Digging in

Outside the door of a woodclad farmstand, a small, reddish pig named Wilbur grunts and squeals before ambling back to the compost pile. Dried herbs hang above rough-sawn oak shelving.

In a nearby hoophouse, chickens scratch through the last of the tomato and pepper plants.

You can follow this story on Instagram or Facebook or the farm blog. You can take a daytrip during the growing season and spend some time talking to the farmer.

And from those vantage points, you might find yourself thinking this could be the life for you.

But “it’s not all beautiful sunsets” acknowledges Chrissie Laymon, a Knox County Farm Bureau member who operates The Farm on Kenyon Road.

She appreciates these perks of farm life but says getting into agriculture means you’ll have to be willing to get your hands dirty. And she notes, without her husband, Jay, working as a firefighter and operating a tree service business, it would be harder to make ends meet.

Still, she’s optimistic about the opportunity for smaller-scale farms to be successful. With the high costs of land and older farmers sometimes reluctant to turn their operation over to the next generation, Laymon believes that niche production and direct marketing offer a way for young and beginning farmers to stay in agriculture.
She points to the productivity of one of the three hoophouses she uses to grow vegetables and herbs.

“It could probably feed 50 families in a season and it’s 30 feet x 96 feet,” she said. “You can do so much on little bits of ground.”

Making this farm work has meant finding a number of those small enterprises—from eggs to produce to maple syrup—and partnering with other farms to source what she can’t grow herself. She operates the farmstand as well as a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which customers subscribe to receive a share of the farm’s products.

The farm’s sustained growth also has been a result of making a number of practical decisions along the way.

“There is this beautiful movement to get back to our roots, but at the end of the day, this is a business and we are making business decisions,” she said.

Some heirloom vegetables haven’t done as well as other varieties in full-scale production, and with four young children to homeschool, finding ways to mechanize certain chores is essential. Farming without the use synthetic chemicals is important to her customers, and she is always open about choices she makes.

In the end, many are willing to reward the farm for its growing practices and attention to quality.

“The way we’ve been able to build community allows us to have these conversations and it not be a heated debate,” she said.

Commitment to the local community is one area where Laymon is not interested in compromising.

“Good food should be accessible to everyone,” she believes.

She does her best to keep prices low and has hopes of partnering with a church or a local organization to provide fresh food to people in need. She even started a learning library at the farmstand with books to help others live closer to the land.

It’s a philosophy that the farm’s supporters appreciate.

On this day, local customer Ruth Woehr stops in to pick up some lettuce and spinach.

“This is just a great addition to the community,” she offers.
Moving forward, Laymon hopes to grow the CSA program, which will allow the farm to serve more customers. But she’s not making too many guesses beyond that.

She had once thought she’d get into agriculture by marrying a farmer, she laughed. Now she works full-time on a farm she and her husband built from the ground up.
“This, to me, is what I always wanted to do,” she said. “It just didn’t end up the way I thought it would.”

Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative

American Farm Bureau recently teamed up with the Global Social Enterprise Initiative and Startup Hoyas at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business to launch the Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative. The project is working to provide resources, tools and promotion to help entrepreneurs turn great ideas into lucrative realities in order to create stronger rural communities across the country. As part of the initiative, the first-ever Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge offered up-and-coming business owners $30,000 and the title of Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneur of the Year.

Tips for startup farmers

Start Small: “When I started, I had all these ideas. There is no limit to what we can do,” Laymon said. She came to realize that focusing on vegetables, which had relatively low input costs, was the best way to get her farm going. From there she added more products and created partnerships with other farms. “Our main focus is just to do a better job at what we’re doing now.”

Build Your Brand: “Social media has been a godsend,” Laymon said. While farming, she uses her phone to post to Facebook and Instagram, and she also writes a blog. Laymon paid a designer to create a logo that is used to brand all of the farm’s products including T-shirts. Many customers feel like they know her even before they visit the farm, she said.

Offer an Experience: The current interest in local food may have started out as a fad, but Laymon believes it is here to stay. She invests time talking with the farm’s visitors, noting that “People are trying to reconnect. We really make sure that when people come here, they have an experience here.”