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  • Al Johnson

Farm Worker to Farmer – Different Journeys

By Al Johnson

We might agree on the definition of a “farmworker,” but defining a “Farmer” is more complicated. Does a farmer own and work farmland? Lease land for their own business? Manage a farm for someone else? I won’t pretend to have a clear answer, but many who enter the farming world as workers aspire to a higher-level career as a manager or owner. This is the story of several people making that journey.

Hannah Conner & Joe Soto, Ramblin Sol Farm, Cream Ridge, NJ

Neither Hannah nor Joe grew up on a farm.

Hannah’s early college passion for teaching was dampened by the rules associated with the educational system. A previous landscaping job convinced her she could be more creative in the horticultural field, so she changed both schools and curriculum. After graduation, she became involved with the food justice work of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm. There, she helped grow food for the farm’s CSA and for its donations to the Washington DC area Food Banks. The project’s diverse community gave her the confidence and motivation to continue farming. While subsequent farm jobs further built her skills, the long, hard work days without sufficient monetary compensation to pay bills created a level of stress that necessitated a break from farming.

Hannah felt running her own farm would be a rejuvenating change of direction. She found what appeared to be an ideal situation – the rental of a 5th generation farm from a family transitioning out of farming who wanted to keep their land productive. Using her savings to improve the farm’s infrastructure turned into a disaster - the family unexpectedly sold the farm before her first season was completed.

Joe’s interest in plants and growing food went dormant after his childhood days, picking veggies from his grandfather’s garden for the family’s diner. However, a post-college Florida paddleboard instructor job amongst lush year-round plants rekindled his interest. Further studies in Environmental Science were disappointing, with the curriculum geared towards industry rather than environmental protection. Work on the student farm motivated him to WWOOF, landing him on small farms & homesteads in coastal North Carolina. Working alongside farmers with good business sense who were squeaking out a living using low but affordable technology caused Joe to “grow up really fast emotionally” and gave him the confidence to pursue farming.

He worked his way into management positions on Vermont and New Jersey farms. However, the triple whammy of long hours, low pay and dealing with workplace tensions (caused by these same conditions for fellow workers and bosses alike) necessitated a change in direction.

Joe and Hannah had, by this time, become a couple and their mutual need for change allowed them to re-evaluate their life’s plan. As a couple, they could create a stronger business and support each other through stressful times. The successful search for a rental farm with decent land, a house and water, gave birth to Ramblin Sol Farm, Cream Ridge, NJ.

Not all stresses disappeared. When the couple discovered that baby Emmylou would arrive later that year, they knew their tiny house and unstable finances would not do.

However, new opportunities were on the horizon. Because of their limited resources, Hannah and Joe highly value becoming part of a supportive community. They built strong relationships with their customers and neighbors. Then, one CSA member, who suddenly lost her husband, offered them her 8-acre farm with a lease and an agreement to purchase and promised to “make it happen”. The neighbor knew her late husband would have wanted their farm to be used as Hannah and Joe envisioned. After hammering out agreements on such issues as liability and responsibility for repairs, the owner is giving them time to build up the strength of the business to qualify for a mortgage, which will finalize the deal.

By my definition, Hannah and Joe are now farmers. Has all stress disappeared? Certainly not, especially with the land ownership still not settled. However, their current situation has given them the stability to become certified organic and has given them the longevity to improve infrastructure. Have they been able to eliminate some of the stresses they felt as farm workers? On the financial end, their rental agreement allows them to build up some equity in the farm and they are paying the bills. More importantly, though, they have greater opportunities to build a support network from the community that is served by the farm and can work towards a better work-life balance, which they hope to extend to their employees as well.

Jared Krawitz, Closter Farm & Livestock Co., Closter, NJ

Jared always loved working with food but as a kid, abhorred gardening. After earning his degrees in economics and Asian Languages, he joined a project providing healthy food for New York area Day Care Centers. His economics background steered him towards developing and later managing the project’s business plan. This project also introduced him to sourcing and cooking local, nutritious food. Soon, he was hired by a skilled restaurant chef with connections to local farmers who provided food that could be featured on the menu. Jared’s eyes were opened to the superior qualities of fresh, local organic produce. “I could taste the difference and I tasted everything”.

Jared found these farmers to be affable and he envied their outdoor work environment. After a year, Jared found a North Carolina farm apprenticeship through the ATTRA website. The owner was an excellent businessman and teacher with a Ph.D. in soil science. He was part of a wider farm community, which allowed Jared to learn a variety of skills from numerous mentors. This first farm experience was trial by fire. The staff of 7 was soon reduced to 3, giving Jared responsibilities for skills that had to be learned “on the go.” He jumped right into raising crops, poultry, hogs and steers and he processed meat. “It was hard,” says Jared, “but hard situations are good teachers.”

Returning North after his year-long apprenticeship, he reconnected with a New Jersey farm entrepreneur whose vision of a diversified Farm-to-table/Store operation had inspired Jared. The owner took a chance and made him the poultry manager, sharpening his growing and butchering skills while giving him time to continue learning from his involvement with the produce operation. Equally important were the management and finance skills he was honing – organizing metrics and financial data to make it useful for management decisions - not only for his poultry but for the other aspects of the farm.

Soon, Jared was ready to start his own farm business - but where and how was still a mystery. A “cold” email to the new owner of a suburban farm seeking a farmer got an immediate response. Jared sensed the owner was a skilled businessman, asking penetrating questions and being unwilling to give answers until all the facts were analyzed. Within a day, Jared used his farm management experience to provide a business plan, which included income and cash flow projections and contingencies. The two clicked, having similar cultural backgrounds and both were willing to go through lengthy discussions to arrive at mutually agreeable solutions. The farm plan was fine-tuned to include housing and infrastructure upgrades and their financing. Fields and poultry facilities were readied, resulting in the farm’s first sales in June 2020.

Jared and the owner continue to communicate constantly, which Jared feels is critical for this type of arrangement. When the owner shows up to help, he recognizes his role as a farm worker, not another farm manager, which could cause undue stress. Yet, he is willing to offer advice when it is sought, which is often. They have developed a mutual respect that allows them to tackle difficult issues honestly. Jared is well settled on this suburban gem of a farm with his new wife, Rachel.

When I asked what farmworker experiences were critical in starting his own operation, his answers were many:

  • Be meticulous about your infrastructure plans and take no shortcuts. Cost-saving shortcuts during construction or repair can result in failure, which will cost more in the long run and often occur during the busiest time of year.

  • Any position on a farm presents opportunities to hone business skills. Take advantage of these opportunities, whether they be in cost accounting, making management plans, or marketing. These are critical for developing a successful farm.

  • Temper new ideas with the collective wisdom of experienced farmers.

  • Good farmers can squeeze a profit from a low-margin process, but not without disciplined attention to detail.

  • Small farms cannot replicate the variety offered by supermarkets. Strive to give your customers diversity and take advantage of neighboring farms to widen your offerings.

  • Think big with your vision, but remember it’s the little details that will enable you to realize that vision.

  • Keep in touch with your mentors. Most are happy to continue helping.

  • My best bosses treated me with respect and taught me to treat my mistakes as learning experiences. My worst bosses attacked me verbally. I tell my own staff that we are all human and will make mistakes and it's part of our learning experience.

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