This is a farmer-contributed post in our “From our farmers” series, written by Catherine Nguyen of Mora Mora Farm, who is enrolled in our Farm Incubator Program.
Mora Mora Farm is a single-farmer, half-acre, diverse vegetable operation that just wrapped up its first season through the Headwaters Farm Incubator Program. Mora Mora grows produce to sell at one weekend farmers’ market and for a handful of friends in the city. When people find out that it’s just me running the farm, doing everything from seeding and harvest to bed preparation and marketing, the normal response is, “Wait. You’re doing this all on your own?!”
The decision to begin as a single-farmer operation simply stemmed from my own personality. I like being able to see the whole picture: production and sales, starting up my farm and setting up systems to maintain it, figuring out where operational weak points are, and how I can optimize the system as a whole. I knew if I ever wanted to have ownership of a farm and manage people well, I’d better know what the heck I was doing and why.
Of course, being a single-farmer operation comes with its challenges:
Decision-making. I have a love-hate relationship with it. On one side, I have the freedom to improvise and move resources around as I see fit. What was most appealing to me was the freedom to lay out a mission and vision for the farm that holds close to my values and the chance to work toward something I believe in every day. I think that’s a really beautiful thing about starting up any business. On the flip side, the burden of responsibility is solely on me. I have no one else to blame if something goes wrong and there’s no one else to bounce ideas off of, and there is a lot of pressure to that.
Time is one of the most valuable things for farmers. As much as I wanted the farm to be my only focus during this first season, I decided to take an off-farm job, because I had no idea how the first season was going to go, and no baseline to go off of. The hours I spent working off the farm varied depending on the season, but I think it’s safe to say that I spent 70+ hours a week working over this past season, even pushing 80+ during peak season. Any farmer who has done it knows the restrictions a conventional off-farm job has. For example, not being able to take advantage of the cooler mornings to plant in the summer or water the propagation house on a sunny day were some of the limitations. Most non-farm jobs are set on a fixed schedule based on the clock, but the farm’s schedule is set by the weather, which I learned could be unrelenting in the summer. Balancing both jobs was one of the biggest challenges for me this past season.
Life balance. Nothing occupied my mind more this season than this. I knew my tendency as a single-farmer operation to overwork and neglect other areas of my life. From the beginning, I wrote into Mora Mora’s vision statement that having a farm that met its financial and ecological goals but left the farmer in shambles mentally and physically was not success. Practically speaking, I set Monday as my personal day off from all work – to be quiet and enjoy life. I also got creative with a mid-week sales outlet. I knew I didn’t have the labor or time to do another market, nor the consistency for wholesale orders or a structured CSA, so I opened up a mid-week pick-up for friends in the area that I often saw anyway. Sprinkled in the season were also a couple weekend getaways and off-farm potlucks just to pull my overall life back into balance.
When I think back to the question “You’re doing this all on your own?”, the truthful answer is no. A big reason the farm succeeded this season was because of the community that surrounded it. Other first-year farmers at Headwaters who would water my plants for me when I couldn’t make it out to the farm, the beyond-loyal market customers who would come to market every single week for their groceries, and friends who not only gave immense encouragement, but even altered their diet and lifestyle to eat more vegetables, just to support the farm.
As with anything, a single-farmer operation has its pros and cons. It just happens that I’m drawn more to the advantages than discouraged by the disadvantages. I’m looking forward to spending this winter, looking back on the season to gear up for next season!