How Two Young Farmers Brought Their Small Farm Dreams to Life
For Lauren Tyner, her passion for farming started with a goat. The now co-owner/-operator of Lettuce Love Farm, a small farm in Carnation, Washington, was earning a degree in communications when she was invited by a friend to milk a goat. “And, with that, I found out that I really liked milking goats,” says Lauren, now 27.
While a position with a prestigious Santa Barbara marketing firm followed after graduation, the connection she felt while milking the goat remained. She decided on radical action: quitting her paying job to take a full-time residential volunteer position with Arkansas-based Heifer International, a nonprofit that works to alleviate hunger and poverty through sustainable agriculture.
Lauren worked on Heifer’s 1,200-acre ranch outside Little Rock where, in addition to being able to milk all of the goats she wanted, she learned how to care for sheep, cows, camels, and water buffalo. Returning to marketing full-time wouldn’t be in her future: “I loved farming,” she says. “I was hooked.”
The Shifting Demographics of Farming
Lauren joined the farming workforce in the middle of what has been a gradual, but significant shift in the profession’s demographics. As reported in The 2018 Old Farmer’s Almanac, while a majority of farmers in the United States are still white males, nearly 1 million are women. This accounts for about 30 percent of all farmers working today. In addition, the number of farms owned and operated by other minorities continues to grow.
A lot has been said about the industrialization of American farms, but most U.S. farms are small, with many making less than $50,000 a year. About 20 percent of growers have been in business for fewer than 10 years.
For the most part, these farmers don’t sell to grocery stores or other third parties; they go straight to their customers at farmers’ markets. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are more than 8,000 farmers’ markets operating throughout the country. (To support local farmers, find farmers markets in your area here!)
Planting the Seeds of Lettuce Love Farm
While at Heifer, Lauren found another love—her partner, Kevin Haggerty. After a farming stint that took the couple to Ireland, Lauren and Kevin decided that they wanted to start their own farm. They moved back to Lauren’s home state of Washington and leased 2 acres of land that became Lettuce Love Farm.
Lettuce Love Farm had its first growing season in 2017, starting up with a shoestring budget of about $6,000 raised from friends and family through a GoFundMe effort. The majority of the money went to build proper irrigation and buy seeds and chicks. Smaller, disposable items, like cartons in which to grow seedlings and packaging to sell product, added up fast. “We’ve tried to minimize packaging as much as possible, but some will always be necessary,” explains Lauren.
The couple was frugal, turning to online resources like Freecycle to find items that they could pick up for free or on the (very) cheap. For example, an ancient claw foot bathtub sits in one of their greenhouses, used as a container for starting seeds and mixing soil.
Farming Their Values
Lettuce Love Farm started a CSA to help expand their business. Like in all their interactions with customers, they try to provide a personal touch.
While Kevin was working at Heifer International, he created a garden that supplied fresh vegetables to food banks. This, along with work that Lauren did while in Arkansas to make sure that surplus food was donated, has driven the couple’s core values when it comes to their own farm. “So many people don’t have access to freshly grown food, and it doesn’t need to be that way,” says Lauren.
In addition to donating surplus produce, Lettuce Love Farm uses chemical-free, natural farming practices. As a new farm working with a limited budget, it has a mission that can often require strategic solutions and tough decisions. For example, this year, they started using row cover to protect beds. These large sheets of cotton fiber keep out pests but let in sunlight and water. While effective, row cover is expensive, so it hasn’t been something that they’ve been able to implement throughout the farm. Sometimes, loss to pests is just a reality.
“It would be easy and cheap to just spray Roundup everywhere, but we won’t do that,”says Lauren. “We want to have as little environmental impact as possible. We care about that, and our customers care about that.”
Lauren with the Lettuce Love Farm chickens, which are raised on pasture in mobile coops.
Lettuce Love Farm raises its chickens on pasture for eggs, letting, as Lauren puts it, “chickens be chickens.” The birds are stored in mobile coops that are moved weekly to ensure that they get the food, sunshine, and nutrients that they need. The goal is to keep the chickens happy and healthy without antibiotics or food additives.
To Be or Not to Be … Organic
While Lettuce Love Farm works hard to use sustainable farming practices, they do not have an official “Organic” designation from the USDA—a fact that neither Lauren nor Kevin thinks is apt to change anytime soon. In addition to not having the time or money to go through the process, the couple doesn’t believe that this would make much of a difference to their customers.
“Organic certification is a stamp of approval that can be valuable when you sell to grocery stores, when you don’t have face-to-face interaction with your customers. We’re in a position to get to know our customers, answer their questions, and share our values,” says Kevin.
Lettuce Love Farm sells mostly through two farmers’ markets in the Seattle area. By being able to talk directly to their customers, they can answer questions and explain their farming techniques. As Kevin puts it: “Organic farming practices connect growing food to values. It’s important to us that we build the soil, not just grow plants.”
Lettuce Love Farm labels ready for the farmers’ market. The farm uses its logo to brand product and increase awareness of their business.
The Realities of #farmlife
Chris Pratt, one of the stars of the mega-hit Marvel movie franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy,” took a lot of his Instagram followers by surprise this year when he started posting pictures of himself on his family’s farm, doing chores and tending to chickens, sheep, and other critters. Many of the pictures include the hashtag #farmlife, which has become popular among people on social media wanting to show off their farming, gardening, or DIY skills.
But what does farming in the modern age look like when you don’t have a successful acting career to fall back on?
For Lauren and Kevin, it means long days and second jobs.
Located in a flood plain, Lettuce Love Farm is underwater several months out of the year. The upside? Great soil.
“We’re pretty typical of many farmers and have full-time jobs outside the farm,” says Kevin, who works for Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center teaching kids about growing food. “I work a full-time job year-round and work the farm in the evening and on weekends.”
Lauren’s second job is with Hopelink, where she helps low-income families to apply for energy grants. This job is seasonal, allowing her to work full-time off the farm during the winter and spring and only on the farm during the rest of the year.
Lettuce Love Farm, in the heart of the Snoqualmie Valley, is located in a floodplain. This means that it is essentially underwater from November into the spring. Because Lauren and Kevin don’t know exactly when flood season will start, they have to be strategic about what they plant and start tapering back operations in October. When the rains come and flooding hits, there’s only one way onto the farm: by canoe.
While the couple does wish that they could grow year-round, Lauren stresses that there is an upside to fields that are waterlogged several months of the year: “It’s pretty wild how great the soil is. All of the water moves cattle manure from neighboring farms upstream, which fertilizes the soil.”
Operating a farm also comes with all the traditional challenges of owning a small business. “I never thought that being a farmer would mean doing so much paperwork,” jokes Kevin.
With her background in marketing, Lauren takes on the responsibility of promoting Lettuce Love Farm. One of her friends drew the farm’s logo, which she makes sure to use everywhere that she can to encourage brand recognition. In addition, she uses social media liberally to promote the farm, the markets that they attend, and what’s in season.
Lettuce Love Farm’s Instagram is a #farmlife dream, with pictures of bright and colorful produce, whimsical chickens, and lush pastures. The feed also includes candid day-in-the-life shots that spell out the realities of farming. For example, during the summer of 2018, wildfires from all over the West Coast blanketed the Pacific Northwest in a thick, unhealthy cloud of smoke. Officials advised residents to stay inside as much as possible.
“Really felt the effects of the wildfire smoke yesterday,” reads a Lettuce Love Farm Instagram post from August 22, 2018, showing Lauren wearing a breathing mask. “My heart is hurting for all of the folks who are working harder, longer, and in worse conditions than myself … and I am tickled in the most sinister way when the news advises us to ‘stay inside.’ Farmworkers don’t really get that choice, financially and otherwise.”
Kevin is honest when asked what about farming he enjoys: “The truth is that farming isn’t fun. Every little task isn’t enjoyable; you often wonder why you’re doing it. But when you put all of the hard work and long hours together, you create a really rewarding experience, especially when you know that what you’re doing is feeding your community in all sorts of ways.”
Lauren loves farming but finds, as a woman, that she has an additional obstacle. “As a woman and the face of a farm, people don’t see me as a farmer. They always seem surprised that I’m one of the owners or know what I’m talking about. When I bring Kevin into the conversation, then somehow it seems more believable. It’s really frustrating,” she says.
The Future of Lettuce Love Farm
Currently, Lettuce Love Farm grows on less than an acre of the land that they lease, with the rest used for their mobile chicken coops. They grow a variety of produce, including zucchini, onions, garlic, summer squash, edible flowers, radishes, leafy greens, and several varieties of tomatoes, among others. Using succession planting, they are able to get the most out of their limited growing season.
Profits from the last growing season are on track to far surpass their launch year. “We can’t quit our second jobs, but we have more money to put back into the farm,” says Lauren.
The farmers hope that in the next several years they can save up enough money to expand their operations to include room for additional pasture-raised animals, such as ducks and rabbits. While they love the rich soil, they admit that having land that can be farmed all year ’round would be nice.
As any small farmer will attest, farmers’ markets are a blessing and a curse. While Lauren and Kevin love the relationships that they establish with their customers, the long hours spent at the markets are time spent away from chores that need to be done on the farm. Recently, they came to an agreement with a friend, who works their market booths in exchange for the unsold produce, which can often be traded with other vendors at the end of the market day.
While they don’t have the bandwidth to increase the number of markets that they attend, they are working to build their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The growing is slow—they have one member so far—but they’re hopeful that this can, eventually, become an important part of their business.
They are also working to increase their partnerships with locally owned restaurants that share their sustainable values. One of their clients is Flavour Bistro in Duvall, Washington. The Bistro’s owner and chef, Sean Langan, tailors his menu to what’s being grown on the farm. He particularly loves Lettuce Love Farm’s zucchini blossoms (which he stuffs with cheese and deep-fries) and their edible flowers, which serve as a rainbow of garnish on salmon dishes.
Chef Langan says that his customers overwhelmingly support buying from local businesses and farms. “What my customers understand is that they are supporting their community,” he says. “They’re not just buying a meal from me; their money supports my employees, the farms I buy from, and their employees.”
He adds: “The bottom line is that if we don’t support our local farms, we’ll lose them.”
Learn more about Lettuce Love Farm and what it’s like to be modern farmer in America!