guest essay: farm mentors
Recently I asked Christina Miller of GreenBow Farm if she would be interested in writing an essay about her experience as a new farmer and the mentors she has relied on for advice. She was really enthusiastic about tackling the mentor topic, mostly because she felt that she had no formal mentor and suffered a bit in her first year of farming from trial by error and a little bit of isolation. Through her sheer diligence, and thanks from a little help from social media she has built a mentoring community of female farmers around the world. In this interesting piece, Christina invites several farmer friends for a virtual cup of coffee to chat about mentoring, farming advice.
Let's keep the conversation going - please tell us in the comments below who your mentors are and the best advice you received!
Thank you to Christina for tackling this subject and to all the ladies who participated in this piece!
Farm Mentors - by Christina Miller
My husband Matt and I started our farm three years ago with only a small amount of practical farming knowledge and a piece of land that was pretty much a blank slate when it came to infrastructure other than a couple of three sided horse shelters made out of scraps. We both brought a serious passion for food, a willingness to learn, and a desire to grow the best possible food.
Matt brought practical abilities to farming, like carpentry, electrical and mechanical skills in addition to his decade of restaurant cooking experience. I brought over a decade of working for PCC Natural Markets, a food cooperative in the Seattle area, where I learned not only about food, farming, and nutrition advocacy but how to educate our co-op community about these ever changing issues.
When it comes to local sustainable food, education always has to be at the heart of the conversation. Small farms like ours will never be able to compete with big box stores or factory farmed food. Because of this I have made it my focus to teach people about how and why we raise the food the way we do and share recipes that make local seasonal food apart of our and hopefully their everyday meals.
I remember someone asking me who my farming mentors are and I totally drew a blank. I felt like a bit of a fraud, education has always been important to me but I’ve never taken formal classes or been an intern on a farm. When we moved to our farm I was 5 months pregnant with a 2 and 4 year old in tow. My education is mostly trial by error, books, lectures, farm tours, and hundreds of conversations with other farmers mostly through social media. One thing we didn’t foresee when we started a farm with young children was how hard it would be leave to do things off of the farm. Believe me, I would have loved to take off for weeks or months at a time to go learn on other peoples farms -- but once we made the leap from our city lives to our lives on the farm, there was only time for work and family life.
So it got me thinking about how many other female farmers may have had a similar experience when learning how to farm. To be honest, writing about farming mentors is really just an excuse to collect rich tidbits from other women’s stories and maybe even feel just a little less of a fraud not having any traditional education. I chose women whom I’ve either worked with at markets and our local farming community, or who I have had ongoing conversations with from afar about farming and family. I asked each of them
Who has been, or is a farming mentor to you?
Was there any piece of advice that surprised you?
Shelley Pasco-Verdi: I had so many mentors, it’s hard to narrow down. The first was when I was married the first time to a non-farmer, and we went to the Tilth Producers conference. I was only dreaming of farming then. They had a farm tour as a part of the conference, I can’t remember the of the farm but they were an older couple named Glen and Charlotte. He was a crusty organic hippie, and she was.... very sweet. We were chatting and she gripped my arm and said something to the effect of “ You have to know what you want. That’s all! Just picture it exactly as you want it, everyday, hold it in your mind. If you are consistent, it will happen. You have to believe in it.” I was dumb, and young, and thought she was just and aging flower-child, but SHE WAS RIGHT. My marriage didn’t last much longer, but the path to farmer started right away. I found our current neighbor, Bob, who liked my farm plan and initiative, let me use ¼ acre of his property to play farmer. He helped me get my ground ready, and was my real mentor, filling me with tidbits of farmer wisdom and generally encouraging me, in quiet Montanan style. He is still a mentor, even though he has asked us to buy his property. What a wonderful, sweet, ornery man. There have been may others--Michaele Blakely was one of my firsts as well. My opinion about myself as a farmer was boosted significantly when she showed me how to butcher chickens and pull their heads off (after they were dead, of course). I lost my mom before I had babies, but there are several other farmer women who are my surrogate moms now that I have kid+farming+aging husband challenges. Now they are more the mentors I need than farm mentors.
Blair Prenoveau: I have been lucky to have some amazing older farmers as teachers, not sure I can say any were mentors in the traditional sense either. Various farmers I lived with, worked for, met in passing, certainly imparted loads of wisdom and experience, but I quickly learned to never be surprised about anything I was taught or told in regard to farming. Tabor, my dear friend, is probably the closest thing to a mentor I have. I lived with and worked with him on and off for several years. He taught me to spin wool, make cheese, and a hundred other tasks which were calling to me. Though he would likely not call himself a mentor, as he is only a few years older than I and still learning himself. He is quite humble about his mostly self-taught wisdom. I call him when I face a new experience with a creature, have a question about ingredients in fermented soda, or just commiserate about losing a favorite animal. He is more my friend than anything, but shouldn’t all our friends be able to mentor and teach us in some way? As for advice that surprised me, I think that came more in the form of shocking stories from farmers rather than actual advice. One example, the 90 something year old farmer we got our milking shorthorn bovine from, Stuart Rowe, told me how he had recently hitched up a cow overnight because his friend would be heading east to pick her up early the following day. By morning the cow was tangled in the rope and had strangled herself to death. Ninety years old and still learning what not to do. The phrase he used rings often in my head: when you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock. We all know the heartbreak there.
Whitney Johnson: I’ve had many mentors along the way and have noticed that all of my mentors also had many mentors. When I started out I really wanted there to be a simple-one-way-of-farming and I wanted it spelled out clearly by one person, maybe more like a traditional apprenticeship or school. The more farms I went to I realized that no one really knew what they were doing or had simple answers.They really just had stories for why they did what they did. It was mostly experience based so you could either learn from your experiences or others’. What started out as being a big frustration -not having a clear formula- has turned out to be one of my favorite things about farming. A lot of problem solving, a lot of trying, and a lot of talking with other folks about what they’ve tried. The best (and somehow most surprising) piece of advice I got was that “ there are as many ways to farm as there are farmers.” That phrase runs through my head relatively often and helps me calm the You’re Doing It Wrong voice, which is unhelpful to most things in life. “.....Shouldn’t all our friends be able to mentor and teach us in some way?” I agree wholeheartedly! Since I became interested in farming there have been so many people that I admire in one way or another and really look to as a model or mentor to varying degrees. Fortunately a lot of them are my friends and co-workers.
Christina Miller: I love that quote about the many ways to farm. It rings true to me as a new farmer because the fact is that each piece of farmland is so different it would be impossible to have a rulebook for how you will work that land with its particular climate and topography, what you will choose to grow, what breed of animals you will raise, and how it will all work together or not work together in some cases. I find that our best decisions are made after long term observations, some patience, and a lot of mistakes. This leads to my last question. What aspect of farming would you still like to learn more about? I personally would like to learn more about animal butchery partially for my own benefit but also to teach others about it. We butchered two of our pigs the winter before last with another family that helped us raise them and it was a such an amazing experience. It was both mentally and physically demanding but in the end we had so much nourishing food to feed our two families and friends that it was totally worth it.
Whitney Johnson: Soils! Such a dynamic system that it almost seems like magic to me. Also, plant biology specifically how/when nutrients move through different parts of the plant.
Blair Prenoveau: SO MUCH I want to learn-- yes soil is a big one for me too, how to make really good compost. I want to learn more about holistic land management and biodynamic pasture management. Along with butchering, charcuterie, cheese-making, tanning hides, leather working, processing wool, weaving, hand carving utensils, bowls.. Essentially how to produce as much of what we consume as possible.The list is endless.
Shelley Pasco-Verdi: I always knew that I only grasped about 2% of the knowledge out there. But until we started homeschooling I didn’t realize that it was really only 1%. There is so much to know and understand. I want to spend my time learning about everything, farm and non-farm. Because it is really all one. If I have to choose specifically, what farming subjects do I want to learn more about...it would be how to perfect the whole farm crop rotation. There is always too many brassicas and it throws the rotation off. I want to fulfill my destiny as a mobile sponge of all things knowledge.
Blair Prenoveau: I agree with Shelley. I want to learn it ALL.
Christina Miller: Thank you ALL. Thank you for sharing your stories and dreams they have been enlightening and now I want to go out and spend the rest of my life collecting more of these stories. I think these kinds of conversations are so important to share and retell and help us to shape the future of agriculture. I really wanted to write about this topic but my own experience felt so new, small, and disjointed it didn’t seem enough to sustain a whole conversation about farm mentors. I am glad that I reached out and asked you to tell your stories and I am glad to know so many talented Women!
I want to meet and learn from as many farmers as I can but we are always so busy farming and raising our family that the opportunities seem so few and far between and now I am looking at all of those patched together pieces of knowledge I have accumulated and small bits of conversations with other farmers so differently and giving them the respect they deserve. I of course would have preferred we could all get together and have this conversation over coffee but I’m glad we were able to do it virtually. Next time maybe we can have the conversation over a giant farm feast celebrating winter solstice.
Female Farmer Bios:
Christina Miller started Green Bow Farm with her husband Matthew Cox and there three sons in 2012. They rotationally graze poultry, sheep, and cattle on 23 acres in Kittitas Valley, Washington. In addition to pasture raised eggs and grass-fed meats they produce fiber products and rich compost that helps them grow fruits and vegetables for their family and hopefully added value foods to sell at farmers markets in the future.
Blair Prenoveau tends to 40 acres in Northern California with her husband Dave Rowe, and their kids, working to produce what they consume and heal the land. They keep a small herd of rotationally grazed, pasture fed bovine, chickens, and sometimes pigs, with big dreams of growing more food, and grazing more animals on more land.
Shelley Pasco-Verdi and her husband Michael Verdi run Whistling Train Farm in Kent, Washington. She always wished she grew up on a farm. When she was ten years old she started begging her parents to let her keep farm animals. Discouraged from pursuing a farm career by school counselors, and after deciding against veterinary school, she worked towards a degree in graphic arts. Her passion for farming rose to the surface again in 1996 after touring a CSA farm, and she was hooked. In 2007 she finally realized her dream of 30 years–owning her own milk cow.
Whitney Johnson worked on farms in Western Washington and Southern Arizona before setting down her suitcase in Central Washington three years ago. She co-manages Cloudview, a certified organic mixed vegetable and tree fruit farm in the Columbia Basin. Her favorite part of every season is learning and growing alongside the plants and interns!
originally published January 22, 2015