Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd started a farm called Green Spark Farm in 2009 in South Portland, Maine. There they grow vegetables for sale both at the local Farmer’s Market and online.
How did you get started?
Austin and I both studied Agriculture at Evergreen in Washington. Before College Austin had worked on his family farm. Right after graduation we both ended up getting jobs at nearby Kirsop Farm and worked there for a summer together. It was in Western Washington in Olympia. And while we were working there, we had a few conversations with the farmer about starting a farm, what he would differently, which were the most valuable crops and why…
We’re lucky because we kind of have some west coast ideas, but we landed in my hometown on the East Coast. We didn’t start farming at all when we got back. I didn’t think I was going to do it for at least ten years. I never thought I would have my own business. I thought I would have a farm, but I didn’t see myself going to farmers markets. But we totally have the training for it. I spent a lot of time trying to get into a career in farm education, working with refugee populations and kind of doing extension-type field training work, and Austin was providing health insurance for us by working at Starbucks.
What worked and didn’t work when you started out?
We had savings our first year, but we actually did a personal loan through the land-owner in 2009 on the half acre field. He just loaned us like $4800 to help us with some of the spring start-up costs and at the end of the year we paid him back. We just had a sheet of paper that explained that we had to pay him back. But it was really hard to find land. We kind of sat on our hands for a while expecting somebody else to say, “Hey, call this person, they want to lease to you.” Community networking was really the best way to stick out fingers in the community and start to get to know some of the long-time families that had been there, and start asking around that way. In 2009, we found land through help of the community, but it was really in somebody’s backyard. They had water, they had a huge, beautiful barn that they stored cars in in the winter. It had been a farm, but it wasn’t being used as a farm. They had a separate well, and they had a little, tiny greenhouse that we were able to harden off a bunch of seedlings in.
We started all our seedlings in our living room. All the cold hardy stuff, once it was up and germinated about two weeks old, we’d move it outside into tunnels. And we’re in Maine, so in March and April we had everything under two layers of row cover and a layer of plastic. And that worked! We started a farm and we lived in an apartment in the city in Portland, Maine. Insane, but it worked.
What advice do you have for new and young farmers?
Having a commitment to a place is a really big start. I feel like I’m committed to my hometown in South Portland, and people of this and the neighboring towns. And because I have a commitment to this place, it allows me to start working with community members, and it’s really provided us with a lot of help. Being able to say that I grew up here… you know all the old timers and the farmers that are around, I feel like they start to take us under their wing because we’re from here.
I don’t necessarily think you need to go back to your hometown, but I think it is important to have a commitment to a region, and to start to really investigate the social networks there. Like the local diner where the old time farmers are going to hang out, or the tractor store or whatever, and just start to build those relationships. We’re really lucky here, we have a local farm alliance, the Cape Elizabeth Farm Alliance. We meet once a month and work on public farm visibility, and awareness of buying locally, as well as education in the school system.
Have you really ever thought about where your food comes from? What happens to your food in between the field and the grocery store? Who grows this food? Most likely, the food you eat comes from a farm.
You too can grow food and make a good business out of it. Farmers are creative, self-directed people who decide what to produce, when to plant and harvest or breed, raise and slaughter, and where to market these products. Each farmer works within the limits of their land and what local or national markets want them to sell. Sometimes this requires going with the flow, and other times starting a new trend through new crops or new ways of doing business. Here are a few pieces of helpful information and stories as a start.
What is a Farm?
Many Kinds of Farms
Farming is one of the oldest careers in the the world. Here are some examples of types of farms:
Commercial Farm: These larger scale farms typically grow one or two specific crops or raise a specific animal to send to market on a large scale. Commercial farm workers assist with management of the farm, planting, weeding, harvesting, and driving the crop to distributors for sale.
Small Vegetable Farm: Small scale vegetable farmers typically grow for a higher-price local retail market, often selling directly to consumers through CSAs or farmers markets, or to restaurants or buyers clubs. Both large and small scaled vegetable farms depend on a lot of extra labor for field management, weeding and hand harvesting, packing and selling vegetables.
Poultry Farm: Poultry farmers raise chickens for meat and eggs. Their tasks include managing facilities, raising chickens or incubating eggs (called a hatchery), making sure the birds are healthy, and then selling the meat and eggs to the market. Some chicken farms raise their animals outside (free range or pastured chickens). Some keep the animals in large open sheds. Pastured or free range chickens command a higher market price, but there is more danger of losing chickens to hawks, coyotes or other predators.
Dairy Farm: Dairy farmers work with cows, sheep or goats and collect their milk for use in a variety of products. Some farmers milk cows and then make cheese; this is called Farmstead cheese. Some farmers bottle their own milk for direct sale to customers or local markets. Most farmers sell their milk in ‘bulk’ to companies (or cooperatives) that process, bottle and distribute the milk to supermarkets.
A farm is a piece of land that is used to grow crops and raise animals. Farms can range from very small, containing only a few items grown in pots or a tiny bit of soil under a greenhouse, to immense, with acres of rangeland or gigantic fields of grain. Farms may be modern, such as those using global positioning systems for orienting tractors and hydroponic systems for growing tomatoes in winter, or may use traditional farming methods, such as horse-drawn implements, growing select heritage crops or breeds, or hand harvesting gourmet salad greens for restaurants. There are many types of different farms: orchards grow fruits; livestock farms raise animals for meat and dairy products; vegetable farms grow produce; grain farms grow commodities that may be made into livestock feed, biofuels, or traded for consumption internationally; and diversified farms produce a mix of farm products.
There are different approaches to farming, the majority of farming in the United states is conventional farming, but organic farming methods are increasing. Currently 10% of the vegetables sold in the US are certified organic, however the majority of the corn, soybeans and other commodity crops that are grown are intensively produced with synthetic chemicals as a critical element in the production system. There are large scale organic farmers, and small scale conventional farmers, it is a free country.
Some farmers till the soil, some farmers do not till but use herbicides to clear the land between plantings. Some farmers rotate crops to maintain soil health, some farmers crop the same crops year after year with limited or minimal rotation–this can create issues with diseases and is not recommended.
Conventional farms may use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other sprays. IPM management means Integrated Pest management where farmers minimize sprays by managing
pests based on lifecycles, biological control (predator insects) and trapping. Organic farms take as much advantage of the ecology of the farm to control pests and maintain soil fertility and use only naturally occurring products to control pests, they are allowed to use compost and manure, no synthetic fertilizers.
Some farmers consider the farm to be an organism (biodynamic agriculture) or design their farms as an integrated ecosystem (permaculture). There are farms that use hydroponics (plants grown in water and nutrients), and farms that grow marine crops in tanks (aquaculture). The method you choose depends on what you’re growing, the scale of your operation and what strategies work best for the space you have.
Key to successful farming is thinking about how farming affects the soil, a farmer’s most precious resource. When farmers practice crop rotation, they changes what is planted in a field each year. This helps prevent pests from accumulating and helps keep soil healthy and full of nutrients as each crop has its own nutrient demands and related pests and problems.
To keep plants health and growing strong, farmers manage the soil and crop fertility. Plants need several essential nutrients that they get through both the air and soil. One of the most important is nitrogen, which is taken up by roots. All plants need nitrogen to grow and develop. This is even true for the grains or grass we feed to animals or vegetables we eat ourselves. To provide plants with essential nutrients, farmers apply different fertilizers to the soil including mined chemical fertilizers, compost, animal manures, manufactured chemical fertilizers, or green plants added to the soil as cover crops (or green manure). The fertilizer approach you choose depends on your land, what is being grown, the scale of the operation, and the philosophical goals and farming approach of the farmer.
You may be getting the idea that farming isn’t so simple—in fact, there are a lot of factors and a lot of decisions to be made every day.
What to Grow
Some farmers might be inclined to start out farming what they like to eat and are familiar with growing, but then run into difficulties if they haven’t adequately addressed:
- Climate – What will grow here?
- Environment – What animals and insects will bother my crop?
- Market Demand – who will buy this crop?
- Competition – who else is selling this crop?
- Equipment Required – How will I harvest this crop? Does this crop need extra nutrients, water, or shelter? Does harvesting this crop require a special tool? Will I need a truck to take this to market?
- Labor – Will I need help harvesting this crop?
- Slaughter – Where will I have animals slaughtered and then butchered for market? If I am doing this myself, do I have the training and facilities to do this well?
- Post-harvest storage – What happens to my crop once it’s harvested? Does it need to be refrigerated, processed, or protected from weather?
Most new farmers tend to raise annual plants (these are planted and die each year, like vegetables, herbs or corn), as opposed to perennial plants (that grow for several years). Growing perennials like grape vines or apple trees requires a bigger commitment of money, time and secure access to land, since crops like apples take several years to grow before you can start to harvest their fruits. The first step in planning a farm is developing a crop or farm plan. This is often a map or list that describes each field and what will be grown in it, when it will be planted, and when it is expected to be ready to harvest. The crop plan varies based on location, soil type and climate—each field may have different qualities to take into account in order to have a successful harvest. Alternatively, if animals are to be grown, it would include pasture and housing, feed needs (whether grown on the farm or purchased) and expected dates for slaughter.
What kind of farm will you have?
Cooperative extensive agents will work with you to find out what your strengths and skills are, and what options are available for your land area, soil type, and farm buildings. Cooperative Extension programs exist in every state, and are a useful resource for people considering farming for the first time as well as for seasoned farmers. They may be able to present ideas you’ve never considered! Other ways to pick your crops:
- Look at what your neighbors are growing
- Ask your customers/clients what they are interested in eating & purchasing
- Visit markets near you and see what is missing or low quality
- Try new varieties/breeds to see what works on your land
- Stick with what you know—if you’re great at herbs, grow herbs!Look at prices, see what is selling well in your region
- Rescue a ‘lost’ breed or variety that was once grown in your area. History can tell you a lot!
- Review the soil survey for your area, look at what crops best suit your soil type.
Farming works best when the farmer works with the land, climate, equipment, and skill set they already have and researches the regional market to find under-represented market areas where they might fit.
While most aspiring farmers have a pretty good idea what they want to do, some farmers get land long before they are sure what to do with it. As a young farmer, you are in an exciting position to dream; what do you want to grow on your farm?
Taking your crops to market on time is a skill farmers develop with experience. If you harvest too late, crops are past their peak; if you harvest too early, you miss the best flavor. There are many online resources available and books to assist you as you schedule your harvest. Most have you pick the day you want to harvest, and then ‘count back’ to the planting date to decide on a planting date. Different plants have different growing behaviors, and some crops may require starting indoors or in a greenhouse if you want them to be available for early season harvest. Other good rely on time schedules to become products, meat rearing, for example:
As a farmer, you have a lot of choices in getting your hands on good seeds. Good seed that germinates predictably is a key factor in the success of your farm. Larger growers sometimes use seeds that have been sorted for size or even coated with clay so that they can be more accurate with their planting. Small farmers typically use mechanized planters. You can even use push behind seeders that benefit from coated seed.
An online search or conversation with a local farmer can often help you find a good local source of seeds. Another good online resource is the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT’s) Suppliers of Seed for Certified Organic Production Database. Seed exchanges, like Seed Savers Exchange of Iowa, are also great places to obtain different kinds of
heirloom/open pollinated seed varieties and organically produced seeds. Key an eye on your local climate, and buy seeds and varieties, as best you can, that match your growing conditions.
Scheduling with a butcher can be tricky—many communities have lost their local butchers, and it may be a long drive (and a long wait) to schedule an appointment at a certified facility. If you are considering butchering your own animals, be sure to review local rules and your insurance policy before you begin. Different states have different requirements on what is allowed for household versus public sale and consumption. Check with your farm insurance agent and local extension agent for more details on what is allowed in your area.
Before you begin to harvest, you must analyze your storage needs. Do you have a safe place to put your crops after they have been harvested where they are safe from spoilage? Will you bring your crops directly to market? Do you have enough clean containers, the proper washing equipment, and the right transportation arranged to make sure your products get to market in peak condition?
Treating Crop Issues
All crops are influenced by weather, pests, and poor management. Your can learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the crops you want to produce ahead of time by reading, researching online, consulting with experts, asking other farmers, and tasting. Be prepared to deal with weather, pest management, weed management, veterinary care, handling, harvest, storage, packaging, and transport to market.
The farm is an ecosystem, and there are many moving parts to understand, observe, investigate, and manipulate. Farming relies on management decisions that use many different approaches to control pests (unwanted plants, insects, or animal visitors to your farm) and minimize harm to the environment.
Finding a pest management approach that works for your farm will take good planning, careful observation and study, and having as many options available as possible. It will also take time—learning what works best for you and your farm will be the result of many years of trial and error, testing crops, and experimenting with different farming methods.
Hoop houses, greenhouses and other protective structures create a warm, controlled environment for baby plants in cold weather. They are used for getting plants started (plant propagation), winter gardening, or year-round growing. They help keep a controlled environment for plants, protecting, for example, tomatoes, from early spring frosts, summer hail, and some diseases, giving the farmer a head start on the season and an earlier crop…not to mention offering a warm dry place for farmers to harvest.
Soil is made of four basic components: minerals, organic matter, water, and air, plus many microscopic living creatures. There are three kinds of soil textures: sand, silt and clay. Silt and clay soils have small particles that can stop water and air from moving freely. They also have high water holding capacity and hold the plant’s nutrients in the soil. Sandy to gravelly soil are lighter and allow water to move freely. Sandy soils contain 70% or more sand by weight and loamy soils possess the desirable qualities of sand and clay without being too loose. To know what types of soil you farm upon, check with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) online soils maps (websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/) or visit your local NRCS office.
The pH of the soil is used as a measure of its acidity, which can affect how well plants grow. A good soil pH is important to farmers because pH affects the nutrients available for plant development. Getting your soil tested is key to successful crop management. Your county extension office usually accepts samples for testing; contact them to learn more about soil testing services in your region. Research your planting options and soil type before selecting what to plant on your farm by looking in gardening books, online, or in seed catalogs.