Jess and Brian Powers own and operate Working Hands Farm, with 4 acres of vegetables and a bunch of livestock just outside of Portland Oregon. In this episode, we talk about how the farm got started in 2009, the ways they’ve worked to evolve their CSA into something more sustainable for themselves and the farm, and the relationship they’ve developed and nurtured between themselves as the farm has grown. There’s a lot of great information in here about land access, working together as a couple, and the creation of a farm-centric, rather than a customer-centric, CSA operation, and Jess and Brian are two thoughtful, inspiring farmers who brought everything they’ve got to the show. Plus, how they met is a pretty darned cute love story.
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Quotes from the Show
So we decided, let’s make it a more farmer-centric CSA farm, where we’re at the center of our community.
The vast majority [of our members] live within ten miles of the farm.
We shoot for somewhere around 25 lbs per share on average over the course of the season, which is a lot of vegetables for some people, and it’s almost nothing for others.
It used to be a beautiful CSA share, we’d pack [a homemade cedar boxes] full of veggies… at some point of time we decided to move away from that and sell the crates to our CSA members, and switch over to more of a farmers market-style pickup.
The real power of that switch [from pre-packed shares to a market-style pickup] was that it empowered CSA members to make choices.
If anybody wants to make some money and do some real good in people’s lives, get a container of drip tape and figure out how to start selling it at an appropriate price in northern Uganda.
As soon as Jess showed up on the farm, it really started to change from a garden to a farm. I was still bunching kale with twine…
With any money that we had left over from the loan, we invested in infrastructure as fast as we could. And then, of course, we built the infrastructure ourselves. Not that we were skilled builders but we were willing to learn and we didn’t have enough money to do it otherwise.
After working so hard [the first year that we owned the farm and installed the infrastructure], that was the catalyst to ask, what do we actually need to make this farm sustainable. Our fall CSA was the first time that we asked the CSA for what we needed, so we upped the price on our CSA. And when people asked [us to] explain that, we were both, “That’s what it’s worth. We won’t be willing to grow it for anything less.”
This has been the first year that Jess and I have got energy [at the end of the growing season].
Our CSA community is so vibrant right now, and it’s taken years to get there. It’s taken a lot of thinning of CSA members to find the cream of the crop, and now we want to hold onto them.
Instead of [our customers] saying, what can the CSA offer me, now we’re getting questions about what can we do for you guys?
You don’t come to our farm to get a good deal on food. You come to our farm to get what you pay for.
The thing that gives [us] energy is not just seeing the fruits of our labor, it’s seeing the fruits of our labor being eaten [via social media]. To have a way to witness that just couldn’t be more fulfilling.
Communication is at the heart of it. And eating well is at the heart of it. So we make sure we have our three meals of the day so that have capacity to work these long hours, and also so that we have the capacity to communicate with us.
When you work with the same person day in and day out, it’s just really important to be a good person for the other person and for yourself.
If we weren’t eating really well, if we weren’t taking care of ourselves, if we lost our way of communicating, this just wouldn’t be sustainable. The partnership, the relationship, is at the heart of everything we do.
When we work together, it’s not as stressful as it could be if I had to be responsible for coming up with all of these creative solutions and problem solving.
We work on communication every single day, and we work on making sure that we’ve got that trust element, and that relationship element, and that our needs are being met and that we’re eating well. That is the basis of how we function and survive working as much as we do on this farm.
Jess and Brian use a 15,000 BTU air conditioner and a CoolBot in a 12-foot by 20-foot cooler.
Brian and Jess talked about their experience with Farm Credit Services as a lender when they purchased their farm. In the northwest United States, Northwest Farm Credit Services has an AgVision program designed to help young and beginning producers access credit and succeed at farming. I just learned about this program when I was at a train-the-trainer program in Montana, and it sounds like a great program. If you’re in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, I would definitely have a look at this program.
Brian’s favorite tool is a custom-built flame weeder. The linked photos provide a good overview of the construction and what makes it special.
Tom Robbins’ novel, Jitterbug Perfume, has some great recognitions of beets, and is worth reading if you’re a lover of beets. And to really understand the Pacific Northwest, you need to understand blackberries, and there’s no better resource than his Still Life with Woodpecker.
Jess and Brian shared an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s poem, The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer. You’ll find the text and reading of the poem by Wendell Berry at the link above.