Five young farmers team up to grow their dreams
By STEVE BROWN
ROCHESTER, Wash. -- Five aspiring young farmers pooled their money -- $500 each -- to lease land, buy seeds and hand tools, and rent equipment. They named their joint effort the Wobbly Cart Farming Collective.
Now, five years later, two of the original five remain. Joseph Gabiou, 34, and Asha McElfresh, 32, have parlayed that initial outlay, plus plenty of sweat equity, into a going concern.
With the help of five full-time and two part-time employees, the co-managers sell a variety of organic vegetables through farmers' markets five days a week, a food co-op, a restaurant and a community-supported agriculture program. The CSA has grown every year, now serving 48 members.
"I was working this land with the owner, Betsy Dewreede," Gabiou said. "When she retired, I wanted to keep farming it so we pitched in and leased the land. She still lives here. That's her harvesting the pickling cucumbers over there."
Five acres are under cultivation, and an acre and a half are in rotating fallow. McElfresh takes care of propagation at her home a mile or so away, and a new hoophouse is under construction there, too.
"We got a grant from EQIP for the greenhouse," she said. "The smaller one was given to us."
For the first few winters, Gabiou had an off-farm job, but the past two years, he said, there's been plenty of maintenance and organizing to keep him busy. McElfresh has two children, and her husband has an off-farm job.
All the staff at Wobbly Cart worked on farms before, McElfresh said.
Two of the employees, Marianna Copene, age 33, and David Levinson, 24, studied at the eco-agriculture program at Evergreen State College, in nearby Olympia.
Copene also tends the 80 or so red broilers, moving the chicken tractors twice a day. "Next year we plan to do eggs, too," she said.
Because the production acres are in the floodplain of the Chehalis River, the farm shuts down in November, Gabiou said. "We plant in the greenhouse in March, move into the field in April and start selling in June," he said.
This season hasn't been great for tomatoes, but the Wobbly Cart has been turning out -- among other things -- squash, beets, carrots, chard, green beans, dry beans, lettuce, corn, cabbage, broccoli, celeriac, basil, onions, Jerusalem artichokes and burdock.
"And it's not just a single variety," McElfresh said. "We've got five kinds of summer squash, 12 or 13 kinds of tomatoes."
"And they're all heirloom varieties, open-pollinated," Copene said.
Though they're not planning to expand the markets for their produce, Gabiou said -- "We're already running around all over the place" -- the Wobbly Cart co-managers are in the market for 20 or more acres.
"We'd like to lease some more land to grow cover crop seed," he said. "And maybe a combine."