The Life Cycle of a Farmer

By Shelley Pasco, guest contributor

This article was originally published in June 2023

Wendy Wahman illustration
Illustration by Wendy Wahman

 

Editor’s note: America’s farmers are aging, with the average age now approaching 60, and challenging barriers for younger farmers entering the profession (see related article here). The national issue has added nuance in the Puget Sound region, with its sky-high land costs and proximity to urban centers. Shelley Pasco of Whistling Train Farm in Kent wrote for Sound Consumer about her decades farming in our region and how—and why—they might end.

I was a straight-A student in high school during the 1980s, and when the counselor asked what my future plans were, I told him I wanted to farm. “Oh, no. You can’t do that,” he repeatedly said. I would need to inherit land or an operating farm somewhere far away (like the wide-open spaces of Eastern Washington, because in his mind, nobody farms on the west side), and besides, why would such a smart girl want to be a farmer anyway?

It’s true that earlier generations pretty much got into farming by way of inheritance; their parents were farmers, so they slid into it. But there haven’t been farmers in my lineage for two generations on one side and three on the other. My dad was and still is an artist, and my mom supported and marketed his work. Still, that’s all I wanted from about the age of 10, maybe because my dad told stories about growing up on a chicken farm during the Great Depression. Times were hard, his dad left when he was a toddler, and the now-suburbs surrounding Seattle and Tacoma were populated with small farms, producing food for the cities. His mother took over an egg farm between Kent and what is now Covington and was able to scrape by with the help of my dad’s grandfather, whose family had in turn scraped by farming in the Midwest, back when 90% of the population was small farmers.

Some of dad’s stories were of hard work and hard times, but most were fond remembrances of working with his grandfather, who rarely spoke. Sleeping in the chicken brooder, taking turns stoking the fire so thousands of baby White Leghorn pullets were kept warm through the night. Milking the family cow, his face nuzzled into her flank on freezing mornings before school.

Future Farmers of America?

My dad gave me a pair of rabbits for my 10th birthday. At 11 I got my first chicken flock, 25 straight-run Rhode Island Red chicks ordered through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. I read endlessly about how to raise all sorts of livestock, keep them healthy and utilize them for food. In high school in Poulsbo, I took the horticulture and agriculture vocational classes as electives, and joined the Future Farmers of America. My parents were supportive but had concerns; small farms were not a going business concern in the 1980s, they were a hobby. Eventually I earned an associate degree in applied arts and launched a graphic design career. It was practical, but I wasn’t satisfied building pages of advertising while sitting at an office computer. Living in Ballard, I convinced the landlord to let me tear out the juniper bushes so I could plant my first garden.

 The mind-blowing breakthrough came in 1995 after touring a CSA called Brigid Croft through Seattle Tilth. Right in front of me was proof that two people could actually produce food right where we lived and feed a community on a small piece of land! I desperately wanted a piece of that action. I met a few other local farmers and fell upon an opportunity in the Kent Valley.

Bob Tidball was an eager mentor, and after I showed him my amateur “farm plan,” he showed me 1/2 acre that he would help me liberate of blackberries and wood debris. I would have access to water, which I would pay for, and he would work up the ground with his machinery. I would also help him around the rest of the property in exchange for knowledge. It was a good trade, and I commuted from Seattle every chance I could get while working full-time as a production artist. I practiced growing vegetables and brought in the surplus to my coworkers, learning what people liked. The next year, I was allowed a full acre. The following year, two. Then three plus a chicken flock, with yields going to a CSA of 25 patient members. My weekends were occupied at the farm, and luckily (in retrospect) I was eventually let go by my graphic design employer. I was ready to grow. I read a lot of books, I asked a lot of questions when I could, and I experimented constantly.

That winter I met my now-former husband, Mike Verdi, and after a year of farming separately, we rented the Whistling Train Farm property between Kent and Auburn together. We started clearing its 15 acres of blackberries and I learned how to go to farmers markets, while operating a small CSA. As an extreme introvert, it took me time to get accustomed to the amount of “peopling” and conversation these direct sales required. Starting at the Puyallup Farmers Market while Mike carried on with customers at Pike Place, we struggled to make ends meet, as most small farmers do. I was still freelancing for design customers, mostly in the winter. I swore every year would be my last freelancing, and that line was finally drawn when I became pregnant in 2001 and Della was born. There’s something about having a baby that solidifies goals.

Making it work

For farmers, changes in the marketplace are a constant. We bred and raised pigs for several years, selling pork halves “on the hoof.” When state laws changed to allow farmers to take meat to farmers markets, we went big into our ethically and sustainably raised pork, something that wasn’t really being done in the Puget Sound area yet. I believed in giving the animals full access to the outdoors and for sows to be with their babies with as little intervention as possible. With Seattle chef Tamara Murphy as partner, I kept six sows and nurtured a lot of baby pigs. Although not as profitable as confinement livestock production, it was fulfilling work and a good income stream until other farms started doing the same. Over the years, we also experimented with egg production with flocks of hundreds of hens. I raised and butchered meat chickens, and ducks for both meat and eggs. Marketing vegetables and meat side-by-side in a small farmers market space proved difficult due to space constraints and food handling rules, though, and 15 acres proved not enough acreage to produce both well. It was less financially demanding and more profitable to grow vegetables, so that was my choice.

Then we shifted to another open niche: In the late 1990s, there were not many CSAs in the area, and farmers markets (aside from Pike Place) were seasonal, few and far between. With no local winter produce options for shoppers, we went big with a winter CSA, 200 shares that picked up where the other CSAs ended in November.

Then came our second child, Cosmo, and another shift in the balancing act. Raising a family is just about the most stressful thing a couple can do in the smoothest of circumstances, and raising babies while farming together has to top that list. When everything is humming along, growing crops and going to market seem manageable and exciting, but throw in some inevitables of life—disastrous weather or a string of market days devoid of shoppers, or a sick kid—and suddenly it’s not.

lettuce crops

Sustainable farming?

Our farm was sustainable in the usual understanding of the word, our customers were within a half-day’s drive of the farm, we tended and harvested with great care, we grew our vegetables without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Della liked to eat dirt as a baby, and I used to say I didn’t worry because I knew there were no chemicals in it.

I had attracted customers by always having something unusual or exciting to try, as well as beautiful, fresh staple crops to fill their baskets. Diversifying the crop mix is also a safe way to hedge your bets, but there is a huge learning curve in farming this way and our approach had hidden costs in time and effort. In retrospect I might have produced fewer crops for larger and less personal markets, a different kind of tradeoff.

Looking back, the business was unsustainable in a different way. We wanted to purchase the property, but the owners did not want to sell it, costing us the ability to plan long-term and the chance to build greater financial stability. In our 20th year of farming there, after seven three-year leases, we finally (and gratefully, with the support of our customers) could purchase it.

Another struggle was finding and training new workers every year, common on small farms like mine that couldn’t afford to keep people on payroll through the winter.

But we kept making it work. And eventually I did see, through the twin veils of experience and future possibility, that if I could just manage to keep one great employee year-round, the farm’s production would leap forward.

There’s something about having a baby that solidifies goals

The catch: For that to happen, I needed an extra job again too. Specifically, I signed on with the school district to be a school bus driver. The winter job paid better than seasonal retail jobs and was flexible; as a sub, I could choose my availability, and I would earn commercial driving credentials that might be handy. My own paycheck let me sacrifice some farm income to pay that full-time employee, Teo, through the winter so we would all be ready to go in the spring. (That’s surprisingly common: more than half of small farmers in the U.S. have second jobs off the farm, and 2/3 of young farmers.)

Money was tight, and I occasionally resented my decision to work an off-farm job just to pay someone else. However, the next few years were the most profitable and productive we had seen. Teo helped me turn the farm into a highly profitable food-producing business—meaning I eventually no longer needed two jobs to keep it going, and I no longer had to choose between paying the power and water bills.

I had learned a lot to reach that point: How to find employees, and how to keep them. How to run payroll, pay for equipment, manage email groups. How to keep customers happy, and how to grow all the different crops required for successful marketing. It seemed we finally figured out how to make it work.

Doing less for more

By 2016 we were running a 200-family CSA and I was going to three farmers markets each week. Teo was newly married and working 60 hours per week, while managing the farm crew. I was hardly ever home, and when I did get home, I went straight out to harvest for the next day. I hardly saw my kids, and every day was exhausting.

After some hard calculations, I realized that the sales from two of my market days each week was going straight to payroll. What if I did less? What if I shrank the farm to a smaller CSA and just one farmers market, with just one person to help, renting half my land to a younger farmer to expand his business?

On paper it seemed like it would work, and it partly did.

After reaching that pinnacle I started yearning to offer opportunities to help young farmer “wannabes” get started. I wanted to share what I had learned and help others avoid the pitfalls that now seemed obvious. I welcomed quite a few interns to the farm, and had some pretty amazing employees for whom I am very grateful, and they taught me as much as they learned.

As I eased into my early 50s I weathered a medical crisis and had time to think about my own future. What would my life look like at 65 in this physically demanding job?

Do farmers ever actually “retire”? There’s actually a running joke, that farmers die in the field or run out of money farming. I didn’t want either of those options. My kids were going to be adults soon, and I didn’t want them responsible for paying my bills. The truth is that even when farming was good for me, it was always just barely enough. We had become used to so little, compared to others…compared to many of our customers. There was no vacation fund, no college fund, no savings account, no retirement plan, and a mortgage with only five years of equity. Somehow, I managed to get two kids to college, and I did still love farming, but what about the other things that I loved?

I went back to school for my associate degree in natural resources from Green River College, hoping to find conservation work after graduation. I started purposefully looking for a successor to take over my farm and the CSA customers it supports, a search that is ongoing, including listing Whistling Train on the Farm to Farmer site (click here for more information).

I don’t know if counselors would have discouraged my kids from farming, but that wasn’t their path. I would have been thrilled if they had wanted to carry on the family business, but I never expected it. As it was I worked hard to make sure they didn’t resent our choice to farm. Even though they didn’t get big parties or summer vacations, miraculously, both kids have fond memories of growing up here, of learning how life works while playing and exploring the property untethered. Cosmo found his passion in automotive technology and welding, thanks to that freedom to experiment, and Della credits her love of biology to discoveries she made while exploring the farm.

It gave them a different inheritance.

I have spent the last few years thinking a lot about what it means to farm, what it means to *me* to farm, and the disparity between aging-out farmers, young farmers with high ideals and little experience, and the lack of communication between the two. I have tried all that I know of to find a successor for my farm business community.

I am still hopeful that someone qualified and ready will take my place, but I am at peace with the possibility that the cycle may end with me.

Also in this issue

PCC launches Inclusive Trade Program

Shoppers will now find it easier to support suppliers from historically and currently excluded communities with a new PCC program and standard.

Why BIPOC farmers seek a farmland trust

The daughter of Hmong farmers is trying to make farming more stable and equitable for people who typically face greater barriers to owning land.

A Guide to Grass-Fed Beef

See what makes grass-fed beef special and learn expert cooking tips.