I first met Katie Coppoletta in January 2010, when she walked into the classroom for the first day of Growing Farms, OSU’s beginning farmer training course. For eight weeks she came into class every Wednesday evening always making sure to leave her mud caked boots at the door.
Katie’s ambition and passion for farming were obvious immediately. Not only was Katie starting her second season as a farm apprentice at 47th Avenue Farm in Portland, but she also had plans to start her own operation that coming season. You have to be in love with farming if you are planning to pile a start-up farm operation on top of the 50-hour work week of a farm apprentice. Katie and her husband Rowan Steele discovered farming while at Humboldt State University. Like many beginning farmers, the couple faced a steep learning curve since neither of them had farm experience before they started volunteering on farms in college. In pursuing their dream they have faced many hurdles such as difficulty in gaining access to land, capital, and education. Their story shows the amazing innovation and passion that has allowed them to forge ahead and realize their dream to be farmers.
During the first season of their farm operation the couple each had full time jobs off the farm. This provided stability but limited the time they could invest in the farm. Therefore they decided to start off small and only grow one crop. Limiting the scope of the production fit well into their current occupations and also limited the risk. The small venture would allow them to acquire skills in marketing and production, while giving them time to learn from their mistakes without putting too much on the line. Thus began Greenthumb Garlic. Garlic was the perfect crop. It is widely used and can be harvested green or stored through the winter, allowing for a longer marketing season. Perhaps most importantly to Katie and Rowan, garlic is a less labor-intensive crop. It does not require a lot of day-to-day care but rather labor intense bursts, which have been a perfect fit for Katie and Rowan’s weekend work parties. This season they planted 21,000 cloves of garlic in 4 hours, with the help of 44 of their closest friends.
A little over a year after Katie finished the Growing Farms class I had a chance to visit her and Rowan’s operation. The day I visited was a harvest day in May of 2011. The year’s cool, wet spring forced this harvest day to be more relaxed than most. I pulled up the long drive of the rented acreage in Troutdale smiling as I watched Rowan and Katie in the hoop house picking the season’s first peas.
Katie’s long black braids, plaid shirt and Carharts help accentuate the fact that Katie is truly at home on the farm. We walked through rows of brassicas as Katie explained how their business had grown over the last year. Katie now works full-time on the farm while Rowan holds an off-farm job that offers the couple stability and health insurance. They have scaled up and diversify, since their participation in Growing Farms starting a new business, Fiddlehead Farm.
“[Growing Farms] gave me the confidence to find and use resources in the community. I now feel like we have a wonderful support network, which makes starting a business feel less overwhelming.”
They sell their goods at the Montavilla Farmers’ Market as well as to a handful of Portland restaurants. Additionally, Katie and Rowan are trying out a new type of Community Supported Agriculture. They have sold shares in the form of credit for their farmers’ market stand. The customer pays upfront giving the farm capital in the spring and the customer gets vouchers that are worth 10% more than they paid. This has allowed Katie and Rowan to get the support a CSA offers without the additional work of packing boxes or holding weekly CSA pick-ups.
The couple has taken many small and strategic steps to get to this point. Katie and Rowan have been leasing two pieces of land in close proximity to one another in the hills east of Portland. Renting land has been an important stepping-stone for the couple’s operation as it made it possible for them to start their farm without the upfront cost of buying land. Instead they have been able to invest in a tractor, farm animals, and some infrastructural improvements. But they have outgrown their rented land and Katie grins with excitement while telling me that as of 2012 the farm will be operating on their own land.
With Katie’s parents the couple has spent the last year fixing up their 19-acre parcel they purchased in Corbett. This year they will be consolidating their operation onto their own land where the multigenerational family lives under one roof, a true return to family farming.