Eight Years to Farmer

Reflections on choosing to farm sustainably and cultivate a culture of local food in Goshen, Indiana.

Photo by Conrad Erb Photography

Photo by Conrad Erb Photography

My wife and I own Clay Bottom Farm, a four-season organic vegetable farm where we use greenhouses to grow spinach, head lettuce, yellow watermelons, peppers and more than 30 other vegetables year-round. We trellis tomatoes on spools that unwind throughout the year allowing our plants to grow diagonally, reaching more than 20 feet long. We train peppers using a “two-leader” pruning method that was developed in Holland.

Farm visitors sometimes ask, “How did you learn how to do that?”

From my experience, I tell them them, it takes as long to become successful as a farmer as it does to train to become a doctorabout eight years.

Farmers, especially the small-scale diversified types like us, contrary to some popular portrayals, are not merely simpletons throwing seeds here and there. A successful farmer must have a working knowledge of botany, soil science, and horticulture, not to mention small engine repair, basic electrical wiring, plumbing, and carpentry. Then there’s marketing, advertising, sales, accounting, and bookkeeping.

All of these tasks are separate trades, and each of them can (and sometimes should) be “farmed” out to others. But aspiring farmers who are not creative and willing to fearlessly learn and master these many disciplines may find themselves better off in another trade. On the other hand, for the multidisciplinarian, farming is endlessly fascinating.

The first year I farmed, I spent weeks in the library and visiting other farms, learning about primary tillage, soil health, and the basic needs of plants. When my broccoli were all eaten by rabbits, I learned about electrical fencing, then deer fencing, then groundhog trapping.

In the coming years I bought a small tractor, a tiller, a skid loader, a John Deere gator. I fixed belts, cleaned carburetors, changed countless spark plus, fuel filters, air filters and blades. For each of these tasks, I consulted mechanics, tractor dealerships, and small engine repair shops.

About five years ago we were installing underground drainage tile on a low field. An Amish neighbor heard about the project and asked if his boys could come down and help. In this way they could gain experience (at a younger age than me) on how to operate a trencher and install agricultural drain tiles.

In turns out, I learned from them. We were renting a large trencher, about the size of truck. It was a powerful machine with an arm that tore four feet into the ground. At one point, I noticed a purple-red fluid leaking behind the trencher. The neighbor kid, who was operating the trencher, jumped off and said, “bad hose.”

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Freman Yoder on CR 33 has a shop behind his barn. He can cut you any size hydraulic hose you need. But ask for a 3/8 hose. Usually these machines take 1/2 inch, so that’s what he’ll want to give you, but this one here’s an exception.”

So Rachel drove up the road and when the guy brought out a 1/2 inch hose, she said, “Oh yeah, the trencher takes 3/8.” In 30 minutes we were digging trenches again.

Up to my own devices, I would have Googled the problem and waited a week for some obscure company in Maine to ship the part via FedEx, all tucked away in bubble wrap.

I often joke that half of what I know I learned from the Amish; the other half from my own mistakes.

A year after the drain tile project, I decided to build a moveable greenhouse, i.e. a greenhouse that could be pulled by a tractor from one plot to the next, thus preventing salt and disease build-up problems common in stationary greenhouses.

I read everything I could find online, consulted all the library books, and devised a plan. I had a local welder fabricate steel skids with curved tips like skis on the ends.

I bolted the hoops to the skids, then covered the hoops with plastic. I secured the structure to the ground using t-posts at each corner and several along with the sides.

The problem is, a greenhouse is essentially, as I found out, a big parachute that you are trying to pin to the ground. The lifting power of wind on a greenhouse is an unfathomable force. We found that out one summer afternoon when we were hosting a work party.

For a few years we put on a “beer and weed” gathering for college students. In exchange for a few hours of weeding, we supplied beer and pizza to whoever accepted our invitation. The “party” was scheduled to start at 5 pm, in our new moveable greenhouse. At around 4:45 a straight line wind lifted the greenhouse 15 feet in the air and slammed in into the roof of our barn almost 200 feet north. Had the barn not conveniently been in the way, the structure might have ended up in Michigan.

We were both in the house. Rachel was in the kitchen and heard a loud “thud.” She went to the window and called out to me, in a surprisingly calm tone, “Ben, you better come see this.”

The metal was twisted up like a beached octopus, and the plastic, still intact, thrashed and continued to heave the greenhouse. I knew we had to do something quick or else it would keep sailing.

Ten minutes later, we saw two bicycles riding up the road: our Amish neighbors coming to help. They brought utility knives with them, and we all started slitting the plastic to release the pressure from the wind.

The college students arrived soon thereafter and our “party” continued right on schedule, but instead of weeding we demolished the biggest investment we had yet made on our farm.

Photo by Ben Hartman

Photo by Ben Hartman

Ever the opportunist, I wrote an article about how not to engineer moveable greenhouses, got it published in a national growers magazine, and collected a down payment to start building another greenhouse, this time well-fixed, with more than 3000 pounds of cement anchoring it to the earth.

Since then, I have built three more greenhouses. The most successful one, built in our eighth year, yielded more than 1000 pounds of tomatoes, 800 bunches of carrots, and 200 pounds of spinach in its first season.

It took eight years of eduction learn how to build and use our greenhouses, with with fancy tomato and pepper trellis systems that serve the farm well. I’m now in what I consider a “post doc” program to learn about heirloom orchard trees, turmeric and yellow ginger farming.

Photo by Conrad Erb Photography

Photo by Conrad Erb Photography

About the Author

Ben Hartman

Ben Hartman and his wife Rachel Hershberger operate Clay Bottom Farm, an organic food CSA in Goshen, IN. They specialize in growing food all year round with the use of greenhouses and vegetable varieties selected for winter production. Ben grew up going to a rural Mennonite Church in Shipshewana, IN, then studied English and philosophy at Goshen College. You can read more about the farm at www.claybottomfarm.com.

Photo by Conrad Erb Photography