MABEL, Ore. — Like most farmers, Shelley Bowerman and Dan Schuler started small.
An initial passion for food sparked the pair’s interest in food production. Bowerman wanted to increase her access to high-quality, local and organic food. Schuler had already begun gardening and growing food. They met in the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm Program and realized they had similar interests.
“It snowballs until you find yourself wanting to pursue different niches in the industry; you find yourself as a producer,” Schuler said. “You fall in love with the seasonal ebbs and flows of growing food.”
As new farmers take root and established farms transfer land within families, there’s space for a new generation of farmers, Melissa Fery, a Oregon State University Extension small farms agent, said. While many resources are available for new producers, Fery said educational programs are important to cover the fundamentals.
In the past, the OSU Small Farms Program hosted a farm planning series, “Exploring the Small Farms Dream,” and assembled focus groups designed to assess the needs of beginning farmers.
“The idea is to get more information from people who have been farming in recent years,” Fery said. “How they got involved, the biggest questions they had starting out, what they needed to learn first, and where they found information. We’re looking for gaps and ways we can improve programs.”
Bowerman and Schuler both attended the latest focus group held on Feb. 8, as well as gatherings such as Saturday’s OSU Small Farm Conference every year.
They are about to start their third season at Moondog’s Farm, and have a long-term lease on a 42 acres northeast of Eugene and Springfield nestled next to the Mohawk River. The farm runs on a community supported agriculture model and grows organic vegetables and wholesale seeds.
The farm has three priorities: contributing to the conservation of wild habitat, co-existing with habitat while ensuring food production and bringing in the community.
The two agree that beyond educational programs, Moondog’s Farm couldn’t have gotten started without the network of farmers surrounding them.
“We meet people on a regular basis who are market gardeners and it’s just them,” Schuler said. “They have to be in charge of all the production and marketing. It sounds like a nightmare. One thing I feel really fortunate for is having a community that supports us.”
He said they have also leaned on other established farmers, in terms of bulk purchasing and borrowing equipment.
The biggest challenges they’ve had has been breaking into the industry, finding a market and learning the nuances, Schuler said. Bowerman added that the “classic farmer conundrum,” when the expenses happen before the income does, is trying as well.
“It’s having the faith that the bit of investment will pay off,” she said. “It’s something I grapple with for sure, but I have a lot of trust in what we’re doing and the people around us.”
Bowerman said that everything she learned came from other farmers.
“I mean everything,” she elaborated. “Everything I know is from other people.”
Cultivating these relationships takes maintenance, Schuler said, and it’s important to be active in the farming community. Mentor relationships can become even more valuable down the road.
Finding these mentors through networking is another benefit to attending educational seminars, especially because Oregon has many types of farms from which to learn.
“When you think about educational needs, it’s very diverse,” Fery, of OSU’s Small Farms Program, said. “(Farmers) bring in their own skill set. They’re great at one thing, but need help with another.”
For that reason, Schuler finds internships or working at farms part-time to be especially valuable.
“You see the progression of their systems and how their overhead works,” he said. “When it comes time to build your own systems, you have four to five different models so you’re not building from scratch. We draw bits that are applicable to what we do.”
Although Schuler said they are engaged with local programs, he said the best way to learn to farm is by doing it.