Continuing with my interview with Rebecca Terk of Flying Tomato Farms.
How did Flying Tomato Farms get its start? I started out growing and selling produce on a larger scale in 2003. I had grown a couple of big gardens in Vermillion before that, and sold my produce at the Vermillion Area Farmers Market along with produce I helped to grow at “From the Ground Up,” a now-defunct greenhouse, garden center, and organic food farm in Vermillion. In 2001, my then-husband and I moved to Mission, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation, to teach at Todd County School District. Before we left, I canned and preserved every last bit of produce I could get my hands on, and I’m glad I did. I had thought the fresh food situation in Vermillion was bad when I came here, but moving to Mission showed me it could be worse. We lived there for two years, moving back to Vermillion in the summers, and I grew and sold produce again, but with an emphasis on what I could preserve and bring back with us.
When we moved back to Vermillion permanently in 2003, I started growing with more of an emphasis on sales (but still, of course, growing for our own pantry). At first I called my operation “Dragonfly Farms,” but soon found out there was another Dragonfly Farms in the area (thought it isn’t actually a farm). I was looking for a name that wasn’t likely to be in use, and “Flying Tomato Farms” seemed off-beat and humorous enough to fit the bill. I went back to leasing a couple of large garden plots in Vermillion, and selling more at the Farmers Market. In the spring of 2004, my adjunct English teaching position (our family’s main income at the time) got very tenuous—I had only one class after two others were cancelled due to low enrollments. So, after having dreamt of operating through the Community Supported Agriculture model ever since I’d worked at Vermont Valley, I jumped in and offered my first ten shares that spring. I was frankly amazed that ten people had enough faith in my growing ability to pay me $350 in advance on the promise they’d get veggies every week from May through October, but it sure saved our butts!
I was able to fill those ten deliveries that first CSA season, even though I had to move my gardens (the old Vermillion plots were sold for development in March of 2004—after I’d already started getting CSA membership money!). I started growing at the old From the Ground Up, and then at my wonderful partner, Harry Scholten’s farm overlooking the Vermillion River Valley. I did twenty CSA shares in my second year and fourteen last year, when I moved the entire operation out to Harry’s place, where we mostly live during the garden season. This year I’m only doing a couple of shares—enough to cover the season’s start-up costs, so I will be able to market more of my produce through the Vermillion Area Farmers Market.
How big is your farm operation? My farm is laughably small compared to the acreages farmed by conventional growers (and even most organic growers). I grow on about an acre, but I grow intensively—often harvesting more than one crop from the same space in the course of a season. I am pretty much a Luddite when it comes to machinery. We have a couple tillers and mowers that Harry keeps running, but most of what I do, I do by hand. I can drive a tractor, but I’m not interested in tending my gardens with one. I like to plant, tend, and harvest by hand or with hand tools, and I’m pretty efficient at it. I’m not saying other ways are wrong; I’m saying this is the way that gives me the most satisfaction.
Based on my CSA shares and sales to restaurants and at the farmers market (as well as our own home consumption), I provide about twenty-five to thirty local families with produce throughout the season. I make about a quarter of my income off growing and selling produce. I do not plan on getting too much bigger space-wise than I am now—though I will have some helpers this year—friends who want to learn more about growing their own food—so we may turn a little more land to garden space. I’m not really interested in growing more produce to make more money—that is, “maximizing my profits” in corporate-speak—part of my personal mission is to support and encourage local food production by others, and in order to fulfill that mission, I can’t spend all my time alone in the field—I need to be out and involved in the community.
What advice do you have for people (especially in this part of the country) who would like to get into small-scale farming? You’ve got to have a good measure of control over the land you’re going to farm. You may not be in a situation to buy, but you want to have a good agreement with the land-owner. People will do things you can’t begin to imagine, and often with the mistaken belief that they are helping you. I have lost the lease on land I’ve been improving for a couple of years; I have had spray damage kill my tomatoes; I have had people mow over asparagus patches in full production. There’s only so many times you can start over from scratch without it making you bitter.
You also have to get to know farmers and gardeners—as many as you can—and ask them all the ridiculous questions that pop into your head. Conventional farmers—especially the old timers who can remember when organic was conventional—are amazing resources. They may shake their heads a little and chuckle, but often they will be pulling you out of a jam while they’re doing it. I have a great source of free “you-scoop” manure that comes from the horses of a woman whose whole family are conventional farmers.
You have to be humble; you have to be both ravenous for learning and blessedly ignorant because that’s the only way you learn what really is possible. Beginning growers teach me so much because they don’t know what “can’t be done.” I get a kick out of when I’m still harvesting in late October and some of my conventional farming neighbors stop by, smiling in disbelief that I’m still going at it, and wanting to chat about what crops are still producing.
And the best thing is, of course, keeping good records. I have five, going on six, garden journals recording all the growing, selling, and preserving I’ve done starting in the year 2000, and every time I read back through them, I remember something important I had forgotten. There are some absolute “truths” about growing you’ll learn in books that won’t work in your specific situation, so over time your own careful record-keeping will often serve you better than a bucket-load of professional opinions.