"I'm Gonna Do This Until I Die:" The Fabulous Life of the Small, Independent Farmer
In 1997, Rocky and Celeste Tassione traded in their urban lives for greener pastures north of Stephenville to grow organic, specialty greens through hydroponic gardening in one lone greenhouse. Their goal was to gather enough business through sales to restaurants to make a living of it.
At first, it was difficult to compete with large corporations that unloaded their veggies from the back of shipping trucks like clockwork. But they quickly learned how to keep up with demand and compete in a difficult market.
Eleven greenhouses later, they've established themselves and over 30 local restaurants serve their baby lettuces, vegetable specialties and herbs, proving the farm-to-table movement is more fact than rhetoric. In their 15th growing season, the Tassiones are a rare breed in that they've been able to make a career being small farmers. Below, Rocky discusses how the farm-to-table movement has changed and some of the biggest battles that small farmers face.
How has the farm-to-table movement changed business for you in the past few years? At first, if a restaurant bought something from us one time, then next time we didn't have it, they would get upset and not use us again. And now the whole attitude toward growers has changed. Now if we don't have it they say, 'no problem' and work with us. They'll also call us to see what we're growing and they may make seasonal menu changes based on that.
So, chefs and restaurants are more flexible with what produce you may have ready? Not only are they flexible, they're understanding and appreciative.
Is it hard to keep up with demand? The demand is good and, most of the time, we can keep up. It mostly depends on the season and weather. Last summer it was too hot and nothing grew, and the winter before that it was too cold. This winter and spring have been awesome and we have some of the most beautiful stuff we've ever seen right now. And a lot of it. It's fantastic.
What are the biggest challenges for small farmers? Small farmers have to fight and contend with being to grow enough to make a living. You can't make money if you don't have anything to sell. The trick is to always have something to sell so that you always have money coming in. Another factor is they don't get to set the prices -- it's what the market bears.
Compounded with that is the weather; it's really difficult. Last year was a real hard winter and summer. I know a lot of farmers that use to sell small amounts to restaurants and they're not in it anymore.
Then, when the economy goes south and people don't go out to eat as much that knocks a lot of them out, too. The economy and weather are the biggest factors.
What's your typical day? A typical day might start at 6 a.m.: water, fertilize, cut, package, plant, clean, mow. Then, I might get on the tractor and work on stuff until dark. Back at the house we still have to do invoicing, labeling and everything else for our products. Sometimes we don't get done until 10 at night. It's the reason I don't wear a watch. We start our day according to the weather and we quit when we're done.
And spring through summer, we're always behind.
What else do you have on your farm besides the specialty greens? We have around 200 quail, which we raise for their eggs and sell to restaurants. My son and daughter, who are 12 and 10, take care of them. We've raised our kids up as part of the farm, and the quail are their responsibility. In the summer the kids work half a day and also make deliveries with us once a week.
Have you ever had any regrets about moving out to the country to grow greens? When we moved out here and started doing this, there were some tough spots in there, but we said, 'If this doesn't work, we're still not moving back to the city. We're going to stay out here.' Growing something that people enjoy is very rewarding to us. We're not going anywhere. I'm gonna do this until I die.
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