GRESHAM, Ore. — On the outskirts of this Portland suburb, a red barn and several small farm fields huddle along a gravel driveway.
Lush green plants covering the plots contrast with the dusty dull grays of the gravel road, highlighting the well-cared-for farm and the crops of vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Welcome to Headwaters Farm. Managed by the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, it is a farm incubator — a place where aspiring farmers can lease small parcels of land and rent equipment to get their farms going.
For Irina Schabram and Nicki Passarella, Headwaters has allowed them to begin farming with low start-up costs and low risk.
“It is not that easy to find land that you can farm on, and then the capital of getting started has been a little bit prohibitive as well,” said Schabram. “So all the equipment here, the wonderful lease we have, the fact that we have a riser right at our field and we can pump water onto our field … just made it a dream come true for somebody who wants to try this out.”
Schabram and Passarella are part of a new generation of farmers. They didn’t grow up in agriculture, yet they are intent on learning the profession so they can grow the nation’s food and fiber as the current generation of farmers retires.
It is an uphill battle. The number of younger farmers has been decreasing. In the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were about 387,000 farmers age 44 and under. By 2012, that number had dropped to about 334,000 — a decrease of nearly 14 percent.
Low profit margins and the high cost of land and equipment coupled with the need for business and marketing acumen and the unique skillsets required for different crops add up to high barriers for beginning farmers. Headwaters and scores of other programs like it across the nation are attempting to remove, or at least lower, some of those barriers.
Schabram and Passarella met last year during a farm internship and decided to go into business together, forming Amica Farm. Passarella, formerly involved in farmers’ market management, has been around the local food movement for years. Schabram has long been around farming and gardening, but this is her first full-time foray into it, according to the Headwaters website.
Having a partner in the venture has been helpful to both of them, they agreed, because there is often an area where one is stronger than the other. For example, Passarella does a good job of killing slugs, they laughed.
On a more serious note, Schabram said, “People really want the romance of what a small farm is,” but in reality, farming is a lot of hard work.
The isolation of farming can be another factor.
“Often farming you can get very solitary and lonesome. Here (at Headwaters) that’s not the case,” she said. Schabram and Passarella said that if they were facing a pest or other issue they could simply ask neighboring farmers if they had encountered it before and how they dealt with it.
“Most of the farmers that come to us didn’t grow up on farms. They have gotten excited about it and they have worked on farms and sometimes have been through other entry-level programs and they don’t have that resource (of growing up on a farm),” said Rowan Steele, Headwaters Farm program manager for the conservation district. “The farm network is a big piece. I think that is something that most farm communities that are intact take for granted.”
Headwaters also seeks to lower the many barriers to starting a farm. To get in, prospective farmers must submit an application listing three references and their experience farming and handling equipment. They also must provide a business plan for their new farm.
Once accepted, farmers pay $150 per acre for the first year land lease, according to the 2017 fee schedule on the Headwaters website. That cost increases 25 percent each year. A $200 annual fee covers general maintenance and upkeep of the farm. Tools, tractor work, a tiller, a weed burner and other equipment are available to rent hourly. Office space is provided.
“We are seeking to lower traditional barriers to farmers. Access to capital, access to farm education, access to farm networks and the new one that we are starting to wrap our heads around to see what role we can play, is access to markets,” Steele said.
Garry Stephenson, a small farms specialist at Oregon State University, said many resources are available to beginning farmers.
The OSU Small Farms Program offers an online resource — called “What can I do with my small farm?” — which provides information for individuals thinking about farming to consider before jumping in.
Beginning farmers can also take a non-credit class through the university to learn about business practices. The course isn’t about how to grow a crop but how to run a small farm business, Stephenson said. The business side of the operations can sometimes be overlooked.
“(New farmers) need to do their homework,” Stephenson said. In other words, beginning farmers need to learn what goes into running a business, as well as the practical skills that are needed.
Markets are also a big piece of the puzzle, and farmers starting out need to know who will buy their crops.
“Any farm operates on extremely tiny profit margins,” Stephenson said.
Every beginning farm is different, he said, but some ideas hold true for most cases.
“Maintain off-farm income for as long as you can,” Stephenson said. “People want to rush into quitting their day job,” and that isn’t a good idea because of the tiny profits.
Money is one of the big barriers to beginning farmers, with both Stephenson and Schabram noting the importance of either on-hand capital or off-farm income.
The USDA and Northwest Farm Credit Services have programs specially designed to help beginning farmers financially.
Practical skills are also important, and that is where internships and other hands-on programs come into play. Such programs include Headwaters Farm, the Rogue Farm Corps Internship program or other similar programs available around the West.
“Farming is not a “1, 2, 3, here is what you need to know,” said Amy Garrett, also of OSU Extension Small Farms.
Still in their first year of the incubator program, Passarella and Schabram said their learning curve is steep.
The farm program offers them space to learn from their mistakes at a low risk.
“Learning through doing makes a lot more sense to me,” Passarella said.
“There are certain challenges that you know are going to happen. Weeds are going to happen,” Passarella said. But it is about “knowing when to hold it and when to fold ’em,” she said.
Sometimes farmers have to know when to say something is a loss and move on, while other times it is about being innovative and trying to figure out a way to salvage, save or repurpose a crop to recoup some of the cost, she said.
“Getting started has so many obstacles, so the more you can set yourself up with help, whether it is a neighbor or a program like (Headwaters) or any number of other things … that’s smart,” said Emily Cooper, a fifth-year farmer at Headwaters who operates Full Cellar Farm as well as serving as the farm’s caretaker.
As did her fellow farmers, Passarella and Schabram, Cooper stressed the importance of help and support getting started.
“I think there are a lot of people who are interested in farming who are very independent,” she said. “That is what draws us to farming, we want to do stuff on our own, but … if you can find some support it will help a lot.”
Cooper said she has friends who have started on their own and not as a part of a program like Headwaters, and they have had more challenges than she did. Some of them faced unrealistic landlords, or not having access to the equipment that they need.
“There are just so many obstacles when you are starting out,” Cooper said.
The way around some of these struggles is to get into a program like Headwaters, she said.
“You can get yourself into a program where the land is affordable, the water is abundant and the equipment is there by the hour,” Cooper said.
Schabram and Passarella agreed that farming isn’t as romantic and pretty as it may seem from their farmers’ market booth, mentioning how on a typical day in the field they would end up covered with dirt.
They also laughed as attention was brought to Schabram’s shirt hanging open at the bottom after some of the buttons popped off during the workday.
“Be prepared to work hard, especially when you don’t really want to, and know how to take a failure and move forward,” Passarella said.