guest essay: unparalleled commitment
By Elaine Vandiver, images provided courtesy of Elaine.
How long have you been farming?
I am just wrapping up my 4th year as a first generation farmer. My husband, Mike, and I raise suri alpaca on our 10-acre farm in Walla Walla.
What kind of education or career did you pursue before farming?
Prior to farming, I was a soldier in the Army. After returning from a yearlong deployment from Iraq and after being honorably discharged, I began working for the federal government in various administrative capacities.
What was the impetus to pursue farming?
The initial impetus was after a 7-year struggle to start a family, including going through every modern infertility procedure available as well as trying to adopt. At the end of that unsuccessful journey, I was mentally and physically depleted. I felt directionless and sad, and most days I felt empty. My lifelong dream of becoming a mother and having a family was not meant to be – I struggled accepting that for a long time. I felt overwhelmed and uncertain about the future, and that conjured up a lot of similar feelings and anxieties I had suppressed from deployment to Iraq.
With time and a lot of self-reflection, I learned that I needed to find something new that would give my life direction and purpose. I needed something to help soothe my soul, allowing me to release the motherhood dream so that I could be receptive to the possibility that new and beautiful things awaited. What I ultimately learned was that I needed two things – a change of scenery and a project.
At the time, we were living in an oversized house surrounded by growing families, and this was making it hard for me to move forward and refocus. Since we didn’t want to leave town altogether, we started looking locally. In our quest for a change of scenery, we found the project…it was an old homestead.
It had a two-story farmhouse that had great bones but needed a lot of love. It had a big old red barn that reminded me of the ones I saw growing up in Indiana. It had a couple of outbuildings that hadn’t been loved in years. It had about 10 acres, most of which was in pasture, without a swing set or sidewalk in sight. It had a big old maple tree and sweeping views of the nearby Blue Mountains. And the whole place was buzzing with life – crickets, frogs, barn owls and birds of all sorts. It was also an old homestead, complete with handwritten records that chronicled its settlement dating back to 1870. So it was a lot like me, it had a history, it had struggle and it had potential. In other words, it was the perfect project.
We had absolutely no plans for what we would do with it, but I was more than okay with that. After infertility treatments that literally controlled years of my life, I was perfectly fine with not having a plan. In fact, I craved the idea of just letting something come to me for a change. We purchased the property in the fall and took possession just before Christmas 2013. Since it was winter, the first project was updating and renovating the old farmhouse. As I look back, having a full blown renovation and a lot of demolition was the perfect salve. When that first spring arrived, we realized what it meant to have 8 acres in pasture. It was a glorious sea of green. That kept growing and growing… Without a tractor, it started to get out of hand quick, so we found a sheep farmer who was looking to lease a little land. That first summer we enjoyed hosting a flock of bummer lambs and some older ewes – that really was the best initiation into farm life.
Realizing they were only there for one season, I started to think about what we could raise on our own. A few internet searches later and we found ourselves at a nearby alpaca farm. I can’t say exactly what it was about my first alpaca experience that made me want to raise some myself – it’s hard to put into words. I felt a connection with them and was in a place in my life where I didn’t want to overanalyze things – where I wanted to go with my gut. And that’s what we did - before our first summer was over we had purchased 3 alpaca. Over the last 4 years, our herd has grown and we now have about 40 on the farm. Everything about this farm venture has been exactly what my heart needed. Learning how to care for them, how to care for the land, being a part of agriculture – it is fantastic. Even learning and working the business side – developing products, marketing and accounting and strategizing – it satisfies both my nurturing side, as well as my creative and adventurous side.
Right now, our primary produce is fiber. We shear the herd annually and have a small artisan fiber mill in Washington process it into yarn. We are fortunate that there is also a small batch machine knitting operation in Washington that takes our yarn and makes finished garments for us. The machine knitting operation not only makes really beautiful garments, most importantly, it’s at an economically attainable scale. As opposed to hand knitting that is time and labor intensive, the machine knitter can produce dozens of hats, scarves and fingerless mittens in minutes. It has been key for us to be able to offer both knitting yarns as well as finished garments because it allows us to reach both crafters and consumers. And the fact it is all made right here in Washington using small independent businesses has been a major point of pride for us.
Another integral component of our operations is value-added processing. After our yarns and garments return from the mill and knittery, I use natural dyeing processes to further make each piece unique and one-of-a-kind. Although alpacas come in many beautiful earth-toned natural shades – from white, to beige, to black and all the variations in between – natural dyeing provides an opportunity to expand the color palette that we are able to offer. Everything from vibrant yellows, oranges and reds, to blues, purples and greens. Being able to transform the fiber naturally is important because alpaca is such a high quality natural fiber that we didn’t want to diminish that by using modern chemical-laden dyeing methods. In learning the art of natural dyeing and sourcing different natural dyestuffs, we learned that many dye plants and flowers can actually grow really well in our zone. As a result, we created an expansive dye garden over the last couple years. This has allowed us to maximize the use of our land, expand our abilities and have more control over our supply chain. We also use the alpacas’ nutrient-dense manure as our primary fertilizer, which is not just a great use of resources, but a very effective one! I’ve really enjoyed incorporating natural dyeing into our fiber and homestead journey, so much so that we also transformed one of our outbuildings (an old stanchion milking parlor) into a functional dye studio. Repurposing the space and giving it new life as a dye studio was another fulfilling and enriching project, and it sure is nice to have a dedicated space to work.
In sharing both our farming and dyeing adventures online, we had a lot of interest in farm visits as well as workshops. This past year we gave more tours than I can recount. We also hosted a 3-part farm-to-needle workshop series to educate folks on how to raise these animals, what it takes to hand process and commercially mill their fiber, and how to naturally dye. The workshops and tours were very successful, so I would definitely say that agritourism is a major facet of our business. We plan to expand those offerings greatly in the 2018 season. And since the dye garden was so productive this past year, and very fulfilling and inspiring on a personal level, we also have plans to begin cut flower production in 2018. I’m really excited about that, not just because I enjoy growing flowers, but because it will diversify our operations. Fiber farming is naturally time-intensive. Our alpacas take a full year to grow the fiber –so we only have one harvest a year—and then it take the better part of another year in processing (milling, knitting, and dyeing). Having a time-to-market that is nearly 2 years presents resource and growth challenges. We’re hopeful and optimistic that adding cut flower production will not only be an enjoyable venture, but one that will help us diversify and better leverage our overall operation.
What skills do you use that you did not expect?
Although there is no shortage of hard manual labor needed, I’d say that it is the mental skill sets that we rely on mostly. Since we both have full time off-farm jobs right now, it became specifically clear early on that we had to be strategic, critical thinkers and time management masters. With limited resources, we had to be smart about where we put our time and finances.
That first year was really rejuvenating for me on so many levels. After all the hard work in establishing pastures and paddocks, mending fences, getting a grip on how and when to irrigate, and then just learning how to raise and keep the animals alive and healthy all year, we actually had something to show for it – three alpaca fleeces that we had professionally milled into this beautiful yarn. To pretty much anyone it was just simply a pile of yarn, but to us, and to me in particular, it ran in stark contrast to the previous 7 years of emotional and physical emptiness. Selling all the yarn was also incredibly gratifying - and that’s when the idea to make it a real business was borne. But not having any previous agricultural experience, not having any textile or fiber arts experience, and not having any business experience, much less while also having full time employment, I knew real quick that the mental skill sets were going to be equally, if not more important that the physical. Having a vision for the farm, even if it is an ever-evolving one, has been critical to planning for future seasons while maintaining during the current one. Taking raw fiber to yarn or finished garment is very similar to mainstream fashion – in that by the time the clothes hit the racks – they represent a year or more worth work. When you consider natural fibers textiles come from livestock that introduces a whole host of different project management skills that become invaluable in balancing and executing multiple priority projects simultaneously. Without strategic planning and time management, bringing our farm-raised fibers to market wouldn’t be possible.
What is your biggest challenge?
Right now our biggest challenge is time. There’s just a finite amount of it! We’ve been bootstrapping our business with full time off-farm employment. In addition, Mike is also a National Guardsman – meaning there’s one weekend every month, and invariably a two week stretch during our busy summer months, where he has to commute 250 miles back to Tacoma to drill with his unit. Having the steady income has been essential, but unfortunately, having separate employment complicates logistics and naturally curbs growth. There are only so many hours in the day. When we are giving 8 of our best hours each day to someone else – that limits the pace at which we can grow the farm business. That has been really difficult for me lately, and it gets more difficult with each passing year because I see so much potential here and I have a lot of ideas on how we can expand and diversify our operations. But there’s only so much time available to launch new things, let alone keep the existing things going. It’s been a good lesson in patience, however, and it’s strengthened my ability to strategize. I’ve taken a lesson from the alpacas in this regard, as I sit and ruminate on things quite a bit before I take action. Ruminating lets me fully digest an idea before committing. It has made me better able at determining what ideas I’ll actually be capable of implementing by considering if it is realistic and financially worthwhile without adding too much risk in other areas of the farm.
What personality characteristics do you have that drew you to farming in the first place?
I’ve found that farming commands an unparalleled level of commitment and intestinal fortitude. You don’t just start a farm overnight and you certainly don’t make it a viable one on inspiration alone. Commitment and fortitude got me through Iraq. Commitment and fortitude pushed me through multiple miscarriages and a litany of painful infertility treatments – and they’re what get me through each tough patch on the farm.
I also think having discipline and a strong work ethic drew me to farming. You can be committed to an idea and have the wherewithal to persevere, but if you don’t actually show up and put in the work, you won’t get far. To obtain even moderate success, it takes consistency. Day in, day out. In the sweltering heat, the bone chilling cold, when it’s raining, when the wind is blowing, and when no one else is watching.
Lastly, I’d also say that my ability to adapt and overcome drew me to farming. After all, starting this farm was borne from a concerted effort to adapt and overcome a difficult situation. Many days, it’s an invaluable attribute because even with regimented discipline and hard work, farming is rooted in nature. Things will happen despite your best efforts. Learning to overcome them without unraveling is paramount.
What do you wish people understood about farming?
I wish people understood that farming is very similar to any other business in that it takes a bunch of upfront capital along with years of hard work before you realize a return. When you look at land acquisition costs and even basic infrastructure, whether it’s a stock or crop operation, agriculture is capital intensive right out of the gate. Then you add the fact that it’s a nature based and weather dependent, it becomes no less risky than a high tech start-up, if not more so when you consider market volatility. I’ve had a lot of conversations with well-meaning people who want to talk about the business end. Those are some of my most informative conversations, because the business side of agriculture fascinates me as well. But I’m consistently taken aback by how many folks were surprised that I wasn’t turning profits by my second year! It comes off like farming is this brainless thing that anyone can do and quickly turn a profit. And I think that sentiment is cultural thing we need to work on as a society.
I suppose the other thing I wish people understood better is that farming is equal parts business and lifestyle. Sometimes is hard to tell where the business ends and the lifestyle begins, it gets so blended. I’m sure many small business owners across all industries can relate – when you own the business you don’t just simply hang a closed sign and walk away at the end of the day! Even if you’re not working at it in the moment, it’s always in the back of your mind. I’d say the same rings true with agriculture, possibly even more so because often times the farm operation shares the same physical space as your residence. Since agriculture is a business inherently rooted in living things – whether its crops or stock – you can’t just take time off without extensive advanced planning. This becomes a challenge when it comes to family engagements, big events and holidays…or just simply maintaining relationships with anyone! The very nature of our operation requires daily effort on top of extensive advanced planning. And when it comes to a stock operation, when you make breeding decisions, you’re effectively locking in plans for the birth and initial care of that new animal. With a gestation of 11 months, breeding alpaca virtually locks us down a year in advance. With Mike in the National Guard, that just adds to our very complicated, sometimes inflexible schedule. What it means is we don’t have the luxury of spontaneity. Most people I know aren’t accustomed to scheduling their life very far in advance much less half a year or better. It’s hard to adequately explain to those not involved in agriculture, and that makes it a challenge to maintain relationships and keep a social life.
What has been the biggest reward?
Raising alpaca has gotten me in tune with nature and running this farm business has brought purpose to my life. I consider the homestead to be my ‘baby’ in many regards. It might not be the same as raising a human family like I had longed for, but I’ve found something I can nurture and grow. They depend on me for everything and I am capable of giving them what they need. As they grow, I grow. Each season teaches me something and makes me more grateful. I would say the biggest reward has been the opportunity to craft a lifestyle that I am proud of and one that has taught me what is really important in my life.