CORVALLIS, Ore. — It often begins with a few acres and a dream of living the good life, tied to the earth and in harmony with nature.
But, as Rachel Suits told a room of would-be farmers Saturday, starting a small farm is not easy. The hours are long, the labor strenuous, and it could take years before they see any return on investment.
Suits, who works for Oregon State University Extension Service in the Columbia River Gorge, led a presentation titled “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” as part of the 2018 Oregon Small Farms Conference at the OSU campus in Corvallis.
Roughly 1,000 people maxed out attendance at the daylong conference, with seminars held at the LaSells Stewart Center and CH2M Alumni Center. Suits’ talk was tailored specifically to new or beginning farmers, offering tips and resources on how to get started.
Running a successful farm boils down to three questions, Suits said — What do you want to do? What can you do? and What can you sell?
“That sweet spot is right in the middle,” she said.
First, Suits recommended making a detailed map of the property showing where fields, buildings, fences, roads and water sources are. That, she said, will help determine what is logistically possible on the new farm or ranch.
Water is especially important, since access to irrigation dramatically increases the number of options available to farmers.
“There are still options (for dry farming), but the more high-value crops require irrigation,” Suits said.
Every county has a local watermaster who can tell whether the land has existing water rights. However, Suits said getting new water rights through the Oregon Water Resources Department is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
Soil and climate make up the other pieces of the environmental puzzle, Suits said. She praised the Northwest as having some of the best soils in the nation, though beginning farmers should collect soil samples to test for nutrient levels.
Climate, on the other hand, varies widely in Oregon, from the dry and frosty east side to the rainy, more temperate Willamette Valley. Micro-climates also form around slopes and valleys, which can trap cold air and moisture in pockets.
In addition to understanding the environment, Suits emphasized having a concrete vision and goals for success.
“There is nothing worse than going to work every day and hating it because your skills don’t match up,” she said.
Depending on the individual, a farm may grow crops or livestock. It may be organic or conventional. It may emphasize tradition, or pursue innovation. Those decisions are informed by the farmer’s values.
“Your values really play a role in your vision,” Suits said.
Of course, the economics of farming are also inescapable, Suits added. Beginning farmers must know how long they can afford to wait before turning a profit, while understanding and adapting to changing markets.
“My best advice for you is to start small and learn,” Suits said.
Heyona Cho, 28, said she is interested in eventually starting a farm but is still in the process of developing her own goals.
Cho, who was born in South Korea and raised in California, is an apprentice at Unity Farm in Northeast Portland, part of the Oregon Food Bank, which seeks to train farmers and break down racial barriers. She attended the Small Farms Conference to learn more about resources available to her.
“I think the most important message I’m taking is there are a lot of resources out there,” Cho said. “I just need to reach out.”
The conference began Saturday morning with a rousing pep talk from Javier Zamora, of JSM Organic Farms in Aromas, Calif., who was on hand to discuss the role of Latino farmers in the growing Northwest organic movement.
During his introductory remarks, Zamora said he is not against big farming — the country needs to grow a lot of food to feed the world. But he said they also need a lot more small farmers who can make a difference in their communities.
“It’s really difficult. It’s not easy,” Zamora said. “If you have the passion, and you’re willing to put in the hours, you will make it happen.”