17 years ago, Patrice Gros was working as a financial advisor when he moved to an acre of property in Ojai, CA and decided to try planting a small garden. Within a few weeks, growing food became what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, and his former profession seemed like a bore by comparison. Patrice describes it as a “midlife thing,” a drive and passion that he didn’t even know was hiding inside him.
His initial learning was a year-and-a-half apprenticeship at an organic farm, working and learning alongside the farmer 3 or 4 days per week. It was similar to the apprenticeship opportunities that he now offers, although a bit less organized. He also read lots of books on organic farming. Patrice reiterated that although there are academic programs like the Santa Cruz Agroecology program, farming is like the fine arts, in that you have to be in production to really get good at it. About 30% of his learning came from the apprenticeship, and he is now of the opinion that it takes about 10 years to learn 100% how to farm well. He says it doesn’t require having a gift, it just takes time, attention and focus.
Our visit to the Farm was just after weeks of relentless rain (sounds good now, huh?) so the spring-fed irrigation pond was full and the crops were thriving. A few had suffered minor damage from the flooding, but most survived. Beds of lettuces, strawberries, spinach, and greens were nestled among mown-grass paths. One key to no-till, highly productive farming is to focus all amendments (mostly straw and rabbit manure in this case) and labor on permanent beds that become richer each year. We saw happy apprentices gently hoeing the beds to aerate and remove weeds. Patrice stopped to show one young man proper technique, then we continued the tour to see rows of tomatoes in hoop houses replacing spring crops that were finishing up.
The fertile soils Foundation Farm enjoys are a result of starting with pasture that already had gorgeous structure, enrichment with no-till methods that continually feed and protect the soil with organic matter – 500 square bales a year of wheat straw mulch for one thing – and never disturbing the structure and microbial life of the soil.
The Farm School is an important key to Foundation Farm’s success. The labor is provided in part by Patrice himself, as well as by 6 long-term apprentices who stay for an entire growing season to immerse themselves in work and learning. In this mutually beneficial arrangement, apprentices gain valuable knowledge and skills, working a fairly light schedule (although conditions such as weather and production goals may be pretty taxing), and living in a beautiful spot close to Eureka Springs. Gros is able to afford the labor force more easily because he is paying stipend, room and board, and he is also accomplishing his mission to train more farmers in sustainable, no-till agriculture. Field work is done for 4 hours, 3 days a week. When Patrice tells people how little physical labor it can require to run a profitable farm – approximately 72 person-hours of field work and 24 hours preparing for and working farmers markets - they insist that he must be lying! Field work is done Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, after which the crew prepares and eats a wonderful, fresh and nourishing lunch together in the main building – a combination packing shed/greenhouse/ summer kitchen, with an air-conditioned cool room for storing vegetables overnight for sale at market.
We visited with the apprentices, a diverse group of folks but definitely leaning toward the young and the alternative, as they prepared food and convened for lunch. Some were living at the farm for the summer in tents or the rustic little cabin that reminded me of summer camp, others commute in each day, and others are just passing through and stopping in for a few days of work and learning.
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday are market days, which Patrice finds restful and rejuvenating. He always takes time to make a couple circuits of the market and purchase produce from other farmers. He believes strongly that even if someone is farming or gardening, buying fresh produce from other local growers is an important way to add diversity of flavor and nutrition to the table, as well as continuing to support local farmers. Patrice feels that the growth of a local farm economy in the Ozarks, such as is happening on both coasts, should be supply-driven – beautiful markets overflowing with color and bounty will naturally draw consumers who appreciate the superior flavors and freshness and uplifiting shopping experience that farmers markets provide. Restaurants also realize they have all this great food available to them to work with, and begin offering more local choices on their menus.
Patrice chooses to grow vegetables only, and not raise livestock, because of the additional layers of labor added by keeping animals. Farm animals can also be restrictive because they must be cared for daily and do not easily allow for travel or days away from the farm.
In terms of the future of farming, especially small-scale, sustainable agriculture, Patrice says there are a few key factors: There need to be more role models (like himself) who are showing young people that farming can be profitable and provide a comfortable “mainstream” lifestyle. Many farmers are working 3 jobs off the farm to make ends meet, which does not allow for the farm to be carefully managed, and aspiring farmers need to know there is a better way. Working hand-in-hand with nature not only produces superior results, it eliminates unnecessary work by focusing energy on permanent beds that are so well-cared-for that they produce amazing results. This is so different from the usual approach – huge inputs of machinery, fuel, labor and soil amendments to till up large areas, destroying the soil structure, and yielding mediocre results compared to the labor input. Another key to profitability and making a living solely from farming, is to sell mostly at full retail. When I mentioned that Joel Salatin says the same thing – that selling retail is a key to succeeding in small scale agriculture – Gros says that while he doesn’t aspire to Salatin’s fame in the alternative agriculture movement, he has been invited to speak at regional conferences and has attained a bit of regional celebrity. He says, half-joking, that fame doesn't attract him, but that an award such as a Macarthur Genius grant – which affords the recipient $50,000 with no strings attached, would definitely make starting his next venture that much more attainable and able to be begun at a high level. The direct route to the consumer is the beauty of farmers markets – a truly win-win situation – the consumer gets the highest level of quality and freshness, and the farmer keeps more of the food dollar. Many farmers operate at a low margin – netting only 30-40 cents per food dollar, whereas Foundation Farm is performing more at the 70-75% level. This is to a large extent due to using low-tech inputs and wise soil management to drive up per-acre productivity – Foundation Farm is averaging $100,000 per acre, a figure that is unheard of in most mainstream US agriculture. The possibility of living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with a nice home and a good vehicle, providing for your family’s wants as well as needs, and all the while being in nature and watching plants thrive, is what will drive interested young people to make the leap and start new farms. Patrice believes we need many more farms in our region – the Northwest Arkansas region is an untapped market just waiting to be tapped.
As it stands, asserts Gros, the regulatory climate is pretty favorable to small vegetable farmers. There is the potential for regulations to become more prohibitive, as they have in both the dairy and restaurant industries, where start-up costs to comply with health code requirements are high enough that they have made it very difficult for anyone to start from scratch on a small scale, such as what one would envision in a locally-based food economy. Tax laws are also very favorable for farmers he says, no complaints there.
Patrice is in the process of selling Foundation Farm so that he can embark on another farm project nearby incorporating indoor aquaculture (fish farming) with raising vegetables. He will be right nearby as a resource to whoever buys the farm to help them to make it a success. His methods, while embraced by many home gardeners, are much more rare in a commercial farm setting. This is why the Farm School has drawn many apprentices over the years – the methods are logical, however they run counter to the dawn-to-dusk, high acreage, input-intensive methods most people think of as “farming.” With no-till, soil-building type farming, the power of nature becomes more awe-inspiring with each passing year.
When asked what he loves most about farming, Patrice says, with profound joy evident in his voice, that he loves all of it, especially watching a plant grow, feeding people, and seeing how happy people are when they buy his vegetables. The one thing that is hard is the vagaries of the weather, which he says can be brutal: blistering hot summers, freezes that decimate entire crops, or endless weeks of rain that put soil biology at a standstill by eliminating the necessary aeration of the soil and cutting off oxygen to the roots and soil microbial life.
What advice would he give to someone considering starting a farm? Don’t go into it blindly or without knowing what you are doing. Don’t improvise. Know what scale you need to work at in order to attain the income level you need to live your desired lifestyle. Know that attaining your highest potential will evolve over several years, each growing season’s lessons building on those of the last. Skill and speed will increase with practice. He sees this with the apprentices who come to the farm each year – their ability to work with precision and speed develops and improves even in the space of one growing season.
If you would like to visit Foundation Farm, give them a call or send an email and go for a short visit, a day of volunteering, or stick around for the learning experience of a lifetime.
Foundation Farm can be found at the Fayetteville Farmers Market on Saturdays, The Eureka Springs Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and at Ozark Natural Foods and other retailers and restaurants around the area.