Rebecca Thistlethwaite: Help for the Family Farm

Agricultural farmer, consultant and author Rebecca Thistlethwaite has taken part in every aspect of sustainable farming, from care of the soil to the fine points of marketing and sales. For farmers seeking her consulting services, they recognize they’re utilizing someone who knows of what she speaks, directly from experience—and with today’s crisis in conventional farming, those services are more in demand than ever. To help meet these demands, she has just published a book entitled Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business to help beginning farmers find a firm and sustainable road to success.

Path from the Jungle

Rebecca’s interest in sustainability had interesting beginnings. “I had an epiphany while I was doing a study-abroad program in Belize when I was an undergraduate,” Rebecca told Calmful Living. “I was an environmental science major and I was really interested in conservation, but I didn’t quite understand the role that humans play in the natural world and how dependent we are on the natural world. In Belize I saw a form of sustainable agriculture called shifting agriculture. The indigenous Mayan people would cultivate a piece of land for a year and then they wouldn’t come back to that same piece of land for fifteen years. During that time the natural forests grew back up and supported a lot of biodiversity, and it replenished the soils. So I got to witness a form of agriculture that satisfied human needs and was also kind to nature.

“That was sort of my eye-opening experience, where I thought that we could figure out how to solve human needs like poverty and social justice issues at the same time as protecting the environment.”

From there, Rebecca discovered the wonder of sustainable farming by getting her hands right into the dirt. “I was working as a wilderness ranger in Idaho and met a farmer who was out backpacking who had an organic farm, the first one in Idaho,” she continued. “So I went there for six months and absolutely loved it. It was the funnest thing I had ever done: digging carrots, weeding and doing all that physical labor—which I had never really done before. That’s when I fell in love with agriculture, actually doing it.”

Farmer and Consultant

Having earned college degrees in biology and ecology, Rebecca didn’t stop at farming but broadened her career into assisting others. “I worked at a farm training incubator in Salinas, California, for about seven years called ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association),” she related. “I helped farmers start their businesses and learned a lot of different business skills and also production skills. I learned quite a bit from trial and error; some of our students never became successful farmers but others did. At that point I began trying to figure out the secret ingredients, the magic formula, that enabled certain people to succeed in farming and certain people to not.”

Rebecca also had ample opportunity to discover and evaluate these practices as they related to her personal survival during a six-year period in her own pastured livestock operation.

This unique background brought her the capacity to consult farmers from one end of a farming operation to the other, from production to administration. “I went in focusing primarily on business management aspects, such as writing a business plan, market planning, sales strategies, pricing, things of that nature,” Rebecca explained. “But I find that with a lot of my clients their issues are actually production and operational in nature. Because of my background in production and my degrees in biology and ecology, along with an intense interest in soil science, I’m looking at everything from the bottom up. You can’t really solve a quality or volume issue with better marketing and sales strategy.”

And Rebecca still finds she cannot consult without farming herself. “I feel like I have to actually do both consulting and farming,” she said. “I haven’t been farming anything for the last couple of years because I took a trip around the country and then I wrote my book. As a result, I’ve been without my hands in the dirt for two years and I felt like something was really lacking; so we just purchased a piece of land to rectify that. I do better consulting when I have more hands-on experience myself. I can also empathize a lot more with the people that I’m working for.”

State of Sustainability

Due to her range of experience, Rebecca is able to shed some credible light on the state of sustainability today.

First, she is discovering that an increasing number of conventional farmers are making the switch to sustainable production. “Oh, absolutely many people are transitioning out of conventional,” Rebecca reported. “In fact I’m consulting for two conventional orchardists right now who are adopting a lot of organic practices, especially their soil fertility practices. They’re also using more integrated pest management and really trying to reduce chemical use.

“What’s motivating people making the transition are things like personal and family health, community health, and water quality issues. They still want to see salmon in their local rivers and realize that their use of malathion and other chemicals are damaging the salmon runs. Some of them are searching for new markets and seeking to get into higher-end markets that demand cleaner produce and more natural produce. There are a variety of reasons, but from what I’ve seen it hasn’t been just a business decision but more of a personal and community-oriented decision.”

Rebecca has also seen that new farmers are all tending toward sustainable practices. “I haven’t met a young farmer yet in my travels across the country who is going into chemical conventional production—they all are going into either organic or high animal-welfare type methods. I think that is a really good sign that the newer generations want to do things more sustainably.”

The Family Farm

Rebecca views her work as mainly being for the family farm. “My overall mission is to see small and midscale family-owned farmers succeed in this country and be able to manage their businesses sustainably—stewarding the land, taking care of their people and being economically viable,” Rebecca concluded. “In the last hundred years with the dramatic vertical integration and monopolization that’s happened in our food system, small and midscale farmers have become essentially powerless, and the prices that are achieved in the market are typically very poor. So our food system has become more and more divided in two ways: we have lots of small farmers who can direct-market everything, and then the really big guys. The people in between are typically the multigenerational family farms. I’d like to see all of them do a lot better, because they’re actually what’s keeping rural America alive and stewarding our land. I think that they’re our best hope of having a sustainable food system.”

For more information, visit Rebecca’s website at www.rebeccathistlethwaite.com.

Rebecca’s book Farms with a Future is available from the Calmful Living bookstore.