On a frosty Saturday morning in February, Nate and Janis Newsom finished building two new hoop houses that will soon be used to grow fresh, certified organic produce at their Bear Branch Farms near Stayton, Ore.
“Thankfully it wasn’t windy,” said Janis Newsom, wearing a wool hat and Carhartt overalls. But the weekend work is not done. The couple must also plant 900 tomato plants in the nearby greenhouse, which they hope to harvest by mid-May.
Farming brought the Newsoms and their nine kids to Oregon from Southern California three years ago. They fell in love with the 17-acre property along Bear Branch Creek in the Mid-Willamette Valley, and spent their life savings to start a small family farm.
Bear Branch Farms grows more than 100 different fruits and vegetables, from early season turnips, radishes and lettuce to rutabagas, sweet corn and sugar snap peas. The farm operates on a Community Supported Agriculture model, or CSA, meaning customers pay upfront for “shares” of the crops. That, in turn, helps the farm stay out of debt and minimize waste.
This year, the Newsoms say there is already a waiting list for their CSA. They credit the farm-to-table movement for educating consumers and driving demand for local, organic food.
“It becomes a relationship with the community,” Nate Newsom said. “They’re able to trust we’re doing the right thing with their produce.”
The trend is not lost on Northwest land-grant universities, which are devoting serious time and resources to small farm outreach. Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of Idaho have all expanded programs in recent years to help small farmers thrive financially, grow healthful crops and develop community food systems for local consumers.
OSU will host its annual Oregon Small Farms Conference Saturday, Feb. 24, in Corvallis, with a full day of workshops covering everything from organic weed management to financial planning. For the Newsoms, it is an opportunity to learn and swap new ideas with other small farmers from across the state.
“It’s endless,” Nate Newsom said. “There’s always something new to learn.”
‘State of mind’
The federal government defines “small farms” as those making less than $350,000 in annual income. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, that includes roughly 91 percent of all U.S. farms.
In Oregon, the vast majority of farms — about 87 percent — generate less than $100,000 annually. In Washington, the total is 83 percent, and in Idaho it is 78 percent.
Most farms are also small in acreage across the three states. In Oregon and Washington, about 73 percent of farms are less than 100 acres, along with 59 percent in Idaho.
Yet Garry Stephenson, director of the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at OSU, said the program does not adhere to a hard income or acreage figure. Rather, he described small farming as “a state of mind.”
“A lot of people call it food with a face,” Stephenson said.
The center was begun in 2014 as an outgrowth of OSU Extension Service’s small farms program, adding new field faculty around the state and expanding research.
The goal, Stephenson said, is to enhance the visibility and profitability of small farms.
“There are going to be some obvious limits to (the scale),” he said. “But there seems to be an interest in accessing locally grown food, especially in urban areas. ... The farmers who participate need to be nimble in order to keep up with the competition, but there’s definitely a growing market out there.”
Beth Hoinacki, owner and operator of Goodfoot Farm along the Luckiamute River west of Corvallis, said the biggest challenge for her getting started was simply learning the nuts and bolts of farming 40-50 different vegetables, tree fruits and berries.
OSU, she said, has made it easier to access that kind of information.
“It’s not something that is part of our culture anymore,” Hoinacki said.
Washington and Idaho
Small farm programs are also getting a shot in the arm in Washington and Idaho.
For years, the WSU small farms team consisted of a loose collection of faculty, and no university funding. It is now part of the Food Systems Program under the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, with 60 faculty.
Laura Lewis was hired as statewide program leader in November. The team is responsible for six areas of emphasis: crop production, food security, energy and waste reduction, economic benefit, processing and distribution, government regulation and resource conservation.
Over the last 10 years, Lewis said there has been a “tremendous shift” in the farm-to-table movement as more consumers demand local produce, dairy, meat and eggs.
It really changes the agricultural landscape,” she said.
Lewis added the center is excited to work with André-Denis Wright, who was selected as the new dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences in January.
“It’s been exciting,” Lewis said. “This is a step in the right direction for WSU.”
Ariel Agenbroad, co-leader of the small farms and community food systems program at the University of Idaho, said most of the farms they work with are less than 100 acres and focused on specialty crops or livestock.
In 2015, the university — in partnership with the nonprofit Rural Roots — received a three-year, $500,000 USDA grant to assist beginning farmers. Agenbroad said the funding allowed the program to expand its curriculum and farm mentor program to more rural areas statewide.
“Our farmers learn significantly better from other farmers,” Agenbroad said. “Not only do they need to learn about marketing a crop and financial planning, but they also need to learn how to grow things and raise animals.”
Back in Oregon, Janis Newsom, at Bear Branch Farms, agreed that networking with other farms has been an invaluable source of information. But no matter how many conferences they attend, or how many tutorials they watch, nothing will fully prepare farmers until they get out and do the work.
“But if you love it, you do it,” she said. “And we love it.”