Young farmers grow slowly at Quackenbush Farm

Unable to buy, they rent land to live their dream

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

RIDGEFIELD — Growing vegetables isn't the hard part, Matt Van Wey says.

The hard part, he says, is finding people to buy them. And for a small farm entering its first season, that's no small task.

Add in a commitment to feed 30 or more families with your crops this year, and it's easy to see why Quackenbush Farm already feels some pressure to produce results.

"That's what we signed up for," Van Wey said.

If they're daunted by the task, the farm's four partners — Van Wey, his wife Jennifer Van Wey, Alan Sechman and Rachel Quackenbush — don't show it. In fact, they're living their dream, and doing it in a way that defies convention.

Matt and Jennifer Van Wey, both 30, are the oldest of the young foursome behind Quackenbush Farm. The average age of a U.S. farm owner is 58, a number that's been climbing for decades, according to federal data. The four partners at Quackenbush are breaking new ground in a profession where land is often inherited, and in a state where total farms and farmland has decreased in recent years.

Unable to buy property, the four operate Quackenbush Farm on two rented acres outside Ridgefield. They live together in a house on one of those acres.

They also share something any farmer knows well: a healthy sense of optimism.

"Judging by the size of our dandelions," Jennifer Van Wey said earlier this month, "we're going to have amazing vegetables."

The idea for Quackenbush Farm sprouted last year, when the four all worked at some point for Inspiration Plantation, another nearby farm.

Each had some experience with farming and agriculture, working in some capacity or another. But it had always been for someone else. When they decided to venture out on their own, it began a whirlwind few months that included moving into their new farmhouse just this February.

To set in motion a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, and other facets of the operation, they had to choose a name. Eventually, they decided Quackenbush's last name just sounded right.

"It was meant to be a farm name," Quackenbush said. "It's just a really farmy name."

By April, work was well underway. Vegetable starts were growing in a greenhouse. Both acres had been tilled from grassy pasture to dark soil. Chickens wandered in a pen outside the house.

"I love it. It's so awesome," Matt Van Wey said. "I think we're all really happy that we're taking the first major step toward something that we want to do for the rest of our lives."

Before now, he said, "it was always kind of this ideal in the back of our minds."

Quackenbush Farm isn't paying any bills just yet. All four still hold day jobs to make ends meet, working on the farm when they can.

One recent morning showed the resourceful approach Quackenbush Farm has operated under so far. As chilly fog gave way to sunshine, the Van Weys and Sechman laid the foundations for a hand-built hoop house using PVC pipe and wood. A steel kit would have cost thousands of dollars. This approach: about $600.

The four have also used borrowed equipment at least once. Their farm truck is a "pleasingly retro" 1984 Datsun pickup. Planting and work schedules are coordinated on a large wall-mounted whiteboard in the house (purchased for $50 on Craigslist, Sechman said.)

Lack of capital — a barrier for many people starting a farm from scratch — is ultimately why Quackenbush Farm's owners are growing on someone else's land.

"Being young and kind of poor, we didn't have the option of buying land," Matt Van Wey said. "So renting was our best option."

The farm actually operates on two separate properties with two different owners. One of its landlords is Joyce Biethan, who was happy to have a new tenant on what used to be mostly unused land.

"I just think it's great to be able to use land to grow food rather than grass to get mowed," said Biethan, owner of Joyce's Dogs, a dog training service based in Ridgefield.

Risks, rewards

Quackenbush Farm made a concerted effort to start small.

The farm isn't selling at any farmers markets this year. Instead, its owners are focusing primarily on filling a 30-share CSA, which supplies participants with a weekly supply of vegetables through the season. They also plan to run an on-site farm stand.

"Getting started, they've got some good fundamentals in place," said Matt Schwab, who runs Inspiration Plantation with his wife. "Really what they're trying to do this year is do enough so that they can record and have their own data to work off of."

Jennifer Van Wey said Quackenbush Farm is keeping careful records. That means tracking expenses, income, time spent on each crop, and what the ultimate payoff or loss is for each.

In other words, they recognize it's a business. They also recognize there's risk.

The four decided not to invest in crop insurance at the small scale they're operating with. Rachel Quackenbush noted any number of outside forces could damage their yields, including pests, drought or otherwise unfavorable weather.

And it takes a large investment, and efficiency, to get any farm to the point where it can financially support its owners, Schwab said.

"You have to do it in a way that you streamline production," Schwab said. "It's a whole different ball game. It's different than having a backyard with a couple of tomato plants."

That doesn't mean Quackenbush Farm is cutting corners. The farm isn't certified organic, but the four say they're growing their vegetables at or beyond organic standards. They're doing all the work themselves for now, though they expect to find additional hands later in the season.

By Friday, some transplanted vegetables were already in the ground in newly worked soil. Purchased CSA shares continue to trickle in. Matt Van Wey said he believes Quackenbush Farm is well-positioned in the Portland-Vancouver area, where many people's values fit with the farm's emphasis on local food and sustainable practices.

To market itself, the farm has already ventured into realms many other growers don't go, reaching out through a farm blog, a Twitter presence and a Facebook page. Even in its first year, it hopes to sell all of its available CSA shares.

"You can grow the best veggies in the world," Sechman said. "But if you don't have anybody to buy them, you're going nowhere."

Quackenbush Farm