Field Notes by AgChoice

Episode 118: 17 Acres and Big Plans

June 02, 2022
Episode 118: 17 Acres and Big Plans
Field Notes by AgChoice
More Info
Field Notes by AgChoice
Episode 118: 17 Acres and Big Plans
Jun 02, 2022

Jumpstart grant spotlight: This episode features Jonathan and Winter Weaver. The Weavers operate Wheat and Sparrow, LLC, a 17-acre farm in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. They are 2021 recipients of the AgChoice Farm Credit jumpstart grant which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. Listen in to hear how their operation has benefitted from this grant opportunity. 

Show Notes Transcript

Jumpstart grant spotlight: This episode features Jonathan and Winter Weaver. The Weavers operate Wheat and Sparrow, LLC, a 17-acre farm in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. They are 2021 recipients of the AgChoice Farm Credit jumpstart grant which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. Listen in to hear how their operation has benefitted from this grant opportunity. 

17 Acres and Big Plans

The Weaver family operates Wheat and Sparrow LLC, a 17 acre farm in Spring Grove Pennsylvania. They are also 2021 recipients of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this past fall. For the full podcast, click here:

What are your backgrounds and what led you to becoming farmers?

I (Jonathan Weaver) was living in Virginia back in 2017, and I had no experience in farming beforehand, but I was interested in it for about six years. And I was doing my own independent studying and getting just excited about the idea. But I had never actually been in any type of farming career, or I didn't grow up on a farm. And so I felt like I didn't have a entryway. And then one day I was looking around online, and I found an internship at a farm. And I just went for it. Out of the blue, I applied for the internship and then they accepted me. And then about two weeks later, I was on a farm and I got my feet wet. And then I ended up meeting my wife at that internship. And then we got married about a year later, and I started working and saving up money to get our own piece of property. And that's how we bought the 17 acre farm. I really didn't have much experience before then, but my wife, she worked at a farm in California, and I'll let her tell you about that.

Yeah. So when my (Winter Weaver) experience with food actually started back in high school, or even before high school. I started cooking at my grandparents' house because my grandma wasn't much of a cook. And I realized how food impacted people by just pouring your heart into cooking. And so I thought I wanted to pursue cooking and own my own cafe one day. And in high school I saw, I think it was Food Inc. And I saw Joel Salatin for this first time. And I thought, wow, if I didn't live in a city, I was in San Diego, California, that's where I was born and raised. But I thought if I wasn't in a city and I knew where farms were, then I would try and go out and do something like that. Maybe I'd contact that guy someday. I had no idea who Joel Salatin really was and how big he was.

And I thought really I'd have an interest in that if it seemed like something I could get to, but I felt like I was stuck in the city. So I had to pursue cooking versus everything and regards to food. And so I did that, and I catered for a while and eventually what happened was I always felt like I didn't really belong in a city. And I had this dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. And so somehow for some reason, that seemed obtainable to me. So I went for it when I was 21. And it kind of just changed my perspective on things that if I could just go out and decide I'm going to live outside on a hiking trail for months on end, then I could look into farming.

And I think in the city a lot of times, I mean probably just across the US, but a lot of times what was around me in that city growing up was that you had to have all this education to do anything for anybody to accept you into an internship or apprenticeship. In fact, internships and apprenticeships weren't even a thing, you had to go to college. And so I had this mindset like that. If I wanted to pursue farming, I probably had to go to a college, and I probably couldn't just reach out to somebody like Joel Sullivan and see if they have an internship and these things. But after I went on that trail and I came back into the city, and I knew it's just not where I belonged. Then I thought, you know what? I'm just going to go for it.

And I signed up for a few internships and I was accepted at Apricot Lane in California. They made a big documentary. They have their second documentary came out on Earth Day. And so I went there, I worked for about a year. I did multiple apprenticeships and their market garden and learned some things about their orchard and worked with all their different livestock and worked in their traditional foods kitchen, and kind of just tried to do everything that I could there. And then I decided that I needed to get out of California and see other places and work on a farm that was more, I guess, more like my dream goal, Apricot Lane's a beautiful, wonderful place, but I didn't have the funding that they had to go and start my own farm and do all these things that they're doing there.

And so I wanted to see for somebody who didn't have all this funding who had to start off with say $10,000 a lot less funding, then what would that look like. So I started at an internship at Whiffletree Farm in Virginia, and that's where I met Jonathan. And it was really hard work and a lot learned. And the man who runs the farm, Jesse Straight is just like, he's very about efficiencies. And he only started with 350 birds, and he did so much of it by himself for so long. And so it was a great learning experience. It was a lot of hard work, but a great learning experience. And that's where I met Jonathan. And we kind of realized that we shared the same goals and envision for things. And first he asked me to be his business partner and then he asked me to be his wife, and now we've got two kids and we just bought the farm about two years ago. And we moved back to his area where he was raised and grown. Yeah. That's kind of the backstory and education to us.

Along with that, could you tell our listeners a bit more about your farm there, Wheat and Sparrow Farm. What do you raise or grow and how do you market your products?

So last year, then we just raised poultry. We just raised Cornish Cross for another farmer who had just quit his job and was trying to sort of up what he was doing. And it really helped us to do that and not go directly into selling direct marketing because that was helping another farmer out and then it allowed us to grow product and sell product without the instability of first starting in the marketplace. So that's what we did last year. And this year we're going to continue with some poultry, but we're going to move into pork also. And then next year, we're hoping to either add sheep or maybe a few cows. We only have 17 acres. So if we are going to do cattle, then we're going to have to expand our land probably, start renting out some places. Otherwise, rabbit and duck is also in the works.

But yeah, we're just sort of starting with the staples of Hatfield hogs and then chickens, which is a little difficult with what's going on in the world right now, definitely would be easier to be doing ruminants. But yeah, so that's kind of what we're doing. And then as far as markets going, we're starting up our email marketing and mostly Facebook and Instagram. And then we do have a couple farmers markets that we've just kind of been feeling out what products that people are interested in. We're very much in the beginning stages of more of the planning and research and reaching out, making connections than so much of selling to the public right now. But those are a few of the markets that we plan on doing. And next year we hope to establish a on farm store, just a little shed, so people could come to us. We have a list of people who are waiting for our products and waiting for our newsletters. And yeah, that's kind of where we're at right now for marketing and products.

What has been the greatest challenge for you in starting your farm and what resources have been helpful to you along the way?

Well, the grant was definitely a very helpful resource. I would say one of the biggest resources is other people. I mean, just having other people who have gone through these experiences, who even if they're not doing exactly what you are doing, have information and education that's hands on is just invaluable. Every time we go to make a decision, if we feel like we really need to consider it more, then we reach out to people we've worked with who have the expertise on it and get their insight and really weigh in different opinions to better understand what we might be missing. So that people are, I think, a very undervalued resource. 

Well, just one more thing about the people is the Pennsylvania Farmer Veterans. That organization has been extremely helpful, too, connecting with other veterans and helping fill out grant paperwork and just kind of giving us guidance. I know a lot of other farmers have off farm jobs as well. And I can definitely say that is one of the big challenges is just kind of allocating time and making sure you have your family, you have a lot of people have off farm jobs, and you have the farm job, and just kind of making sure you have the right balance. That can be definitely challenging.

The juggling aspect. Yes. The juggling of all these things is a very big challenge because you have this fledgling business that needs so much of your attention, but then at least for us, we also have the children that need so much of our attention. And then the thing about the off-farm job is some people, they're working so many hours elsewhere and it's necessary to even begin something like this and Jonathan works night shifts. So there's obviously time restraints there and scheduling issues, and you definitely have to go with the flow on a lot. But I would say that was probably yeah, the juggling is probably one of the biggest challenges when starting in our situation anyway, with two kids under two and working night shift.

I think that there is a challenge towards farmers today, especially in regards to education, the hands on experience aspect of it. And I think that one thing just to kind of flip that question on its head, one thing that wasn't that we were extremely grateful for, that I saw other farmers are challenged with it that we didn't feel as much constraint about was the fact that we did do those internships. And we did do those apprenticeships first. And if anybody is able to do that first, I would recommend that. Just it's so important to have the people who have done this hands on, be your teachers and to choose those people wisely too, because there's last year we raised 1,200 birds, and I know that we would not have had the confidence to do that necessarily if we had not had that experience raising 20,000 birds for other people.

So I think that the confidence that you gain and the resources you gain from learning from those other people really take away from that constraint that I see on a lot of starting farmers who are maybe trying to learn off books and YouTube. And I know everybody can't necessarily do something like go out and intern or apprentice, but if that is something that could be done, I really, really highly recommend that to somebody because I know that is a huge constraint on new farmers. That we were just lucky that our path took us that route, and we didn't have to have that. Otherwise, that would've been, my answer, would be the learning curve.

So as mentioned earlier, you were one of our Jumpstart Grant winners this past fall, how do you plan to use the funds to improve or enhance your operation?

So basically one of the biggest hurdles we had to come up with is to do direct to consumer marketing, we have to be able to take the live chickens and process them. And so we did have that great jumpstart by helping my farmer friend with raising chickens. But in order for us to actually sell to the public, we have to figure out a way to process the bird's own farm. And so by winning that grant, we have been able to purchase pretty much everything that we needed to set up our processing area. So now that we have the capabilities to actually provide the end product.

So as we wrap up, could you share one piece of advice you have for someone interested in starting a farm?

So I think one of the biggest things that can help people is besides getting that hands on experience, I mean, whether you can just, if you know a farmer or Google a farmer and just even if you can go there and maybe shadow them for a day, but that's one of the big ones, but also planning. Between that and planning, it's so hard to pick one over the other, hands on experience, over planning, but Winter what do you think?

It's a hard question because one, there's not one answer. And I think that's one thing that's good about farming is it's not cookie cutter. You can personalize it. And I feel like a lot of it is kind of paradox, like one super, super so important thing, I just can't even stress it enough, is planning. But at the same time, you have to be able to adapt and change and make decisions in a moment a lot of times. But I think that if you plan well, then a lot of times when these situations come up where you just have to adapt, then you have a better perspective of your situation, of your resources, of your goals. And as far as planning goes, really, I think what we're saying is, I mean, I know what we're saying is just really thinking through every aspect of something that you are going to go after.

Whether that is, for example, our processing equipment, not just, okay, well I need by processing equipment, I'm going to go buy it new. But am I going to buy it new? And am I going to buy it used? Am I going to buy a certain brand? Is there a way that I can maybe buy this lot of processing equipment and I can sell a portion of it to get some money back? Like, what are all my options and what does that really entail? Does it make more sense to travel to another state to buy processing equipment used? I mean, that's just kind of one of the things that we had to plan recently, that seems kind of small, but there's a lot of thought that should go into these things. And at the same time, you don't want to overthink things because overthinking can kind of put you in a stagnant state.

But at the same time, I think finding that balance of really having thought through things and getting other perspectives and trying to hit it from every angle so that you really understand your enterprise, your business partner, your business, your marketing, your resources, just anything to go at it with that mentality, that, okay, let me look at it at every angle and every possibility I can think of. And then make my choice based off of these thought processes. It takes a lot of thinking through, I think, to run a business. And I think that when you don't do that, you do end up in those situations that are inevitable, where you have to make a quick decision. And if you haven't done the thought and planning beforehand, which you could do before you even own the farm, then for a lot of things marketing and such, if you don't do that, you come to these situations that are inevitable, where you have to make a split second decision.

And if you don't have that planning, you don't have that thought process and you don't have that thought process going, then you tend to look back and be like, maybe I shouldn't have made that, or maybe that was a mistake, or I should have thought that through more. And so just taking the time initially, obviously you're not going to know everything that's ever going to possibly happen with your business or your resources or your partner or any of that, but to try to get the best perspective from every angle that you can and plan, plan, plan.

I know that I've probably made that a little confusing, but it's kind of hard to. Farming's so nuanced and these situations are so nuanced so it is very like I said, it's kind of like a paradox, right? You have to be able to make split second decision, but at the same time, you don't want to go into it blind. You want to know what you're getting into. And I think a lot of farming, if you plan it, if you try and look at it from every perspective, every angle, whether that's something you're buying as a resource, do I go with feed buggy?

Do I go with a grain bin? Do I stick with 50 pound bags of feed? If you look at these things from all these different perspectives, well, how will this affect me now, financially? How is it going to affect me labor wise in the future? Is this something I'm going to want to do for five years? Is this something I want to do for six months? Is this an investment we can afford right now? There's a lot of angles that you have to look at for planning. And I think that if you just really delve into it and take that time to plan and to think things through, you're just better off in the long run.

Finally, Jonathan and Winter, could you tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn more about Wheat and Sparrow Farm as well as to connect with you?

Well, we have a Facebook page, which is Wheat and Sparrow Farm and then Instagram, which is at Wheat and Sparrow Farm. Either of those places, if you message us, we can get you on an email list. If anybody's interested, we're working on setting up our website currently. So yeah, that's where you can find us. And then obviously when website becomes available, then it will be