taking the initiative: county rail farm
County Rail Farm is a small polyculture farm with organic vegetables and a small goat herd in Western Montana. Tracy Potter-Fins and Margaret De Bona are the owner-operators with their trusty farm dog Coda. They sell at two Missoula Farmers Markets and wholesale through the Western Montana Growers Coop (which serve restaurants and grocery stores throughout Montana). They have a “FarmShare” which is their version of a CSA - members buy credit at the market stand in the early months of the year. 2017 marks their seventh season farming in Montana and the first on their newly purchased land.
I was first introduced to Tracy and Margaret when we were both guests in 2014 on Montana's Public Radio Show, In Other Words. A year later, I found myself on a roadtrip to South Dakota and I called them to see if I could pop by and see how things were going, and growing. At the time they were on a small piece of leased land and were experimenting with business models. Their Farmshare idea was a new concept to me. Like a CSA, but instead creating a more flexible model for the members/shoppers. They also took their braided garlic product to the next level by growing and drying statice flowers to weave into the braid.
Since that day, nearly two summers ago - it's been really interesting to see how these two navigate the process of growing their local food economy and scaling up their own operations. Recently they decided to make the leap to their own property. We feature Tracy on our podcast where she describes that process and her financing decision in detail. (click here to hear more!) I sent Tracy my standard set of questions since my visit on their farm was short. Here she is in her own words.
How long have you been farming?
T: Five years here in Montana, and three years working for a large CSA in NY state previous to that.
What kind of education or career did you pursue before farming?
T: I was a comparative religion major as an undergrad, but I steered toward agriculture before I graduated.
What was the impetus to pursue farming?
T: I wanted to be outside, doing something physical. Once I started, I was drawn to the diversity of farming as a career - I get to be a soil scientist, marketing director, graphic designer, carpenter, inventor, animal caretaker, etc etc.
What did you do to prepare/educate yourself for this new role?
T: Honestly, I learned by doing. While I did some research and reading, most of what I’ve learned has been through trial and error, reading the markets, tweaking the model every year. We’re also lucky enough to have a lot of experienced growers in this area who are willing to talk about their process and help new growers… and youtube.
What skills do you use that you did not expect?
T: Business management and accounting were two areas of knowledge that I didn’t expect to dive into or enjoy when we started the farm. Growing food is one thing, one thing that we had done before, making a living from it and managing a small business came with a steep learning curve.
What is your biggest challenge?
T: I think the accounting and general business management paperwork has been the biggest challenge. Figuring out how to pay above board, how to manage payroll, and all the paperwork that goes along with that has taken the most time and research recently.
Are there any specific challenges/disadvantages in being a female farmer?
T: Honestly, I haven’t experienced any in our local food system - many many small farms around here are run by / owned by women. There’s a chance that I’m just oblivious to it, but knock on wood things have gone really smoothly for us.
What are the benefits/advantages in being a female farmer?
T: Ah this is a hard question. I have a tough time answering it without alienating men who have many of the traits that make our (mine and Margaret’s) personalities advantageous in farming. I feel like we are organized and creative in all the right proportions. While we both take farming very seriously, we also make sure to have our own space and time for other things, and try to keep an open mind as our needs change. I wonder if those priorities are apparent in our business because we are two women running the farm, but (again) I think that’s a pretty stereotypical way to think about it.
What do you see as the biggest impediment to women entering the field of farming?
T: Unfortunately, I think there are a number of experienced farmers - male and female - who are unwilling to let women take initiative on the farm. I don’t mean running the farmers market or organizing the CSA, but allowing female interns to use large equipment, learn how to use the tractor, fix things. I find myself in this trap occasionally - being willing to let more confident and typically “male” individuals slip into typically “male” roles, and I know many fellow farmers who experienced that kind of assumption as interns or employees.
What personality characteristics do you have that drew you to farming in the first place?
T: Can do, will do. I had a previous employer who called it a “forceful arrogance”. I had pushed him to hire me and simply tried to do everything he asked, whether or not I knew how. I take his comment as a compliment, and I think that trait - just doing - has served me well in business and farming.
What has been the biggest reward?
T: I think my greatest goal is to have a home and a space where friends/family/whomever can come and feel welcome, fed, and safe. While it can be achieved through many avenues, farming is especially suited to creating that kind of life. There’s always food, days (though sometimes long) are usually flexible, and guests can join in most tasks any day of the week. I really cherish being here every day, making a home with my animals and my family.
What does it mean to you to be able to farm?
T: I feel incredibly lucky - privileged - to be able to farm. Like a number of new farmers, I come from a family that expected me to be a doctor, lawyer, academic, etc. We’ve been able to start this farm and take risks because we have something to fall back on. I think it’s important to remember that this is an insecure business. Many farmers are struggling because they have to, but it’s also a privileged career for some of us.
What do you wish people understood about farming?
T: I wish people, including other farmers, knew that farming doesn’t have to break you. While we benefit from an incredibly lucky situation, I strongly believe that you don’t have to work 15hr days to make farming work. This career can be and should be sustainable, not just in terms of soil and land, but in terms of personal physical and emotional vitality.
What are some things we as can do to help create support, equality and awareness for women farmers and small-scale farms?
T: I think the greatest thing is simply visibility and awareness. It’s happening more and more - seeing female identified faces and bodies on the farm, in public space, is huge. Not just at farmers market, but in the field, on the tractor, working, in committees, on boards, running big and small scale agricultural organizations.
Land access is one of the big challenges to smaller farmers. Do you own your land? Rent? Share?
T: We have been incredibly lucky to lease land from very generous a friend of a friend for the past 5 years.
How did you two meet?
T: We met at Hearty Roots Farm in the Hudson Valley of NY state, and having spent many hours weeding and harvesting decided we kinda liked each other.
What made you decide to make Montana your home?
T: Missoula was a pit stop to see a friend as we moved west (without a solid plan), and we liked it. After a little research into the agricultural system here, we decided it would be a good place to intern and gain some knowledge. Then we found our current lease and dove into full time farming, about three years before we had expected to.
Who do you sell to? Farmers Market customers? CSA? Restaurants? Do you make any value add products
T: We sell at two Missoula Farmers Markets and wholesale through the Western Montana Growers Coop (which serve restaurants and grocery stores throughout Montana). We do have a “FarmShare” which is our version of a CSA - members buy credit at our market stand in the early months of the year and get some cash on top of their credit for buying early and supporting our farm. We do bag salad and arugula for market and grocery sales, and while bagging greens is not traditionally considered a “value added” product, I think it counts. We can pull a higher price for bagged greens with a nice sticker than we can with bulk, and we’re the first local farm to do so in this area. We also braid garlic with dried flowers for the farmers market.
Thank you, Tracy and Margaret for sharing your story with us. You can find Country Rail Farm here