A Tale of Two Farmers: Finding Farmland in Coquille
by Ben Bowell & Nellie McAdams of Portland, OR
editor’s note: Since this article was written, the name of the program and the links have changed. It used to be called “iFarm,” now it is called “Oregon Farm Link.” I noted that where appropriate, otherwise the article is unchanged.
With the average age of an American farmer being 57, much of the nation’s farmland will change hands in the next two decades. To help address this issue, many states and regions are creating land links: programs that help connect farmers, especially beginning farmers, to farmland for rent or sale. Land links are usually online databases that display listings from landholders and landseekers describing what the participant is looking for in a match and what they can offer. The land link program puts this posting online (minus any personal or contact information) and facilitates communication between participants.
Oregon’s land link program, iFarm [Oregon Farm Link], is a project of Friends of Family Farmers, the Molalla-based nonprofit that advocates and provides resource for Oregon’s family farmers. “We like to call it E-Farmony,” says Nellie McAdams, iFarm [Oregon Farm Link] Program Director, playing off of the name of the popular online dating site, E-Harmony. “We’ve had over 500 participants and connected dozens of farmers and ranchers to land since we began in 2009.”
Two of these matches happened on one farm on the southern Oregon coast.
In 2009, Marilyn Pratt purchased the 134 acres that make up River’s Blessings farm in Coquille, Oregon. The operation uses “holistic management” practices inspired by researcher Allan Savory to raise a flock of Icelandic dairy sheep. The sheep, which are an ideal breed for the Oregon coast, due to their water-shedding coats, are well suited for holistic management practices as they do not require significant outside feed and can be grass-fed. To achieve pasture management goals, a small herd of goats and a small herd of beef cows eat plants the sheep leave, while chickens and ducks keep the pastures clean and reduce parasites. The sheep milk will be used to make cheese on-site in the nearly completed dairy.
Marilyn will live in Northern California until retirement and thus needed to find a like-minded farmer to help manage the property. She initially discovered the iFarm [Oregon Farm Link] land link program through an internet search, but it was not until she talked with Friends of Family Farmers’ staff at the annual Small Farms Conference in Corvallis that she decided to give it a try.
Once Marilyn listed her farm, she quickly found herself engaged in three or four conversations with potential tenants. A few months later, Abe Quiner had moved to River’s Blessings. Abe initially became interested in farming with draft horses while in high school and shortly after college began to explore farming as a career when he worked on a small horse-powered vegetable farm in Walla Walla, Washington for two years. Aware that many other young farmers also did not have the ability to purchase land, he began to look online for a resource to connect land-seekers like him to landowners. Once he found iFarm, things moved quickly. According to Abe, “the staff at iFarm [Oregon Farm Link] were very helpful and proactive in helping me connect with landowners.” In fact, he had several options through iFarm [Oregon Farm Link] to choose from.
Abe moved to River’s Blessings in April of 2012, where he raised his goats while caring for the farm’s Icelandic sheep and making improvements to the farm. Although Abe planned to stay for several years, his long-term goal was to have a family farm. He discovered that running a farm as a single guy was not optimal; according to Abe, “family farms need to have a family.” Recently his sister purchased a farm in Sutherlin and Abe moved there this June to join her. They are raising a variety of animals and crops including acorn-finished pork. Abe is grateful for the iFarm [Oregon Farm Link] program and suggests that users take the time to ensure they are comfortable with both the land and the people involved. As he states, “it is important that the personalities fit too.”
Marilyn was happy with the arrangement with Abe, but as she put it, “instead of panicking when I found out that Abe was leaving, I went back to iFarm [Oregon Farm Link].” She describes the resource as a great way for people who have smaller properties to find people with like minds and get together. In her second match, she found Jared and Lydia Strand who moved to the farm in June.
Jared first dreamed of raising sheep at age 12 while seeing flocks in Australia on public television. Although he had to wait for some time, he and Lydia began raising animals in 2008 with four hens in the backyard of their home in Seattle. When they quickly outgrew their quarter acre with 40 hens and a few sheep, the couple found some open space in the city where the sheep could graze. Realizing this was not sustainable for the longterm, Lydia and Jared began looking for farmland to lease. After two unsuccessful situations in Washington lasting one year or less each, they were desperate to find a long-term solution and began to look at options in Oregon through iFarm [Oregon Farm Link].
Lydia really appreciated the role of iFarm’s [Oregon Farm Link’s] staff, who keep postings up to date, facilitate communication and keep the program well organized. Once her posting was listed, she was in communication with landowners within weeks. In June, the Strands moved their 38 Icelandic sheep and other animals to the farm and have begun integrating them with the existing flock of about 100. Abe was on hand to help with the transition and to start a few larger projects. The Strands will continue to make improvements to the farm, managing the system with the other animals.
Jared and Lydia are especially excited to be ranching at River’s Blessings because they share a common vision with Marilyn. In the future, Marilyn plans to join them on the farm and hopes to have a mutually beneficial long-term arrangement. According to Lydia, Marilyn is “making my dreams come true.” Lydia tells other new farmers to not give up, the right arrangement is out there, but don’t settle either. “Don’t compromise what is important just because you want to farm.”
The future of Oregon agriculture will rely upon landholders like Marilyn Pratt, who are passionate about supporting the next generation of farmers and healthy local food systems, just as much as it will rely upon ranchers like Abe, Lydia, and Jared, who are passionate about sustainably raising delicious and nutritious food for Oregon eaters. iFarm Oregon [Oregon Farm Link] is one tool for connecting farmers with landholders to effectuate a shared goal of long-term agricultural prosperity.