I’m a rockhound. For years I have gone on field trips with the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club. On a field trip everyone arrives at a rock site and gets out of their cars. Almost immediately they split up looking for valuable rocks. After a while the group settles down into two groups that I call the “scratchers and the pickers”. The scratchers find a spot they think has promise and dig in. The pickers explore the whole site looking for what is already exposed. Eventually most people dig into one spot.
Finding opportunities for enterprises in the countryside is a little like that. Last month I passed on advice from finance and marketing experts. They suggest that any enterprise should start with knowing what you are passionate about and good at. This month I’m following a suggestion from Joel Salatin in Folks, This Ain’t Normal, to look around your place and take note of what equipment, resources and experience you have that could be expanded in a new direction.
For instance Tor Trousdell, who can distill oils from Lavender, as part of his business with his wife Alex and daughter Rya, Flowing Water Lavender, stopped by with a load of grape pressings that he had distilled to make Raki, a Greek hard liquor. The pressings were surplused from Fruitland Valley Vineyard and Winery. I am going to spread them on my vineyard as part of my mulch mix (if the deer don’t eat it first). So there you have Tor’s idle equipment and experience, Fruitland’s wine waste and my soil yard all benefiting from surplus that might have otherwise gone unused.
There are a lot of opportunities like that on a typical farm. One of my favorites is a “chicken tractor”. This is another idea mentioned by Salatin. It really is “starting from scratch”. Part of its beauty is that it is inexpensive but also that it can be a startup enterprise in partnership with someone who has a pasture but no chickens. In an article in the North Columbia Monthly, July 2020, I related how Ramestead Ranch, now a thriving regenerative farm near Ione, Washington, started from a backyard garden. When the owners decided that they wanted to also produce meat, they built a “chicken tractor”, basically a movable fence/cage that let chickens scratch and graze a new area every time it was moved. They moved it around a 2½ acre parcel. Now they have 16 chicken tractors that they run for 7 months during the summer on their pasture after the four-legged livestock have gone through. In the end they have fryers both fresh and frozen ready for market.
Note in this picture the green trails between the pens. Those are areas that where the chickens have already been through once. Chickens till in the manure from ruminants and eat larva of flies and other insect pests, grass and seeds, then they leave their own enriched manure behind. This improves the fertility of the whole field while producing very healthy chickens for very little cost.
I learned of a similar restoration project in Texas. Tina and Orion Weldon of Terrapurezza Regenerative Agricultural Institute and Farm, partnered with Willy Nelson and his wife Anne to run pigs on the Nelsons’ played out pastures at Luck Ranch using food waste from Whole Foods. The result was new life for the overgrazed land typical of Texas Hill Country, and healthy, happy hogs ready for market (austinchronicle.com).
There usually is some resource going to waste on a farm. Sometimes it is just a matter of preservation. I made apple cider from lower quality apples in January. I traded for them from local orchards including Cliffside Organic Orchards. The cider will eventually become wine. But it could have become vinegar, jelly or even cooked down into syrup. All of these things would have preserved them and created another product to market.
The real limiting factor is labor. Many organic farms and orchards nearby take advantage of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoofusa.org). Woofers, as they are known, will travel to live on a farm where they can work and learn farming. A farmer should provide shelter, hopefully food and often compensation to the mostly young people in this program. Many times woofers will stay in the area; purchase the farm or one nearby and become neighbors and friends. So it is a good opportunity for everyone but not without its downfalls since some “workers” are not all that motivated to actually work. It is a good idea to screen applicants early in the winter to find the best fit.
Speaking of visitors on the farm, a farm can also host agrotourists, especially if they have their own RV. The website harvesthosts.com is one such organization that features places to stay at wineries, breweries and farms. With over 1500 locations already listed, it gives farmers the opportunity to get income without building and licensing a bed and breakfast.
United States Census Bureau Director, John H. Thompson said in 2016 that 19.3% of the population is rural, living on 97% of the land while 80.7% of the population is Urban (census.gov). Although there are some opportunities for urban gardens, realistically if you want to grow your own food, living in the country is a better bet than living in a city. With the majority of US citizens at least a generation removed from their rural roots, a great deal of agricultural knowledge has been lost. That may be for the better since most “advancements” in agriculture over the past 70 years have fostered a shift to mechanized farming with petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, all three of which kill the microbes in the soil and are not sustainable. Yet authors such as Jason Bradford, (The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification, Post Carbon Institute, 2019) foresee a dramatic retreat to the countryside as fuel, steady employment, healthy foods and safety all become scarce in urban environments.
So scratching away at the resources you know to be close at hand on the farm is a good start, but you might also do well to become pickers by looking around to the urban population that is headed our way. As local realtors can attest, these folks have money but they could use a few more skills when it comes to livestock and farming. One family that found an opportunity in training is Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, founders of Quillisascut Farm School. While marketing their handmade goat cheese to restaurants in Seattle and Spokane, they saw a need for chefs to understand the seasons, resources and techniques involved in getting whole fresh organic food from the farm to the kitchen. Their straw bale classroom and dormitory offers classes in cooking and farming directly to chefs. They have support for providing this training from other culinary institutes. Students walk away with life experiences that can be used to develop their own sustainable kitchens.
There are a lot more opportunities in this arena. Emerging techniques for sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture are building on ancient methods, indigenous knowledge and new science. If the future is rural, it is also local. Best practices to grow crops and raise animals vary from one place to another. If you can make it as a small farmer, you could also teach others what you know. If your business is expanding, you can branch out and cooperate with others to new products, markets and educational experiences. As usual, if you have ideas along these lines, let’s share ideas. There is always more to teach and learn.