First-generation farmer helps fledgling growers connect with peers

Tierney Creech grew up in a Seattle suburb and became a farmer, surprisingly.

“I didn’t know it was an option,” she said.

Creech comes from Redmond, Wash., the home of Microsoft and other high-tech companies. She got a college degree and went to work for a YMCA. Her first move toward becoming a farmer was leaving her Y cubicle.

That was about a decade ago. Now Creech, 35, grows vegetables on roughly 2 acres on plots in Maytown and Grand Mound in Thurston County, Wash. She and her farming partner, Julie Puhich, supply about 100 families who sign up for weekly boxes of produce during the growing season.

To connect with other fledgling growers, she helped found the Washington Young Farmers Coalition in 2010. She’s also on the board of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Most members, she said, are like her. They have small pieces of land and are making a go at an occupation they didn’t grow up around.

“A lot of us are coming in as first-generation farmers,” Creech said. “We can’t look back on generations of knowledge in our families.”

Advocacy, support

The Young Farmers Coalition combines advocacy, socializing and practical support. Membership in the state coalition is fairly informal. The group’s Facebook page has more than 1,750 friends.

“The camaraderie is really valuable,” Creech said. “It’s a hard thing to go from ‘I want to farm’ to farming.”

Last year, the national organization dug into what makes getting into farming hard by surveying more than 3,500 past, current or aspiring farmers under 40 years old.

The survey found that the top challenges faced by young farmers were finding land and workers, paying for health insurance and paying off student debt. An accompanying report recommends more government support for low-interest loans and a variety of farmer assistance programs, especially for minorities. The report also advocates student loan forgiveness for farmers.

On the state level, Creech testified in support this year of a bill to provide farmers with free mental health counseling. Her testimony included a personal story of a young farmer who committed suicide. Representatives from other farm groups had similar stories. The bill passed.

Creech said the state and national chapters of the Young Farmers Coalition started at about the same time.

She said her involvement began by attending another organization’s gathering of young farmers.

“It was the first time I had ever met other young people farming,” Creech said.

Creech graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in psychology and a minor in environmental studies. Her interest in the outdoors and summer camps led to the YMCA job. She, however, wanted a foreign adventure. She found it by signing up with Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a cultural exchange program. She spent a year working on organic farms in New Zealand she recalled.

“I continued to learn that I loved farming,” Creech said.

CSA honor system

She came back to Washington and worked on several farms before going into business with Puhich, the longtime operator of the Common Ground CSA (community supported agriculture). After a couple of years, Creech took over ownership at the beginning of 2017.

Customers sign up to receive small or large boxes of vegetables for 25 weeks. A small share costs $450 to $700. A large share costs $700 to $1,000. Customers choose the exact price. It’s a sliding scale meant to tie what customers pay to their income using the honor system.

“It’s a great model. It’s really simple,” Creech said.

The model has been durable. Puhich started Common Ground more than 25 years ago. The farm has no website. It relies on word-of-mouth advertising.

Creech said her customers like fresh vegetables — and who’s growing their food. “It’s a way for people to feel part of a community,” she said.

Creech said she tries to deliver about a dozen different kinds of vegetables each week. “It’s cool to watch the seasons change and watch the boxes change,” she said.

Customers assume some risk for poor crops. “If I have a bad year for carrots, they know they’re not going to have many carrots,” she said.

This does not relieve Common Ground of responding to market demands. “If I gave them only kale for four weeks, they probably wouldn’t stick around,” Creech said. “We have customers saying, ‘We want more beans.’ At the same time, we have customers saying, ‘We want less beans.’”

Creech said she hires one full-time seasonal worker. Even with just one worker, Washington’s $11.50 per hour minimum wage — the highest among all states — is a major expense.

She said her plans are to keep the enterprise going and to keep farming.

“It’s definitely the most satisfying work I’ve ever found,” she said.