Small-scale farmers find big success

OTIS ORCHARDS, Wash. — Fifty chicks, only three days old, huddled under the heat lamps on Paul and Sue Puhek’s farm.

The Puheks received the chicks the morning of Oct. 19, replacing their entire flock, which had reached four years old.

“When a chicken gets to four years of age, that’s like 100 human (years),” Sue said.

“They’re eating almost the same, and you’re getting 20% of the eggs,” Paul said.

Since 2002, Paul and Sue have operated S&P Homestead Farm in Otis Orchards, Wash., about 19 miles northeast of Spokane. They are among a growing number of small-scale farmers across the nation who have found success.

Their farm income is split between egg production and produce. In addition to eggs, they raise such vegetables as green beans, onions, carrots, beets, peas, Swiss chard and eggplant on roughly 1.5 acres of their 3-acre parcel.

The farm is one of the original vendors at the Liberty Lake Farmers’ Market. It also sells through the LINC Foods cooperative in Spokane.

Their expertise is a sought-after commodity, as other small-scale farmers seek information from them about succeeding in agriculture. They frequently teach the basics of raising chickens in classes through the Washington State University’s Spokane County Extension and the Spokane County Library District.

A Cultivating Success Beginning Farming and Ranching class for aspiring small-scale farmers toured their operation the same October morning they received their shipment of chicks.

“They’re doing a variety of things on just a couple of acres, really,” said Pat Munts, small farms coordinator with WSU Spokane County Extension. “To me, they just kind of typify what a small farm family could look like. It’s all at a scale that a beginning farmer could do.”

Small farms — those ranging from 1 to 9 acres — make up 32.2% of Washington’s farms, according to the USDA 2017 Ag Census. More than 11,500 farms are less than 10 acres, out of a total of nearly 36,000 farms in the state.

Nationally, more than 273,000 small farms make up roughly 13.3% of more than 2 million total farms.

Sue, 60, is a fourth-generation farmer. Her family raised vegetables, chickens and rabbits in the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz.

Paul, 61, is a lifelong Otis Orchards resident. His family truck-farmed and kept a large garden as he grew up, selling raspberries and offering U-pick crops.

They have three adult children, who help on the farm when they can.

Paul still keeps a full-time job as a technical drafter, a job he’s held for 40 years. Sue does not work outside the farm.

The farm is profitable each year, Paul said.

“We can’t live off that profit, at this point, but it does make money,” he said. “I tell people it makes enough to make me want to do it again.”

Chicken and eggPaul and Sue both say their parents raised chickens while they were growing up.

Paul’s parents started when he was 5 years old.

“My mother always had chickens and it was, ‘OK, Sunday’s coming up, chicken dinner,’” Sue said. “She would just go out, ‘Eeny meeny miney, moe, who’s bugging me the most?’ Wring the neck, plucked them. … ‘I’ve got too many roosters, which one of you are the meanest?’ and it would hit the pot. We would have chicken, whether it was roast chicken, fried chicken, chicken-and-dumplings or whatever. That’s the way I grew up.”

The couple started raising chickens in the mid-1980s, in a tiny barn with less than a dozen chickens providing eggs for their family.

They’d always have a surplus, so they put a sign out by the road: “Eggs for sale.”

“Of course, people will stop and buy eggs,” Paul said.

They then began selling eggs at the farmers’ market.

They can raise up to 120 chickens in the small building where they keep the birds.

Feed and straw for bedding are their biggest expense.

“When you’re buying chickens, the baby chicks are anywhere from $3 to $4 apiece,” Sue said. “It takes six months for that baby chick to lay an egg. So you’re feeding this $4 baby chick for six months feed that’s about $18 or so a bag until they start laying.”

After that six months, she said, the chickens lay eggs “like gangbusters” for the first year. After that, their productivity begins to taper off.

“I always figure first year is 100%,” Paul said. “Second year is going to be around 75% or 80%. Third year, you’re looking at 60%. After that, you probably should get new chickens.”

The Puheks plan to run their chickens for two years. For their older birds, they hope to find a butcher, a big need for small-scale farmers in the area.

Chefs have expressed interest in buying their spent layer hens, which they say have more flavor, but the chickens must be processed at a USDA facility to be sold.

It would be an added value, Paul said, but there’s a one- to two-year waiting list to rent portable slaughter facilities.

How did they get rid of the birds from their previous flock?

“I put an ad on Craigslist that said, ‘Free chickens,’” Paul said. “I got like 10 to 12 responses in half an hour.”

Produce accounts for the other half of the operation. The Puheks started farming after getting married in 1980.

“We were living in a trailer in a trailer park, and we literally tore up the backyard and planted vegetables,” Sue said. “Not only were we feeding us, we were feeding the neighbors.”

They’re always looking for different varieties of vegetables, new and old.

“Typically, if we don’t like it, we don’t think our customers will like it,” Paul said.

Sue is a certified master food preserver, so she can educate customers about canning, dehydrating and freezing if they purchase 5 pounds of carrots and aren’t sure what to do with them.

“Sometimes you have to not only develop your customer, you’re developing a market,” Paul said.

Approachability is key when selling at the farmers’ market, the Puheks say. They’ve seen other vendors grumble about answering customers’ questions all day, or sit in the back of the booth and ignore the people they hope will buy from them.

The Puheks also test their produce so they know how to advise their customers. For example, they experimented with purple carrots, now one of their top sellers, Sue said.

“We sell out of those first,” Paul agreed. “You can throw the produce out on a table and stand there, and hope it goes, or you can say, ‘Hey, come take a look at this.’”

But the farmers’ market only lasts 22 weeks each year. For chicken farmers, that creates a quandary: The chickens don’t stop laying once the market season is over.

“If you have 100 chickens, you’re going to get 80 eggs a day,” Paul said.

In the off-season, the Puheks sell their eggs through the LINC Foods co-op to wholesale or straight to retail.

“They’re one of the last few really functioning farms in Otis Orchards, which is a historically important agricultural district in our region,” said Beth Robinette, co-founder of LINC Foods. “They’ve been able to keep that going in that area.”

The Puheks sell their eggs for $5 a dozen at farmers’ markets or $3 to $4 per dozen to the co-op.

Their cost of production is roughly $2.25 to $2.50 per dozen.

The Puheks expect to remain profitable, even with the delay in egg production as the new flock matures.

Produce is also profitable, but they are at the mercy of the weather, Sue said. Costs are relatively low, as long as the couple watches their inputs and doesn’t have a crop loss.

When planting produce, Paul said, the couple factors in expected demand, including what they had too much or too little of the previous year.

“Everything you grow has to have somewhere to go,” he said. “If you grow it and don’t sell it, it’s actually costing you money — the cost of taking care of that produce, harvesting it, the seed — if it rots or gets sowed underground, it’s not just a lost sale, it’s lost revenue. You’re spending money on produce you’re not selling.”

Getting startedWhen they teach classes to beginning farmers, Sue tells students chickens are one of the easiest types of livestock to raise.

“They’re not too picky about where they live, what they eat, and you wind up getting eggs and meat,” she said.

Paul and Sue warn beginning farmers to be ready for chickens when they arrive.

Paul recommends having all infrastructure in place before buying.

They’ve seen too many instances of people purchasing chicks on a whim.

“They have nowhere to put them — they’re raising chickens in their bathtub or sticking them in a box in their laundry room,” Paul said. “OK, now they’re too big for the laundry room — where do they go?”

The Puheks have designed their operation to make things most efficient for them, not for the birds.

“The chickens don’t care,” Sue said. “I’m sure you’ve seen on the Internet the cute little tiny houses and stuff for chickens. I’m looking at that going, ‘How the heck am I going to clean that? How am I going to get into it? How am I going to water, how am I going to feed?’”

Giving backThe Puheks practice the three parts of sustainable farming — community, business and taking care of the land, said Munts, the WSU Extension small farms coordinator.

“(They’re) a good demonstration of how you can manage at a scale and still make a profit, but still maintain jobs and everything else,” she said.

Munts is particularly impressed with the Puheks’ willingness to share their successes with other small-scale farmers.

“I can’t say enough about how they’ll say, ‘Yes,’ every time I call them,” she said. “They’re just so community-minded, it’s just wonderful.”


Is a small farm in your future?

The Idaho Extension Service will conduct a one-day workshop for those planning, or who have just begun, a small farming operation.

“st a Small Farm in Your Future?” will be Saturday, Dec. 14, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. PST at the Lewis County Courthouse in Nezperce.

“Whether you’re in the planning stages or have just begun, this one-day intensive workshop will help you determine what options are available for you, explore potential markets and profitability for different enterprises, network with others and learn what it takes to begin and sustain a small scale farming business,” according to the event website.

The workshop will cover setting goals, assessing resources, taking a personal inventory, exploring enterprise, and networking with Extension staff and other small farmers. A registration fee of $25 covers all materials, lunch and refreshments.

To register call all 208-937-2311 or email

Survey finds landowners OK with conservation on rented farmland

Landowners in Washington are more OK with the farmers renting their property making conservation efforts than previously thought, the American Farmland Trust says.

The organization, which is devoted to protecting agricultural lands, farmers and sound environmental practices recently released the results of its survey of Washington landowners.

The organization surveyed 306 non-operating landowners in the state.

“If (farmers) are thinking about conservation, especially around soil health, improving water quality or wildlife habitat, they may have presumed that their landowner is not supportive,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, director of the organization’s Women for the Land program. “Our results suggest they should work and talk with their landlord about flexibility they have in supporting them to adopt conservation practices. We think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

According to the survey results, 75% of landowners generally rent or lease land to family, friends or a neighbor, and 92% say they trust their farmer to make good conservation decisions.

Concerns that conservation practices would devalue the farmland or receive disapproval from neighbors were actually the least likely barriers to conservation on landowners’ rented land, according to the survey.

Roesch-McNally called the idea that non-operating landowners don’t care about conservation and wouldn’t support their renters a “myth.”

“At least from the landowner perspective, they’re not as concerned about that,” she said.

The biggest limiting factors were a weak farm economy and the renter’s ability to afford conservation efforts, the survey found. Roughly 27% and 22% of respondents listed these factors, Roesch-McNally said.

Non-operating landowners own roughly 39% of land in the West, higher in some states, she said. Non-operating landowners own roughly 80% of rented land, according to the organization.

“We have a decent understanding of landowners who farm their land and farmers who farm their own land and rented land,” Roesch-McNally said.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides consistent data over time, she said.

“But we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t actually understand about these non-operating landowners.”

Respondents were asked to consider a series of attributes that are somewhat or very important to them when evaluating a current or potential renter.

Trustworthiness is the top quality landowners are looking for when renting their land, cited as “somewhat” or “very” important 99% of the time. The other top five operator characteristics were “They care about my land,” cited by 98%; “They are financially responsible,” cited by 97%; “ability to maintain soil productivity” and “reputation as a good farmer,” both cited by 96% ;and “ability to avoid soil erosion,” by 92%.

But Roesch-McNally pointed to a relative lack of awareness about or access to information to help with conservation efforts.

“I think there’s kind of a gap between the technical assistance we provide to farmers, but we don’t always reach out to landowners,” she said.

Roughly 17% to 33% of survey respondents are interested in access to education materials.

“They’re supportive, but they may not be as interested in formal support,” Roesch-McNally said. “To me, I take that as suggesting that our ag adviser communities shouldn’t forget the landowner audience and do some targeted outreach, so they’re aware of some of the programs that could benefit their land and their farmers.”

Most landowners speak with their farmer a couple times a year, she said.

“Often people have long-standing relationships and annually-renewed leases, folks have been working with the same renter for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating with each other all the time, especially about things around conservation,” she said.

Women non-operating landowners are more likely to experience a breakdown in communication with their renting farmer, she said.

Many women have been disproportionately left out of mainstream agricultural conversations and may feel less empowered or supported, and don’t feel as confident in discussions with their renter, she said.

The Land for Women program works to help them gain the expertise and gain confidence to discuss conservation and other topics with their renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

American Farmland Trust plans to implement the program in the Northwest in 2020.

The organization surveyed 11 states across the country – Washington, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Full survey results are slated to be released this winter, including analyses of gender and agricultural experience. The information will inform American Farmland Trust’s outreach and programming to help boost conversations between landowners and renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

“There’s an opportunity to improve the way people are talking to each other about their goals for their land,” she said.


Early season snowfall, precipitation lagging across Oregon

SALEM — A dry start to the fall season is raising some concerns among state water managers about the possibility of drought returning to Oregon, especially in the Rogue and Umpqua river basins.

Overall precipitation is measuring well below normal for the water year that began Sept. 30, according to the latest water conditions report from the Oregon Water Resources Department. The deficit ranges from nearly an inch below normal east of the Cascades, to more than 5 inches below normal in parts of southwest Oregon.

While no part of the state is currently in drought, the agency’s report states that could change in the coming weeks unless there is a marked change in weather patterns.

Statewide, average precipitation at sites measured by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is just 45% of normal across the state.

The highest totals as of Nov. 18 were in northeast Oregon, including 71% in the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins and 67% in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha basins.

The lowest totals are in southwest and south-central Oregon, at 26% of normal in the Rogue and Umpqua basins; 24% in the Klamath Basin; and 21% in the Goose Lake and Lake County area.

The Willamette Basin — home of the state’s leading agricultural counties by value of products — is trending right in the middle at 45% of normal.

Stream flows are still averaging slightly above normal across Oregon, thanks to drought-busting record snowfall in February and heavy rains in April that bolstered supplies over the summer. However, the report cautions that more is needed to maintain that positive momentum.

“In response to recent dry weather, flows in many streams in Western Oregon have declined significantly over the past two weeks,” the report states. “In some areas of southwestern Oregon, stream flows are less than 10% of normal.”

The highest stream flows were in the Sandy, North Coast, Mid Coast and Umatilla basins at more than 130% of normal for the month of October, dropping down to about 53% of normal on the South Coast.

As irrigators start eyeing relief, short- and long-term weather forecasts offer a mixed bag.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center predicts below-average precipitation over the next two weeks, and an equal chance for above- or below-normal precipitation across most of the state over the next three months.

The lone exception, once again, is southwest Oregon, which is looking at a greater chance of continued dry conditions.

At this time last year, the entire state of Oregon was listed in some stage of drought — including extreme drought across portions of southern and central Oregon. Then came the February snow and April rain, proving just how quickly conditions can change.

“We always prefer to see a good start to the water year,” said Racquel Rancier, spokeswoman for the OWRD. “This year has been a slow start with below-normal precipitation, but it really is too early to be able to determine how water conditions will look in a few months and whether drought conditions will occur.”

‘How Now Backyard Cow’

Oregon State University extension will present a four-workshop series on very small-scale backyard dairy management, beginning Jan. 28.

“This four-class series is for those interested in owning a dairy animal to provide milk for home use,” according to the event website. “If you currently have a milk cow (or goat or sheep) or are thinking about raising them, this program will help you with the basics on animal production and management. This class will not cover rules and regulations for selling milk or milk products.”

Topics include nutrition and feeding, facilities and manure management, milk and milking procedures, and health and reproduction.

The workshops will be presented on four Tuesdays, Jan. 28-Feb. 18, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The workshops will be presented at the Linn County Extension Service, 33630 McFarland Road, Tangent, Ore.

The event cost of the series is $60. A partner can be added for an additional $35.

For more information, go to the event website.

Idaho small farmer heads West to grow hemp

The Fletcher family knows the success of its first hemp-growing season could be tough to repeat come 2020.

“It’s really finicky,” Vale, Ore.-based farmer Randy Fletcher said. “You have to get your irrigation just right along with nutrients in the soil. Otherwise, hemp can go bad or die. It’s extremely hard to grow.”

Randy and Patty Fletcher, both 61, and their son Luke, 35, used organic practices on the 2019 crop, their first. That helped soil and flower quality but intensified the weed challenge every hemp grower faces.

“We introduced a cover crop, white clover, to help suppress the weeds,” Randy said. “Something we are working on is to develop a seven- to eight-seed cover crop for hemp growers.” The ideal cover crop would help provide soil nutrition to hemp plants without growing too tall and depriving them of sunlight.

The Fletchers are growing hemp in southeastern Oregon partly because Idaho does not yet allow the crop.

“If it ever does become legal, we would want to keep Vale and expand into Idaho with a farm on the Idaho side,” Patty said. She and Randy own a home in Boise. They frequently get help from family on the Vale farm.

The family owns 4 Fletcher Farms LLC, which does business as Fletcher Farms Hemp. They bought about 30 acres in Oct. 2018 and grew hemp on half the ground this year — producing a total of nearly 5,000 pounds of smokable hemp flower for CBD, “a very successful harvest,” Patty said.

In the1980s, they grew alfalfa hay and raised Texas Longhorn cattle near Susanville, Calif. They left production ag during drought years. Randy, an electrician, ended up in the Boise area, where the family ran an electrical services business for about 25 years before selling it.

“That’s when we started looking to get back into farming,” Patty said. They found the Vale farm, where corn and other crops were grown over the years.

Luke, who works in Portland for a sizable provider of CBD products and comes to Vale weekly, said nearby Ontario, on the Idaho border, is becoming well known in the industry. The drier climate and availability of irrigation water help, as does dispensaries’ and shops’ heavy traffic that includes Idaho residents.

“We don’t have to go far to find customers,” Patty said.

A lack of guidebooks and other resources means growers of the fairly new crop “really have to rely on the community,” Luke said. “The biggest thing we learned is that if you can find people who have grown hemp, that goes a long way.”

Randy said soil in the area is “a little light. Hemp likes to be grown in a pH of 6.5 to 7, and out here in Malheur County it’s about 8 to 8.5.” Organic fertilizer helps, but takes time. He expects the new cover crop to help speed the process.

Patty said the family’s 2019 hemp crop was helped by good seed genetics, and better weather than some growers closer to the coast experienced in late summer and early fall.

The Fletchers have two 30- by 100-foot greenhouses for drying and curing hemp flowers. They’re considering growing an indoor crop this winter — possibly adding greenhouse space for it — and growing different varieties next year.

“We’re not sure quite yet if we will add acres,” Luke said. This year’s acreage was “perfect. It fit the greenhouses for storage and drying perfectly.”

Nursery again tops list of Oregon commodities

PORTLAND — Greenhouse and nursery products continue to reign as Oregon’s most valuable agricultural commodity, with goods nearly topping $1 billion in 2018, according to data compiled by the Oregon Department of Agriculture and USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The agencies released their annual brochure of facts and figures about Oregon agriculture on Oct. 31, including crop production, acreage and livestock inventory over the previous year.

Dave Losh, Oregon state statistician for NASS, said most of the information comes from surveys collected directly from farmers and ranchers across the state.

“We have a cooperative agreement with (the state), and it goes back to our mission of providing timely and accurate statistics on agriculture,” Losh said. “We’re able to focus on Oregon agriculture, which has a lot of diversity.”

Oregon famously grows more than 200 different agricultural commodities, from wheat and cattle in the east to grass seed, hazelnuts and Christmas trees in the lush Willamette Valley.

The USDA ranks the top 20 most valuable agricultural commodities in Oregon, and while Losh said the list does fluctuate each year depending on crop prices, the greenhouse and nursery industry has routinely led the pack since 2009.

Ten years ago, greenhouse and nursery products were valued at $732.5 million. In 2018, the total was $995.9 million — a 35% increase.

Losh said there were few other major surprises in the top 20, compared to 2017. Cattle and calves remained number two, at $652 million, and hay number three at $590.4 million. Grass seed and milk flipped spots at fourth and fifth, respectively, likely due to lower dairy prices.

Winegrapes rose two spots to seventh, breaking $200 million for the first time. Hazelnuts remained 13th, though the value climbed from $73.6 million to $91.8 million as more acres reach nut-bearing age.

One notable absence from the top 20 is industrial hemp. Losh said the USDA did not collect data on hemp last year, since it was only legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill last December.

“USDA is still working through the process of how to put in regulations and put in a statistics program for hemp,” Losh said.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture issued permits in 2019 for more than 63,000 acres of hemp, which is more acreage than potatoes and onions combined. It remains unclear how many acres of hemp will actually be harvested.

Medical and recreational marijuana, meanwhile, is not regulated by ODA, but rather the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The 2018 facts and figures brochure also contains general information about Oregon farms and ranches, which were previously reported by NASS in the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Oregon has 37,200 total farms over 16 million acres. Local farmers lead the country in production of several crops, including hazelnuts, grass seed, Christmas trees, rhubarb and blueberries, while ranking second in crops like pears and mint and third in hops and onions.

Losh said the figures are intended not only for producers, but state lawmakers and local governments to provide a full picture of Oregon’s agricultural production and value.

“We hope it’s valuable for lawmakers, particularly the Oregon legislature and local government as well, when they’re making decisions regarding agriculture,” he said. “We’ve seen some loss in farmland due to urban expansion and other uses, and we are fully supportive of trying to make sure that good farmland stays in production.”

Cascadia conference seeks to build local grain economy

Registration is now open for the Cascadia Grains Conference, which seeks to connect smaller grain farmers with bakers, brewers, millers and health and nutrition advocates.

The conference runs Jan. 17-18 in Olympia and various events throughout Thurston County.

The event exists to connect people and build a local grain economy in the Northwest, said Aba Kiser, conference coordinator and project manager for the Washington State University food systems program.

“There’s not a silver bullet of what that looks like, and we’re all in this together trying to figure it out,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone who wants to be a part of this conversation has a seat at the table.”

Getting better prices for farmers is “paramount,” said.

Craft brewing and distilling industries have enormous economic potential for farmers, particularly small-scale, diversified farmers who are focused on sustainability, she said.

The registration form asks farmers if they plan to increase their grain yield in the next three to five years.

The event focuses on resources for new and beginning farmers, including start-up capital and marketing classes, larger farmers trying small-scale rotations and other resources for their farms.

Mel Darbyshire, head baker at Grand Central Bakery in Seattle, will be keynote speaker. Darbyshire rose from the position of dishwasher at the bakery, Kiser said, and is involved in many local grain efforts.

Kiser expects Darbyshire to speak about the challenges bakers face buying local whole grains and supporting their employees.

The conference includes 18 workshops, a resource expo and several Friday field trips offering hands-on experience.

The program will focus on regional grains used for brewing and distilling, animal feed and baking and other food uses, according to a WSU press release. End-users will get an inside look at grain production, quality and developing connections to use and market products using local grain. Investors, brokers and local government officials will learn about investment and policy opportunities.

The event caps at 300 participants. Kiser hopes people leave feeling “revitalized.”

“We are hoping we can be the bridge builders and connectors,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of folks say they’ve done their best networking at the happy hour of the Cascadia Grains Conference.”