Stride Stories: Disgruntled attorney turned organic farmer
Stride: Matt, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Matt: I grew up in Southern California and my dream as a kid was to go to Stanford. It was probably the only long-term goal I have ever had in my life. I went to Stanford, made a lot of great friends, but had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I found myself in law school and then a big law firm for three years doing corporate law in Southern California. I was not finding my life to be very satisfying as a lawyer. So, I pursued the career that all lawyers want to be: a recovering attorney. The next step was buying a piece of property in Oregon and turning it into an organic farm. We are approximately 7 months into that venture.
Stride: What was the breaking point, where you were knew, “I’ve got to get out of here and do something different?”
Matt: There were a few breaking points along the way. After a very close friend left the law firm, I realized I had been comfortable in my misery as long as I had company. When you no longer have someone to share the misery with, you realize how miserable you are. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next...I had an idea to move to San Francisco because I have a lot of friends up there. But then I got a great opportunity for another legal job in Southern California and stayed there for two years before finally breaking free.
Stride: So, why farming?
Matt: I’ve been very close with food my entire life, as eating good food is the most important thing that we do. It’s the energy we run on. I thought after a long career I could start a small farm that would produce enough food for myself. Then a few things happened that made me realize I didn’t want to wait until retirement to chase after my dreams. So I figured while I was young and could afford to make a few mistakes, I might as well make a few.
Stride: You mentioned you didn’t know much about farming when you got started. What was the learning process like?
Matt: A few years ago, my now business partner, Nate, was going through a transition time in his career. He didn’t know which direction he wanted to go. He is a fantastic chef, and I had a house I wasn’t spending any time in (or cooking in). I proposed that he come live at my house by the beach, figure out his next steps, and cook dinner for me so that when I came home from work, I actually had dinner. During that time, we kicked around the idea of opening a restaurant, and as part of those talks, we thought we’d need a farm to support it.
One day, we were drinking Bloody Mary’s when he asked, “What if we flip it on its head and we do the farm first and maybe have the restaurant later?” Like most hairbrained ideas that come up while drinking Bloody Mary’s I thought it would just go away. Four days later I got an email from him with a bullet point list of property listings in Oregon.
Stride: How did you know what to look for in a property?
Matt: In short, we didn't. We looked at a couple online listings and finally decided to hop on a flight and go look at a few of the most promising. We did a 350-mile driving tour of Oregon looking at properties and quickly realized one thing: the things we thought we wanted weren’t important, and things we had never considered were crucial. We honed our criteria from there. From that first trip in February, I did three more trips up to Oregon and we finally closed on the place we have.
As for why we picked Oregon specifically – #1: Water #2: If we bought the size of property we wanted in California, it would bankrupt us (in Oregon, if we failed, we’d be ok). #3: if you’re talking about joining a local food market, there is no better place than Portland.
Stride: How did you finance the land and start-up costs associated with this? Could you give us a ballpark about how much we'd have to save to start our own farm?
Matt: We financed the land through a standard home mortgage and the start-up costs are coming out of my savings from being a lawyer. The overall price tag will vary depending on the scale of operations, which includes the amount of infrastructure built and the number of projects tackled, but we are looking at about the $100,000 - $200,000 range of start-up funds (not including the down payment on the property) before we can start reinvesting proceeds from the farm back into the farm. This could be done for less, but we are trying to give ourselves the best chance for building a sustainable venture.
Stride: How did you become a farmer with no experience?
Matt: All the farming research has been done since we’ve been here. Nate moved in August and I joined him in December. We have done a LOT of Youtube watching and we have a few books that are pretty “biblely” to us. The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman is one. The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier has a more biologically intensive system that has been useful. Basically, whenever we have a problem, we google it. And we’ve had a lot of problems here. We’re still only 7 months into this – we are in our 5th week of CSA deliveries and we are going to our 6th farmer’s market on Saturday... we have an amazing amount left to learn.
Stride: How many CSA boxes do you deliver?
Matt: We have 20 members and we deliver anywhere from 13 to 16 boxes per week. My girlfriend works at Nike which was a huge help in building our subscription base. I drive up to Portland every Friday and drop off the majority of our boxes at Nike. We’ve already had a few other people see the boxes and say, “Hey what’s that?” That should drive some more business for next year, and hopefully we will have a good deal of customer retention.
Stride: Do you have any achievements you are particularly proud of?
Matt: The first things we put in the ground were an assortment of berry vines and the first green bud that appeared on one of those vines was more rewarding than anything I ever did as a lawyer. The very first seeds that we planted were artichokes, and seeing those grow from seed to fruit has us pretty excited, but our tomato plants are about 7.5 feet tall and are prolific producers, so I’m probably most proud of them.
Stride: What are your long term goals with the farm?
Matt: So many. First and foremost, we would love for the farm to become a community. That is the number one goal, but we know that will take time. Our other more discreet goals include: being 90% live-off-the-land, building a food forest in the old growth area on our property, and creating a foraging haven. We’d also like to set up an event space so we can do full farm dinners - bus people in, have them tour the farm, eat a dinner comprised of food produced on the farm and then bus them off. This would get us a restaurant-like experience without having to deal with the major problems that restaurants face. I think we are coming to a time where people are so interested in where their food comes from, that this type of experience will be in demand.
Before we do any of this, the most pressing to-do is getting our commercial kitchen up and running so we can have a vertically integrated farm using our produce for finished goods: Ferments, pickles, hot sauces, kombucha.
Stride: Do you ever expect to make the kind of income you made as a lawyer with this? Or are you accepting a pay-cut and lifestyle change to be a farmer?
Matt: It’s a pay-cut/lifestyle change compared to what I would’ve made if I continued to climb the corporate ladder. However, I do expect to eventually get up to a number that is close to, if not more than, what I made when I left the legal profession. Even if I do not quite reach that amount, there are monetary equalizers (significantly decreasing my grocery bill and not having to pay for a gym membership) and quality-of-life improvements that should more than make up for the difference.
Stride: What’s your biggest health concern for America?
Matt: It comes down to food. Almost all major preventable diseases are attributable to the food we eat. Exercise and lifestyle choices play a role, but food is the major factor. People need to eat more vegetables. I’d prefer organic but if conventional is the only option then that’s fine too.