Beginner farmers in NWA and their struggle to break into the high-risk farming world.
Around 20 tomato plants and some radishes line one side of the apartment building Frank Ostapowicz lives in. Once you walk inside his apartment it’s not much different, tomato plants are everywhere. Ostapowicz is 29 years old and fairly new to the farming scene. Like many others, he knows that to be a farmer it takes a lot of work, but he also knows if there is a will there is a way—hence the many tomato, onion, eggplants, and melon plants he’s growing inside and alongside his apartment building.
“I’ve been a wanna be farmer for 10 years or more. I’ve probably only gardened for three years and only seriously for the last two,” Ostapowicz said.
Ostapowicz is part of the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food apprenticeship program that launched in October of 2019. He currently splits his time between two farms: The Den Herders farm in West Fork, Arkansas, which is primarily a nursery style farm that grows and sells several different types of produce and the Appel Farm, primarily a strawberry farm with some other produce (they also sell hogs to supplement their winter income), located in Springdale, Arkansas.
One of the things Ostapowicz appreciates about the apprenticeship program is all the hands-on experience and the opportunity to learn about different techniques from different farmers that he wouldn’t be getting otherwise.
“I wouldn’t be getting the same kind of individually sourced knowledge, from different perspectives on various farms and the techniques people use to farm them. Farming is a culture within itself and without programs like FarmLink and the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food apprenticeship program, I wouldn’t be near as close to my dream of owning my own farm as I am now,” Ostapowicz said.
However, the main challenge for Ostapowicz will be acquiring land as agricultural land prices continue to rise. Estimated market value of lands per acre in Arkansas are currently 3,163 dollars, according to the 2017 USDA Ag Census.
FarmLink was started by the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to help connect budding farmers and established farmers across NWA. It launched in the fall of 2019. As of May 18, 2020 there were only two farm owners, but several farm seekers. Susan Koehler, the Farmland Preservation Coordinator, said, they are working with several farmers right now, but they aren’t formally listed on the website yet.
“It’s not uncommon to have more farm seekers than farm owners on websites like this. A farm is also often a business and there are a lot of external factors that have to be considered before a farmer might post,” said Koehler. Some difficulties involved with buying and selling farms are that the land can’t just be sold outright because it is also a business and the land requires appraisal. On top of that many farmers have to consider whether or not they have family members that might want the land after they pass, not to mention the often exponential amount of money tied up in it.
There are 1.2 million acres of farming land throughout Benton, Carroll, Madison, and Washington counties with a total of 6, 613 farms, according to 2017 USDA Ag census. Koehler hopes FarmLink will help to connect farmers so that the number starts to grow again because there were 6% fewer farms in NWA in 2017 than there were in 2012, according to the 2017 USDA Ag census.
“In the next 20 to 30 years we will see a big turnover of land, so I think it is important for us to instill the need for farmers and the need for farmland in Northwest Arkansas,” Heather Friedrich, the program coordinator for CAFF, said.
Friedrich and many others around NWA are realizing the growing need to bring farmers together in order to preserve the land and the farmers’ way of life.
Friedrich, has some farming experience herself and speaks of her child-hood home, a small organic dairy farm in Iowa, with a sense of nostalgia. She grew up in Iowa where her passion for food and farming were cultivated. She got her bachelor’s in human nutrition and discovered she wanted to go back to her roots, so she got her Master’s in horticulture, food production systems– combining her two passions. She believes in sustainable farming and is working hard to allow others to see the value in farming too.
Jared Phillips, a historian at the UofA, who studies the change of agricultural land in the Ozarks since the 1950s’, says, “The amount of farms have declined by 30-50 percent every year since the 1950’s, but that varies by county.”
Due to the farms that stay in business increasing their size he also says that it makes it more costly to get into farming. “To make a living as a farmer you need more capital in land, more capital in equipment, and it’s a reinforcing cycle because the need for food and agriculture is expanding not declining just because another farmer goes out of business,” Phillips said.
Friedrich acknowledges that the farming industry has changed immensely since she was growing up. She said the technological boom didn’t miss farming, and she hopes to be a part of the change and growth of the industry through websites like FarmLink and the foodconservancy connecting farmers directly to their consumers.
“As farms and farmers age there are land changes and you run the risk of land consolidation. Less farmers, larger farms, means more need for communication and community,” Friedrich said.
The average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years up 1.2 years from 2012. The average age of farmers in Washington County comes up just shy of that at 56 to 56.9 years of age. Some 27 percent of farmers are categorized as new and beginning producers, with 10 years or less of experience in agriculture, according to the 2017 USDA agriculture census. Although this number brings hope that younger people are taking an interest in farming, the average age of beginning producers is still 46.3 in Washington County, according to the 2017 USDA agriculture census.
Terry Wisniewski, who I found via FarmLink, is an outlier in this data, however, as he started farming at the age of 58 and is still farming now at the age of 60, the age of most tenured farmers. Wisniewski originally got into farming as a way to alleviate stress from his day job, but soon found out that he could make a profit doing so and soon quit his job to pursue farming full time.
He now owns two plots of land, his Arkansabi farm located in Bentonville, and his newer farmland located in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. He sells 30 percent of his produce at farmers markets and 70 percent wholesale, which he prefers. Wholesale means that Wisniewski usually must accept a cheaper price but can deliver the already sold products in less time than he would if he were to sit at a farmer market all day.
“I’m the apostle for young farmers. I’m excited to get anyone involved that I can. If you hang with me, you’ll end up a farmer,” Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski has a positive outlook on farming and believes that if anyone has the will to farm then they can do it, “All it takes is a tiller and a shovel and you have a farm. Heck, he chuckled you don’t even need a tiller if you have enough grit you can just use a rake. It’s that simple. Just get out there and do it,” Wisniewski said.
He does acknowledge that farming is not without its struggles especially for someone just starting up. He said acquiring farmland is the hardest part especially in places like Washington county with the rapid development of land.
Mark Cain is luckier than most people who want to get into farming as it is niche field due to the high capital investment. It’s typically about who you know or how much money you have to spend on new land, equipment, and other unforeseen costs. Not to mention it is extremely high risk due to unforeseeable mishaps such as bad weather.
Cain was a biology major in college then got a job at a community organic garden program, fell in love, and wound up working in Santa Cruz, California on a garden project. He later moved back to Arkansas where he started Dripping Springs Gardens in 1984 with his business partner, Michael Crane.
Starting a farm isn’t easy but Cain found a good deal on some land and was able to turn over a profit his first year. During the winter he and Crane, would go and plant trees for money. By doing this they were able to fund their newly established farm.
The land they purchased, located in Carroll County, is 1 of 231 farms in Benton, Carroll, Madison, and Washington counties that produces vegetables, according to the 2017 ag census. The land had an abandoned blueberry field and several open acres. Somehow their blueberries had survived, and they were able to take them to the Fayetteville Farmers market that very first year. Cain and Crane began to carve out terraced, raised-bed gardens with a few machines and a lot of hard work. Now, 36 years later, gardens cover the slopes overlooking the creek, where interns and apprentices sometimes go for a swim during the summer, and the forest. The garden is bustling with apprentices who have come from all over to learn about farming techniques and practices.
Cain currently has six interns living and learning on the farm. He said a typical day at the farm consists of waking up at 7:30 a.m., having a meeting at 8 a.m. over a home cooked breakfast and then working on the farm from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. They then get an hour of free time before lunch at 2 p.m. and go back to work at 3 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. every day. They are currently planting tomatoes, spinach, radishes, and turnips.
“Having a diverse skill set instead of mass producing one product is important to reach customers. The same person that wants a radish will also want lettuce etcetera if you are providing it,” Cain said.
Cain said that people are getting smarter about food, they aren’t as satisfied as they once were. He believes people are getting more interested in farms and because of this it has created a market that wasn’t necessarily there 30 years ago.
He talked about the expansion of social media and how because of that farms can communicate directly to the public about what is going on at their farms. Because they can work directly with customers, it has created a retail like environment as opposed to the wholesale market that was the farming business for so long.
“It can be a double-edged sword (the technology filtering into farming). It has benefited farmers through the creation of online markets, and it has closed the distance between farmers and consumers by doing so. Now most farms have some sort of web presence which helps to create a more aware consumer,” Friedrich said.
On top of being a full-time farmer Wisniewski is also the production manager for the food conservancy, a nonprofit website that connects local farmers directly to consumers by giving them a platform to sell their produce.
Projects like FarmLink have been around since the 90’s due to the rapid loss of land due to the rapid expansion of towns and cities. Koehler said she believes there are around 50 active programs, but NWALT is the first in Arkansas to create a FarmLink program.
Wisniewski also said, “It takes at least three years to really be successful, but a lot of people want immediate results. You must be open to try out new things on your farm, and if it’s not succeeding—try again. It takes self-discipline.”
Melissa Schock, 29, is also a part of FarmLink and joined with hopes of connecting with someone who is more established than herself and can bring equipment to the table in a way that she can’t. Schock also goes back to what is becoming abundantly apparent as the number one struggle beginner farmers face: acquiring farmland.
Schock, owner of West Luck Blooms has been farming on her own for about three years. She said she’s always casually farmed, but it wasn’t until three years ago that she fully leaped. Unlike the other farmers in this story Shock doesn’t produce vegetables, but instead flowers. Not unlike the others, however, she understands the type of commitment farming really is.
“Planting new seeds, transplanting new plants out into the yard. It’s a constant. It’s almost like tending to a baby. You are always out there checking what it might need all day long,” Schock said.
Farming takes a lot of work, seven days a week, all the time. It’s not always feasible for people who are interested to get into. Some people are willing, but they simply don’t have the capital it takes to get into farming.
“It takes money to make money. You must have money to put into it to get money out of it. There is a certain amount of expertise that you must have in order to succeed. There is a lot riding on it. There is kind of a gap now between the big commercial growers and the younger generation being interested but never being taught. Once the older generation passes there is no one to pass that information on. I don’t think until recently people have been interested,” Shock said.
Starting even a small farm can be a huge capital investment which can be a deterrent for many willing and able farmers. Cody Murphee, 29, of Circle M Farms located in Prairie Grove is all too familiar with this. Murphee grew up farming his grandfather’s 30,000-acre row crop farm in Newark, Arkansas, sprouting his initial interest. Murphee went on to pursue a degree in Ag business at the UofA and while there further developed his passion and skill for farming.
A few years back when his grandfather died, he had the opportunity to go into business with his cousin, but he couldn’t justify it. “ I had the opportunity to take over the farm with my cousin, but I did the numbers, and it was and overwhelming risk that I don’t think much young people would take, and I couldn’t take it,” Murphee said.
Ultimately that decision led him to his current farm operation, Circle M Farms, it touts the same name as his fathers’ old cattle farm. He considers himself to be a market farmer due to the diverse quality of produce he produces. He farms on only a third of an acre which doesn’t seem like much, but he assures me that it’s plenty to turn over a profit. He currently doesn’t own the land which is ultimately his goal and the reason why he joined FarmLink.
Murphee says his farm is organic, but it isn’t certified yet. “Part of the reason I’m organic is to provide safe food for my community.
Jared Phillips, Ozark agricultural land historian, said the nature of farming has changed tremendously since the fifties. Once small scale diversified farming (meaning a farmer might’ve had 10 or so dairy cows, beef cows, a breeding pair of pigs, chickens for eggs, and might have grown a couple of acres of corn), in the 70s’ the movement went to a more mono farming technique with farmers only growing one or two different crops. Today diversified farming just means having over 30 or 40 varieties of vegetables, maybe a few livestock but it also means having a diversified skill-set. A lot of skill-sets back in the day were transferable, crops would’ve had the same planting schedule, cultivation and farming system whereas today nothing is done the same.
Murphee said that’s the other difficult thing about farming – the amount of knowledge it takes to maintain all the different crops.
“The simplest, the preeminent barrier is access to land. Getting access to land is the hardest part and there is no way that is going to change for people who want to continue farming. There needs to some sort of legislative farming push. FarmLink is a really interesting idea, it’s a part of the solution but not the solution. My general philosophy is that not one solution will fix everything. FarmLink for some people makes a lot of sense, but it can’t help the cost of land,” Phillips said.
Many people are interested in Farming in spite of the tremendous costs and Frank Ostapowicz, the apartment farmer we saw earlier, aims to achieve his dream no matter how long it takes. Ostapowicz desire to farm comes from his passion that NWA should have a stronger local food system and his desire to teach children about where their food comes from. Although Ostapowicz doesn’t have his own farm to call his own yet he hopes to get into organic farming practices. His long-term plans are to apprentice for two years and then go to the new UofA farm school set to open in January of 2021 and eventually own his own farm where he can make a living doing so.