Oregon Farm Link Navigate Program Participant Story – Thomas and Geneva

Our staff Navigators can assist with everything from refining farm goals and developing a search plan, to navigating lease templates and facilitating meetings with potential landowners. Find out HERE if the Navigate Program may be the right fit for you!

Silvia Cuesta, FoFF’s Navigator, sat down with Thomas and Geneva to talk about the challenges they faced acquiring land, what they learned through this process of getting one on one coaching from the Navigate Program and how OFL helped them live out their dream of living closer to the land in the Oregon countryside.

“The support of the program helped clarify our goals and see the potential of finding a place to lease in the short term to start our dream to have a place where we can live and could farm as well, and our land search started.”

  • Tell us a little about your farming journey.  Well, we have been mostly suburban gardeners growing mixed veggies. We have always had the desire and interest to grow food and learn how to farm, but the extent of our experience with farming was raising a few chickens and growing some greens like chard, kale, lettuce and a little bit of pickling cucumbers on a small garden for our personal use because we have had such a small property up until this point and not much space to grow more.
  • What got you into farming? How long have you been farming? As mentioned before, we always had an interest in growing food for ourselves. But it wasn’t until we connected with Food Waves, a local nonprofit that is all about food education. Thomas did a year internship helping out and growing everything from corn, to squash to tomatoes, a ton of arugula, lettuce and other leafy greens. The internship was a great learning and rewarding experience. Learning all the ins and outs of farming week after week taking care of the plants, and making sure they have what they need. We learned how much work farming can be, but also learned that it can be fun and rewarding as well. Working with someone with experience and an established operation helped us discover what farming can look like and see that this is something we really enjoy and we want to pursue our passion to start our own farm.
  • How did you hear about Oregon Farm Link and the Navigate program? And why did you apply? I remember it was Christmas of 2022. We were talking to a family member who lives in Massachusetts and they mentioned that there is a website where people post listings for land for farming and if you were looking for land. And so we looked it up, and we found the site for Oregon Farm Link, and that is where we saw the Navigate Program, but I think it was after attending the Oregon small farmers conference that we heard more about the program and decided to apply after that. We’ve had experience getting coaching in different things and areas of our lives like for personal growth and development. Thomas got coaching to start a business, so for farming we didn’t know a lot but we were interested to know about how to bridge the gap from being interested to being able to do it. So learning about the Navigate Program and that they offered one on one coaching to find land, that was pretty big for us to help us figure out where to start.
  • What were you hoping to get from the Navigate Program? What were your goals and needs? I think the biggest one was definitely to get onto land or to move towards that. We weren’t sure how fast we would be able to do that, because our inexperience or lack of knowledge going into this we were thinking we would need to buy land first to be able to have a place to farm and grow food, and that we might have to wait for a while before we could be able to afford to buy land to pursue our dream. We just weren’t aware that we could lease land where we could do this. So once we got into the program and started to understand more of what the program entailed, we thought, why not just start now, let’s get coaching, start learning more about what is available with the help of the program. Once we started it became clear to us what our goals were and what we needed to do. The support of the program helped clarify our goals and see the potential of finding a place to lease in the short term to start our dream to have a place where we can live and could farm as well, and our land search started.
  • What challenges did you experience in your farmland search before joining the program and how did the program help you with those challenges? Before we came into the Navigate Program we were stuck with not even knowing where or how to start the search. The task seems overwhelming. We had the assumption that we have to save up and wait however long that takes us to save up however much we need it to save up till we can buy a place of our own and then only then can we really do this. So we were stuck in that mindset to the point where I did not know how to even start searching or where to look?  We had this dream of having a farm business and retreat center but we were not sure how we could go about making this happen.
  • What aspects of the Navigate program were the most helpful to you during the process? Most helpful was the one to one coaching and guidance with the step process- setting up goals and milestones. Working with a coach to help guide us to the step by step process and help set up goals and milestones and the regular check-ins to help us figure what we need to do next to stay on track of our goals. Making sure we check listings, reaching out and setting up meetings with landowners. Knowing what to look for and questions to ask when visiting properties. All those steps were so helpful because in the past, when we’ve rented places to live, it’s usually through a website, like Craigslist, just us on our own looking through these listings not knowing if maybe they’re gonna be a good fit, or not, but having a coach in this process to keep us on track and figure out next steps. I still remember when we filled out our land seeker profile and created a listing, that was a big moment, as soon as we filled out that profile, which took not even an hour, from that moment, we were like we can do this and everything started to flow once we took that first action towards our goals. 
  • What are the key things that you learn through your land search, connecting with landowners and viewing properties? We learned a lot. The most important part is to know what you’ll need and want. Learning the layers of what to ask and what to look for. Be clear of what you want and need and ask for it. Ask a lot of questions or as many as you need to be 100% clear of what you both want, and understand that you’re not always going to get what you want and where you can compromise. Like for us coming on to this property that we’re on now. We asked a lot of questions about what we’re able to do and what we’re not able to do. It was definitely a process but very important.
  • How was your experience connecting with landowners?  It seemed like everybody had a slightly different deal and unique concern. There was a place that was pretty much like my way or the highway, and other landowners were very accommodating. There was one who seemed like she really had to accomplish certain things for herself in renting out part of her property, and we just weren’t quite a fit for that. I think everybody was upfront with us, which we appreciate. For the most part the interactions we had were positive, and a good learning experience. 
  • What else did you find helpful during this process?  You know, we would get really excited about going to look at properties and we would be like, yeah, we can do it. Let’s move forward, but then, after each time, we will come back and talk to the Navigator (Silvia) and we learn another layer of questions and things that we have not thought about, and what conversations to have with the landowner next time around. Having understanding of why is important to go through all the steps takes time. The coaching we got from our Navigator was crucial in helping us move forward through the process, manage our excitement and not just jump into a property without asking the right questions, navigating difficult conversation about contracts, and legal documents, and the importance of having clear understanding of each party’s responsibilities in the agreement. All those steps are an important part of the process and the landowner we are leasing from was right there with us every step of the way, he was very interested in learning from this process and doing this with us, because he hasn’t had ideal experiences in the past renting out his place, so it was really important on both sides creating an agreement that was mutually beneficial and we never would have known how to approach the whole process without the support of the program and working with a navigator.
  • What are some of the things you wish you had known going into the process of finding land and is anything else you wish was available or missing from the Navigate Program? There’s just a lot that we learned through this process of getting the one on one coaching from the Navigator. I don’t know if we can say there is anything missing.  We’ve always been drawn towards living, closer to the land and, and out in the country, there’s a very different mindset, and pace of life, and there was definitely a lot to learn. We learned all kinds of things about water rights, about land leases prices, permits, zoning etc. Before we joined the program we lacked the confidence and certainty that we could pursue our dream without having to buy land, but the program helped build our confidence and see what other options were available to start our farm business and continue working towards our long term vision and goals to one day have a place of our own. We wish we knew that there is the right thing out there for us and we just needed to be really clear of what we wanted to go and find it.
  • Were there any big takeaways from your participation in the program?  Gratitude I think is the biggest takeaway. I’m just really grateful to the program and for what’s happened. It really felt like there were a lot of resources that we sort of stumbled into. The program feels very generous to me, like the time Silvia spent with us as one of the coaches for the program. Silvia really took the time to help us figure out our goals and all the steps we needed to take and all the auxiliary resources we worked with, like getting connected with Business Impact NW to get the support we needed to write our business plan. It was great working with our business coach there as well to help us complete our business plan to apply for a grant. The whole experience has been so great and we have been very grateful and pleasantly surprised during a lot of steps along the way that everything the program has made available to us.
  • What advice do you have for other Navigate participants?  I would say keep at it and take your time, that is something that the program really helped us with. Use all the resources the program offers. Take the time to know what you want and need for your farm business. There’s people out there who want people to lease land from them. So if you’re one of those people who wants to lease land, there’s someone out there who wants you to do that with them. But patience is important through this process. There were a couple of times, when we got really excited about a property and wanted to just jump in, sign in and just get going, and I think if we were on our own, it’s possible, we would have jumped into something that wouldn’t have worked as well as how our current arrangement is going. With the help of our coach we slowed down and turned over the rocks, so to speak, that we didn’t necessarily want to look under. Taking our time and tempering our enthusiasm helped us realize we need to be more clear and methodical about making sure that all the pieces are in place before you jump in.
  •  Now that you have found land and have moved into the  property, What are your plans?  One of the things that we did during our time in the Navigate Program was write a business plan that we needed to apply for a grant. We now have a business plan laying out our plans! We come from the entrepreneurship Silicon Valley world so it is important for us  to look at the business aspect of our farm vision and that it’s got to be a profitable venture in the end. I think, having a simple plan, and branching out, thinking about how this farm venture is going to make profit so that we can keep it going and be a self-sustaining business. And so, as we have embarked on our journey, we’re choosing to go with an eco tourism angle to help make money for the farm by hosting a men’s retreat business, like a men’s health and coaching business. We will host retreats about six times a year, as our first source of revenue for our farm business. We are excited to grow the food for those retreats and have our clients who are coming to the retreats experience the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. The first year is really about growing food for the retreats and for our family, of course, until we can grow enough to do farmers market. Eventually we hope to raise enough capital to fulfill our long term goals to have a retreat center where people can stay on the farm and have the full experience of the farm and how their food is grown. Having all under one roof, so to speak, is our dream that we hope to fulfill one day.