What is farming start-up really like?
Today we interview Troy and Cindy Dickens of Tilth and Timber farm in MA. They are only a few months into their journey.
We discuss how they got into farming and what their challenges have been so far. What about their lifestyle changed when they dropped corporate income for farm income? And what is their vision of where they want their farm to go?
It’s August 2019 and you’ve farmed this last year, how do you feel things have gone vs. expectations? (2:40)
Being our first season it was hard to even know what goals to set. We’d say we hit our CSA target pretty well and we ended up doing a farmer’s market weekly on top of that. We always see where there are more improvements can be made with situations like weeding and bed prep, but overall we’re happy with where we are. It’s been a big learning curve, especially with how much we can produce per bed. We look forward to doubling our CSA membership next year.
What has been the biggest challenge? (5:40)
We haven’t quite found a good life balance yet! We work from dawn to dusk, and even sometimes after that. We try and take some more time in the morning, plan our day and act a little more leisurely before we start at 7:30. We are also working on figuring out where to land. We are leasing from a parent and it takes a toll since we are helping them with their farm chores as well. We also have a lack of infrastructure and need to know where to invest.
How do you feel about the market potential in your area? (9:30)
We are invested in getting people to consider where their food is coming from. We are considering putting in a well. We are overcoming other challenges like being without power. We are filling a water wagon up with an extremely long hose from the houses. It’s working but a challenge and we need to look a little more long term.
We are just about an hour outside of Boston. As far as markets go it can be a little slim picking out here. Our farmers market is in Plymouth which is about 40 minutes from here.
What is your game plan for seasonality and season extension? (12:30)
Our small 20×24 cold-frame propagation house is about ¼ mile from where we are living and we are using a wood stove to heat it, which in the middle of the night can be a real challenge. We are growing storage crops right now and use old-time root cellars that are here on the property. We will use some of the tunnels to get a bit of a head-start next spring. We also have some perennial beds like for herbs.
We also have sheep that are raised on the property. We’ll harvest wool during the winter and have it spun locally into yarn and we also do hand-carving woodenware. They sold well during our spring markets. We hope to make more this year.
Before you started farming what were you doing? (19:20)
Cindy was an elementary school teacher and Troy was working in the environmental field. We had a big garden and enjoyed it a lot. Cindy was working on a local farm during the summer off teaching and really enjoyed it. Eventually, we became interested in making a radical change and converted a bus into a tiny home and explored the country. We wanted to free ourselves from debt and be flexible. We’ve been in this bus for 3 years.
We love being in the bus since we can spend our time close to each other and we have to face challenges in our relationship instead of being in a big house and always finding ourselves apart from each other. Cindy started farming full time for a few years first, but this last season Troy was able to come on the farm full-time as well.
Is the farm paying your way now? (30:00)
We haven’t started paying ourselves yet. We are investing most of the income back into the farm. Our personal expenses are very low. Troy has done some construction on the side and Cindy has worked during the winter some on another farm.
We’ve learned to live within our means. We think that’s what most people do, even when we made more we managed to spend it. Now we don’t have nearly as much and we’re just as happy as we always were.
What is your time-frame for the farm’s growth? (34:30)
We have had our goals grow somewhat organically. We’ve enjoyed working with local chefs and not as much going to markets, so we are steering more in that direction. We are realizing we are going to have our business model change slowly over time and we look forward to growing more every year. We hope to double our sales each year. We have 23 CSA members and are growing on half an acre right now. We want to make sure we don’t grow too quickly. We feel like a business delivery CSA model which we think will allow for a lot of growth. The farmer’s market has been challenging since there are 3 other much larger farms that attend and probably make double our sales. We are looking more to get into wholesale.
How do you differentiate yourselves at such a competitive farmer’s market? (43:00)
Cindy sets up an excellent display. We put up wooden boxes and burlap that we get compliments on all the time. We also grow more niche stuff like okra to stand out. We are also growing more heirloom varieties. People are willing to come to us to sign up for something new. We are also consistent with our brand-imagining, so it’s consistent across all of our branding. We have a lot of conversations with people to try and bring people into our tent. We are not certified organic but have a sign up that says “ask us about our practices”. Once people see our passion they value what we are doing and come back other weeks.
You were talking about leaving the market – why if you are making reasonable sales? (52:30)
There is a lot of travel time and it’s a long day at the market, not to mention we have to start very early in the morning to get ready. Since it’s an afternoon market we can harvest everything that day and not have to store it. We could also split our time and have just one person go to the market and the other could stay back working on the farm, but we enjoy our time together at the market and it’s our one social day of the week.
Have you had to change any greater picture plans, like having children, because of how much time farming takes up? (57:20)
We’re pretty easy going, and we’re just figuring it out as we go. It feels good to get a day’s work done. We have lived the lifestyle where we planned everything, had corporate jobs, bought a house, sold it and bought a bigger house, and now we’re ready to try something different. We have a lot of challenges right now with starting the farm and even though we are taking things as they come we are not looking to add more challenges right now.
Are you maxed out on the land you have right now? Are you looking to hire someone else next year? (1:03:00)
We are hoping not to have to bring someone on next year. If we were to bring someone on next year they’d need to be invested in staying on long term. We could double our sales next year without doubling the space we are growing on. We have room for improvement with our growing methods such as turning beds over more quickly, interplanting more successfully, we want to grow better, not bigger. Grow more of what the market wants.
After making the transition to this new lifestyle do you feel like it’s lived up to expectations? (1:06:00)
Yes, and more! It’s the hardest work we’ve ever done, but the most rewarding. It’s been challenging losing crops. When you describe full-time as a starting farmer it shouldn’t be considered 40 hours a week, it should be described as every waking second of your day. Even when we go hang out with people it’s inevitably with other farmers. Thankfully we are both doing this all-consuming lifestyle together.
If you want to follow along with Cindy and Troy you can find them on Instagram @tilth_and_timber and on the web at https://www.tilthandtimber.com You can also find their journey in their converted bus on Instagram @whitewhaleskoolie.