Agriculture boot camp grows in popularity

A growing wave of people moving to Southern Oregon to start small, mostly organic family farms are finding help in a farmer boot camp organized by Thrive and the Oregon State University Small Farms program.

Called the Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator, the series of classes provides instructional help on land and feed costs, taxes, business plans, transporting produce and innovating new markets.

"A lot of new farmers are moving here, and they need the tools to be successful," says Melissa Matthewson, a small-farms instructor with OSU's Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. "It's definitely a movement, going back to the farm, and people are finding it a physically and intellectually stimulating career choice."

The popular courses are targeted at beginning farmers, with on-farm demonstrations of how to produce food, Matthewson says. The courses also include how to open markets, especially in online buying, connecting growers with rapidly rising demand for organic, locally grown food.

Cahty Chen Milstead, 46, a former Los Angeles art professor, is living in Medford and volunteering at a farm near Ashland while she searches for affordable land, a farm lease or some other arrangement that will allow her to grow produce and medicinal herbs and have pasture-fed chickens and goats.

The big obstacle for the new farmer, says Milstead, is affordable land, preferably land that hasn't been degraded by cattle and logging. "I'm landless. I've been looking for a year. What's motivating me is clean food," she says. "I'm trying to clean out the chemicals and make clean produce."

A former Ashland chef, Jake Hayes, 29, of Talent, took the Growing Farms class and, like Milsted, has been working at Willow-Witt farm above Dead Indian Memorial Road. He did a business plan, ran risk assessment, as taught at the extension service, and just leased farmland on the Greensprings.

"I was sick and tired of being subjected to food of such low standards," says Hayes. "I wanted to produce food that's good for people and tastes good. The chicken you buy at the grocery store, you have no idea where it came from and what's been done to it. I want to produce food my neighbor is going to love. I want to embed myself in the community and be an important part of it, helping to support local food."

Another new farmer, Kol Chaney, 26, who moved here from Bend, has found a job on the Willow-Witt farm and lives in a trailer there.

"I want to be self-reliant and provide my own food. Food is power. It's the thing we all need. It represents control over your life," says Chaney. "Anything you can do for yourself is better."

Willow-Witt co-owner Suzanne Willow took the extension class three years ago. It enabled her and her partner, Dr. Lanita Witt, to factor in all costs, a process that showed a dozen organic eggs, for example, had to be priced at $7, not $6, for the chickens to "pay for themselves," as all farm animals must.

"The class helped me figure how to set prices realistically, attributing percentages to depreciation, land prices, fuel and all the rest, according to each animal category," says Willow, noting that a huge expense, $350, is incurred by having to drive animals to the nearest U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector, in Springfield.

As new farmers organize and gain understanding of the laws, they're starting to flex their muscle against a system they say is geared mostly for "factory farms," with many regulations that hamper the local, family farm.

The new farmers use Friends of Family Farmers, whose Web site,, operates a buy-sell-barter-lease database called iFarmOregon for land or to list internships, classes and jobs.

It defines "family farm" as one in which a family makes most of the decisions, does most of the work and takes all the risk. It calls a farm "socially responsible" if it "respects the land, treats animals humanely, sustains local communities and provides a viable livelihood for family farmers." A "factory farm," it says, is one that "confines (many) animals in one location without access to fresh air or vegetation."

The Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator was made possible in part by grants from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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