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Do you use your produce at Cottonwood Coffee? Yes. We are most able to use the heirloom tomatoes, but we try to incorporate all of the things that we grow. We are working on a concept of selling the coffee house shares just like we sell our customers shares. That would mean that the coffeehouse would be getting a weekly delivery of whatever was ripe at the time. It requires more flexibility on the part of the chef, but we think it will work well for us.
How do you balance your responsibilities between Cottonwood Coffee and Glacial Till Farm? Not very well at the moment. We tried hiring a farm manager in the spring of this year. We connected with what we thought were a great young couple interested in their own future farm. It was a big gamble on our part and on theirs and while it was close to being a great win for all of us, it just did not work out. We realized early on that the expectations were not the same for both parties and severed the relationship within a couple of weeks.
We were, however, able to bring on a full time worker for the bulk of the season. That helped tremendously, but she needed training and guidance because she didn’t have extensive experience on the farm.
The general distribution of labor is my partner, Sarah, on the farm doing most of the work while I am in Brookings managing the coffeehouse. Sarah comes in to Brookings and works at the coffeehouse part of the time too. The goal is by next year I will be on the farm near full time during the season and Sarah will be managing the coffeehouse. We are fortunate to have very capable employees at the coffeehouse, so that part is fairly painless. We also have some great volunteer CSA members that come to the farm to help harvest.
Are there other small-scale organic farmers in this region with whom you can connect for mutual support? Yes, I stay in touch with Nick Siddens and Kristiana Gehant from Astoria. They operate Prairie Coteau Farm, which is very similar in a lot of ways to Glacial Till Farm. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see each other that often because we are all so busy, but we do cooperate on collective buying and advice whenever we can.
We have a great relationship with a young couple that does organic pork and beef near Mission (Dominic Harmon and Trista Olson), but they live far enough away that it is hard to see them often. We are hoping to use some of their pork and beef in Brookings and even bring some hogs over to our farm.
There are two very good regional conferences that we try to attend as well. MOSES has a huge conference in LaCrosse Wisconsin that brings together hundreds of farmers like us. Also, Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society does a conference that rotates between Bismarck and Aberdeen. We have made great connections through those conferences.
What programs and/or policies would make it more feasible for young people to break into small-scale organic farming, especially in South Dakota? Well, first of all, I think that government programs have been responsible for the demise of the small farmer in our country. The ramifications of the “get big or get out” dogma of the 80’s are still very present on our landscape. It will take decades of hard work for small-scale farmers to break back in to mainstream acceptance. I personally look at programs and policies with a very skeptical eye, but I think there are certainly concepts out there that would help.
In this Farm Bill there is a provision called the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program. It would do several things to help young people start farming. The main thrusts are: one, providing money for non-profits (like Dakota Rural Action or Land Stewardship Project) to provide training programs for new farmers; two, developing specific programs that would help new farmers finance land and equipment purchases; and three, creating policy that would give incentives to new farmers in conservation programs. That package of legislation would go a long way in helping new farmers and ranchers get started.
Dakota Rural Action is also working on an extensive Local Foods Directory that lists producers across the state that provide any type of local foods to consumers. It also gives tips and information on eating locally. I feel this is a very important tool because what we really need is a bigger market. Free market principles will drive young people to start farming (and we know many want to) if there is a market in which they can make a living.
Ultimately, I think South Dakota needs to rethink its policies and philosophies on farming in general. As a people and a government we need to reassess what is important. Despite prime farm ground as far as the eye can see our population eats food grown in California and Mexico. Our talented young people with stereotypical Midwestern work ethics know that graduation is a cue to get the heck out of state so they can make a decent living. We consider ourselves some of the most independent people in the world, yet our entire economy is propped up by the tax dollars of our urban cousins. We need to realize that we have the tools, the talent, the resources and the will to be the independent, hard-working, successful people we see ourselves as.
What advice do you have for other young people who want to do what you do? Try it first. It is not for everyone. Often people are drawn to farming as a lifestyle choice, which it certainly is, but they only see the fun side of the lifestyle and ignore the grueling hours sweating in a dusty field barely making enough money to stay sweating in the dusty field.
Working on a farm as an apprentice may be a great idea. I happen to support just diving in, assuming you know that farming is for you, but gaining some hands-on experience through another farm is certainly a good idea.
Finally, make a long term, realistic plan. The Land Stewardship Project has an extensive course called, Farm Beginnings, that takes students through an extensive goal-setting process. I feel that process is critical to being successful, and happy, on the farm.
What changes/additions do you plan for the farm in the near future? Many! Our first goal is to work with the neighbor so that we can buy the adjacent land. We would love to have that idyllic forty acres. We are also out of land that we can use for crops, so we really need more space to expand our operation.
We are constantly working on new techniques. I want to develop a more tractor oriented bed design to increase efficiency. That simply means bed preparation and possibly some cultivation, but it could cut down on labor some. We’ll never lose that connection with the dirt. We also want to build a new greenhouse and a cold storage facility. We’re talking about an intern cabin and a classroom; maybe a timberframe structure for that. I’d like to put in a natural pond for the scorching hot days. We’d like to raise some hogs.
We would like to expand the CSA in Brookings to twice the size it is now. After that we have started to consider really expanding a handful of crops; like potatoes, for example. We would then wholesale those to restaurants or grocery stores.
Some of our lofty dreams include a local foods distribution center where growers could collectively market and distribute their products. Also, we think there are some grand opportunities for value-added products. Perhaps a large commercial kitchen is in order. I would love to expand my apiary to a few dozens hives as well.
Do you give farm tours/have any upcoming farm events planned? We will give farm tours any time upon request. We really encourage our CSA members to visit the farm so they can see where their food is coming from. We have a small cabin where guests can stay and spend some relaxing time.
It has always been our intention to host a farm party every August, but the last two years have been too hectic to pull that off. It is really sad to us that we have not been able to do that since it is such a great time for us and the people that attend. We are very committed to getting that back on schedule for the 2008 season.
Do you provide any apprenticing opportunities for people who want to learn small-scale organic farming? We will be hiring apprentices for the 2008 season. At this point we think we will hire one or two full time people from May or June to September or October. Anyone that is interested in that can contact us at any time. We will start formally advertising for the positions in December and January.
We also welcome visitors that want to spend a week or whatever on the farm in exchange for helping with the work. We participate loosely in the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) program where people sign up to work on your farm in exchange for room and board.
Any recommended reading? I would highly recommend that any new farmer or gardener read everything that Eliot Coleman has written. The main book to look for is The New Organic Grower. I pretty much kept that in the field with me the first few years of farming. Don’t be afraid to deviate from his methods though. He farms in Maine!
Besides that, I would suggest Wendell Berry and his essays and Aldo Leopold, of course. Those are obvious choices though. I think it is equally important to read as much as you can about South Dakota and its history. Books, like Dakota by Kathleen Norris and Great Plains by Frazier Ian tell the stories and mythology of our place that I think are critical for having a deeper appreciation of why we stay here. To that end, I also really like reading South Dakota Magazine.