While touring the property leased by Nathan Moomaw, founder and farmer of Moomaw Family Farm, it is easy to observe the freedom that his animals experience. His chickens chase one another and cluck their gossipy tidbits. Nathan pets an affectionate sheep while explaining how this breed sheds naturally in spring so it stays cool in the summer months. The pigs are playful at all ages and are exceptionally interested in nuzzling and nibbling my toes.
A native Oregonian, Nathan Moomaw lived the city life in Chicago as an audio engineer before moving to an alpaca farm to work as the caretaker from 2003-2005. His agricultural interests and connections burgeoned while caretaking the farm. Nathan eventually relocated to Milwaukie, Wisconsin where he began working with CSAs and direct market vegetable farms, tending stands at as many as five markets per week.
Nathan’s experiences working with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business models were formative to his current business strategy. He appreciated the select and direct customer relationships CSA operations create. In the CSA model, customers “buy a share” of the farm’s produce in advance. This allows the farmer or rancher to plan production to meet a known goal and helps with cash flow by providing funds at the beginning of the season, when they’re most needed.
Nathan also witnessed the repetitive nutrient loss intrinsic to vegetable production: crops collect nutrients from the soil; those crops then store hard-earned nutrients in their fruits, leaves, and roots, which are transported from the farm to mouths in cities. After being consumed or discarded, those nutrients are wasted – flushed away as sewage. By choosing to raise meat for his CSA, Nathan hoped to do a better job of closing the nutrient loop. His system is one where livestock consume essential nutrients from the pasture and then metabolize those nutrients, ultimately depositing them back into the same pasture as fertilizer for future growth.
Inspiring Nathan’s farming ethos is a “simple but powerful” quote in the book, The Little Prince: “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.” Nathan explains that, “the human tendency seems to be to control, manage, and improve nature, which is okay; however, every time we make a decision to go in that direction, we are replacing a natural system, one that was sustaining and managing itself, with an artificial system, a system that we are now responsible for maintaining.” From my visit to his farm, it is clear that he assumes this responsibility seriously.
After nearly ten years in the Midwest, Nathan opted to return to his home state of Oregon to effectuate his goals with the help of his family. Nathan caught wind of Friends of Family Farmers’ agricultural landlink program, iFarm, all the way back in the Midwest. He explained, “I was thrilled to find iFarm while I was getting ready to start my own farm. Most states don’t have a land-linking program like iFarm, so I was very thankful to be able to use such a helpful tool to find farmland to lease here in Oregon.”
Once back in the Pacific Northwest in spring of 2012, Nathan began his search for land. To his great fortune, Nathan struck a chord with the very first property he visited. What appealed to Nathan most about Drizzlewood Farm (located just outside of Molalla) were the farm’s 300-year-old oak trees, which could provide an annual crop of acorns that his pigs would happily consume.
Harlan Shober, one of Drizzlewood’s owners, had been in contact with several other iFarm landseekers before he met Nathan. Because Drizzlewood’s 100 acres are beyond Nathan’s start-up capacity, Nathan and Harlan created a variable-cost lease where Nathan’s lease payments vary depending on the amount of livestock he runs.
It took several months for Harlan, his wife Kathy, and Nathan to negotiate the terms of the lease; months that, Harlan says, were “time well spent.” “I wouldn’t rush it,” Harlan advised. “There’s so much at stake; a sour relationship could take all the fun out of it… It’s all a matter of being as clear as possible about what is and is not on offer, and understanding what the other guy needs.”
By paying only for the land he uses, Nathan can conserve his financial resources. This agreement also affords the CSA plenty of room to grow – something that Moomaw Family Farm will surely need. The CSA sold all 65 of its initial shares and there is a waiting list. Currently, the Moomaw meat CSA offers chicken, lamb, rabbit, and pork. Nathan hopes to add beef to his offerings in the future.
As for why it is important to Harlan to bring new farmers onto farmland, he explains, “farm income can’t support current land prices. If we don’t get the land in sustainable production, sooner or later all our best efforts to implement land use planning and to preserve farmland will fail.”
With the average age of Oregon farmers at 58, there will be a mass changing of hands of farmland in the next two decades. The future of Oregon agriculture will rely upon landholders like Harlan Schober, who are passionate about supporting Oregon’s farmers and local food system, just as much as it will rely upon ranchers like Nathan Moomaw, who are passionate about sustainably raising delicious and nutritious food for Oregon eaters. iFarm Oregon is one tool for addressing this impending land crisis.
By Erinn Criswell and Nellie McAdams