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for people who care about the West

Aspiring farmers find creative ways to succeed

 

Not long ago, a college classmate of mine named Sarahlee Lawrence was splitting her time between raft guiding and river conservation, traveling as far as Ethiopia and Chile. But the world's water problems are huge, she says. "I was struggling to feel like I was actually making a difference."

Then she discovered a startling statistic: Food travels an average of 1,500 miles from source to plate, racking up a sizeable carbon footprint. "That was my turning point," she tells me by cellphone from her Rainshadow Organics farm, near Terrebonne in central Oregon's high desert. She grew up there, helping farm hay; returning home, she saw it as her chance to make real change.

Her folks already had some equipment and they offered her land, so she avoided going into debt. A grant helped her build a drip irrigation system. Much of her experience involved trial and error. "Have I really learned how to farm from the backs of seed packets?" she laughs. "Kind of, yeah."

Now closing her second growing season, Lawrence keeps pigs and chickens and has eight acres in vegetables and 20 in field crops like wheat; another 50 acres are slated for native pollinator habitat. She sells to 70 families through a subscription service, and to eight restaurants, two grocery stores, two farmers markets and a hospital. She's not rolling in dough, but "I have money in my bank account," she says, most of which goes back into her farm.

It's the sort of auspicious start that many aspiring farmers dream of. It's also rare, according to Amy Ridout, another classmate who found her calling in dirt and growing things. Like Lawrence, Ridout was drawn to farming for environmental reasons. She was working for a watershed group in Washington, pushing landowners to make improvements to benefit salmon habitat. "I had a moment when I realized I had no authority to talk to people who'd been on their land for multiple generations," she explains. "I really wanted to know what it meant to be a good steward so that I would have something to share."

She apprenticed at a renowned sustainable farming program in California, started a farm for a nonprofit, even attempted her own organic farm -- 12 acres near Petaluma -- but her partners pulled out. Now, she works at an educational outfit called the Pie Ranch near Pescadero, where she manages crops and animals and teaches apprentices.

These two women are part of a wave of young people determined to remake our food system. Small-scale farming is tough no matter what, and as land prices rise, fewer beginners do as well as Lawrence. Many seek help from people like Ridout. But even with the right skills, finding the necessary acres and capital can be insurmountably difficult. As Jen Langston explores in this issue's cover story, farm incubators like Viva Farms in Washington's Skagit Valley -- where newbies can rent land and have access to expensive infrastructure -- may offer some struggling foodie idealists the last crucial link to connect inspiration with operation ... and perhaps ultimately to your Thanksgiving table.