Sarah Gilman: Writers on the Range

Sarah Gilman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Not long ago, a college classmate of mine named Sarahlee Lawrence was splitting her time between guiding river trips and river-conservation work, traveling as far as Ethiopia and Chile. But the world’s water problems felt huge.

“I was struggling to feel like I was actually making a difference,” she says.

Then she discovered a startling statistic: Food travels an average of 1,500 miles from source to plate, racking up a sizeable carbon footprint.

“That was my turning point,” the young conservationist recalls, talking from her Rainshadow Organics farm, near Terrebonne in central Oregon’s high desert. She grew up there, helping farm hay and wheat. Returning home, she saw her chance to make immediate and tangible change.

Her folks already had some equipment, and they offered her land. For a couple of years, while she was wrapping up other things, she would go home and plant cover crops and enrich the dry ground with compost. She found grants to help her build a drip irrigation system, put together an online network for local growers and do research. Much of her experience involved trial and error.

“Have I really learned how to farm from the backs of seed packets?” she laughs. “Kind of, yeah.”

Now closing her second growing season, Lawrence keeps pigs and chickens. She grows 47 varieties of vegetables on 8 acres and grows field crops such as wheat on another 20. She’s partnered with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to convert 50 acres into native pollinator habitat. She sells vegetables to 70 families through a subscription service as well as to eight restaurants, two grocery stores, two farmers markets and a hospital.

She’s not rolling in dough, but “I have money in my bank account,” she says, and since she doesn’t have any debt thanks to her circumstances, “all that money will go right back into the farm.”

It’s the kind of auspicious start that many aspiring farmers dream of. It’s also rare, according to Amy Ridout, another classmate who found her calling in dirt, growing things and helping others pick up the skills to do the same. Like Lawrence, Ridout was drawn to farming for environmental reasons. She was working for a watershed group in Washington state, pushing landowners to make improvements to benefit salmon habitat.

“I had a moment when I realized I had no authority to talk to people who’d been on their land for multiple generations,” Ridout says. “I really wanted to know what it meant to be a good steward so that I would have something to share.”

The impulse carried her to an apprenticeship with the renowned Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Then she started a farm for a nonprofit called Petaluma Bounty, working toward making healthy food available to everyone. She even attempted her own organic farm – looking to take over 12 acres near Petaluma, Calif. – but her partners pulled out at the last minute, and it was too much to take on alone. Now, she works at an educational outfit called the Pie Ranch near Pescadero, Calif., where she manages crops and animals and teaches apprentices.

These two women are part of a wave of young people determined to remake our food system. Small-scale farming is tough no matter what, and as land prices rise, fewer beginners do as well as Lawrence. Many seek help from people like Ridout.

But even with the right skills, finding the necessary acres and capital can be daunting. That’s where a relatively new model of farm education can make the difference. Farm incubators such as the startup Viva Farms in Washington’s Skagit Valley give newbies with some experience access to affordable land and shared infrastructure such as tractors and greenhouses.

It works like this: Folks begin by making it through a sustainable-farming and -ranching class and an agricultural-entrepreneurship class offered by Washington State University. Then they have the chance to rent a farm-ready plot and irrigation water at below-market rates on Viva’s 33 acres. They can sell their produce through Viva’s subscription service as well as its farm stand. With the right combination of luck and hard work, Viva Farms hopes the farmers will be independent within seven years.

It’s a good mix of safety net and solo work, one that may offer struggling foodie idealists the last crucial link to finally connect inspiration to operation … and perhaps ultimately to your dinner table.