Interview with Farmer Entrepreneur and No-Till Growers Jackson & Jordan Rolett

Jackson & Jordan Rolett run StoneHouse Market Farm in Scottsville, Kentucky. They’re a part of a new generation of farmers aiming to make small farms profitable again, and employ an emerging method of farming labeled “No-Till” that purports to sustainably yield more crops, by proportion, from smaller amounts of land. This line of thinking seems to be changing the narrative that only large commercial farms with vast amounts of land and expensive machinery can make for a productive family farm. In this interview of the week we dig deeper into the soil with the Roletts and ask them how they are making the transition from modern life to farm life.

Harold: Hey you two, thanks for doing the interview! If you could, give our audience the quick 1st section of the wikipedia page article about your journey up until this point, where you’re from and what led you to go out on your own and farm full-time for a living.

Jackson: Long story--short--we had decided, as a young couple just out of college, to stay in Kentucky and put down some roots close to home. We became pretty disillusioned with our careers and happened to be spending our off-time reading a lot of Wendell Berry and volunteering at a local vegetable farm. After realizing we felt much more satisfied leaving the farm with dirt under our nails, we spent the next several years transitioning into and out of an apprenticeship with said farm, slowly building a customer base for our product, until we were able to afford to make the jump? dive? hard left turn? — to farming on our own.

H: What does your farm produce? What do you hope to produce in the future?

We grow about 20 to 30 different types of veg, year-round. Our hope, in the future, is to produce more protein (egg & lamb), a little value added product (wool, just as a passion project), and more farmers. We want to return the favor to the farmers who got us started by providing opportunities for aspiring farmers to get on the ground skills for profitable small-scale production.

H: As a screen-jockey/desk slave, the idea of being a full time farmer is terrifying (my hands are squeaky clean and callus free 24/7) but the notion is also super romantic to me, as I’m sure there are wonderful aspects of spending your days out in creation while getting to see and touch the literal fruit and veggies of your labor. I’m interested to hear you describe your day on the farm and maybe reflect on what keeps you farming despite the obvious hard work.

J: Our days on the farm are surprisingly varied. People think of farming as drudgery, mindless, and repetitive. That's not untrue at times, sometimes even welcome, because it is also the most engaging, creative, and relentless work I've ever done. Specifically, my typical day starts at 3:30am when I wake up to work on a side-hussle, No-Till Growers, a podcast and website dedicated to growing veg with a little tillage as possible... but we'll get to that in a sec. Around 6a or so the kids are up and I'm fixing breakfast. Once we're fed, we just get after it, whatever needs to be done that day to keep the veg coming in. It could be weeding... All. Effing. Day. It could be planting or harvesting lettuce or tomatoes. It could be creating a crop/financial plan for the next 3 months, especially if it's raining. 

Each season, though, has its rhythm. Whether I'm ready for it or not, it's comforting to know it's there. In the middle of the Summer, It's work early, work late, and looong breaks at lunch (maybe partaking in naptime with the kiddos) to escape the heat of the day. In the Spring, it's suns out guns out until you get the job done. In the Winter, you work a little while the sun is out--which is like 4 hours, ha!--plan for the next year, and try to enjoy the downtime. 

What keeps me going? Whatever is going on, whatever bad is happening in my life, or the world, I thank God I have work to do. I suffer from fairly pronounced anxiety, and having a business to manage, a family to support sometimes through my own sheer force of will, makes it worse. However, having a farm and a family to care for makes it better. Does that make sense? On my worse days, I try to say to myself when I get out of bed, if I get out of bed, "at least there is good work to do, and I'm the one to see that it gets done." There is this poem that has stuck with me for a long time... To Be Of Use by Marge Piercy--the whole poem is great, find it--the last lines are

"The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real."

I think that's the problem with a lot of anxiety and depression in my generation. The notion of work has become so abstract it's hard to find meaning in it. But that's a whole other interview!

H: Apart from the work of farming, there is the business of farming; selling your produce and marketing yourself. Do you have a hard time balancing these two worlds? How do you two divide and conquer the business?

J: There are several things going on here at once...

And that's why I feel I'm so good at it? I've always been more of a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. I can grow the food well enough to be profitable, market it online, sell the hell out of it behind the table, go home and run the numbers. I like seeing the system work as a whole, having my hands on most every piece, making adjustments and seeing the outcomes, especially when it runs counter to conventional wisdom.

That said, it's not easy. Sometimes I fall behind on keeping records for the business, sometimes my spreadsheets are more robust than my tomato crop, but it all comes down to systems. Have a system in place for capturing the information easy and efficiently. Only capture information that will really tell you something. I don't track most of my crops, I just pick my best ones and track those until I get comfortable with them, then move on to a few others. I use Square for EVERY POS transaction and it does the sales trend analysis for me. If you're a two man, err, (wo)man show, death by data is real. Get what's meaningful, move on.

I've also created a few rules for when I don't WANT to do something in particular. For example, right now I have a bad attitude about social media. I feel like the 'brand yourself' and 'share your story' has become a virtue signaling race to the bottom. That said, I'm a business, so I need to post. Rule: I can muster one email blast a week (templates help here) and one Instagram post (shared to other platforms) with what happened in the last week and what we'll have at market. Then, put the phone down, get back to work.

If you're working for yourself, you're a business, act like it. I consider myself as much a small business owner as a contrary farmer. Read business books. Get Seth Godin's emails. It's not fun or exciting, but it keeps us farming year-after-year when other farms are closing their gates.

H: Have you found any business processes or systems that help bridge the gap between farming and the business side of things that you would recommend or wish that more would-be farmers knew about?

J: There are several good books. One of the best is Fearless Farm Finances. Take a USDA farm finance course. When you work for/with other farmers, learn the financial side as well. What does it cost to put a crop in the ground, including labor? For God's sake include labor. If you aren't able to meet you desired /hour rate at the beginning, and you won't, at least you'll get a better idea of what it's going to take to get there. What you measure will get better. The best system is one you'll actually use. You don't hit what you don't aim for. Etc. All those stupid sayings are persistent for good reason.

Don't be afraid to challenge the preconceptions of the business. Other farmers think I'm nuts that I don't have a legit greenhouse for starting transplants. I order them from a greenhouse that can grow them better than I can at a cheaper price per plant, but the notion of self-sufficiency keeps some farmers from making sound business decisions. I'm sure there are other areas of other self-professions. I spend that time doing other things I'm good at that also make me money, maybe even more. There's an old adage, ain't no money in growin' veggies, only sellin' em. I have values I don't compromise on, and that's important to the value proposition of our business, but at the end of the day, sustainable farming also means living to farm another year... economically, ecologically, and emotionally.

Last, real farming on any scale takes money. Even at our small-scale, we personally invest in our farm every year. If you're not willing to take a risk and put some money where your mouth is, you'll burn out.

H: What I think is fascinating about your operation is your ‘No-Till’ Methods. You introduced me to the concept and from what I can tell the practice is still far outside of mainstream farming. Could you explain a little bit about what No-Till Farming is and why it’s important from your perspective and why you’re so passionate about it?

J: Oh man, how much time you got!?

I'll try to keep it tight. Current soil science says we know more about the ocean than we do about the microbiology in our soils. What we, farmers and scientists, are discovering is to the extent we foster a good environment for the microbiology (the earthworms, the fungi, the beneficial bacteria, and so on) of the soil the more resilient our agriculture becomes without the use of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers (see: Gulf of Mexico dead zone). Tillage, or turning the soil to prepare it for planting, seeding, etc., disrupts the microbial life in the soil and releases carbon into the atmosphere (yes, agriculture is responsible for about 1/4 of emissions through transportation of food and the physical release of carbon from the soil from tillage). Imagine a plow tearing six feet down through every street in NYC. There are still people present (i.e. microbes), but the system in which they function--power lines, water lines, etc.--will have been completely destroyed. Now do that every six months. They'll never be able to re-establish a functional system. 

Until recently, as fewer people have farmed for a growing percentage of the population, tillage has been a necessary evil, but now we're exploring a method of growing veg that not only requires little to no tillage, but is also more efficient, human-scaled, and better yielding, by protecting the life in the soil. It also dramatically increases the lands ability to store carbon. It's surprisingly simple, and we try to keep to these four tenants: disturb the soil as little as possible, keep roots in the soil as often as possible, keep the soil covered as much as possible, and keep it profitable.

H: Are there any leaders in this space that you would recommend looking into, or any research that we should read to help confirm the promises of No-Till farming?

NOTILLGROWERS.COM, for one! I'm kidding, all we do is find the experts and ask them lots of questions. The National Resource Conservation Service is a good resource for the importance of increasing soil carbon. There are farmers in the space that have really excelled with no-till farming: Singing Frogs Farm in California, Bryan O'Hara of Tobacco Road Farm had been doing it for decades... seriously, we've got a lot of great leaders on the podcast. Also, a book Farmers of Forty Centuries by R.F. King details how small-scale farmers in Japan grew continuously on the same two acre family plots for thousands of years without degrading their soils and fed a nation without mechanization. That's the most under-rated farming book ever written in my estimation.

H: What music are you listening to right now?

Foxhole, represent. Explosions in the sky is good music to farm to, This Will Destroy You, some good post-rock. Four fists, P.O.S., Doomtree, going back to my anarchist hip-hop days. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger because they spoke truth to power like no other.

H: Do you have any final thoughts for anyone considering diving into farming?

J: You have to be emotionally prepared. No matter what you know, how much of it you know, how prepared you are, there will be a storm--or drought--or something you have no control over that will knock you on your ass. You will, at some point, as Ryan Adams says in one of the best farming songs ever written (In My Time of Need), depend on the fifteen dollars you hid above the stove. You have to have a damn good reason to do it, because it will test every part of your being.

Do your research. Have a damn good idea of where your food is going before you put it in the ground. Too often, farms fail before they are really able give themselves a chance because "if I build it, they will come." Nope. Find out where the market is met, where the opportunities for growth are, and work alongside other farmers (not against, cannot stress that enough, there is no other local farmer I consider competition, we must work together) to help serve the local marketplace.  

And you don't even have to farm. Apply your skillset to the world of local food, right? If you're a marketer, you may not make a good farmer, but you can help market local food for the good of many farmers. If you have another skill, like graphic design or bookkeeping or wrenching, you can do your part by helping other farmers where they cannot easily help themselves. In our current society, it's not just growers and eater, there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurship connecting those two groups.