Locals offer trusty advice for the new small farmer

Thursday, March 23, 2017 11:24 AM
Kellie Pettyjohn, of Wily Carrot Farm outside Mancos, says good materials and equipment are “worth it in the long run.”
Aaron Yarobrough inspects an egg in the Battle Rock Farms booth at the Cortez Farmers Market in this file photo.

I was skimming through some 1980 Small Farmer’s Journals recently before consigning them to the recycle bin, when an article on how to become a small-scale farmer caught my eye.

Much of it seemed outdated or unrealistic. It referred to renting farmland for $35–$50 per acre for a year and advising that renters “MUST NOT borrow money to pay back later.” It was sprinkled liberally with phrases like “damn good fellow,” “one heck of a fine colt” and “roll up your sleeves.” It recommended an “optimistic mental set.”

The article was a nuts-and-bolts compendium, a hands-on how-to, for the plucky and strong-willed new farmer. Paraphrased, it went something like this:

Use gravity and natural forces whenever possible; heat with wood and sun;Don’t rely on complex machinery; horse-drawn is always preferableWhen something breaks, fix itAvoid spraying crops; find another solutionOwn only old Chevys or Fords and repair them foreverNever throw anything away; find a way to reuse or repurpose itGrow or raise everything that you possibly can for yourself and your livestockDo not borrow or lend machineryDon’t make unnecessary work for yourselfNever mistreat livestock or shirk choresBe the kind of neighbor that you would want for yourselfLimit yourself to comfortable growth; know when enough is enough.I reacted with surprise that something written in 1980 could sound so simple and naïve. Although 1980 was before the age of personal computers, pre-9/11, globalization and virtual reality, the article read as though it had been written 100 years ago, not just around the corner from the last century. Musing, I wondered if this folksy farmer wisdom was relevant today, nearly 40 years after it was written.

We live in a county that is defined largely by agriculture. From large-scale operations like Adobe Milling in Dove Creek, Cortez Milling, and Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch to the numerous small-scale farmers who wholesale their produce to Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op, who contract for CSA shares, and who sell at the local farmers markets, farming is a way of life for many in Montezuma County.

Today’s farmers weigh inNina Williams and Greg Vlaming of Lickskillet Farm in Lewis agree with some of Farm Journal’s edicts. Heating with wood; organic farming practices that include cover crops, composting, crop rotation, and row covers for insect mitigation; fixing what is broken; being a good neighbor; caring for livestock – are all common sense practices that they employ in their farm business. Staying within your means is another value that Williams admits is admirable, but difficult to practice.

Williams, however, reacts heatedly to the suggestion of neither borrowing nor lending machinery. Sharing equipment is necessary with small-scale farms, she said, as long as you are careful to lend only to people you know and trust and, when borrowing, are prepared to fix what you break. That’s part of being the kind of neighbor you would want for yourself.

Lindsay Yarborough of Battle Rock Farm in McElmo Canyon, however, disagrees: “Any farmer could give you a story about why (not lending machinery) is true.”

Like Williams, Yarborough employs organic practices in her farming. Beleaguered by squash bugs, she uses a trap crop as a lure instead of treating them chemically. Soap and water, companion planting with marigolds, diverse planting to confuse pests rather than concentrations of one plant, and dormant oils for fruit trees are all part of her integrated pest management program.

Several other maxims practiced at Battle Rock Farm include: “Never throw away fencing; be vigilant about shutting animals in every night; and buying something for the lowest price doesn’t always work out.” And as for vehicles? “Whatever runs.”

The journal’s axioms are predicated on one core belief: Buy only that which is essential, and that you cannot make yourself, and only at the lowest possible price.

Kellie Pettijohn, of the Wily Carrot Farm in Mancos and a proud owner of a 1998 Ford Ranger, understands what it’s like to “go on the cheap,” but now invests in good-quality materials and equipment because “it’s worth it in the long run.”

And as for knowing when enough is enough, Pettijohn said: “It’s easy to get over-excited in the spring, but you start to regret that decision when your back is aching and you’re worn out at harvest time.” A slowly learned lesson, she states unequivocally: “It’s absolutely important to know when to say ‘when.’”

Ultimately, the journal concludes, you begin farming by beginning to farm. And that means producing as much as you can for as little as you can and, hopefully, enjoying the journey.


In keeping with the idea of simpler times, here’s an easy recipe that came from my grandmother. It puts all that zucchini to good use and can be made with or without meat. Increase or decrease vegetables according to your preferences. All the ingredients except the rice and spices can be found at farmers markets.Ingredients4-8 medium to large ripe tomatoes, sliced (A note: If you’re not fond of tomato skins, try broiling the tomatoes until their skins burst and they release their liquid. It is then easy to chop up the insides for the casserole, discard the skins, and use the juice in the recipe.) 4 medium-size zucchini (about 1½ lbs.), sliced into ¼-inch rounds2 tsp. salt2/3 C uncooked rice2 Tbsp. chopped parsley½ C each chopped green pepper and onion1 C tomato juice¼ tsp. each cinnamon, allspice, and pepper1 C (or more) shredded sharp cheddar cheese or other favorite1½ lbs. ground beef, bison, or lamb DirectionsPreheat oven to 375.
Grease a 9x13” baking dish
Arrange half the tomatoes on the bottom, then half the zucchini over the tomatoes and salt lightly.
Combine the meat, rice, parsley, pepper, onion, spices and 1 tsp. Salt and tomato juice.
Pat mixture into the casserole. (It should look soupy. Remember, the raw rice is going to soak it up.)
Top with the remaining squash, then remaining tomatoes, and with another sprinkle of salt.
Cover and bake for about 1 ½ hours or until vegetables and rice are tender. (Because aluminum foil Reacts with the acid in tomatoes, i first cover it in parchment, followed by a layer of foil.)
Remove cover and sprinkle with grated cheese and bake an additional 15 minutes.
Serve with a cucumber yogurt sauce laced with mint.