Blog #6- Land Access Field Notes: Goosefoot Farm

Land Access Field Notes: Goosefoot Farm

Written by Kyra Harty

Alaska Farmers Market Association (AFMA) is supporting the launch of the Beginning and Young Alaska Farmers Network (BYAFN). AFMA understands vibrant sustainable farmers markets are not possible without farmers, farmworkers, and affordable farmland near a viable market. BYAFN’s virtual community for new farmers across the state has facilitated connections, allowed them to voice concerns, and share growing techniques. The online network is especially valuable to our members who may be the lone grower feeding their community. 

Through our BYAFN survey, conversations at virtual socials, and input from our leadership team, the network’s mission is to empower the next generation of Alaskan farmers to succeed and steward the land and waters. We also collectively identified initial priority issues of land access, policy change, skill share, food security & sovereignty, climate resilience, and farmer mental health. The continuation of this network is vital for the future of agriculture in Alaska and we aim to continue to connect farmers with similar values and help share their stories. 

Goosefoot Farm, located in Fairbanks, is a shining example of young farmers in Alaska proving that small-scale, market gardening is not only a rewarding job, but a successful one- filled with purpose, healthy food, and profits that move them beyond a livelihood. Getting to know Brad and Christine St. Pierre’s story, land insecure owners and operators of Goosefoot, fuels us with determination and hope that young farmers can be happy, healthy, and raise smart, funny, and helpful kids! Their decade of operation, which they have never owned their own land, has equipped them with practical knowledge and advice, deep and well-earned expertise, and certainly- the recognition they deserve.

In 2019 Goosefoot Farm was awarded the Alaska Farm Family of the Year by the Alaska State Fair Association and the Alaska Division of Agriculture. Christine was recently appointed to the Alaska State FSA committee, while Brad and the Tanana Valley Farmers Market were honored as one of Alaska Food Policy Council’s 2023 Alaska Food Heroes!

Goosefoot Farm Interview Transcription: The following is an edited record of an interview with Goosefoot Farm, September 2023- this transcription is modified for readability and clarity. 

Tell us where Goosefoot Farm sells products and how you arrived where you are today.

B: We are a diversified vegetable farm, this is our 10th season in operation. We operate a CSA and we sell at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market twice a week. 

B: Christine was born and raised in Fairbanks. We met in college and she convinced me that they needed farmers in Alaska and so we moved up here and managed Rosie Creek Farm for a couple seasons…

C: Rosie Creek Farm was the farthest north organic vegetable farm in the nation. 

B: Yeah, in the country. Um…we did an Indiegogo campaign in 2013, “How to Start a Farm at 40 Below” for startup costs and then we got a Kiva zip loan which is a crowdfunded- zero interest loan; and that was how we started Goosefoot with that funding and we leased a field from a local hay farmer. We were there for five seasons farming and had an opportunity to move our farm to this property, of which we still don’t own, but had better terms. So we moved here and that was four seasons ago and that’s how we got here. 

So what’s motivating you to be farmers? 

C: Oh…I think that, having a positive impact on our community, doing something with our lives that makes a difference for the community and the world; you know, trying to have low impact on climate change, farming in a regenerative way that, keeps the soil healthy, keeps the watershed healthy, nurtures all of the creatures, as much as we can. I think that is what keeps me going. And, you know, the looks on people’s faces when they buy that beautiful head of broccoli and tell me how amazing, the-whatever-they-bought-last-week was. What they did with it, seeing the kids so excited to get a box of cherry tomatoes and just knowing that we are spending our lives doing something and having a positive impact. It’s really, I think, what keeps us going. 

B: I think that it’s very enjoyable, I think it feeds my soul to get out and get my hands in the soil. As a father and as a partner, I’ve chosen a vocation that I get to spend way more time with my family than most men in our society. Like- my kids are right over there in the soil and I find much pleasure in that. 

When you first started, tell us about your business plan or the niche you were going for while entering a pretty strong local food scene. 

C: Well, I think our experience working on other farms really gave us a better look into what people bought, what varieties work well,

B: what the market looked like-

C: especially working managing Rosie Creek Farm up here, you know, gave us a view into what would be successful in the interior. So, um, we did make a business plan, but we had a pretty good idea.

B: We had a pretty detailed business plan at first. I would recommend, like- a ten year plan to anybody starting a farm. People forget that a farm isn’t just growing things, it’s actually a small business and you’ve got to farm the desk as much as you farm the field. Having a good idea of what costs are going to be, how long it’s going to take for you to turn around to make that actual income, especially as a new and beginning farmer! We had zero infrastructure in the field we were starting in, like it was just a hay field: there was no power, there was no water, there was no fence, so we real-quick jumped on figuring out what would be even possible without any infrastructure- no greenhouse or houses. So every single thing that we grew was direct seeded. The first two seasons was direct seeded, I mean, more so than what we thought the market would bear. It was more about what we could actually produce, so it was a lot of carrots, it was a lot of turnips. There was actually a newspaper article about us during our first year and it was titled, “Growing Turnips and a Dream”; and dude, those turnips made this dream come true! Like- now we don’t grow nearly as many turnips because we have infrastructure to transplant things. But those were really good, big decisions that we made early. We didn’t wait till we had the infrastructure to start growing. The growing actually paid for the infrastructure. 

Tell us about how much land you have in production and the lease situation you’re in. 

B: Yeah, so- we have an agreement, a long term agreement with owners of 75 acres in which 30 are cleared and about 25 of them are in hay right now. We do just under two acres of vegetables. The intention is to grow the field some. We’ve just fenced another seven acres and had a well put in this year with the intention of getting to about three, to three and a half, acres of production every year and have the ability to have 100 percent annual rotation of our field. But, it’s working for us at this size right now.  

C: We moved here with a 12 year lease agreement and we have 8 years left on that. 

B: With a right of first refusal with the intention of someday owning this ground and putting it into a trust so that it could be saved and farmed in perpetuity in the interior.  

C: It’s an old homestead property so the original owner’s came in with raw land and actually built the road from Chena Hot Springs out to here…

B: And that was in the fifties. 

C: Yeah, cleared it, built the cabin, and it’s changed ownership a few times since then. 

Brad you work full time as the executive director of the Tanana Valley Farmers Market year round. How do you find balance in managing a market, farming, and being a parent?

B: I’m keeping the market manager job more for the voice it gives me and the ability to impact our community in an even greater way than just growing food. Like, my entire life revolves around that market really: our product is sold there and I work there. But yeah, I think 80-something-percent of farmers across the nation have off-farm income to make this all work. 

But it’s taken time to figure out that balance. I feel that there are weeks that I haven’t found that balance. We’re pretty aware of the fact that time goes on and keeps marching on and that we have to prioritize time with our children and take care of ourselves. I think we’re still finding that perfect balance. But the climate here helped. It’s shutting us down half the year, so we definitely get to slow down and I’m glad it does because I don’t think we would if it didn’t. I mean, you have one life, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to work the whole time? How much money do you need to make? What is the impact? Why are you doing this? One thing that I find incredibly important is creating barriers for yourself. Like, dinner is at 5:30, the kids are here. We have dinner together, and then if we need to do more work after dinner and the kids go to bed, then we go back out and do more work. And Sundays, there’s no work…maybe some irrigation moving, but that’s our family day all summer long. That’s how we’ve kind of found that balance…helped put guardrails on everything. Because, if not, the work on a farm never ends. Like, there’s always something to do but you have to just finish, you have to stop.  

Yeah, Christine, you being the number one farmer on this field and carrying and literally birthing your children into this world all at the same time, how are you finding balance?

C: It’s been incredibly challenging. Especially when they were younger, you know, and they just need you to be with them every moment. But I’d have them out in the field with me when they were babies, they’d be in the stroller with a mosquito net and rain cover over if it was bad weather and I’d have them in a carrier, like- wheel hoeing or doing whatever- walking around, moving irrigation. It was really challenging. We’ve been lucky to have a home that’s right next to our field the whole time we’ve been farming, so that really helps, you know, to be able to take breaks with the kids and go back home for lunch and warm up or whatever…

B: we have have awesome kids…

C: we do have awesome kids! They love being outside, they love being on the farm, but it’s not easy and when I got frustrated or it got really hard, I’d tell myself that people have been farming with their children since the beginning of farming. So I can do it, people can do it, and I can do it. 

B: I will also put out there that we’ve had a lot of help from family. 

C: That’s true, yeah. We have grandma, grandpa, both my parents live in town and they’ve helped with the kids, especially on market days and my brother, too. We couldn’t do it without extended family. 

I really appreciate the relationship you have with your kids. Thanks so much for letting us be a fly on the wall. It’s very inspiring. 

What techniques and practices that work well here that other beginning young farmers could deploy too? 

B: Thinking small like you can grow a lot with a small amount of space and it’s really easy to be like I need THIS much to grow a lot- I need to be big, and like- you can grow into that. The thing you get when you start on a smaller amount is you really dial in how this works and how to take care of it before you haven’t really figured out how to cultivate or keep it clean or harvest it. Don’t go so big so soon. Work into it. A wise man once told me, don’t plant more than you’re willing to weed. 

C: And I think also figuring out and using appropriate technology for your scale too. It’s really easy to be like, I need this, and this, and I need this, in order to produce anything…and definitely there’s equipment that you need but I see a lot of people investing a lot of money into this really nice sounding equipment that in the end doesn’t actually work out on their land or for their style of production, or whatever it is. I mean, it’s always going to be some trial and error but really thinking over those investments before you make them. We’re really lucky on our farm because Brad is kind of a genius inventor and he makes all sorts of things: toolbars, digger bars, and puts together irrigation systems from different parts and pieces instead of buying the whole kit and if you can do that, it’s going to be a huge step forward.

B: Learning that a low overhead is how you make money farming is really important. That’s how you need to operate because the margin is always going to be very thin. But I also think the best advice for a new and beginning farmer is to go work, help other farmers and learn from them. Learn from the mistakes of others. They’ve made plenty and you get to see them and you will save so much time and money. See what else other people are using and if they’ve got four different hoes and they’re only using one variety, it’s like- why aren’t you using these other hoes? Maybe those other hoes don’t work with the soil or like- amongst these weeds…little things like that make a huge difference. 

C: Yeah, ask other farmers who are doing it- make friends with them, ask them questions!

What skills do you have that you could pass on? 

B: I would say, it’s really nice to have those little foam inserts in your carharts for your knees. I would say, think about how you hold your body when you’re doing all the work. I think having very sharp tools makes a huge difference, like- keep a rasp in your pocket and sharpen your hoe.  

C: I mean, I think also that the struggle for land tenure, we have experience in that struggle and just maybe advice on how to help navigate that. 

B: A spit in the handshake is not what you want. You want it written down, you want an exit strategy, you want it: signed, sealed, delivered- no matter! I would say, especially if you’re going into business with someone you care about! Have the hard discussions before you have to have them and just know that things change, and people change, and that you really do need to have it written down. And as a landless farmer, you have to remember you do have rights and that you are going to have to stand up for them, and most likely you’re going to have to be your own advocate. Find others, ask other folks that are dealing with land access for resources because there is someone out there that can help you write the right things down. It’s a challenge but it was the only way we would be able to be farming for 10 years at this point. Yeah, because we had a lot of experience and no money. 

C: Yep. 

B: And now, we’re getting closer to the other end, I think, I know.

C: And think about what community capital you have, too. I mean, maybe you don’t have a lot of physical capital. But think about your community capital, the people that are your advocates. Bring them in, let them help you in what capacity they can.

B: Speak what you need them to be. Yeah, speak out! Yeah, say it! Like- if you need something, you’re looking for something, you have to actually talk-it. You can’t just be thinking about it. Someone else has to hear it. 

What innovative models of land transition are you two thinking about? 

B: There’s very little actual agricultural fields that are near Fairbanks or city centers around Alaska. 

C: I mean none that are left.

B: That are left and that hasn’t been turned into housing. And we are on one right now! 

I have no illusion that my children’s dream is going to be the same as mine but I do know that there’s going to be other people with the same dream and passion for growing that I have. And so I feel my charge is, like- currently being on one of those places, is saving it in perpetuity, for whoever that transitions to. Maybe our children, maybe not. The way that I see that happening is through either agrarian trusts or farmland trusts, where this ground is held forever. 

I feel that the balance is so many farmers that are actually working the land, the land is their retirement; and where we find the balance between shared space and farmers, we still have a lot to develop in those processes. But I do think the right direction is shared space through a Trust. 

I think that there needs to be a model of, just because we saved the farmland- it’s not a farm. We didn’t save farms, we just saved farm land, and actually what makes it a farm- is the people on it. And what we need to make is a transition that the ground we save, not only are we putting this into farmland trust, hopefully into perpetuity, but figuring out the piece to make it actually a farm. We’re not saving farms unless there’s people farming it.  

C: And not making young farmers, or any beginning farmers, start from zero. If we’re asking every generation of farmers to start with a raw piece of land that they have to then clear, put in a well, put in electricity, build a house, put up a greenhouse for starts, and tunnels… you know, there’s so much infrastructure that goes into a farm. If we can save the farms where that work has been put into already and we’re not asking our young or beginning farmers to start from zero- they already have a leg up into success. So yeah, a Trust is a way, is an incredible way to do that. To preserve that land, keep it from being subdivided and also keep it from becoming just a picturesque piece of land that’s not being used as a farm. 

B: That are fields but not a farm. 

Yeah, and the last thing a new and beginning farmer needs is to be saddled with a lot of debt. And this is the way to get in and to not have that burden. Currently, suicide rate amongst farmers is higher than that of veterans and active duty military which is a very high number. 

C: Too high.

B: I believe a lot of that has to do with the debt load that many farmers carry from the very beginning of their farms and that situational stress is detrimental to the long term sustainability of agriculture, and so I would say, avoid debt like the plague. There’s times and places that make sense but…  

C: Yeah that constant debt pipeline of only being able to farm if you are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and just hoping that your crop makes it so that you can pay it off every single year. It’s too much stress for farmers to do that. I think another really important piece is establishing some land sharing…uh, yeah, i’m forgetting…(searching for word)

B: shared infrastructure model…where there’s multiple productions on the same ground, where you don’t all have to have a tractor, just one that you all can use and share, you know. I think collaboration between farmers, that’s what farmers markets are. It’s a collaboration between farmers in the marketing side of it and that’s worked incredibly well and it’s saved the small farm around the nation- we have that direct to consumer sales and we work together with all these other farms. I feel like we need to transition that model of cohabitation in that space, not only in the marketing space, but in the production space as well.  Or yeah, at least for beginning…Incubator farms? 

C: Incubator farms! That’s what I was looking for! Incubator farms. 

And we essentially, we’ve created our own incubator farms for ourselves. But if that could be an option for people who think they’re interested in agriculture and want to try their hand at farming I think we would have a lot more young farmers actually able to be successful. 

Are you taking advantage of any NRCS, FSA, EQUIPT grants? 

B: Not really. This year we’ll participate in the transportation, um, rehabilitate or recoup, whatever it’s called through FSA. 

C: RTCP! (Reimbursement Transportation Cost Payment)

B: Yeah, we might sign up for that this year. We haven’t in the past. And yeah, we haven’t had any grants.

C: We got COVID relief funds, but no, we haven’t participated in any of their programs. A lot of it is because it’s hard to participate when you’re not a landowner or have a long term lease agreement and even if you do have a long term lease on the land, you have to work a little bit with the landowner and there’s a match involved. Yeah so, a lot of them are hard for landless farmers, land insecure farmers.

B: You know the more we have been involved with grants and things like that, so little of the funding that gets pushed out with the intention to support food systems and agriculture actually ever trickles down to the farmer, to the producer. And so we’ve been only wanting to participate in the ones that we could see actual benefit and not just take our time. I think a lot of times, farmers’ time is not valued by researchers. And it’s assumed that, ‘of course, farmers will give us their input or give us access to their fields because researchers are doing something that will help farmers. Well I challenge- maybe the process should be the thing that helps farmers and then maybe the research will help.  

C: Yeah, and especially in the season. Every moment of our time is incredibly valuable and so asking farmers to spend really any time, especially in Alaska in our shorter season, to step away and answer questions or participate in various things doesn’t work that well for us. 

It’s a big ask for sure. Yeah. What is your biggest challenge to maintain a farm life? You talked about the barriers to becoming one… 

B: Not losing sight of why. 

C: Our vision, yeah. 

B: I think remembering on a really wet, cold day when you’re harvesting out of the mud- that this makes a difference. That you are feeding people. You might need a lawyer, if you’re lucky, only once or twice in your life or a doctor once a year but you need a farmer three times a day! If there aren’t people out there willing to farm and grow in a way that’s beneficial to all of us and to the soil we’re bound to be in deep shit. Yeah, it’s hard to keep that in the forefront of your mind when you’re actually doing the work. I think that is the biggest challenge.

It is a solitary job being a farmer. You’re not with a lot of people. You don’t have a cheerleader behind you being, like- ‘Go for it! Weed those carrots! You got it!’ You know, you have to do it for yourself. That’s the biggest challenge, keeping that momentum. It usually comes back about March every year- I kind of have to build it back up. 

What would help your farm succeed or do better? 

C: If we could own our own farm. 

B: Yeah, and we could plan for long term investments. 

C: You know, plan 10, 15, 20 years into the future. Plant perennials. Do Conservation techniques that we know will pay off and infrastructure investments that will pay off over time. 

B: Yeah, I mean, we’re doing pretty good right now, but that would make it better. 

C: Yeah. 

For new farmer, or possibly farmers in general, what do you think is our biggest leverage point? 

B: Our biggest leverage point…we feel the farmer’s market is that balancing point of how a new and beginning farmer is going to succeed. Is coming up with a system that focuses on the type of agriculture and the type of distribution that works for our community in many ways. So you have power in numbers if you’re at the market because you’re not the only one. Like I was saying earlier the definition of what a market is, is farmers working in conjunction together for mutual success. 

C: And the visibility that being at Farmers Market gives you to your community

B: You’re not just building actual capital, you’re building community capital. That is probably more valuable. I mean, we live in a money system; you need it and it’s a great way to get it by going, but I do think that there is a market for you and this is our greatest leverage point as new and beginning farmers. 

C: People want their farmers to succeed. People really do. No matter what beliefs, people want farmers to do well. Because they love to get fresh and delicious food. It affects their quality of life in our community. Having visibility into the community like that makes people realize and und

Written by Kyra Harty