Heads down and backs bent, the two young farmers form the shape of a heart over a row of leafy greens in Valleyford, Washington. On this summery, sunlit evening, they’re harvesting just enough collard greens to give to a neighbor who has stopped by for dinner. The work isn’t nearly as strenuous as their more usual chores of filling an order for a Spokane restaurant or gathering enough produce to haul to the local farmers market. The husband and wife team, in matching rubber boots and T-shirts adorned with their farm’s logo, laugh and joke as they snap the tender stalks and the sun sinks a bit lower on the horizon.
These crops — four different kinds of kale, along with chard, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, and more — are the first grown at the couple’s own farm. Jorge Cano and Madyson Versteeg, both 25, purchased the 42-acre property last year, a couple of years after working to overcome two of the biggest obstacles facing today’s young farmers: finding farmland to purchase and coming up with the capital to do so.
About 70 percent of farmers under 30 rent land on which to farm, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit that “supports practices and policies that will sustain young, independent, and prosperous farmers now and in the future.” By comparison, nearly 70 percent of farmers 30 and older own the land that they farm. Jorge and Madyson overcame these obstacles with some help, including a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the blessing of a farmer’s widow who wanted her property to be used for farming again.
“We’re really fortunate,” Madyson says. “We have a lot of gratitude.” Now, a year after they purchased the property, Jorge says, “We’re getting to do exactly what we want to do.”
PLANTING THE SEED
Neither Madyson nor Jorge comes from a farming family. They became interested in agriculture as students at Spokane’s Ferris High School, where they met. On their first date, he took her to a feed store to buy food for his father’s chickens — “which,” she recently reflected, “I think is funny.”
They studied sustainable agriculture at the University of Montana and moved back to Spokane to start farming. After saving for a year, they had enough money to buy the feed, seed, livestock, and irrigation equipment they needed to launch their operation. They chased their dream to a 6-acre property off the Palouse Highway just south of Spokane, which they were able to rent, and founded CasaCano Farms as tenant farmers. They loved the location of the land. It was ideal: not too far from the city, farmers markets, and restaurants, and neither too big nor too pricey.
Madyson and Jorge planted their first crop on a 1.5-acre eld using no-till practices. This allowed them to forgo the costs of expensive machinery, fuel, and mechanical upkeep and repairs. Still, two months after they founded the farm, they realized that they couldn’t pay their only employee, a friend who agreed to stick around as a volunteer.
A month later, CasaCano Farms made its debut at Spokane’s popular Thursday Market in the South Perry District. And at the end of the year, CasoCano did something many businesses don’t: they broke even, with $19,000 in sales.
Still, Jorge says, “The first year was hard.” But, by spring of their second season on their rented farmland, Madyson was able to quit part-time waitressing.
Madyson and Jorge exemplify a new breed of farmer: young, college-educated, and passionate. Their ranks are increasing, along with demand for locally and sustainably — and often organically — grown food. Although more young people in the U.S. are farming now than there were a decade ago, the average age of the American farmer is climbing. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts a 6 percent decline in employment of agricultural workers by 2024.
RENT TO OWN
During their second year of farming, Madyson and Jorge began researching loan options, looking for land, and meeting with the owner of an agricultural property in Valleyford, about 8 miles from their rented fields. They met the owner, Madyson said, through “friends of friends of friends.” The farmer’s widow was in her 90s and wanted the land to be farmed again. She was toying with the idea of selling, but hadn’t yet listed the property on the market. The deal was done the old-fashioned way: “Around the kitchen table at her house after months of talking,” Jorge says.
The couple liked the location, the grove of pines along the southeast border, and the second well. But the couple also had concerns. The double-wide house trailer on the property had not been updated, Jorge estimated, since the 1970s. Behind it, a collection of pig pens and barns “were pretty dilapidated,” Madyson says. “The back 40 was pretty untouched. The first time we looked at it, I thought: This is lot of work.”
However, from the back 40 they can see Mica Peak, Mt. Spokane, Mt. Tekoa, and Rocks of Sharon. “The view in the back is what sold me,” Jorge says. “If everything goes wrong, it’s a really nice property in a nice spot.”
In summer 2015, they settled on the selling price and finalized their Direct Farm Ownership Loan from the USDA. This loan, for newer farmers, caps loans at $300,000 but requires zero down payment. Interest is fixed and low: under 4 percent for 30 years. Designed for farmers, payments are made in the fall, after the growing season. Madyson and Jorge’s first full payment is due this October, one year and one month after their wedding — which the farmer’s widow attended.
ROOM TO GROW
The couple slept outdoors in a tent during the first week on their new farm, then in the living room during renovations that lasted a month to update the kitchen. The house, they say, remains a work in progress. But there’s work to do in the fields.
Their second year in business, sales more than doubled, to about $42,000, Jorge says. This year, their third, they’ve doubled the amount of produce they’re growing and expanded into new crops: corn, potatoes, winter squash. They’re farming two locations: the new farm in Valleyford and their old rental plot. During high season, they estimate they each put in about 90 hours per week. But, they agree, it’s gratifying.
“It’s fun to walk around those big old barns and feel the history of it,” Madyson says. “I personally feel the ownership over it and the emotional investment. We’re not tenants, which is nice. We have total control over everything, except for the weather.” And well pumps. Theirs went out in April, an unexpected $2,000 expense.
But, as Jorge says, “The business itself is sustainable. This year we’re on track to make $60,000 in sales and revenue.” CasaCano Farms regularly supplies produce to six Spokane restaurants that value the farm-to-table philosophy: Luna, Wild Sage American Bistro, South Perry Pizza, Casper Fry, Durkin’s Liquor Bar, and Central Food.
This summer, the couple was finally able to pay a stipend to their friend, the farm volunteer who has helped them since the first year, through a state pilot program aimed at small farms. The Farm Internship Project is offered to farms that do less than $250,000 in sales per year in a number of Washington counties, including Spokane. Qualifying farms may hire up to three paid or unpaid interns for up to 12 months.
CasaCano Farms had three interns this growing season, with two living on the property. Compensation included room and board, one meal a day, unlimited veggies, a dozen eggs, and $100 a week. “I think the business will be able to grow with this extra help,” Jorge says.
This fall, they plan to raise eight steer instead of two, as they’ve done in the past. They also plan to raise pigs twice a year instead of once, continue selling eggs from their 40 laying hens, and maintain their “members market,” a program which costs less initially and offers more flexibility than a traditional CSA. For an annual membership of either $75 or $100, participants can buy produce at the farm or the farmers market at a discount.
The couple’s farming philosophy is the same: sustainable and low-impact. But they’ve moved away from no-till to minimal-till farming, plowing the top 4 inches of soil to get their eld started for the season. “We’re still working on deep-soil health and tilth, composting, and broad-forking” — or deep aerating — Jorge says. They also use organic farming practices and hope to become certified organic in the next few years.
Their wish list includes buying their own tractor. “It would be nice to spread compost with a tractor instead of by hand with a wheelbarrow,” Jorge says.
Meantime, farming “has kind of evolved into all that we care about. This is what we like, and this is what we’re good at, so we’ve gone 100 percent in.”
Madyson agrees: “We feel like sometimes we are addicted to it.”
Seattle native Adriana Janovich now lives in Spokane, where she writes about food, restaurants and cocktails.