|Devon and one of his pigs.|
Groundswell trainee, staff member, and new farmer Devon Van Noble shares his personal journey from dreamer to farmer.
by Devon Van Noble
I feel like I’ve been becoming a farmer for my whole life, but it’s only in the past few years that my journey really took off. Growing up in suburban community in Florida, where locally-sourced food is a rarity, I was only recently able to connect with farming on the ground. I read plenty about farming in school but really only started participating in it when I returned from Vermont, where I went to grad school, to Ithaca. In the spring of 2011 I started working for Groundswell, and soon after I took Groundswell’s Sustainable Farming Certificate Program (SFCP). That season I also began harvesting with Early Morning Farm in Genoa, a medium-sized organic vegetable farm, on Fridays.
Coming into the SFCP, I felt like a “noob.” I was still totally unsure of what to do or how I could successfully enter farming. But by becoming immersed in the Ithaca agriculture scene, I quickly familiarized myself with Groundswell’s Mentor Farmers, learned about other enterprises that existed locally, and gained a general sense of how farming was being done in this area. In the SFCP program, I learned the basics of crop production, planning, and management, and toyed around with the idea of raising livestock. But most importantly, it was one of my first steps towards becoming a farmer. I needed that intensive experience of seeing many different operations in a short period of time, and I also needed the time to go back to the same farm and get a deeper picture into the farm. By seeing the enterprises at various stages of production you get a better sense of the businesses and what they require.
After I finished the SFCP program, I don’t think I was totally conscious of it, but I was definitely discouraged about my prospects of being a successful farmer. The main reason for this is that I realized (and maybe had this inclination prior to the program) how much intelligence and what strong skill sets it takes to be a successful farmer. And the reality really hit me that most farmers are forced to supplement with off-farm income, and only a select few really make their living off of it (and some of them are in substantial debt). It is an incredible feat to manage your production, finances, labor, and markets, not to mention put it all together in a successful and coherent way. I felt really intimidated by all of that.
Since I had based my entire farming future upon the idea that I would be a crop farmer, and plants are not nearly as intuitive to me as animals, I felt that it would be many many years—and a major uphill battle of classes, reading, questions, and mistakes—before I would be competent enough to make a living from a farm enterprise. At that point, I had never even considered that I could really pull off being a livestock farmer. I’m not sure why—maybe because I didn’t quite understand how livestock farmers successfully process and sell their product. Because this option never seemed open to me, I imagined that I’d remain in an off-farm job for the next few years with only occasional day trips to work on farms.
In March of 2012 I was hired at for a part time position at The Piggery Farm, helping with sorting and loading pigs for slaughter on Mondays, and taking care of chores a few days per week. The first thing I noticed in starting regular farm work was that I loved having designated time to be outside and using my body. Which is still, to this day, one of the things I appreciate most about farm work! The physical aspect is stimulating to me because of the way it allows you to paint your painting…(a very fancy way to say:) it allows you to combine mind and body to create something that can nourish you and others. It is Art. Learning the principles of a trade, internalizing the nuances, and then developing your own innovation and adding to the great body of experience and knowledge that has been left before you is an extremely exciting creative endeavor to me. Farmers do all this, and express it in a form that is functional, lasting, and beautiful. Certainly some might say that West Haven Farm is more beautiful than a pig sty, but I think my babies are pretty damn beautiful!
The second thing I came to realize was that I REALLY enjoyed working with animals, and furthermore, it came naturally to me. I realized a couple months into the job that the reason I never thought I would be a successful farmer – and kind of felt unintelligent in that regard – was only because I was barking up the wrong tree when I was thinking about crop farming! I should have realized this years ago, because I have a history of developing meaningful connections with animals: throughout high school in Florida, I worked at The Chimp Farm, a sanctuary for 33 chimpanzees (including Cheetah from the original Tarzan movie), 4 orangutans, a silver-back gorilla who as a baby in diapers was on Samsonite Commercials, a host of other smaller monkeys and primates, and a brown bear. I’ve always felt aware of animals’ temperaments and needs and how to interact with them. “Connection with animals” sounds kind of hokey, but there really is something to it, because when I started running around with hogs all day at The Piggery I came to be feel right at home with them. I am also very good at not stressing animals when we are sorting and loading. And I feel proud about the work I do for the animals. I love making sure that all the elements of their lives are in order and together in their pen so that they are comfortable and healthy.
Over the past 11 months or so, my perception about my future with farming has transformed. The Piggery has more demand than they can successfully supply through the Piggery Farm alone, so they often have to buy cuts of meat. Furthermore, they haven’t even begun to tap into the wholesale market that is just waiting for them to get their USDA certified butchering license (i.e. restaurants that can’t buy from them because the meat is butchered in their butcher shop at the store, which is only state certified, not USDA certified). So, not only has the Piggery been able to offer me a contract arrangement for the purchase of all of the market herd that I can raise, but they have also fronted me the first group of 21 sows to get started with. Probably most important, Brad, Heather and Casey have been extremely generous in sharing their time and resources and totally forthcoming about financial and production management issues. I feel extremely confident in the advice that I have been getting over the past year because the farmer-owners and the farm manager have been working to start and expand a very similar sized enterprise for the past 6 years, and they know the mistakes that I can/will make and how to preemptively approach those points. I have made some mistakes but I’ve prevented many more by learning from theirs.
I started leasing land in Enfield in September of 2012 for my operation. The site currently has 3 barns, a water system from a pond, and perimeter high-tensile fence for my 37 pigs, with ~32 piglets expected to be born today and tomorrow! My next steps are developing a grazing plan with Tompkins County Soil & Water Conservation District, purchasing a skid steer, and finishing renovating the barn, including building farrowing pens. In the near future I hope to hire an employee at 25 hrs/wk to help the operation run more smoothly.
I feel so thankful for the help I’ve received from Groundswell, other farmers, and friends and family who encouraged me along the way to making Van Noble Farm a reality – finally!
Devon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org