weigh too heavily on your conscience,
even harder to keep.)
But despite the difficult uncertainty they were facing,
Brian and Cass filled most of my notebook, and I went back
home with valuable lessons learned, invaluable experience
inherited. Beyond some great variety names, growing, harvesting
and packaging tips, all of which I’ll save for later,
the best lesson for the beginner I came home from Flickerville
with is the familiar old adage: Patience is a virtue. You
start with a seed. It won’t happen all at once. Ward
and Cass’ first market day brought in $25. Their second
$11. Their third $10. In their last season, Flickerville had
$2,500 market days at Takoma Park, MD.
I once heard someone say that experience is what you get
when you don’t get what you expected. Nothing could
be more true, especially on the farm. And, as is mainly the
point of this column, someone with experience willing to share
may be able to save you a few surprises. Or at least grant
you an easier understanding of what’s happened when
you find yourself lying flat on your back.
Everyone I met everywhere I went served to shore up my initial
suspicion that what I was looking for I’d found on the
farm. I was supremely fortunate in that I had a place and
a way in. If you haven’t yet got a place, don’t
worry. We’ll also address that at a later date. And
even though we know every beginning farmer’s situation
is different, what my folks and I are trying to do today is
extend to all of you an invitation. Of sorts.
So you want to be a farmer . . .
“There are three ways to do things,” says Robert
DeNiro in Casino. “The right way. The wrong
way. And my way.” The first thing you need to know is
yourself. (This, by the way, does not apply exclusively to
getting started in farming.) What I’m saying is that
if you’re looking for A WAY to get your farm started,
stop. Look for YOUR WAY to get your farm started. Whether
it’s the backyard or the back forty, dig it up and get
dirty. Get the earth under your fingernails and in your blood.
Leave the formulas to chemists and mathematicians. The recipes
to chefs. No one can tell you exactly how to make it happen
and only you can do it.
Listen to everything anyone has to say, and question every
answer anyone gives you. Then examine the answers you supply
to every question you come up with. I can tell you I think
the goal is to make the farm a functional extension of yourself
(once you know who that is). And I can guarantee the realization
of your dream will give you a good reason to get out of bed
every day. (Though once in a while you may, and probably should,
question that reason.) Farming is hard. We’ve probably
all worked 14-hour days for two or three weeks in a row. And
none of us are rolling in dough. But on a good day you get
back a bit more than you put in. And it follows that shortcuts
will only leave you shortchanged.
You still with me?
We’re coming into September of the first year of my
farm odyssey now. Things are slowing down. It’s time
to sit back and relax. Time to reflect on the season’s
lessons, surprises and successes. Right?
Sure. As soon as you’re done with the coming season.
When I decided to become a farmer, I did so with my usual
burnout-bent obsession. Armed with half a season’s experience,
Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Manual and the
desire not to work a meaningless job for a boss ever again,
I just kept going.
My parents had put up a small 14- X 96-foot high tunnel hoophouse
to extend their subscription season a few years earlier, and
in September I moved inside. Lettuce, salad mix, arugula,
kale, chard, spinach, carrots, hakurei turnips, parsley and
me. This was the office.
If you’re getting started, buy a hoophouse. If you’re
just thinking about getting started, think about buying a
hoophouse. Then buy one. You’re looking at probably
$1,000 for a kit similar to the one I began with. It will
pay for itself in a month of production. And filling it with
quick-hit, cut-and-come-again greens will present you with
an unbelievably steep learning curve.
I called it “the office,” but it functionally
afforded me the most stimulating classroom environment I’d
found in my life. Working on a small scale forces careful
logistical consideration of each square foot of available
space. It gives you a focused, close-up view of what you’re
Some day, with a foot of fresh snow on the ground, you’ll
walk out to the hoophouse and open the door and stand in awe
of the Edenic scene of which you are steward. Appreciate this
moment. Because now it’s time to try to pay the bills.
And while it’s undoubtedly true that highest-quality
fresh, local organic produce will sell itself, there is a
little more to the story.
See, someone has to crouch and bend and kneel and twist to
harvest this produce. Someone has to wash it, plunging hands
into tubs of water when it’s 25 degrees outside. Someone
has to spin it dry, weigh and package it. Someone has to drive
it out to the health food store or the restaurant and talk
to the manager or the chef. Someone has to say, “Hey,
this is who I am. This is what I’m doing. Here’s
my card. Here’s three pounds of salad mix for which
I ask $6.50 a pound for free. I’ll call you in a week
to see what you think. If you haven’t used it by then,
don’t worry. It’ll still be good.” And someone
has to do this and say this again and again, and maybe again,
until the money starts coming in.
Is that someone you?