As director of Washington State University Extension in Cowlitz County, Gary Fredricks advises people interested in becoming farmers.
First of all, he counsels, budding farmers should have a marketing plan. How will you sell what you produce? “That to me is the first place to start,” he said.
Second, they should have a farm plan. How will the land, buildings and other resources work together? “Mistakes cost money,” Fredricks said.
Third, if you have animals, what will you feed them? It may be the biggest expense. “To me, good pasture is free food,” Fredricks said. “Once you start buying feed, it gets expensive fast.”
And, he adds, check your motives and interests.
“You have to be passionate about farming. If it’s all about the money, I just don’t think it’s going to be what you want,” he said.
Small ag is big
Fredricks, 63, has been director of Cowlitz County Extension since 2002. The southwest Washington county has timber and manufacturing, but relatively little large-scale food production. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the county had 492 farms that year, but 396 of them had less than $10,000 in sales. The median size farm was 15 acres.
Fredricks said he believes that’s enough space to make a go at farming. “If I have 10 acres, I can grow a lot of vegetables,” he said.
Cowlitz County’s agricultural profile is similar to many other Western Washington counties. Fredricks has spent his career in the region and serves as an all-purpose adviser to small farmers. His expertise ranges from goats to composting to pastures.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science from WSU. His office in Longview is decorated in the style of a Cougar alumnus — WSU banner, WSU poster and a WSU rug. Since June 1, he has been spending two days a week in Chehalis as interim director of WSU Extension in Lewis County, a position he filled following the retirement of the previous director.
Fredricks grew up in Tacoma and spent weekends on his uncle’s dairy in Auburn, south of Seattle. After earning his master’s degree, he worked briefly at a dairy and for the federal Milk Market Administrator. He began his career with WSU Extension in 1984 as an adviser to dairies in Clark County, south of Cowlitz County. At the time, Clark County had 84 dairies, Fredericks recalled. He now counts five.
Although agriculture in Western Washington has shrunk in some ways, Fredricks said there are business opportunities for new small farmers, particularly if they can cut out the middle-man.
Small farmers are positioned to sell directly to customers shopping for locally grown food, he said.
“More and more people are looking to know where their food is coming from,” Fredricks said. “When we’re talking about expanding agriculture, we have to talk about small farms.”
Websites, farm guides, whatever — get your name out there, he said.
“Marketing is about connecting with people, and it takes time, and it takes work,” Fredricks said. “It’s that personal connection that will allow for that premium.”
According to the Census of Agriculture, farming is not the main occupation of most Cowlitz County farmers. Fredricks said small farmers typically move into the field gradually.
“It’s usually a progression. They don’t just jump into it,” he said. “They have flexibility and a little less risk.
“I’ve seen people take hobbies and expand it and make some significant money off it,” said Fredricks, citing the example of a woman he knows with mason bees.
Making a living with livestock and a small land base is tough, he said, though animals can be a feature of agritourism.
Established small farmers should welcome small farmers and not view them as competitors crowding farmers’ markets, he said.
More farmers make more robust markets, he said. “From my standpoint, marketing is probably foremost.”