While 2020 and 2021 presented their own set of unique obstacles, navigating unexpected challenges is not new to small farmers. These challenges create barriers when you’re just starting out and still manage to throw you off course after you think you have it all figured out.
While the stumbling blocks aren’t likely to go away—as more people follow their passions to produce food—facing the unexpected now seems a little less impossible and a lot more manageable thanks to those who have paved the trail ahead of us.
Passing It Forward
“[Today], there are so many more resources around for new farmers,” says Hiu Newcomb, who—with her husband, Tony—began farming part-time on rented land in 1960 in Fairfax County, Virginia. “In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there were no sustainable agriculture programs.”
This mission led to the current-day Potomac Vegetable Farms, which sell vegetables from two farmsteads, through a CSA and at local farmers markets.
The farm grew with trial, error and the occasional success. And as it did, the Newcombs found the help they needed in their community. Soon they became the kind of resource to others that they lacked when they were starting out.
“Our job is to be mentors for the younger people,” Hiu Newcomb says. “It’s important for us to be integrated. It’s much more rewarding.”
Words of Wisdom
Her top advice for others follows a similar message. “Don’t farm alone. You can burn out pretty fast doing all the farm work yourself or with [only one] partner.”
She admits that their biggest challenge was money. They couldn’t afford to buy land at first and hiring help was challenging. But by collaborating with other farmers and working with interns and students eager to learn, you can find ways to get the help you need early on.
Newcomb also notes the importance of creating a community of other farmers near you. “It’s more fun when you have someone to commiserate with, to ask, to share,” she says. Over the years, the Newcombs have hosted potlucks, farm games and talent nights.
These always led to conversation and learning from each other.
Newcomb says that when it comes to those ready to make an investment in land “don’t be isolated, if possible. Don’t buy land that isn’t good land.” She adds that finding quality, affordable land near people is getting more difficult due to the cost. But being near others increases the opportunity for community.
She also warns that you don’t want to spend 20 years building up your soil. It has to have potential from the start to lead to success and long-term sustainability.
Katie Hassemer, owner of Moon Chaser Acres in Beechwood, Wisconsin, takes full advantage of all the resources now available to new farmers. Hassemer works full-time as a farmers market director in Milwaukee while also seeking success on a sustainable farm on 22 acres with some help from her boyfriend, Steve. She sells direct to consumers as she works to develop the land.
“I am so grateful for the experience I had with the farmer training program at the University of Vermont,” she says of the intensive 6-month program. “It gave me such a solid background on how to plan, grow and market sustainably-grown produce.”
After that, she worked on certified organic farms in Wisconsin for three seasons.
Once she made the decision to own her own farm, Hassemer took a business plan writing course with Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation. All of this—combined with conferences, workshops and a farmer mentorship program from the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service—enabled her to take steps to slowly build a successful farm.
Staying organized is key. Keeping notes has been valuable, and Hassemer integrates easy-to-use technology to do so.
“I use Google Keep all the time to take notes in the field,” she says. “I’m keeping track of varieties planted, dates, quantities, bed feet and locations, as well as spacing, germination success and harvest information.”
Hassemer also focuses on building success with current and future Moon Chaser Acres customers through newsletters and consistent social media posts even as the farm grows to full production. “I’m making connections, getting the Moon Chaser Acres name out there and keeping folks updated on what I am doing with my farm so when I do have more produce for sale, I have an audience already engaged,” she says.
She points out that she has to work to find ways to use the age-old challenge of not having enough time to her advantage.
“One big thing this year that I’m letting soak in from conversations with my farmer mentor is that if I don’t have the time to do everything this season, then focus on the things that will set me up for success next year and beyond,” she says. “With farming, oftentimes you have one time in a season to do something. And if you don’t get to it, you just have to note it and wait another year to try to do it differently.”
For example, she didn’t get the currants or gooseberries pruned this year. And she missed the harvest window for elderflower and some garlic scapes. “I’m just allowing some kindness toward myself on these things,” she says.
“For most things, I know what I need to do. But I just need to find the time to do it.”
Keegan Clifford also credits the valuable resources available to new farmers and gardeners for his education and success. His hobby garden in Middletown, Maryland, is an endeavor that now supports four local families. It also pleases numerous social media fans who enjoy seeing his bountiful harvests on Instagram.
Clifford’s love of gardening began during his time growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, watching his great-grandfather grow yams, cassava, bananas and cocoa. As an adult in the United States, gardening has been a stress reliever for him. But he needed to better understand how to make his now 15 raised beds productive.
Learning from the Masters
During his hours spent browsing the Internet to become a better gardener, he found Charles Dowding’s YouTube channel. Growing food in Somerset, England, Dowding practices no-dig, companion and succession planting, all things that Clifford now implements in his garden.
“Watching and reading [Dowding’s] content has helped me to understand gardening on another level,” Clifford says. “I’ve increased my yield by maximizing space. And it has helped me to extend my growing season well into winter.”
It wasn’t long after he started growing produce for himself that coworkers became interested in purchasing food from him. He admits that transitioning to supporting others beyond himself was an honor. But it also created pressure to keep his hobby garden successful.
This pressure made him a better gardener and one who encourages others to keep learning.
Just Keep Learning
Seeking opportunities for education and understanding the bigger picture are essentials to success. It also helps to make things easier on yourself as you learn.
Clifford started with self-pollinating vegetables because they’re easier for producing a harvest. He also emphasizes that gardening is about much more than your plants. The soil, weather, insects and a healthy ecosystem also play an equally important role.
Take advantage of what you have to work with in terms of all of these factors.
“We live on a vast, large planet,” he says. “Why not try greens that thrive in extreme heat? Or lettuce that can survive a winter vortex? Or heirloom corn that matures in less than three months?
“Basically, make the best out of your experience.”
Farming in the City
Samantha Foxx started Mother’s Finest Family Urban Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after enrolling in a class teaching the processes and principles of urban farming. The class focused on how to find success running a farm as a business. And it immediately sparked her entrepreneurial spirit.
Today, she manages the 2 1⁄2-acre urban farm along with an additional 5 acres of leased farming land off-site.
Foxx is a successful farmer who also understands the big picture of land, plants, animals and our ecosystem working together. If you ask her what part of her farm delivers the most personal success, she admits that she loves doing anything on the farm specifically related to her girls.
“And by girls, I mean my bees,” she says. Much of her efforts in farming are centered around bee education and beekeeping.
Find Your Focus
Foxx encourages others to find their focus, a center point that allows you to create goals for your farm. For her, that focus is self-
empowerment and self-sustainability. And her beekeeping is a big part of that.
While her farm supports her family and others through the foods she sells, her full homesteading approach to success really began to develop throughout the pandemic and remains her focus. Her farming goes beyond simply growing food to food preservation and value-added products.
Love the Work
Beekeeping and farming take time. And there is always something to learn. To stick with it, it needs to be something you enjoy and something you can see yourself doing for years to come.
“I could be out in the dirt or in my beehive no matter my age,” Foxx says. “I’ll be out there for as long as I’m physically able.”
It’s also important to understand how you define success. “On harder days, I think if you get back out and try again even after failing, that is success,” she says.
Everyone starts their journey with farming in a different spot, with a different level of education on the subject, and a different set of tools and resources. “Start where you are,” Foxx says.
Her farm began with modest success growing in a few pots on her front porch. That has evolved into a farm business success story of managing goats, bees and chickens, and serving her community at farmers markets and through CSA boxes.
Maggie Keith brings the value of community and education full circle with her emphasis on cooking and interest in how customers use their products. Keith is a fourth generation steward of Foxhollow Farm in Crestwood, Kentucky.
Their biodynamic family farm has found success raising AGA-certified 100-percent grass-fed and -finished beef.
It’s All About the Flavor
“Focus on flavor,” Keith says. “In 2006, when I was developing our business plan and our herd, I held focus groups to taste and experience the flavor of our grass-fed beef. I learned right away that the flavor is what made us stand out.
“I am very passionate about building the soil and the happiness of the animals. But it boils down to taste.”
Developing that flavor begins with raising the right animals. “Be sure you have the right genetics for your specific farmland,” she says. “The size of the animal, the color of the hideand the breed need to be specific to your piece of land.
“The right combination is where you will get the most flavor and the most yield.”
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Keith also encourages other farmers to share their stories. “People want to know their farmers,” she says. “They want to learn from you, see what it takes to raise the food they eat, and know why you do what you do.”
She does this in a few different ways. First, she regularly invites people to her farm so they can see the process firsthand and learn from their success. As the cattle graze across 700 acres of farmland, visitors are greeted with the raised-bed kitchen garden that Keith maintains. The garden is full of heirloom vegetables grown using permaculture techniques and planted according to the biodynamic calendar.
Keith is also the co-host of the television show, The Farmer and The Foodie, with food writer Lindsey McClave, who develops recipes using local foods, including those from Foxhollow Farm. This opportunity for outreach, storytelling and culinary education has resulted in nationwide orders for their beef. It’s also fostered a supportive network of other farmers and customers.
This network has been important to Keith, and something she suggests others seek out.
“Have a handful of farmer friends to learn with and from,” she says. “We are all in this together. We all want to grow food that is the best tasting and healthiest for our community.”
It’s important to keep growing and to keep learning.
- Don’t farm alone.
- Do not be isolated, if possible.
- Don’t buy land that isn’t good land.
- When you run out of time to do everything this season, start focusing on what will set you up for success the next season and beyond.
- Keep detailed notes on your process each season.
- Build a following and share your story before you have produce to sell.
- Always seek opportunities for education.
- Understand all facets of gardening: plants, soil, weather, insects and a healthy ecosystem.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new.
- Start where you are.
- Success can be defined as simply trying again.
- Find a focus that drives the goals for your farm.
- Choose something you can see yourself enjoying for years to come.
- Focus on flavor.
- Choose animals with the right genetics for your farmland.
- Share your story.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.