Like many young and beginning farmers, Julie Weitekamp was not raised on a farm and her path to agriculture was a slow and extrapolated progression. Growing up in Newington, New Hampshire, Julie’s initial exposure came in the form of her parent’s large backyard garden. Studying Biology at Wheaton College in Illinois and an internship at the Memphis Botanic Garden further contributed to her growing interest. After graduation, Julie worked in the biotechnology industry but soon returned to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Biochemistry at the University of Rhode Island. Later, while working as a lab technician she found herself increasingly focused on her gardening and began to feel her interest waxing towards a potential career shift.
Having enjoyed growing her own food and experienced the satisfaction and amazement of watching the process of seed to fruit, Julie decided to take the next step in her farming career, enrolling in New Entry Sustainable Farming Project’s Explore Farming! course in 2006. The class, which meets only once and is offered regularly, provided an encouraging environment to discuss the challenges and rewards of starting one’s own farm business, other means to satisfy the desire to farm and direction towards valuable resources to help move forward towards a career in farming.
This experience encouraged Julie to take New Entry’s Farm Business Planning Course in 2008. The course guides participants through the development of a business plan and budget for their selected enterprise and assists in the creation of a crop plan and schedule to meet their marketing plans. Upon completion, students are able to access land on one of New Entry’s training farms and market produce through the cooperative CSA. After finishing the course Julie rented land in Dracut from New Entry for two seasons before locating more land closer to home in Littleton, Massachusetts via word of mouth. Mid-season in her second year, Julie began producing on both plots.
In 2010, Julie started the 1 acre Full Basket Farm in Littleton. Although the original lease was for a single season, Julie was able to secure the land with a 5-year lease more recently. The farm markets its produce using the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, providing 20 regular season shares as well as a 10 family winter shares. Julie also contributes produce to the World Peas marketing cooperative, a multi-producer CSA coordinated by the New Entry. She grows a wide range of vegetables and greens as well as sweet corn for her CSA members. This growing season, Full Basket Farm is growing onions, spinach, arugula, and cherry tomatoes for World Peas marketing cooperative.
Julie credits New Entry’s Business Planning Course for teaching her to properly layout a crop plan and to determine production from row feet. This season she is using farm management software from AgSquared for her farm planning, which she says is much easier than keeping spreadsheets independently. While still in beta, the software is a great asset to small farmer’s saving them time and money and helping to increase productivity.
In 2011, Julie put in a 26 by 84 ft. High Tunnel with the help of a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The ability to further extend the season will enable Julie to increase crop volume and improve the profitability of the farm. Capital, or the lack of capital, presents a barrier not only to entrance for many young farmers, but perhaps more crucially prohibits the investment necessary to succeed early on and not fall into the pattern of attrition typical to small enterprises. Finding ways to save or defray costs is crucial to the success of a new farm.
While Julie has relied mostly on her own finances to bankroll the farm, she has also benefited from the relationships fostered through New Entry. In addition to marketing through the CSA and initially launching her farm business on land rented through the non-profit, Julie has also partnered with another former New Entry farmer, Sinikiwe Makarutsa to share the cost of several tools and implements for her walk-behind, BCS tractor. Sharing tools offers a valuable way to defray a farmer’s cost especially when it concerns tools that need only be used occasionally and thus, lend themselves well to sharing.
Forgoing the massive expense of buying a commercial cooler, Julie, with her husband built an insulated room and installed an air conditioning unit outfitted with a CoolBot – a gadget that essentially converts an air conditioner into a cooler compressor. Created by Ron Khosla, owner and operator of Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, NY, the CoolBot costs about $300, plus the cost of an air conditioner, and effectively turned the well-insulated room into a walk-in cooler at a fraction of the cost. Adoption of such innovative technology not only saves money but can also enable the farmer to invest capital elsewhere in their farm business.
Still, water access is a significant hurdle for Full Basket Farm. Without a frost-free hydrant on the land she rents, Julie has to transport water via 5-gallon buckets to the farm from mid-November until early spring. Having a seasonal water supply impacts the farm’s efforts at season extension, requiring significant labor to actualize the potential of the NRCS funded high-tunnel. Julie is currently considering other solutions as the estimate she received for a four-season waterline was, at present, cost prohibitive.
When asked what advice she would extend to someone considering farming, Julie offers what may be seen as a hard truth, acknowledging that the benefits are not yet of the financial type for Full Basket Farm. The farm is young, only a few seasons into its existence and it is progressing as Julie learns more and more about the craft of growing food. Raising three kids and farming full-time certainly keeps her plenty busy. For Julie, the hard work and the act of providing food for her family and neighbors makes it all worthwhile – as she says, you have to love it.