the virtuoso - harmony fields farm
Visiting Jessica Gigot at her small 10 acre farm in the Skagit Valley of Western Washington might lead you to believe that you could actually be a farmer too. Her immaculately laid-out rows of vegetables and herbs, the groomed fields, sheep grazing with their newborns, ducks happily splashing in the pond and a red barn seemingly drawn by Norman Rockwell himself. But this young farmer, like so many others wears many hats -- she's a professor at the university, a writer, a musician, a poet, an artist, a scientist, a PhD, and soon a first time mother.
Jessica invited me to stop by when I was in town, and on this typical Northwest spring day, I had that opportunity. I had hoped to catch her during chores, but instead caught her busy doing paperwork - the often most consuming part of farming. Between sun breaks and rain showers, she gave me a quick tour and we got to chatting about her journey from academia to agriculture, a conversation we continued in email later. We discussed so many terrific topics that I decided to share her story with you, in her words.
How long have you been farming and what was the impetus to pursue it?
After I graduated from college with a degree in biology in 2001, I worked on a medicinal herb farm in Oregon and a small homestead farm on Lopez Island. At this point I was intimidated at the prospect of running my own farm, but I was also fascinated by agricultural systems. I went back to graduate school in the agriculture sciences and worked on research farms in Washington and Oregon for eight years before buying my own land in 2011.
Farming found me in many ways. When I was a kid I went to farm camp. My mom’s cousin, a Catholic nun and farmer, runs an educational farm and that experience had a profound affect on me. I milked goats, planted vegetables, gallivanted with chickens and spun wool. As a child of the suburbs spending time at Sprout Creek Farm helped me to put a lot of things into perspective. In high school and college I was fascinated by botany and the uses of plants and I think that is what led me to pursue farm internships—I wanted to get my hands dirty. For a period I thought I wanted to be an agricultural researcher and extension agent, but the more time I spent in academia the more I realized how few new practitioners were taking on farming as a career. I knew my heart was in the day-to-day production of food, so I decided to start my own operation.
What did you do to prepare/educate yourself for this new role?
In addition to my academic background, I took many cooperative extension classes and read a lot of books. I also visited a lot of farms throughout the Northwest and pursued mentorship opportunities with established farmers. Many of these farmers are to this day invaluable resources and good friends.
What skills do you use that you did not expect? What is your biggest challenge?
Our farm is a small business. The practicalities of running a business have been a new challenge for me. At our scale I am responsible for overseeing production as well as office management, marketing and everything else that goes along with cultivating a reliable customer base and getting your business out there in the world. After years of being a reclusive scientist this has been a big challenge for me, but also a very rewarding aspect of the experience.
Like most women, you wear many hats. Tell me about some of the ones you wear.
In addition to the farm I teach at the Northwest Indian College in their Native Environmental Studies program. When I was finishing graduate school and starting the farm the college was looking for a new science faculty to develop on-campus gardens and food sovereignty curriculum. I have really enjoyed my time at the college and often feel like I learn as much as I teach. As I sink in to my life on our farm I have learned a lot about my own sense of place from my students and the surrounding tribal community.
I am also a writer (I have been a closet poet for years) and I try to write when I can throughout the year. I have my first collection of poems coming out in the fall. The farm and this region, the Skagit Valley inspires my work and has helped me find my creative voice in many ways.
Do you have a difficult time fitting it all in?
The answer to this question is definitely yes. However, I am trying cultivate a seasonal pattern to life. In the winter, I am mainly teaching and I have a lot more time for creative pursuits like writing. By late spring the farm takes over and that is the primary focus until the fall. Our operation runs from April to October and I do not have any aspirations to make this a year-round farm. I like the balance of growing, teaching and creating and I am trying to make that work. Admittedly, I also like the stability of off-farm work and I deeply enjoy my relationships with students, colleagues and other creative people. My husband is a luthier and carpenter and he has an instrument repair business. The winter allows him more time to focus on that part of his work as well and throughout the year we play music together as The Dovetails which has been a fun part of our relationship from the start.
You’re expecting your first child this summer, what will you do differently this season?
This season I am an office manager. A farmer mentor of mine used to tell that at some point the farmer needs to get off the tractor. I will be taking a lot of time with the baby this summer, but since I am not doing field work like I normally do I can spend time more time on the phone developing new customers and fine tuning some of our processes and operations. I am actually looking forward to this change, although it will be hard not to be in the field everyday. I think we have some good support this summer to make it happen and we are exciting to welcome a new little life onto the farm and all the new experiences that she will bring.
What do you see as the biggest impediment to women entering the field of farming?
Confidence. I am learning this every day. It takes a lot of confidence to put your self out there, to take on the risk of farming and follow through this work as a long-term plan and lifestyle. Farming as a profession in this country does not offer a lot of stability and it is easy to doubt yourself. I still struggle with how denigrated farming as a profession in general has become in our modern world. Developing any business, especially a farm, takes a long time and it is really easy to lose confidence along the way especially if you are taking a new approach to your farm.
I appreciate projects like this one (the Female Farmer Project) that create a network of women doing this work. Hearing other female farmer stories offers me a lot of inspiration and hope to continue doing what I am doing, especially on the days when the farm seems to be in total chaos.
What do you want your food to convey to others?
Health. A main tenet of the farm is food is medicine. We promote soil quality with our farming practices and I like to emphasize the direct connection between soil health and personal well-being. How your food was grown and by who will largely dictate its quality and I find that consumers need to constantly be reeducated on this fact.
What do you wish people understood about farming?
While I appreciate how much attention the local and organic food movement is offering new and seasoned farmers, there is a tendency to romanticize the work and the lifestyle. The work and energy input required to grow food is chronically underestimated. Farming is and always will be hard and teaching the work ethic that is required to make a farm successful in not valued in our culture. As I mentioned before the profession of farmer is still not valued in our country. In my mind farmers are doctors or healers in a way and the skill and knowledge base, as well as the overall physical exertion, required to run a sustainable farm are intense.
Land access is one of the big challenges to smaller farmers. Do you own your land? Rent? Share?
We own 5 acres and rent 5 acres. This is ideal for now because it keeps our property taxes low and we have a good relationship with our neighbors/landlords who operate a large organic potato farm. One mistake people make in farming is starting off too ambitious. It takes a long time to build a foundation, acquire equipment and find the right people to work with you and there are always unexpected bills that arise. Jumping in at a large-scale can burn you out really quickly.
We do need room to grow, so over the next few years we will have to evaluate what our ideal scale is going to be. As far as land access, I see more land sharing models happening in our area. There are more non-farmers, owning a lot of land, linking up with new farmers looking for available growing area. Also, I see more private investors realizing the value of investing in organic land. As this shift occurs I hope to see new grants and land conservation opportunities that give growers a larger window for securing and eventually paying off land.
What are some things we as can do to help create support, equality and awareness for women farmers and small-scale farms?
I am enjoying life in a small town and on a small farm. In the past weeks I had to laugh at myself on my small tractor and with my little push seeder as the huge disks and tillers passed me by. We are surrounded by large family farms and I appreciate the agricultural infrastructure these operations bring to the Skagit Valley, in addition to stabilizing our farmland base. However, as we grow as a business I feel like it is important to appreciate farms of all scales and the diversity that they bring to the farm community as a whole. That awareness of scale is really important and will be an ongoing conversation in this area as the older farmers retire and new farmers work to get their start-up operations going.
What does it mean to you to be able to farm?
Farming is a noble and selfless profession. I greatly admire all of the farmers I have worked for and they are some of the most caring and honest people I know. You definitely don’t need a PhD to farm, but you do need that level of discipline and focus to make a farm operation work. Abraham Lincoln said that, “The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.” Being able to farm, for me, means that I am engaging in a long-term relationship with the land and I am excited to see how this evolves over time.
Mónica A year ago
Lovely, a pleasure to read
Margo Morris A year ago
Jesse, you are a rock star! I love how you framed the whole life work sequence juxtaposed with the seasonal realities and that you emphasized over and over that it is noble but not romantic! Thank you for your brilliance, your expression, and your love of all you do. Your little girl will grow up with a joyous spirit and a work ethic, and she will have the courage to take it all the next steps -- because of YOU. Love you, Margo