04
Dec
2012
REBECCA THISTLEWAITE

FARM CONSULTANT AND FREELANCE WRITER, SUSTAIN CONSULTING

If you haven’t spent much time around farmers, you might have just a single, narrow image in your mind of exactly what a farmer is. Rebecca’s job is to expand on that image by providing tools and resources for folks to improve their farming methods. In her new book Farms With A Future she tackles the subject by showing that successful farmers do so much more than grow vegetables or raise animals: they grow communities and raise the bar for a more sustainable landscape. So if you are itching to exercise your entrepreneurial spirit, and want to trade in paper cuts for dirt under your finger nails, Rebecca’s book is a good place to start your journey.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I got introduced to the world of farming through a humble carrot. After college I was volunteering as a wilderness ranger in the wilds of Idaho. After subsisting on Top Ramen and powdered pudding, I met a backpacker offering me roasted carrots, potatoes, and beets that he cooked over a campfire. I remember the carrots being so sweet, like nothing I had ever tasted before. Turned out this backpacker was taking a couple days off from his farming apprenticeship to spend some time in the woods. My next free weekend I went to visit this farm he spoke of, called Paradise Farm near Moscow, Idaho and spent several days digging up the same sweet carrots. It was the most fun I had ever had ‘working’. I asked if I could stay on as an apprentice myself, and the rest was history.

I went on to apprentice on 5 other farms, get my Masters in International Agricultural Development, do ethnobotanical research, work at a farm incubator for many years training new farmers, write grants for non-profits, start a farm with my husband, and write a business guide for farmers. It’s been 15 years now working in and around agriculture and I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing.

How did you get your current good food job?

I am running my own company and doing freelance writing because I wanted to have flexible hours, live in the beautiful but rural Columbia Gorge, and I thoroughly enjoy helping other farmers and food businesses be more sustainable and successful. My consulting company helps small and mid-scale farms and value-added food businesses with business planning, discovering operating efficiencies, enterprise selection, enhancing profitability, natural resources management, creative financing, and environmental sustainability such as energy conservation and solid waste reduction.

It’s a wide range of services, I know, but I like to look at business sustainability in a holistic way. For example, you may be able to pay your bills, but how are you building soil? Are your employees doing better each year? Are your animals treated humanely? In addition to business consulting, I write for Cooking Up a Story, an on-line food blog and write for my own blog,Honestmeat.com. I also just finished writing a new business guide for sustainable farmers called Farms With a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business with Chelsea Green Publishing. The book came out at the end of November 2012. As for finding consulting or writing jobs, I use my networking skills, asking friends and former colleagues if they have heard of anything. I also ask them for personal introductions, which I find to be most helpful.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

My family was very outdoorsy growing up, so I had a love for nature, wildlife, etc. However, we didn’t garden nor did we eat much of a “farm-fresh” diet. My dad did take us fishing quite a bit, and he occasionally brought home a fresh salmon for the grill. But truthfully, I didn’t think about food that much, other than taking up the cause of vegetarianism when I was a teenager because I thought that meat production was bad for the planet. My senior year in college, I had the chance to study abroad in Belize, a small country in Central America. There I was exposed to a concept I had never seen before – that people could live and farm with nature in a way that fulfilled their human needs (food, shelter, medicine, textiles, dye plants, etc.) and conserved their natural resources. Shifting agriculture, when done right, can mimic natural processes, does not cause soil erosion, and enhances biodiversity. I had never witnessed this before in the US, nor realized that this was possible. I have now met farmers and seen many examples of agriculture in harmony with nature all around this country and this is something that I am passionate about. I consider myself an agriculturalist and an environmentalist – I see no conflict between the two.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

Striking out on my own as I have now was never part of my dream. I am entrepreneurial, but also a little risk-averse right now. But I am realizing that being self-employed gives me the freedom to have an opinion, to be passionate about many issues in agriculture, and insert myself where I want. I am still tempted to just go out and “get a job” so I can have some monetary stability, but I am also eager to see what the future has in store for me once my book starts selling. I think a lot of aspiring farmers and those already in production will find quite a bit of utility in this book and perhaps some new inspiration. My family also wants to start farming again (we used to farm for 6 years in California) but are being challenged with financing right now. Even though we have a nice savings, steady income, and good credit, because I am freelancing right now I can’t prove my income to qualify for a mortgage. So we are sort of in a holding pattern, care-taking some lovely property, putting our energy into creating a new business plan for our next adventure, searching out good livestock breeding stock, and experimenting with new things such as canned and fermented foods. That could be part of our next business model – doing some value-added foods.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

In the right regions, there is still a lot of room for innovative farmers to develop CSA models, especially ones that provide meat, dairy, grains, and even whole diet models. In other regions, the CSA model is being challenged by distribution companies creating food subscription services that compete directly with farm CSAs. So finding the right market is key. A few urban areas that I see open market space include Denver, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Tampa, Chicago, Boston, and NYC. Small towns also hold a lot of potential for smaller, community-based CSA models.  I also think farms that find the most synergies between their enterprises will be the most successful, such as dairy with pigs or poultry, livestock grazing in orchards, cattle rotated with grains, perennials with annuals in between. Farms that have discovered how to turn waste products into energy, food for other creatures, or a new product line are doing better than others. There should be no waste in agriculture – it is a biological system.

I also thinking partnerships and cooperative models are doing well, even during this economy. Food retailers such as stores and restaurants are partnering with individual farms to contract ingredients and they also help promote one another. Farmers working together to create a USDA meat processing plant such as the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative in WA are doing better than farmers all working alone driving all over the state for lower quality meat processing. Farmers are also partnering with value-added food businesses to diversify and secure new markets. For example, a cucumber farmer could partner with a pickle-maker to have an assured outlet for their cucumbers and have a new product that they can bring to the farmers market. Apple growers can partner with cider makers to have a market for their #2 apples. Instead of trying to do it on their own, innovative farmers are seeking out other experts and entrepreneurs for win-win solutions. Sounds corny, but it works. I highlight many of these models in my new book.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Just give me a patch of ground to care-take for the rest of my life. A place I can hike around, bird watch, build a tree fort for my daughter, raise some livestock, garden, have a tiny, passive solar home on, woodlot, and restore, between 100-300 acres in size. That’s all I ask for…