Before the pandemic hit, Modern Farmer spoke to farmers who had completed their first year of farming and were gearing up for their second season. They told us about some of their biggest challenges, how they overcame them, and why it was all worth it in the end.
Here are some of their stories, which we’re sharing in a series in the hope they can help those thinking about quitting their desk job to jump into farming.
For new farmers, simply making the decision to start a farm can be one of the hardest steps to take. It’s no secret that farming is incredibly tough work, and there’s a lot of risk involved in quitting a steady job to launch your own business.
Jen Browning got the opportunity to make that decision when she took a leave of absence from her desk job working in the nonprofit social services sector in Seattle to foster twin babies in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She was burned-out, and the break gave her a chance to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. The thought of going back to work in front of a computer didn’t seem appealing, but giving up a stable salary to start her own farm was a scary idea.
“There are so many unknowns and so much to learn that it can be overwhelming to get started,” she says.
Without that pause in her work life, she says she doesn’t know if she would have built up the courage to change her career path.
Browning hadn’t really thought about producing food on a larger scale until a couple of years ago. She had seen the impacts of the broken food system on the clients she served in her previous career, and had always been interested in food, and gardening. She just wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to operate her own business. So she took a number of small steps to confirm she was really interested in farming. She enrolled in classes to learn about the business side of farming, and read a number of books. After she finished her fostering stint, her final test was working on a local farm for four months.
When she finished, she asked a number of local farmers in the area if she should get more experience on other farms, but the consensus seemed to be that she should just start her own. So she did.
Browning made her first year work with a personal investment of just a few thousand dollars. She bought a two-wheel BCS tractor, and equipment. She was lucky she could start her operation—Juniper Layne Farm—on her parent’s property outside of Portland, as access to land can be a big barrier for new farmers.
Jen Browning harvests vegetables on Juniper Layne Farm.
In her first season, she grew a variety of vegetables, and kept chickens for eggs, which she sold through a gift-card CSA program and at a farmers market. Browning was under no illusions of how hard farming would be, but she says that you don’t really understand what it feels like until you experience it.
“There’s very little you can control in farming. So you do your best to prepare and plan, get things in place, and nature does the rest,” she says.
When Modern Farmer spoke with Browning in the run up to her second season, she had secured a microloan from the USDA and was preparing to double her acreage.
She was still working remotely in her old job for about 30 hours a week until February, but now devotes all of her time to farming. Working outside has been therapeutic for Browning, and she says she would have regretted simply returning to her old job and not even trying to farm. For aspiring farmers, she suggests learning as much as they can before actually starting, as it can be an expensive hobby if the business doesn’t work out.
“I would encourage people to jump in, but also to jump in with some amount of knowledge, whether that comes from classes, books or working on a farm,” she says. “I would not encourage people to jump in with absolutely zero experience.”