The 5 pillars of building a small scale organic vegetable farm that supports the lifestyle you would love to live

We don’t often think of farming as a lifestyle business, but it absolutely is. There is some lifestyle that you would love to live and some contribution you would love to make to the world… and farming is the vehicle you have chosen to do so. Yes… chosen. It is so important to remember that farming is a choice you make. No one is forcing you to farm. The world will not fall apart if you stop. No matter how seemingly committed to the farm you are, always remember that there is a way out and that you are CHOOSING to farm. (through good times and bad, health and sickness, till death do you part 😉 )

Given that you are choosing to farm.. to use the farm as the vehicle to living a luminous life, there are certain foundational principles to insure that the farm you are building actually is supporting you in living the life you would love to live.

5 pillars of building a farm that fully supports the lifestyle you would love to live:

  1. Know what the farm is for! Be clear about the outcomes you wish to create, what lifestyle you would love to live, what contribution are you here to make? Lead from your heart, not from your brain… or more precisely…. Lead with your heart and manage with your brain.
  2. Put first things first: Now that you know what is important to you, build your farm around these elements… profit, family time, a specific contribution you want the farm to make in the world. Literally schedule out time ahead of time for these activities, start you budget with the profit you want…
  3. Have well designed farm systems that make it so the farm is operating smoothly and is working in support of your lifestyle and contribution goals. It is crucial that the activities be organised into coherent and well documented systems. The chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Similarly, the farm operation is only as strong as it’s weakest system.
  4. Put in place a network of mutual support and use it! No one is an island, though it may sometimes feel like you are.  
  5. Monitor, update, and adapt. This is the step that separates the sheep from the goats .. umm, what the heck does that mean 🙂 A vision and the resulting plan are only useful when they are used in real life. Monitoring insures that you are aware of how things are going. All too often we have a great vision or we make a great plan and put it on the shelf. The key is to us your vision inspired plan as a road map to creating the life you would love to live. To do so, you have to know where you are on the map, and you have to check in regularly to see if you are still on the right path, to see if that path still leads where you wanted to go, and to see if that destination is still a place you want to go.

River Run Farm visit: Top notch Organic weed control, beautiful mid-scale vegetable production, and high nitrogen chickling vetch green manure.

I just love visiting farms! Each one is so unique and it is so interesting to observe how each person chooses to build their farm as a reflection of their interests, personalities, and vision.

While on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, I visited River Run Farm…. yet another fascinating example of thinking outside the box. River Run Farm is in fact two farms in one. Having started out as a partnership, the owners realised that their friendship was more important and decided to each run their separate but parallel farm businesses. The 2 farms operate on the same land, sharing equipment and infrastructure, but marketing separately and each managing their own production in separate designated fields on the farm.

During out stay, we were hosted by side of River Run Farm operated by Noah and his partner, Ana. I was really impressed with what Ana and Noah have been able to develop in just 5 years. Here are some highlights that stood out to me.

Weed free organic vegetable fields

The first thing that jumped out at me what that they really nailed the weed control in their fields. The fields are properly tilled before planting to eliminate grasses and perennial weeds so that crops are planted into nice clean fields. Next, crops are cultivated regularly using scale appropriate, horse drawn cultivator units including finger weeders and beet knives mounted on parallelograms. I also noticed that they were thoroughly composting their manure (from the horses and cows) in regularly turned windrows that we covered with landscape fabric. Great job River Run! 🙂 Next on the horizon at River Run is looking at how to do all this using reduced tillage and even organic no-till. I look forward to seeing where they take this given what great results they have achieved in just 5 years.

Amazing mid-summer lettuce production

Coming from Quebec, it was quite surprising to see what beautiful, lush, huge lettuces were being harvested in the height of summer…. one advantage of farming in a cool coastal climate. I really appreciate how Noah and Ana have chosen to focus on crops that are well adapted to their eco-zone.

Noah and I (you can almost see those amazing lettuces)
Wow, talk about a beautiful place to farm!!

Chickling vetch green manure

As part of their commitment to excellence, Noah is working to integrate the systematic use of green manures and cover crops into their vegetable rotation. As part of this, he planted a trial plot this year testing out a dozen green manures to see what does best in his climate: Forage peas, Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, chickling vetch, sorghum Sudan grass (Sudex), barley, chickpeas, and lentils. All this to learn which green manures fit best in his system and which might be added to his current standard green manure mix of fava bean, oats, phasilis, and clover.

I love the use of phasilis in the green manure / cover crop mix with fava beans (aka bell beans), oats, and crimson clover.

We went out and dug some soil profiles in the green manure test plots to take a look at the root development… and wow! The chickling vetch really stood out in terms of amount of active Rhizobium nodules and root mass. I was particularly interested to note that it seems to have both a sturdy tap root AND a good amount of fibrous roots as well… Tap root to penetrate the soil, fibrous roots to stabilise the soil structure and feed the soil microorganisms with plenty of root exudates.

OMFG! Look at these nodules on the copious root system of the chickling vetch green manure crop!!
Chickling vetch green manure (approximately 2 months after seeding)
For comparison’s sake, here is the rooting system of the fava bean green manure seeded at the same date.


How are you using green manures on your farm? Have you seeded your fall green manures yet? What are the best systems you have found integrate the use of green manures systematically in your vegetable crop rotation?

Live long and prosper!   ?

3 tips for cultivating happy (and productive) farm employees

The capacity to recruit and lead teams of happy fulfilled employees is key to the functioning of farms, especially in the process of scaling up production and/or freeing up some of your time for your other interests.

The key is that happy employees are productive employees. Even more importantly than productivity is the farm atmosphere…. what kind of work environment would you love to be in every day?

Here are 3 tips for building a farm that nurtures and empowers the people working there:

  1. Acknowledgement and Appreciation: It doesn’t take much to simply recognize someone’s contribution and express gratitude. This requires slowing down a little bit since the tendency is to rapidly shift from one task to the next. It’s amazing how impactful a couple kinds words can be! (and an occasional case of beer or popsicles at the end of a hot day of work)
  2. Cultivating a sense of ownership and meaning: For most farm employees, farming is not just a job… it’s a calling. One of the greatest things you can do to nurture this, is to be very clear about your farm’s mission and communicate it regularly with your team. Welcome their input and incorporate elements that they suggest when appropriate. Also, a great way to nurture a sense of meaning is to create opportunities for employees to interact with the farm’s clients who actually eat the food you grow.
  3. Clearly communicate expectations, roles, and responsibilities: Our role as farm owner is to see the full potential in each employee and put them in a role where that full potential can be realised….. and then trust in that person’s capacity and in the rigorousness of the farm systems that we have put in place. In order to do this skillfully, it is important to build in dedicated times into the schedule for communication. A morning meeting at the start of each day is a great place to clearly communicate the goals and task for the day. In addition, it is important to make room for one on one discussion. Sit down at least once during the season for a conversation with each employee, one on one. This is important so as to give the opportunity to the more introverted employees to let you know if anything is up.

As the captain of your farm, you play the leadership role. Even if you are feeling overwhelmed… the staff needs to know that you are a calm and confident leader. We all need to know that the ship is in good hands!

Now the ball’s in your court!

How can you show your crew how much you appreciate their hard work this week?

What action could you take that clearly demonstrates the farm’s purpose and how it fits into the big picture?

How can you create a 20 minute opportunity to sit down and talk with your key employees?

Go make a ruckus!