If you follow the farming blog Honest Meat, you already know who Rebecca Thistlethwaite is. Thistlethwaite and her husband have traveled the country visiting farms and documenting their travels on Honest Meat. They once were farmers themselves, but decided to stop for a while to do some on-the-ground research to answer the most important question they knew: what makes a farm truly sustainable?
Thistlethwaite’s brand new book, Farms with a Future, poses many answers to that question, gleaned from successful, innovative small farmers around the nation.
Recently, Grist.org interviewed Rebecca about her farming journey, the challenges farmers face, and the lessons she learned while traveling and writing Farms with a Future. Read an excerpt from the interview below, and the entire interview here.
By Twilight Greenaway
A few years ago, Rebecca Thistlethwaite and her husband were working 80 hours a week running a large pastured meat and egg operation called TLC Ranch on rented land. The couple had spent six years barely making ends meet. They wanted to buy their own ranch, but the cost of land in Monterey County, Calif., was astronomical. Getting their meat processed presented several challenges (as it does for many small producers) and many of their loyal customers were cutting back on local and ethically produced food after the economic downturn. So, the couple decided to sell the farm and throw in the towel. Kind of.
In October of 2010, Thistlethwaite wrote on her blog Honest Meat:
… we are off to live in an RV for the next couple years, volunteer on farms and ranches around the country that we admire and hope to learn from, write a little blog about our adventure, and have some fun too.
And that’s exactly what they did. The result of this adventure is Thistlethwaite’s new book, Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business. As she sees it, the book is a “practical, accessible guide that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of farming, but gives people some good ideas.” It’s chock full of concrete suggestions based on Thistlethwaite’s year of research and observation, the kind of book you write precisely because you need just such a guide yourself but can’t find it anywhere. And it will probably help a lot of young farmers. It might also dissuade some from jumping headfirst into a business that is not for the faint of heart — but Thistlethwaite is fine with that.
We spoke with Thistlethwaite recently about the book, the journey, and the farm she hopes to start next.
Q. Do you want to talk a little about why you and your husband chose to sell your ranch?
A. We decided to take a break because we felt like the conditions under which we were operating were just not conducive to running a successful farm. We were paying some of the highest land rent in the country. And we were leasing land, so we really never knew what was going to happen the following year. We were also living in an area with a lot of crime. We had animals and equipment stolen; that made it really hard to run a business.
We didn’t want to quit farming, but we wanted to change where and how we were going to do it. So we thought we’d learn about how other farming operations around the country were doing it, how they are grafting together sustainable business models that meet their quality-of-life goals while being good for the earth and economically viable. It was a way to get inspired and learn. And it was a much-needed vacation!
We visited and interviewed about 19 farms total. And I think 14 of them ended up in our book.
Q. And where did you end up after the trip?
A. Now we’re located in the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side.
Q. Do you want to speak about the challenge you and the farmers you visited face when it comes to conveying the value of sustainably produced food?
A. With the contraction of the economy, consumers are actually looking for more than cheap food. They’re looking for something that is affordable, but also embodies their other values — whether it be environmental values, social values, or the value of supporting their local economy.
So even if you’re a wholesale farmer, I think it’s really important to get your brand and your values across to your eventual customers. To just be an anonymous farmer producing an anonymous commodity doesn’t give you a chance to let your customers know who you are and what your story is. Telling that story and getting it all the way to the end user is really important. And you will be rewarded if it’s done right.
Photo Credit: Jen Jones