To learn more, check out Conservation Innovation Grants Beginning Farmer Case Study: Alex McKiernan and Chloe Diegel. Cora Fox contributed to this blog.
For Alex McKiernan and Chloe Diegel, farming is about more than making a living—it’s caring about good food for healthy people and a healthy environment.
Owners of Robinette Farms in Martell, Nebraska, the partners grow 40 varieties of crops during both the warm and cool seasons. Through assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), they have been able to build and utilize high tunnels, or unheated hoop houses, and greenhouses. They also have raised a variety of grazing livestock including cattle, hogs, broilers, laying hens, and lambs.
Recently certified as organic, Robinette Farms is comprised of 110 acres, with 10 to 12 acres dedicated to vegetable production. The vegetable acres are surrounded by pasture to help protect from drift, which assists in maintaining their organic certification.
The farmers direct market their vegetables through farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA). They are also currently working with a distributor for wholesale.
Being dedicated to the farm and putting in long hours has gotten the farmers this far, and is helping them reach their goal.
“Our CSA serves as a form of risk management—it is a guaranteed payment,” said Alex. “Farming is a hard way to make a living, though. You need to appreciate it as a lifestyle.”
Although they come from different backgrounds, Alex and Chloe make that lifestyle a reality through mutual respect and teamwork, accompanied by their hard work.
Alex didn’t grow up on a farm, and believes the “art of decision making isn’t learned in school.” He has a Master of Science degree in geology/geophysics, and over the years he has worked as a diesel mechanic and an arborist.
Chloe has always had an interest in farming. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, she wasn’t connected to agriculture, but became invested in eating locally. She also worked on a farm in Colorado, and has more than 18 years experience in small vegetable production.
With their combined knowledge and experience, they began Robinette Farms in 2010, and have been growing the operation since.
“Our overall goal is to have a profitable business so our children will want to take over someday,” said Alex. “To us, a successful business is dynamic, creative, and makes money.”
Part of the Robinette Farms mission statement includes seeking to sustainably produce a variety of locally-grown and sold, high-quality farm goods.
“We strive to build a profitable business that minimizes off-farm inputs, reduces our detrimental impact on the environment, and educates our community about the food we eat and enjoy,” said Alex. “Through hard work and managed, sustainable growth, we intend to create a farm that supports our family and community for generations to come.”
Maintaining healthy land is important to Alex and Chloe. They worry about all farmers (themselves included) stripping the soil of organic matter and shipping it off to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re losing nutrients,” Alex said. “With carbon sequestration, we can better hold on to our nutrients, prevent water pollution, and improve our yields.”
To those just starting out in farming, Alex recommends taking business classes to understand how to create profit and loss statements, as well as how to develop projected cash flow. He also believes it’s important to respectfully engage with all farmers, both conventional and organic.
“The best education you can get will come from another farmer,” said Alex. “Each aspiring and beginning farmer should spend 3 to 5 years working for someone else before starting their own farm. Every farm is specialized, and every market is different.”
Alex says being able to stay resilient in the management of your operation and learning to let go of what you can’t control are also important to remember on the road to success.
“The local farming community has been very supportive—small scale farmers are very supportive of each other, even though they are often competing in the same markets,” said Alex. “Let your personality traits dictate your business model. In direct marketing, we’re selling a story and building relationships, and that works for us.”
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