Accessing Land as Beginning Vegetable Farmers
Quackenbush Farms, Ridgefield, WA
September 14, 2015
On a drizzly, mid-September day, eighteen farmers, farm interns, and community members gathered at Quackenbush Farm near Ridgefield in Clark County. Attendees were greeted by owner/operators Matt and Jennifer Van Wey, and Rachel Quackenbush who began their farm adventure together in February of 2014. These young farmers were able to share the fresh memory of what was required for them to access land, gain resources, and begin a vegetable farming enterprise.
In the beginning, Matt, Jennifer, and Rachel (along with a fourth young farmer no longer working with them) wanted to start a small farm after the one they had all been working on closed down. They found their parcel of land on Craiglist and were attracted to it because it had viable acreage, several out-buildings (including a non-functioning walk-in cooler), and a comfortable house. They signed a lease on the place in February 2014 and broke ground in March. Matt was transparent about their costs explaining that splitting the farm rent (about $1700 per month all-told) and all the upfront expenses of starting a farm (about a $6000 total initial investment) made starting a small-farm both doable and with minimal financial risk. Since they are renting, he shared that it is almost an experiment in discovering what they are capable of doing with land and with a farm business.
As far as off-farm employment, Matt still holds a full-time position with the Department of Lands, Jennifer has been able to work full-time this season (in 2014 she still worked part-time off the farm), and Rachel works for them part-time. Matt explained that off-farm jobs certainly helped reduce the financial risk of beginning a farm business. The most difficult and time consuming part about launching the farm, was the marketing aspect. Keeping their website updated, promoting their CSA, talking with local restaurants – all required more time than Matt had anticipated. He suggested that any new farmer should make the small investment of building out a simple, well-designed website. In 2015, they decided to start attending the Vancouver Farmers Market. They now estimate that of their total farm sales, 60% come from the farmers market, 40% from their CSA, with a small percentage coming from their farm stand (which they keep stocked, with payment on the honor system).
As we walked the two acres in production at Quackenbush Farm, Matt and Jennifer pointed out how they reuse and repurpose farm materials to keep their input costs low. For example, instead of purchasing a heating mat set-up from a greenhouse supply company, they built their own repurposing scrap wood to make bench tops and then purchasing simple deicing cables, foam insulation, and sand. The hot beds gave them the bottom heat required to start over 500 tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings to get a jump on their season – without the need to heat a full greenhouse. The property that Quackenbush rents also includes two acres of a forested area, which they like to think of as a resource for pollinator and general ecosystem diversity. Jennifer keeps goats within this area that she milks for her own use. The farm also has chickens and ducks for some egg sales.
Besides the challenge of marketing, Matt and Jennifer came upon a major one this season – aminopyrolid contaminated manure. They were in need of supplemental manure for their compost, and purchased a few tons of horse manure from what they thought was a reputable source. They used the manure to amend soil that was then planted mostly in tomatoes. Soon after, the plants began to show signs of herbicide damage, and after have the manure and soil tested, they determined it was a aminopyrolid herbicide contamination. Aminopyrolids are a class of pesticides that are used for control of broadleaf weeds – often in hay production and in landscaping. When animals eat hay from a pasture treated with the pesticide, the chemical is not broken down and appears in their manure. This contaminated manure then causes problems in the growth of many vegetable crops, especially the nightshades such as tomatoes. Matt and Jennifer filed a report with the Department of Ecology, but are now left with a pile of essentially unusable manure. They were able to replant some of their tomatoes in another area, but the loss was huge for them this year. Lesson learned – always know (and test!) the source of soil amendments.
In the future, this small farm would like to expand to more farmers markets and restaurants. Since they started farming, Matt and Jennifer have experimented with over 50 varieties of plants, but they would now like to focus on what works for their land and their markets – bringing that number closer to 30 different varieties. They would also like to be able to hire a full-time employee and/or offer internship opportunities. As with most farms, labor is a challenge for them, especially when it comes to harvesting and keeping up with weeding. They do receive harvest help with CSA workshares, a program Matt says they will continue to do. Not only do they receive four hours of labor a week, but the workshares engage the community and help promote the farm. As far as the issue of weeding, Matt would like to experiment with biodegradable plastic mulches and put in more cover crops.
At the end of the farm walk, attendees helped harvest winter squash that Jennifer then directed into a shed for curing. It was apparent that these young farmers have certainly taken the time to experiment and discover what works best for them and their land. For now, renting allows them to build a farm business that will carry them into the future as they turn visions into attainable goals. We look forward to seeing how Quackenbush Farm continues to add to the food system of Clark County!
Summary by Angela Anegon
This farm walk funded in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Program.