Stacking the Farming Odds

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Dave Varney passed a group of rooting hogs, crossed a small creek and came to a stop in a riot of vegetative life. The southwest Wisconsin farmer contemplated his surroundings.

“I’ll bet we could rattle off 12 different food crops that are all within 50 feet of us right here,” he says. “I see spinach. I see beets. I see raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts, asparagus. I see elderberries right here. We’re in a diverse setting.”

And as Varney points out, that diversity doesn’t just stop with the plant life; such a mix of food crops allows for a diversity of people as well.

Indeed, at this moment on a morning in early fall, his brother Adam is busy back across the creek in a commercial kitchen that’s attached to the Varney home, making delicious pizzas and other baked goods out of produce and meat raised right on the farm. Dave’s wife, Erin, is out making sales calls at co-ops and grocery stores, drumming up business for those baked goods. And on the other end of the short valley that One Sun Farm lies in, Jillian Jacquinot, a former intern on the farm, is planting spinach for her new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation.

“We’re able to integrate a large amount of production in a very small amount of space not with just one business, but two businesses running side-by-side in the same field,” says Varney. “So we can have more than one farmer on a single farm working in this kind of system. It’s not like a field of corn, where you just have corn.”

The Varneys had no intention of just raising corn when they bought 35 acres between Viroqua and La Farge in 2001. At the time, they were enrolled in the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course, which provides participants a chance to learn firsthand about low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. The Varneys and their classmates were exposed to goal setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. Established farmers and other professionals presented at the seminars. The course also offered a series of on-farm educational field days during the spring and summer where students like the Varneys got to see the production systems they were learning about in action.

A mainstay of Farm Beginnings is brainstorming all the possibilities a farm can hold, helping participants think beyond the corn-soybean paradigm. The Varneys took that to heart.

“Farm Beginnings helped us throw the book out the window of what you’re supposed to do when you get to a farm,” says Dave.

Not that the Varneys–Erin is 35 and Dave is 37–were exactly entrenched in the traditional farm model. Before taking Farm Beginnings, their experience in the food system consisted of eating, raising a garden and waiting tables at a restaurant in the Twin Cities area. When their children were born, they wanted to be part of a healthy food system.

“For us, it’s all about the food,” says Erin. “It’s all about getting people to appreciate good food. It’s all about how we can get it in their mouths.”

That means the Varneys have had an open mind about how they raise food, as well as how they get it to consumers.

Soon after buying the farm, they began raising vegetables for the wholesale organic market and farmers’ markets. They then launched a CSA operation in partnership with two other farms. CSA farms sell shares in the operation before the growing season, in return providing members fresh, organic produce on a regular basis. But the Varneys were sure from the beginning that they didn’t always want to raise annual vegetables in mass quantities. The labor is difficult and the income can be spotty. Plus, they are concerned about the fragility of the land they farm, and whether even organic production of annual crops is sustainable in the long term.

As a result, the Varneys have been working to make perennial food plants a major part of their operation. But fruit and nut bushes can take years to produce an economic return. So as they get perennials such as hazelnuts started, the Varneys are growing annual crops for short-term cash flow amongst the bushes–a system called “stacking.” (You can hear Dave describe this system in detail during episodes 26 and 27 of the Ear to the Ground podcast.)

Today the farm has over 2,500 hazelnut bushes. There are also cherry trees and cherry bushes, as well as blueberries. They have a few head of cattle and hogs to add value to their forage and help cycle fertility back to the land.

The Varneys have recently adjusted how they market their products. While wholesaling vegetables and marketing through the CSA, Erin needed to work off-farm to supplement their income. That left Dave to do all the day-to-day work on the farm. They needed some way to add value to what they were producing so both Varneys could be on the farm full-time. In December 2004 they established a commercial kitchen in the basement of their house.

Today, besides frozen pizzas, One Sun Farm markets sandwich cookies, pies and scones. They are made from products either raised on the farm or procured locally. For example, they use their own spinach and pork, but buy cheese from Organic Valley up the road in La Farge.

“It’s very much a local product we’re producing,” says Dave.

All of this activity takes investment, which means seeking loans. Financial credit can be hard to come by when one is pursuing enterprises that are off the beaten track agriculturally. “They’re used to corn and soybeans, and we’re talking beets, hazelnuts and pizza,” says Erin of most ag lenders they dealt with.

Establishing perennial plants such as hazelnuts and raspberries was costly, and the Varneys maxed out their credit cards to finance the plantings and get the bakery started. After being rejected by half-a-dozen creditors, in 2005 the Varneys got a loan through their local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). FSA offers low-interest, fixed-rate loans to farmers who have been rejected by other private lenders (in fact, FSA had previously rejected the Varneys).

After using that loan to consolidate their debt, the Varneys wrote the FSA and made the argument that it was time to take the farm the next step: build a retail outlet/cold storage facility on the farm and remodel the house so that meals could be served to diners. In addition, housing needed to be built for workers on the farm. Their loan officer agreed, and they got a second loan in 2006.

Erin credits their financial history, plus their Farm Beginnings training, with their success in getting the FSA loans.

“We’ve had our financial struggles, but we’ve always paid our bills on time,” she says. “To them that’s gold. They respect good records even though they may not be familiar with the type of agriculture you’re doing. If you walk in there and you have no idea what you sold last year, they aren’t going to be interested, no matter what type of farming it is.”

And while in Farm Beginnings, the Varneys learned how to write a good business plan to show that even though what they are planning is unconventional, it is viable. On this fall day, the new retail/storage building is open for business and its cold room is stacked with pizzas. Up the driveway, workers are remodeling the house. After five years working elsewhere, Erin is on the farm full-time. This has given she and Dave more time to spend with their children: Daisy, 10, and Sam, 12.

It’s also allowed them to focus on building the farm’s long-term viability.

“We’re living our business plan right now,” says Erin.

The Varneys are also living their dream of getting other farmers started. The CSA partnership with the two other farms dissolved in 2005, but Jacquinot, 23, is getting her own CSA operation off the ground with 20 members. She’s renting land from One Sun Farm, and using their hoop house and storage facilities. Plus she produces vegetables for the baking business.

“Dave kind of pushed me off the ledge,” says Jacqinot while picking raspberries for her members. “I learned a lot this year.”

Having Jacqinot on the farm is part of the Varneys’ plan to integrate not only plants and animals into the operation, but also people. Dave’s brother Adam came to the farm in 2005 after waiting tables as well. “We’re all misfits of the industrial food system,” says Dave.

The Varneys are also pleased that they’ve been able to spread the life of the farm onto neighboring land. Landowners in the area have parcels too small for larger crop farmers to bother renting. This has provided the Varneys an opportunity to get access to an additional 35 acres of land, where they graze cattle.

Says Dave, “I insist there could be 10 One Sun Farms around here.”

One Response to “Stacking the Farming Odds”

  1. Mark Schnobrich

    Congratuations on what sounds like a great start to a profitable and finacially sustainable business and life style.
    I am particularly interested in your hazelnuts and how you have [ if you are currently ] been marketing them and if you market them as an added value product such as shelling them, roasting them or what?
    I love their potential and am, in fact, planting about 300 shrubs myself.
    If you have any thoughts on this let me know.
    Good Growing
    Mark “in Minnesota” Schnobrich


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