By Steve Quirt
Anybody who has small-farmed for an actual living, and not a hobby, understands the amount of endurance and pure sweat this requires. For very little profit: think Silicon Valley largess versus what a few acres of small farm operation will reward its stewards. To be blunt, don’t go into small farming if you want to make a lot of money (yes there are always rare exceptions), go into tech or stock trading. So why do small farmers do it?
There are all the media stereotypes about Joe Small Farmer and a kind of Whole Foods imagined farmer with his overalls and old tractor. Maybe there are a few of those fellows lingering about, but most of them you will never see because they are too busy farming and surviving. So what draws individuals to the lifestyle?
I find the small farming niche of agriculture fascinating. This is where the most diverse and interesting stories are to be told. Often I find adventurers and innovators—dedicated and passionately motivated men and women—who continue the sacred task of producing food with care and personal attention, often at brutally imbalanced odds.
[subhead] Little Wing Farm
Good small farms have a healthy vibrancy about them that you can almost taste. Small farms reflect the personality of the farmer, like Little Wing Farm, tucked into the back-end of the old Saint Anthony’s Farm site near Bloomfield—coastal, wet, cool and diverse. Molly Myerson is the farmer. She partners with Christian Ciazzo in Point Reyes Station and supplies Stellina Restaurant with fresh, local organic produce from the farm.
For the last twoyears Molly has spent the major portion of her life building up this little farm that is becoming more integrated and interesting each day. The current burst of energy is coming with the addition of more quail eggs, which Molly will hatch into chicks. She is building her flock up to provide quail eggs to restaurants in the City, along with Stellina. Molly is approaching expert status on quail.
In addition to the quail egg enterprise Molly is boosting her fresh strawberry production with the addition of 1000 feet of new raised beds at the top of the Ranch next to the Farm Stand. She and her helper, Sara Sternberg, put in the beds with a rototiller and a lot of hand digging.
The old architectural signage from St. Anthony’s now shelters the Farm Stand which offers fresh seasonal veggies with a self serve and pay system. This increasingly popular roadside honor system business model works well and allows the farmer to be away.
[subhead] A Little Help from your Friends
One morning I stopped by Little Wing Farm and watched Molly and Sara doing the work of three laborers. These girls were grinding it out and sweating. I stopped by the next day and they were still at it. I calculate that it will take a full week of two person labor (I emphasize the word, “labor”) to finish these beds. There is technology available that do the beds, lay the drips and install plastic mulch all in one pass. Usually, the small scale of Little Wing Farm makes that scale of tractor work economically impossible, but Molly and Sara have borrowed a tractor that lays the plastic mulch from a neighboring farmer.
“Michael Collins is going to lend us his tractor that lays the drip and plastic mulch once we finish making and shaping the beds by hand. Small farmers, especially new ones, are aided greatly by the generosity and experience of older more established farmers who share equipment and knowledge.” Molly told me.
She has been able to sell most of what she grows to the nearby San Francisco restaurant culture and her partnership with Stellina is a strong one, so her sales are getting healthier. She is growing the farm slowly and steadily. Her main concerns now are getting the work done and her worker, Sara, has been a big part of the plan. Two is always better than one from the overworked small growers point of view.
Finding a place to farm is hard to do around here. You need tillable land, water, fencing, outbuildings for working storage and a packing area. Creative working arrangements are needed to get the work done and there are workers like Sara who are perfect fit in a place like Little Wing. Molly is lucky to have her friend on-board as labor is always a big issue for small farms.
Regulatory restrictions, insurance issues, and lingering cultural prejudices make living on farm expensive in the Bay Area, and is one of the issues that needs to be addressed practically. The exact nature of how these micro-farms work is completely out-of-sync with regulations and laws designed for and by big Ag.
Farms like Little Wing look idyllic from the road, but big insecurities come with the vision; land leases can be broken or not renewed on a whim, labor is always a concern and comes with huge regulatory blandishments, markets can change abruptly and there is almost universally no reserve capital to suffer setbacks. No health insurance. A bad year will wipe you out.
I asked both Sara and Molly why they put up with all this. Here are their replies.
Molly Myerson: “Of course I have intellectual reasons why I choose to farm but what keeps me coming back day after day is something more fundamental. It’s about the actual joy I receive from tending this land, watching things grow and ripen under my hand. The partnership with plants and animals to create food has a deeply satisfying feedback loop. I guess I need the relationship with the land, quail, and the farm. It feels real. And I like the direct reward. I work to grow food to support myself, and that fells good. It feels right. That’s what I care about.”
Sara Sternberg: “For me, it’s about reconciliation. I have deep beliefs, and this kind of work fulfills what I believe in. I have been able to reconcile my beliefs with the way I live.”