It’s one thing to love to make things grow, but when you decide to make farming a business – “let’s try this,” may become your new daily mantra. Natalie Condon of Isabelle Farms shares with Urban Conversion how she and her husband Jason, turned their careers around and made farming their full-time business, starting first in their local Farmers Market.
Written for Urban Conversion by Natalie Condon
“The first spring we attended the Boulder County Farmer’s Market, we were very excited—and a little bit nervous. At the first market, our 8-foot table was stacked high with fresh-harvested mixed greens, carefully twine-tied bunches of radishes and lovingly bagged ½-pound bags of arugula. A longtime Boulder County Farmer’s Market devotee, I was really, really excited to be there as a farmer…”
Our stand was off the main drag on what was then referred to as the “newbie row.” We felt worlds away from the market’s organic produce axis, anchored by the still strong-and-present Ela Family Farms, Cure Organic Farm, Red Wagon Organic Farm, as well as the then-near-cult-status, now-of-the-past Abondanza. On that first day, we netted a grand total of about $150 and left with only a couple of bags of lettuce. Jason and I both had full-time careers at the time, so we were okay with having worked early mornings, nights and weekends for months only to take home $150 at the end of a 14-hour work day that had begun with headlamps at 4 a.m. so we could “fresh-harvest” and wash our greens the day of the market. Farmer market customers had been kind and welcoming to us, and we remained excited. Heck! We were growing food and selling it at the Boulder County Farmers Market! During 2007, we grew enough food to attend about 12 markets, growing our offerings to include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, melons and a couple of other crops I can’t remember.
Over the next 7 years, we attended anywhere from two to five markets per week in Boulder, Longmont and Lafayette, as well as the occasional pop-up market. We grew from no staff to two part-timers to one full-timer (that’s you, Ben!), and so on and so forth. We experimented with it all, seed catalogs getting the best of us in the winter months. I can recall a season during which we grew close to 20 varieties of tomatoes, four varieties of eggplant, five of basil, more than 15 kinds of peppers—even peanuts and husk cherries! (I think that might’ve been the season Jason coined the term, “Don’t fall in love with produce.”) During the first four years we grew produce, we both continued to work full-time jobs to float our farming aspirations. In 2009 (Lucy was just 1), we took the leap: Jason resigned from Shaw Construction to farm full-time. I didn’t have the courage—nor the farm the viability—to jump all in until the fall of 2012, when the farm store grew too big to manage without being able to take a hands-on-everyday approach (thank you, Lafayette, for building the barn!). Until then, I’d launched the farm store, worked farmer’s markets, done the hiring, pitched in on crop planning, seed ordering and good old farming nights and weekends. Yes, we were crazy, but no crazier than many other farmer’s market farmers you’ll meet.
For the first four or five seasons, as all market farmers will, during winter we toiled in home-built hoop houses so that we could attend that first market with arugula in addition to our overwintered offerings of spinach and carrots. Somewhere along the way, we decided the good-will return on the time-and-labor investment in hoop house growing simply wasn’t worth our while (I think that was the year Gus turned 1 and Lucy was 3). Sure, we were nervous about giving up hoop house production, and yes, there were customers at those early markets who lamented our lack of arugula, but not as many as we’d envisioned; after all, they could head down the way to Red Wagon or Cure to get their fill. In retrospect, I’d say giving up hoop house production was a turning point for us. We learned to put aside that which didn’t work for us and our farm, which didn’t capitalize on our strengths and growing preferences. Jason, my husband, is a big-acreage dirt farmer who is ever-seeking efficiencies in irrigation, tillage, planting and everything else well-planned farming entails. I’m an “out-in-the field-with-the-plants” kind of woman. I like to walk the rows, weed and harvest out in the open, and I like to do it in the spring, summer and fall—in season, so to speak.
As our CSA and the Farm Store have become bigger parts of our operation, focusing our energy on growing well and harvesting lots during our CSA, Farm Store and Pumpkin Patch high seasons (May through October) simply makes sense.
We’ve also learned that while we think husk cherries are really groovy, most people still want (and will return time and again for) the field-grown staples: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn, garlic, onions, potatoes, sugar snap peas, green beans, lettuces and bunching greens. Sales of husk cherries and fresh peanuts, though they may be fun and novel, aren’t gonna pay the bills.
And so, that’s why we grow what we grow when we grow it: Just makes sense for us and our operation … at this point anyway.
Other articles written by Natalie Condon: “GROWING A DREAM”