How Long It Takes To Start An Organic Farm, and 2 Simple Lessons You’ll Need To Do It Yourself

Organic lettuce and spinach in the greenhouse
Organic lettuce and spinach in the greenhouse

The greenhouse is already filled with overwintered lettuce and spinach, early seeded carrots, radishes and turnips, arugula and kale.  

We have, in fact, started to transplant into the pathways just to fit everything in.

Inside our house, the living room has been taken over by seedlings.  Literally—we moved the chairs, Waylon’s toy chest and paint table, and now there’s just a foot of space between the couch and the 6’ x 8’ expanse of freshly up-potted tomatoes.  Not great for entertaining people, but quite entertaining in itself.

I quite like the smell of soil, reminding me of what’s to come.  Plus, giving up lounge-space for a month or two saves so much on heating the greenhouse in February and early March.  

{Are you starting seeds, too?  You can read up on best practices for early season seedling propagation over on my new post on the High Mowing Organic Seeds blog.}

And with all that, just on cue March dumps another foot of snow on top of us.

I take it as a reminder to be patient, and with patience comes reflection.  

A few months ago, someone asked me : how long did it take for you to get where you are?

I’ve mulled that question over and over.  I could easily say 6 years, because we started Good Heart Farmstead 6 years ago.  But that would leave out the seasons spent working and learning on other farms. When I include that, I’d say it took me 10 years.  

I had no idea that a summer job after college would lead me to owning an organic farm.  I meant only to start eating meat again—I’d been a vegetarian for 6 years and was ready to taste my mom’s roast chicken again, but before I could I needed to know how to raise a chicken myself.  

That summer job led me to New Zealand, where I WWOOFed on a small market farm and developing orchard.  

Which led me to Alaska, where I ran a school garden, which led me back to Vermont where I lived and worked for 2 years on an organic grass-based livestock farm and in the Trials field at High Mowing Organic Seeds.  

But even that short synopsis leaves out everything that led me to that first field crew job.

The truth is, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a farmer.  

If you asked me at 3 years old what I wanted to be, I’d have answered: a woman, a mommy, and a nurse.

(I actually said this.  The story’s been told so many times, I almost remember it myself: sitting around a circle at daycare, answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  

Which, in my opinion, is a ridiculous question for a 3 year old.  3 year olds know more about living than most adults—why in the world would we ask them to leave the present moment to answer a question that assumes there’s only one answer?  

But I digress…and basically I wanted to be my mom).

What do you want to be?

I’ve never been able to adequately answer that question.  I wanted to be so many things: a chef, a psychologist, a singer, a professor, a writer, a speaker, a social worker, a reporter, an anthropologist, a professional ice skater…I said all of these at one point or another.  Though I’ve never been able to skate without wobbling.

From 3 years old to 22, I never answered that question with “farmer.”

It may be the all the snow that’s falling, but this morning as I sit with my tea, I see how my journey to farming began when I was 4.  

Good Heart Farmstead, when we first bought the land
Good Heart Farmstead, when we first bought the land

We moved into a house on an old dairy farm-turned-cul-de-sac that year, and my memories sprout from that soil.  

My childhood was filled with bouquets of dandelions, fleabane and hawkeye that I picked for my mom on summer afternoons; with the rich soil of my parents’ garden, deep and dark from its previous life as pasture for dairy cows; with hours in the garden alongside my cousin Amy, who babysat my brother and I each summer, and who taught by example how to steadily work in the sun.

As a child, I was scared of earwigs and ants, but Amy taught me how to engage—how to be curious instead of afraid, without ever saying a word.  When an earwig ambled near her hands, she kept going. When ants erupted from loosened roots, she continued to move, steady.

I often sat with her as she weeded, and while I’d like to say I remember helping, I’m sure the help was more in passing time than in tending to the garden.

While I may not have actually started to farm until I was 22, the seeds of my journey were sown here with two simple lessons: To be curious.  To engage.

By the time I was ready to eat meat again, I knew I needed to understand how the animals were raised and slaughtered.  And I needed to be able to do it myself.

So I took that first farm crew job.  I hauled water and grain; I moved fences; I milked goats; I tossed grit to chickens, grain to turkeys; I planted seedlings; I weeded; I harvested.  And eventually, I slit a turkey’s neck.

We don’t know where curiosity will lead us, or how far engagement will pull us down a certain path.  But I do know it’s worth following. And I do know, despite how easy it is to look at someone else and think they got so far all on their own, the truth is that none of us starts alone.

I could get really philosophical here and muse on how my journey actually began long before I was born, with my parents’ own meandering paths to Vermont, with dairy farmers and cows and the high grain and low milk prices of the mid-80s, causing so many dairies to close.  

But that would take another cup of tea (or two).  And by this point, I’m sure there’s more than a foot of fresh snow, and I’m going skiing today.

So I’ll leave you with this:

Edge in the garden during our first year of running our organic farm, Good Heart Farmstead
Edge in the garden, our first year of Good Heart Farmstead. photo by Delia Gillen

Whatever dream you have, wherever you want to end up, start by engaging.  Follow your curiosity.

On days when you feel alone and aren’t sure how to move forward, know that I’ve felt this countless numbers of times.   

When you don’t know which step to take, this is precisely the time to plant a seed.  

Tend to it, see how it stretches so naturally toward the sun, how it blooms, how it sets new seeds.  And when a gust of wind comes, trust in the direction and follow those seeds as they scatter along the breeze.  

I’d love to know: What curiosity are you following?  Tell me in the comments below.

9 thoughts on “How Long It Takes To Start An Organic Farm, and 2 Simple Lessons You’ll Need To Do It Yourself”

  1. So great to hear someone else’s story , I could relate to you so much but I have to admit I’ve taken a much longer path and now I’m learning so much I can hardly keep up. Thanks again for sharing ??

    1. Oh I’m so glad this resonated with you! I’ve learned so much from others’ stories, and am constantly learning more, too. Cheers to a bountiful season!

  2. MIchaelangelo Monteleone

    Grew up on 7 acres in PA with a big garden and some chickens. Run a big-enough garden and some chickens on 3 acres now. Your writing makes me want to quit my job, sell it all, take the family to work on an organic farm for a year and then start one of my own. Bravo and thank you.

    1. What a compliment! It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great experience growing food for your family — if you have any questions about farming, please feel free to reach out. Happy growing!

  3. Wanting to start a completely sustainable community garden using only natural supplies, but most gardens are edged with unnatural (wood, stones etc.) . Can you be successful without doing raised beds? Last year I raised carrots, tomatoes and tiny podded peas without ever watering. I mulched and made the plants roots go deep to find water. I live in Huntersville, NC so it is hot. My soil is rich and old, never having been a parking lot or road. With on line buying and shipping, there is a great deal of cardboard available. Would cardboard last as a divider between gardens, or do you have suggestions? .

    1. Hey Louise, it’s great to hear about your community garden starting up! You can absolutely be successful without lining your beds with wood or stone. Cardboard is effective at keeping weeds down and covering soil, and will eventually decompose into soil, too. You can put cardboard in your pathways and cover it with mulch if you’d like to have that definition between beds. Have fun growing!

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