Built From The Ground Up
We taught ourselves to plow watching YouTube videos and tried our hardest to grow our produce organically. That first season was exhilarating and rewarding and heartbreaking in equal measure — but most of all it was the beginning of an incredible education in farming from the ground up.
My path into farming began before I think I even knew it. Ever since I was little and can remember I loved to garden. I have many memories of working with my grandma in her garden. It was a big one! She taught me what I know about gardening. During my early teen years my stepfather's parents, who also farm, raised acres of sweet corn, pumpkins, and asparagus. That was one of my first real jobs: I picked sweet corn. The day would start as soon as the sun was up; we would pick using bushel baskets until we had anywhere between four to six trucks filled. I would then travel about 40 miles and sit on the back of my truck at a stand at the gas station until it was sold out. That was where I caught my first glimpse of how to make money being a farmer. Once I graduated high school up until I started a family of my own I really didn't spend much time gardening for one reason or another. Once we purchased our first home, I got back into it and really began to realize how much I loved to grow food! We started a family, and all the while my husband was pursuing a degree in business. We both had an entrepreneurial spirit, as I was already self-employed as a cosmetologist, and Rogan really wanted to break free from his corporate job. So when our son was 4 and our daughter was 2, we came up with a crazy idea that maybe we could start some sort of a farm. Obstacle number one: finding a farm. For most people, farming is something you are born into. We were not aware of the uphill battle ahead; however, we moved forward and the search began, and in August of 2011 we found the perfect place for our family. A house and six acres. We had done it!
Not really sure of the direction we were going, we openly shared with friends and people we were meeting along the way that we had a plan to start this vegetable farm. I had a client whose husband had a friend that worked for Hy-Vee, which is a major grocery chain here in the Midwest. He shared our thoughts with his friend and introduced us. It became clear to us that good local produce was something that this grocery store was really seeking. We shared our plans of what we wanted to do, and that we were going to become a certified organic farm. The thing was, we hadn’t even grown in ground we had purchased. After lots of discussion, we decided that wholesale distribution would definitely be the market path we would pursue. We were gifted Bluebird houses from this very same friend. He told us if we put them up the bluebirds would come, and sure enough they did.That's when Bluebird Farms was established. The wholesale market appealed to us because of our inability to farm full-time. Farming appealed to us because it's something we could do as a family. My husband is truly a jack of all trades, and me with my green thumb, it seemed the perfect fit. The next obstacle was, we didn't know how to grow vegetables on a larger scale, nor did we have the equipment or money we soon learned we needed to do so.
Our first farming season was a 10,000-square-foot patch of tomatoes and peppers. We planted 1,000 plants of each. We prepped the ground with an old Ford 8N tractor we had been given by my father-in-law and a disc and a plow we found for $600 on Craigslist. Not even knowing really how to plow, we watched some YouTube videos and learned! We decided from the beginning that growing organically was important to us; we wanted to live as healthy of a lifestyle as we could. I didn't know anything about how to grow this way. I always just assumed that organic meant no sprays of any kind. I came to learn that the true meaning of organic is the soil and how we take care of it. We pursued the path of organic certification for our farm. We downloaded the National Organic Program handbook from the internet and began reading. We got our plants in the ground and felt we were doing everything to the best of our ability. When you decide to become certified organic, you have A LOT of paperwork. You also get to have a yearly inspection. We did all of that and felt we were doing so awesome and on the path. We were so excited that we contacted Hy-Vee and invited some of their store directors out to come see what we had done! The morning that they were to come visit, we received our first big bout of bad news. The growing media that I started ALL 1,000 plants in had an ingredient that was not suitable for organic farming. We did not receive our certification. We were absolutely devastated. Feeling like we failed so big, we had to tell all of these store managers from Hy-Vee that we failed. The crazy part about it? They still supported us! As a customer to us, when we didn't even have the produce to deliver, they saw the value in what we were trying to do and continued to support us! We learned so much that first year. Mostly, I learned that we didn't choose a path that was going to be easy.
We realized soon after we began that we didn't have the equipment we needed to do this. When you are limited for time you quickly figure out that being mechanized to become more efficient is something that is going to have to happen. Hand weeding 10,000 square feet of vegetable plants was something I was not interested in doing ever again!
By our second year we went for it and made, what was for us, a big jump. We put together a business plan, found a banker that believed in us, and borrowed some money so that we could purchase a tractor and some planting equipment, and broke ground on our first three acres! Three acres may not sound like a large amount of space, but by the end of our second season we learned that our three acres produced 25,000 pounds of real food!
The stories I could tell of what I learned that second year could definitely take up pages. I learned that you need help to pick that 25,000 pounds of food, because no way the two of us could do it alone. I learned that it's a lot of work to get that much food to the market. I learned the problem of plenty. I learned that I am not going to be good at growing everything right away. I learned that bugs and disease could destroy a crop very quickly. I stressed over weather and cried like the rain fell sometimes because I was so exhausted. Having full-time jobs and raising kids while building this farm was so hard. The guilt I had for feeling like these crops had to come before my family at times was a real challenge of the heart for me. I knew my work was for the greater good of our family and the bigger picture, but there were days I wanted to just quit. My mildly carefree summer of hanging with my kids had gone away and been replaced with the responsibilities of this farm. What started as such a beautiful dream, of something we had planned and hoped to build, was becoming a reality — and suddenly it was one I wasn't sure I wanted anymore.
Fast forward now to 2017. The things I have continued to learn are just amazing. We were able to build our farm so much in these last four years that we were able to purchase the 30 acres that is now our backyard. Wow! Sometimes that's all I can say, because I never would have imagined that this is where I would be today. I do not think this would be possible though without my husband, the dreamer, the mechanic, the business guy, and two awesome kids who support their crazy parents. This past summer was a turning point for us in our business. With the support of our local grocers, we were able to get 20,000 pounds of broccoli, along with some other vegetables, into the market via a seemingly easy process. We got to experiment with a few new crops and continued learning how to grow vegetables on a larger scale, all while continuing to become as efficient as we can be. However, we are doing all of this while still continuing to work full-time. My job as a cosmetologist has been amazing for flexibility; it keeps me busy but allows me to schedule around kids and farm work without too much effort. Ultimately, we are working toward bringing Rogan to the farm full-time. Our goal for this farm moving forward is to just keep growing — growing and learning. We are taking great strides in building up our soil. We are really focusing on a certain few crops and what they need to grow their best. Weed control is always a challenge, and we are constantly finding new ways to surpass that. Financially, this has been a bit of a rough road. As I said in the beginning, so many farmers we know are at least third-, fourth-, and beyond-generation farmers. Many have been given land, or already have access to equipment, so that part of the financial burden isn't there for some as it is for us. We said in the beginning we were willing to give ourselves five years to get this off the ground. We were both willing to work extra hard, and that's what we have been doing. We are coming up on the end of our fourth year; this summer we had about six acres in vegetable production and 14 in hay, and are still learning. I do believe we are on the path to meeting our five-year goal, so that's pretty exciting! Our plan is to continue taking ground out of hay and putting it into vegetable production of some sort. This next spring we will be adding some sheep to our farm, so that’s really exciting for myself and for my daughter. I am truly proud to say that we are first-generation farmers, built from the ground up!
Brenna is a 36-year-old woman from the small Midwest town of Lisbon, Iowa. She currently lives on a 37-acre certified organic farm where she is married to her best friend and business partner, Rogan, and raises two kids, Bo, age 12, and Mae, age 10. She is a self-employed cosmetologist by trade and a farmer at heart.
Recipe: Dill Pickles for Canning
Words: Brenna Stoops