I caught Christopher Horne on the phone as he was watering his onion starts. It was the third week of March, officially spring but with little evidence to that effect anywhere but inside a greenhouse. With this year’s seemingly interminable winter, it’s quite a time to launch a small farm business—which is exactly what Christopher’s doing.
“I’m by far the most stressed out I’ve ever been in my entire life,” he confided. With two jobs, his work schedule is insane; the farm’s land is about a forty minute drive from where he lives, which means a significant commute; his greenhouse situation’s imperfect and the other night he ran out of propane, resulting in a frost that made his crop of microgreens unmarketable; and on the farm, he’s by himself every day—meaning that when things go wrong, there’s no one around to help trouble shoot, or even to commiserate.
One thing that does help, though, is that just a text or a phone call away are Stacy Entel, Amber Bahn, and Forest Wilbur: former classmates from the Farm School who are in the exact same boat.
Londonberry, NH, where Christopher is launching Horne Family Farms, is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Orange, MA, where Stacy is bringing Sage Seed Flowers to life, and Amber and Forest are working together to build True Calling Farm—just down the road from the Farm School. Stacy, Amber, and Forest say they check in with each other almost every day. More so than formal collaboration, “it’s like, are you alive?” Stacy says. “For me it’s the mental load,” she says, and Amber agrees. “That’s the harder work.”
Both Stacy and Christopher have family and friends nearby, but both say it’s not the same as having other new farmers to turn to. “It’s so important to have a community of people who do the work you’re doing, because you speak the same vocabulary,” Stacy says. “To me, that’s a huge benefit,” because it’s great to have people who love her nearby, “but they can’t help [me] pick which hoe to buy.”
“There are just endless things that come up, like probably 75 times a day, that I just have no idea about,” Amber says. “And when you’re alone, it’s just you,” Stacy adds, “staring into Google.” But being in such close proximity to each other, it’s easy to bounce ideas, or just be exposed to solutions that others have already landed upon. Stacy draws a parallel to co-working spaces in urban areas. “It’s like you’re an entrepreneur—I mean, it is that—and people who start businesses tend to be really independent and try to do everything by themselves,” she says, “but it’s really helpful to have, sort of, coworkers.”
Take, for instance, the challenge of finding a way to make tidy, consistent soil blocks. Stacy, Amber, and Forest were working together making flats one day, “and Stacy’s [soil blocks] were so pretty,” Amber says. She asked how Stacy was doing it, and Stacy got to teach Amber and Forest the trick of dunking the soil blocker into water with each press. “That’s what we were missing,” Amber says. “It’s just these little things—because you’re hitting this wall with these things, and then the other person’s already figured it out.”
It’s not just little things, though: Stacy, Amber, and Forest have decided to share a farmers market stand, with True Calling supplying the vegetables and Sage Seed providing the flowers. They’re planning to rotate market duty weekly among the three of them, because otherwise, sacrificing a whole day every week “seemed really daunting,” Amber says. “Otherwise—I was like, I’m not doing a market.” Stacy agrees: “That’s a quick way to burn out.”
Being further away, Christopher doesn’t have quite the same access to mutual exchange that the others do. But he’s been up to Orange twice, and those trips have been worth the drive. He and Stacy have the same greenhouse layout, so he went up to help her set up spacer blocks before trying the same thing in his own space—a trial run of sorts.
“When we’ve gotten together it’s just been really reassuring to see if our timelines matched,” Stacy says, “because it’s hard to know if we’re prioritizing the right things in the right order.” The feeling of relief when you realize the other person is in the same place as you, she says, is huge.
In addition to having each other, all four Farm School alumni emphasized how incredible it’s been to have both the school itself and their old mentors nearby. The three in Orange have the opportunity to go in on purchases, access scrap materials, crash workshops, and even work with current students looking for independent projects. Stacy is attempting to set up an irrigation workshop through the school—leveraging relationships and resources to gain access to information she needs, while also enabling current students (and her former classmates) to learn. And when Christopher’s greenhouse froze, Alex Vaughn—the Farm School’s vegetable lead—was the first person he texted, and the one who helped him locate the cause of the problem.
People who’ve been there, who are there, and who will be there: such is the extended Farm School community. Whether it’s a tangible exchange of supplies, a collaborative brainstorming session, or assistance in shouldering the formidable emotional load associated with any start-up (but particularly ones dependent on the weather), the relationships built and mediated by way of the Farm School provide a vital support system.
A system that supports not just the struggles, but also the thrills: Amber and Forest are experimenting with old seeds in their high tunnel, and working out the goals that will guide them in the years to come; Christopher was able to present his landlord’s family with their first share of vegetables; and Stacy? “I just began seeding! Yaaaaay! Hands in soil!”
Note: if you like True Calling Farm’s logo, direct your praise to Abby Devries—another Farm School ’17 alum offering up her talents in this project of mutual support.