Author Rebecca Thistlethwaite helps small-scale farms find success
When she’s not busy training baby oxen and learning to make fermented foods—her new favorite pastimes—Rebecca Thistlethwaite runs a small farm and food holistic financial planning business in Oregon and blogs about “honest meat.”
To top off her pursuits as of late, Thistlethwaite has released a new book, entitled “Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business.” The former Aromas farm owner and UC Santa Cruz researcher will be back in town to speak about her new book at Capitola Book Café on Jan. 22.
The idea for “Farms with a Future” was conceived when the organic, pastured livestock and poultry farm, TLC Ranch in Watsonville, which Thistlethwaite co-owned with her husband Jim Dunlop, became economically unviable in late 2010. At that time, the couple sold the ranch along with everything they owned, bought an RV, and began a four-wheeled tour of the nation’s small-scale and family-operated farms.
“Before we left I told my husband, ‘I want to make this more than just a vacation. I want to see if we can learn from other farmers around the country, and maybe then I’ll write a book about it,’” she says.
Thistlethwaite, who graduated from UC Davis with a master’s degree in international agricultural development, remembers picking berries in middle school on a local farm near her childhood home in Oregon. By the time she entered high school, many of those berry farms had been paved over to make space for building developments. That trend became the catalyst for her interest in agriculture.
“I started seeing what was happening around Portland—all the urban sprawl,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how we could have [farms] that fed our communities and took care of our natural resources and would be valued by our society so we wouldn’t pave them over.” So, in exchange for interviews with farmers, home-cooked meals and space to park the RV, Thistlethwaite and her husband spent about a week volunteering at approximately 20 different farms over the course of their year traveling the country.
The trek, which Thistlethwaite says doubled as a ‘much needed vacation,’ became the fodder for “Farms with a Future.”
Each of the book’s 13 chapters includes a case study of one or two farms they visited. The chapters center around various business topics—from creative financing to human resources management to accounting and record keeping—and cite a particular farm that excelled in that area.
While “Farms with a Future” includes case studies from all over the U.S., Thistlethwaite highlights one local operation in the chapter called “Finding and Securing the Land”: Monterey’s Serendipity Farms, run by Jamie Collins.
“[Collins] has been really creative and adept at finding little plots of land through unconventional sources,” explains Thistlethwaite. “She’s rented land from churches, schools … a variety of things, and she’s a really hard-working farmer, doing it all from scratch. She doesn’t come from farm land or money.”
By highlighting successful business models, Thistlethwaite intends to bring each topic to life, and, in turn, fill a gap in the agricultural community.
“I felt like there was a lack of good business books out there for agriculture,” she says. “There are a lot of fabulous production books, but … if a book like this was available when I was farming, we would have done things a little bit differently.”
Thistlethwaite adds that in a time where large-scale conglomerates are the competition, the business side of small-scale farming is more important than ever.
“Farming is a business, just like anything else, and a lot of people think of it more as a lifestyle or a hobby, and think farmers don’t need to make money, or can just break even,” she says. “But to be a competitive farmer in this day and age with all the factors working against you, you really have to think like a business person. You have to do good planning, figure out how to cut costs and be more efficient, and you also need to connect with your consumers.”
Thistlethwaite says that by supporting small farms, consumers are helping to promote diversity of foods.
“There are four major crops grown on this planet, yet there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables out there that big corporations just aren’t going to touch,” she says. “So if we want variety in our food supply we need a diversity of farmers—we need the small, the medium and a few of the large, but I don’t think we need big ag to fuel the planet. I’ve done a lot of international traveling and my graduate research, and I think that small farms are still, for the most part, feeding the planet. We need that from a food security standpoint. And from an economic standpoint, small and medium sized farms support their local communities. They spend money in their local communities and that’s good for their communities.”
Rebecca Thistlethwaite will read from “Farms with a Future” and answer audience questions at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. 462-4415.