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Back To The Farmland

The dream and reality of living off the land. A novice farmer tells his story.

Kurtwood Farm Cow

Kurtwood Farm livestock.

Everybody wants to shop at the farmers market these days and a whole lot of people seem to be dreaming of farming themselves — getting back to the land, anyway. Some chickens, a goat, their own veggies, maybe a real crop.

Kurt Timmermeister did it, almost by accident. Bought four acres on an island off Seattle. Then bought more. Tried honey bees and sheep. Tomatoes and kale. Goats and cows and butchering himself. It was a big, long learning curve. Hard work. He’s finally found his way.

This hour On Point: becoming a farmer.

- Tom Ashbrook


Kurt Timmermeister is founder of Kurtwood Farms, a thirteen-acre dairy farm in Vashon, Washington which specializes in cheese production and weekly local dinners.  His book is “Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land.”

Rebecca Gould is associate professor of religion and environmental studies at Middlebury College, and author of “At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America.”

Extra: Watch videos of Kurt Timmermeister on-site at his cheese cave.

Kurt Timmermeister works on his farm (Courtesy/Clare Baroza)

Kurt Timmermeister works on his farm (Courtesy/Clare Baroza)

Book Excerpt from “Growing a Farmer”:

Chapter One – Before the Farm

When I was twenty-four years old I opened my first restaurant. It was a small, actually very small, ten-foot by twenty-foot, café. With just four tables squeezed together and a minuscule kitchen on the side, this humble space represented the start of my career. I had worked as a waiter and a pastry cook around town and felt that I could run a restaurant better than my much more experienced bosses and coworkers. Despite this confidence, I really had no clue what I was up against and was immediately overwhelmed by the difficulties of owning and managing a business.

Cheese, fresh from Kurtwood Farms (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Cheese, fresh from Kurtwood Farms (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Every morning at four I would walk the two blocks from my small studio apartment in downtown Seattle to the café and bake pastries in the manner of a home cook. The kitchen was tiny, the equipment of small scale and my volume of baked goods originally very limited; one pound cake, a couple of coffee cakes, four dozen biscuits. At seven in the morning the café would open and I would sell the fresh pastries and coffee to the receptive locals who would line up daily. They could see into the small kitchen, see the mixer, watch the rolls come out of the oven and onto the counter in front of them. What was significant to me about this entire process was there was integrity; I bought butter and flour and baked it into pastries and handed it to people to eat right there. Yes, this is the description of every bakery the world over, but I thought, perhaps arrogantly, that no one was doing it so directly. I reached into the oven, pulled out a biscuit and placed it on a plate. I had made that biscuit, I had served it and the customer ate it. There were no cake mixes, no canned fillings, no waiters, no corporate offices. I sold goods for cash and then walked across the street to the bank and put the money in the bank. It was real and it was good. This influenced the way I would look at my world henceforth, though this simple and satisfying arrangement couldn’t last.

As the café grew to be more popular and therefore more profitable, I realized I could afford to buy a house and settle down, move out of my small studio in the city. If I could have afforded a home in the city, I most likely would have stayed in Seattle. Even then, twenty years ago, the price of real estate in the city was quite high and well out of my reach.

My universe at the time was the café and my apartment, both in downtown Seattle. I began to look for less expensive places to live that had the luxury of space. Seattle is located on Puget Sound, an expansive protected body of water dotted with islands that extend northward to Canada. The island closest to downtown Seattle, and accessed by ferryboats that docked a few blocks from my apartment, is Bainbridge Island. Originally I checked out homes there, but found them to be too costly. South of Bainbridge Island is Vashon Island, accessed by state ferryboats as well, but much less conveniently; the dock is located in West Seattle, a long trek from downtown Seattle.

In addition to simply finding a home on Vashon Island cheaper than I could in Seattle, there was also the pull of nature. My impression at that time was that life would be easier in a small town, that life outside of the turmoil of a large city would be serene, orderly and tranquil. I confess that all these many years later I continue to fall into this flawed thinking. And so I began my search for a new home: I wanted more space than my humble apartment offered, situated far enough from the city to be affordable. I wasn’t looking to become a farmer; the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I just wanted a place where I could unwind after my grueling days at the café.

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  • Anonymous

    And check out Sarah Kanabay’s excellent interview with Timmermeister over at The Farmer General! http://farmergeneral.com/2011/04/01/raw-as-dairy-real-as-milk-the-farmer-general-speaks-with-kurt-timmermeister/

  • TomikentSmith

    I just received my copy of the book today and as soon as I finish “The View from Great Dixter-Christopher Lloyd” I will start “Growing a Farmer”…most likely tomorrow AM

  • Zeno

    Farming is NOT like Green Acres or some Disney fantasy. Its very hard and dangerous work that never ends (especially if you have livestock)…and most of all it’s very expensive as well.

    • Ladyday

      IF I recall my Green Acres, Oliver discovered this truth during the course of the series and a lot of comedic storylines came from him painfully discovering that truth.

  • Yar

    What is the difference between running a dairy and being in prison? In prison you get time off for good behavior! Run a dairy that cost you 16 dollars per hundred weight of actually cost, excluding your labor, and sell milk on the market at 11 dollars per hwt. Sound like fun, then maybe living off the land is the job for you.
    I keep waiting for the food economy to change, our food is too cheap, and wages are too low. A doctor can get more for a 30 minute operation than a farmer can get for a years worth of labor, and the farmer needs a greater knowledge of biology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, finance, and just about every other field of study.
    I would love to make a living off the farm, the problem with the US economy, is that to support the family farm, we must also support the basic living wage of middle class America. Exploitation goes up and down our economic ladder and the small family farm gets squeezed from both sides.
    We all live off the land, and we better acknowledge it.
    A economy can’t trade services for services forever without someone putting a crop in the ground.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Hi, I’m watching how you “would love to make a living,” since your profile shows you do just that. My city is trying to create an environment where we are self-sufficient, with both public (you can sign up for stretches of land) and private farms, and plenty of farmer’s markets. I love the idea of even my TOWN being closer to the land. So I just bought The New Pioneer, which is the second edition (annual I think) from CVS drugstore, and it is fascinating to me. I read about how to drive off predators by using motion activated lights, and moved my hall light to a spot by the air conditioner where a very young squirrel has been turning all the styrofoam into a nest, eating through all my barricades, using the window frame to make a lace barrier. He sits like a gargoyle in reverse, mostly with his tail hanging out. I find at http://www.backyardnature.net/squirrel.htm something about this critter, one Mistletoe, by Jim Conrad. My little guy is likely to live 12 to 20 years, with a perfect memory for this spot. Now I’ve got a radio ready to blast him too. I feel so segregated that I’d even love a rat. We make eye contact and he decides I’m okay. Alas.

      • Yar

        I farm but it is not a living, it is a good life though, I hope I can continue. I don’t have access to Microsoft’s Campus for revenue, I live in a part of the country that has too much poverty. My labor is limited and I am not willing to hire immigrant workers. I have bees, cattle, and grow vegetables for the local market. I may try turning the farm into a bed and breakfast, I think the farm experience is worth sharing. It is a difficult niche to make work as a livelihood.

        • Ellen Dibble

          I think there are farm/bed-and-breakfasts in my region, and they sound enchanting to me. I’d like an excuse to spend some time at some of them, partly for the open space and the change, but lots of it for a chance to try to talk with the people running them. There are many variations in attractions. Llamas. Trails to ride horses on. Houses that are totally solar. Houses where George Washington slept…

        • TerryTreeTree

          Thank you for not supporting illegal aliens. Maybe you can theme your Bed and Breakfast on those that want to be weekend farmers, and enjoy the results of their part-time endeavors. I don’t know where you live, but for creative management, the answers are there. Most management only get creative when figuring out how to be over-paid while running a company into bankruptcy, like I perceive Rick Waggoner to have done to GM. $20 Mill. BONUS, while workers lost jobs, pensions, and futures, and investors lost all stock value. That business model has been repeated ad infinitum. If available, trading farm work, for part of the produce, might be an option for you.

    • Shepherd

      A better example than doctors –who do spend years of schooling in biochemistry etc. and then more years of of poorly compensated, gruelling work hours before they are allowed to perform high risk procedures on humans and then spend years paying off their educational debt and malpractice insurance etc.- really I’m not bitter :) —would be those in the corporate world/insurance industry etc. who funnily enough make much more than doctors or teachers or farmers or basically anyone who performs a vital service for humanity. The working person with a tangible skill has been relegated to the middle and lower classes in our culture as the rich get richer and unfortunately are the ones who have the most influence over the direction of our economy (as well as having the money to buy organic food!)

  • David

    Vermont Dairy farmer here and like Yar” comment about running a dairy. We have to love what we do because it 14 hr days with being on call 24 hrs a day every day of the year for little or no return other than to love what you do. This segment sounds very interesting and should be a vision for us all being sustainable in some way. Thanks Tom for this segment. Us farmers feel like we are disenfranchised and treated poorly by our government and the public. No farms no food! Cheers

  • Adiawa

    One study shows that farming is one of the most unpredictable and unstable jobs. Many factors, including nature itself, could upend the work of whole season. I am one of the people who dream of living a tranquil life in a farm. But I suspect owning a farm could be more demanding and stressful that working as a physician. The mere thinking of having to seek medical help for ailing cattle could be enough to shatter any potential tranquility. I’ll listen to the show…I might change my mind.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for growing food and not corn for that ethanol scam.

    • Henry ParsonsParsonshm

      I am glad that someone recognizes the insane waste of resources in the name of ethanol!!!

  • TerryTreeTree

    Most information that I saw while in Agriculture class, said it takes seven acres or more to pasture each cow or horse. That and other experience on our family farm, as I was growing up, makes me question this story. In more arid land, like Texas, Arizona, the land required for one animal, multiplies. There is a LOT of work, and Risk in farming. It is, however, very satisfying, and has its own great rewards.

  • Beth

    My husband and I have three chickens in our urban backyard, and they are enough of a pain in the butt that I can’t even imagine having livestock that are bigger in body size or head count! Kudos to the full-time farmers, they’re some of the most skilled workers in the whole country.

    • Anonymous

      My dog can help you with that problem…

      • Beth

        Trust me geffe, I’ve got my eye on the neighbor dogs. And I caught a neighbor cat skulking around the coop just the other day. It seems the whole neighborhood wants to help me with my livestock problem!

        • guest

          It’s not the chickens fault that you didn’t do your homework…find somebody else who wants them and will take care of them. I’m not a PETA fanatic, but come on…

          • Beth

            Woah, now. My husband and I did EXTENSIVE research before we bought our chickens, and they are healthy and strong. Their coop is predator-proofed, and we know exactly what to look for with impacted crop, respiratory problems, etc. The fact that I get grumpy when they poop in their water or refuse to go into their roost at night does not mean I did not do my homework. Take your judgement somewhere else, my friend.

          • guest

            Sorry if it was judgmental- I read it that you were going to turn them loose to be food for the local dogs and cats. Perhaps that was in jest. I can get grumpy when our animals make my day longer but that’s farming and I try not to take it out on the animals.

          • Beth

            Good gracious, no. The very thought of doing that is nauseating. I was in fact joking about the less glamorous parts of backyard farming, which I knew full well I was committing to when we got them. I would never “take out” a bad mood on any of my animals and would report anyone who did so. I applaud your ethical stance, but would encourage you to be less confrontational about it as I found your reaction extremely offensive.

        • Anonymous

          In my neighborhood we have Coyotes, Possums and Raccoons who would be way ahead of my dog trying to get at the poor chickens.

          I knew folks up in Vermont and there biggest problem other than the winter was Fishercats, if they got into the coup it was all over.
          Mind you they had a Rooster and he was pretty good at protecting his brood.

          • Beth

            We’ve actually seen coyotes within a half-mile of our house, and we’re keeping a close watch for possums and racoons. We’re installing motion sensor lights in our backyard for that same reason; we opted not to get a rooster because of the noise factor, so we’ve been careful to protect our hens from predators since there’s no rooster to throw down with them. We also know other chicken keepers in our neighborhood who’ve been helpful with advice. Add to that that we live in a southern city, so the weather keeps predators active a lot longer.

          • Henry ParsonsParsonshm

            Roosters are wimps and would be no contest for predators….but I love to hear the crow!!!

    • Gregg

      Chickens are fun. We have some on our horse farm, they wander around all day eating bugs and larvae then turn them into eggs. The blue araucana eggs are cool.

  • Anonymous

    I really wish Tom would let the man finish a sentence. To much coffee this morning?

  • VT farmer

    PLEASE if you are going to encourage people to farm, insist that they get a real education somehow if animals are involved. Too many animals suffer at the hands of inexperienced and starry eyed novices, from too much “care” as well as too little.

    • guest

      thank you for sharing that caution!

  • ThresherK

    I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned “The Egg and I”, a semi-autobiographical book some 100+ years old about a woman who married and whose family went to start an egg (and self-sustinence) farm in the Pacific Northwest.

    Well worth a read, and it makes me wonder how much, or little, things have changed for “full farms”.

  • Adi

    َََQuestion: Is Kurt open to accepting a small family to live in the farm and share the work load? Are there other farms that are open to such option?

  • Troy Musto

    Hi Tom,
    My mother was feeling very ambitious a few years back and planted a small crop of corn, tomatoes, onions, peppers and such. She soon became overwhelmed with the amount of work it took to maintain it. It quickly became over grown and her enthusiasm dwindled. The next year she decided NOT to re-plant and joined a CSA. She is much happier… and so are the rest of our family who had to begrudgingly help her keep it going. We did enjoy some of the finest “Jersey Tomatoes” ever!

    Troy in Bridgeton NJ!

  • Michaelrf

    This island sounds like New England farming without the winter

    • ThresherK

      I was raised in CT, a state which (by some accounts) was unable to feed itself by 1700, largely due to the soil. I don’t know that that island’s soil could be any more of a challenge than New England’s!

  • nj

    Re. farming and profit.

    The old joke goes…

    A farmer recently wins a few million dollars in a lottery.

    In the interview with the local teevee station, he is asked what he’ll do with the money.

    “I’ll probably just keep farming until it’s gone.”

    How sad that there never seems to be a lack of money for wars, subsidies for nukes and fossil fuels, all while corporations pay no taxes, and the people who provide the sustenance of life have to struggle to eek out a living.

  • nj

    Re. farming and profit.

    The old joke goes…

    A farmer recently wins a few million dollars in a lottery.

    In the interview with the local teevee station, he is asked what he’ll do with the money.

    “I’ll probably just keep farming until it’s gone.”

    How sad that there never seems to be a lack of money for wars, subsidies for nukes and fossil fuels, all while corporations pay no taxes, and the people who provide the sustenance of life have to struggle to eek out a living.

  • http://ibelieveinbutter.wordpress.com/ Soli

    I’m so glad Kurt mentioned the anomaly of getting out of season produce all year long and people being unaware of what grows when. I find it disgusting that I can get cheap “summer squash” at the supermarket in November.

  • Laurie Berry

    My husband and I own a 285 acre farm and are Angus beef producers. Very hard occupation but the love of the land and Cattle are the things that help us keep going at it! We too are struggling with making the farm profitable, and could not have paid for the operation from startup if part of it had not been a family business owned by my husbands family before him. It definitely doesn’t pay the bills, but we both have jobs to support it…but it is worth it!

  • Peggy Howard

    When I was a child in the early 70s my widowed Mother decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of living on a farm. She did not know anything about farming but she was determined to follow her dream. It’s too bad that we five kids did not have the same dream! It was a financial, emotional and physical disaster. We had a dairy farm and all us kids were expected to work. We had to get the cows to the barn and milked before catching the school bus at 6:30 am then do it again when we got off the bus at 4:30. Surprisingly none of my siblings or I had any desire to continue farming into adulthood.

    • Henry ParsonsParsonshm

      I grew up on a family farm in the 60s. I did not have to g0 to the barn before school, but every afternoon I was expected to be in the barn after school by 4 o’clock. It was constraining, but I loved the cows and felt important that my family recognized my contribution to the farm. Three other brothers also were in the barn as they became of age. Two of them have left the farm for the public sector, where the wages and benefits are far more attractive than what we have here. My brother and I milk 100 cows and work 14 hour days for a milk check that only buys 30% of what it did in 1979, when we built our 100 cow barn. If I only knew then, what I know now, neither I nor my brother would be in this occupation today. But I still love the cows….

  • Jim Corven

    This topic is important for so many reasons. The concerns about food sources and quality, environmental health, and the heavily subsidized industrial agriculture make a fundamental change in our food production not only appealing but essential. We must stop poisoning our food and environment with petroleum-based products and this pioneering approach is a great step in the right direction!
    It certinly is a challange to make a living in agriculture but we find the big constraint to farm success is often not the ability to produce well but it’s the farmer’s poor “business” management skills that do them in. In addition, many non-agricultural people want to get on the land in meaningfull production but lack the skills and experience to be successful. At Bristol Community College (Fall River, MA) we have developed a unique organic agriculture program to help students (1/2 are over 40 years old) learn the basics through a combination of classroom learning and field internships. We need many more ways for people to re-learn the skills needed to get millions of new farmers into production in the next generation of agriculture.

  • Rpmoore52

    Growing much of one’s food is important, even if the household is supported by a day job. It can be a lot of work but that work can be managed wisely to max efficiency with time and resources. Anyone with a bit of land can try it and learn.

  • TerryTreeTree

    Win the Powerball, and the Mega-millions, and you, too can sucessfully farm for a year or two!!

  • David

    I very resentful that we have to pay more for “organic”.

    That’s the way our food is supposed to be before the evil Monsanto’s contaminated our entire food supply with their poisons.

    • Henry

      David, you pay more for organic, because people such as yourself, are of the mindset that organikally produced foods are better, safer, or healthier than conventionally produced foods and are willing to pay the additional pricet. If an organic farmer plays by the rules, it is much more costly to produce organically certified crops.Personally, organik is 15% substance and 85% politics and marketing

  • Diane

    Great show. Please do more on this topic.
    I get the sense that small farms often succeed if they produce “value-added” products like the guest’s cheese instead of relying on commodity sales. In order to promote this some regulations will have to be rewritten to take into account the normal practices in small operations. Also, cooperative marketing seems to help some of our local RI farmers.

  • Lisa

    A great story–very inspiring. And I highly recommend Rebecca Gould’s book, “At Home in Nature.”

    If you’re in the Boston Area and want to grow food and reconnect to the land, but you don’t want to leave the city, consider joining the Boston Tree Party (www.bostontreeparty.org).

    We’re planting 100 pairs of heirloom apple trees in publicly used spaces across Greater Boston. The tree plantings will take place in partnership with a diverse range of institutions, organizations, businesses, and communities.

    As an urban agriculture project, the campaign will create vital gathering places, build community connections, and improve community health. As a conceptual art project, the Boston Tree Party engages with metaphor and symbolism, and playfully reimagines patriotic and political language, imagery, and forms of association.

    We launch the planting campaign THIS Sunday, April 10th on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (at the intersection of High St. and Atlantic Ave) with the Boston Tree Party Inauguration.

    The festivities will start at 1pm and will include a celebratory rally featuring Edith Murnane (the Food Tzar of the City of Boston) Michael Phillips and John Bunker (the Official Pomologists of the Party), the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center “Let’s Get Moving” Tree Planting Delegation; music by the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band; the ceremonial planting of the first pair of apple trees in this city-wide planting campaign; a Wassailing of the trees; free apple cider; Central Asian Barbecue (afterall, apples originated in Central Asia); and opportunities to learn more about this campaign for Civic Fruit! Boston Tree Party staff will be on hand to help new communities sign up to become Tree Planting Delegations.

    Find out more here: http://www.bostontreeparty.org/join/inauguration/

  • Carlo

    I know this story didn’t get a lot of comments but I think many are really happy that you did this story. Thank you.

  • Jacko

    Green acres is the place for me.
    Farm livin’ is the life for me.
    Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
    Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside!

    The chores! Fresh Air!

  • http://www.ruggleshill.com Tricia

    I loved this program! I was cleaning my milk room listening, and I’ll listen to it again milking this evening! I’ve been small-scale dairying for the last 10 years, commercial for the last 5. Wonderful to hear Kurt’s experience.

  • Marcia

    I am puzzled by the idea presented in this show that using and killing sentient beings to satisfy our taste buds is spiritual. How one can think that cows that have been forced to give birth yearly then have their babies taken away so that humans can drink the milk meant for these babies, are “happy cows” is truly baffling to me. Eating a plant based diet is healthier for the individual and gentler on the planet.

    • Henry

      Marcia, honey, as a dairy farmer, I can assure you that both babies, cow and calf, are well taken care of on today’s mainstream farms. They both are a significant investment in time and money, so they’re well being is not taken lightly.

      • Marcia

        Henry, honey, I am no where that naive.

    • Gregg

      If you put a bull and cow together, as in nature, they will produce offspring yearly. I don’t think you have to force them. A healthy cow will continue to produce milk after the calf is grown.

    • Ed

      It is not merely taste buds being satisfied, but our nutritional needs. A plant based diet may be barely adequate for an adult versed in nutritional science. It is not healthier. It is not even healthy. It is not adequate for a growing baby or child. The recent incident in France is a good example of this. A vegan diet borders on child abuse.
      These animals were bred and exist very successfully as species by serving us as a food source. Set these same cows free in the wild and they would be torn apart by predators.

  • MarashGirl.blogspot.com

    Loved the show! Always shared that dream!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588598458 Lara Pearson

    Just put Kurt’s book on hold at my library!!

  • dmac

    I really enjoyed listening to this episode.

    We relish the produce and products available from our local farmers, including artisan cheeses.

    On our urban 3/4 acre lot that includes our home, my wife cares for our dozen chickens, peach, plum, apple and fig trees. She also cultivates blueberries and all the usual veggies.

    Some of my wife’s uncles own and operate small farms. These men are all getting on in years but remain strong and vibrant. I admire them. But our little urban farm is enough for us.

    Party on, farmers however small your plots may be!

  • Skagit Farmer

    “The greatest fine art of the future will be the ability to make a comfortable living of a small piece of land”. –Abraham Lincoln

    There are plenty of farmers making a comfortable living – it’s the hired labor that is not.

    • Henry

      My brother and I milk a hundred cows on a Western Mass dairy farm. We are the last of what were ten farms, when we grew up here. If you were to follow us around for a day, you might not think our living is so comfortable….

      • Gregg

        We keep between 65 and 70 horses and I think a lot of people don’t realize the 24/7 aspect of running a farm. My wife and I have not taken a vacation together in 20 years because one of us has to be here all of the time. I’m sure you are in the same situation. I can’t imagine working a 40 hour week. It would be heaven.

  • Solarbobky

    There is a classic book “The Integral Urban House” out of print but available in libraries or used online. “.. a comprehensive guide to achieving a completely sustainable urban lifestyle by creating a mini-ecosystem where residents grow their own fruits and vegetables, raise chickens, rabbits, and fish, recycle 90% of their waste, solar heat their hot water, and use a variety of other alternative technologies—all on a 1/8-acre city lot.” Apparently recently republished (2008) by New Catalyst Books.

  • Solarbobky

    A great new book is “Toolbox for Sustainable City Living ”

  • anonymous

    Great show but since WBUR is in Boston i expected them to mention the great program by TUFTS University focused in helping aspiring farmers:
    Yes, its hard work but there is help out there. Farmers are especially unique professionals regarding their ability to freely share knowledge to anyone interested.

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