Leaving Academia to Become a First-Generation Farmer

Chris Holman gave up on a Ph.D. in world languages to start a farm in Wisconsin.

Chris Holman (Rebecca Clarke)

From farm-to-table restaurants to farmer’s markets, there has been a push among a certain class to be more aware of where their food comes from. Many Americans’ increased consciousness about eating locally has drawn their attention back to the land, such that farming has come to be seen as a much more noble profession. Modern Farmer, a publication that was born in this particular cultural context, describes the vision that some city-dwellers have of becoming farmers as a “modern seduction” in which “making a living from the earth salves the psychic wounds of a day job, and acts as an antidote to urban malaise.”

Given that seduction, many people have contemplated a career change, some more seriously than others: While the number of farmers in the U.S. continues to decrease drastically, a quarter of those that remain are “beginning farmers” who have less than 10 years experience. Currently, these early-career farmers control 16 percent of farmland and 25 percent of all organic sales in the U.S. Beginning farmers are younger on average, and face challenges that most veteran farmers don’t; for instance, it’s expensive to start a farm from scratch and open, arable land can be hard to come by.

That’s certainly been the case in Wisconsin. The region’s farmland has been so saturated with small-scale farmers in recent years that the Dane County Farmers’ Market, in Madison, has a five-year waitlist for securing a booth to sell produce. Chris Holman left a career in the military and academia to start a small farm with his wife outside of Madison. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with him about running a farm with no agricultural background, and how his other professions have helped him be a better full-time farmer. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you become a farmer?

Chris Holman: Getting into farming was not totally an accident, but it was something we did not see coming. This is our seventh season, so the USDA considers us beginning farmers, but also because we’re still learning. Neither Maria, my wife, nor I grew up on a farm. I moved from Oregon, where I had started an Arabic program after being a linguist in the military, to Madison, Wisconsin, to start a Ph.D. program. The discussion about raising animals and growing vegetables was based on my having nine months [with nothing to do] before my Ph.D. program started.

I thought about getting a part-time job, but I figured that I had enough in my savings to try something different. The initial idea was to start a hobby farm to grow our own food. At the time, Maria worked at the [Madison’s] Tornado Steak House, and they actually ended up buying six chickens a week from us for their Sunday night chicken dinner. We felt like we were kings of the world.

Then, another restaurant wanted to talk to us, but the owner said they would need about 40 chickens a week—which was far beyond what we had been producing. It was the fork in the road: Do we pursue this demand and use it to grow a bigger farm? Or do we stick with what we've been up to? I said, "Let's try it out." We pooled our resources, took some of our savings, and bought the infrastructure we would need to raise a lot more chickens. In our first years, we raised 4,000 chickens. My point of view was that if the farm ever imploded because we didn't know what we were doing, a fallback position in academia was still there.

Green: How did you learn how to run a farm? It doesn't sound like agriculture was a part of your background.

Holman: The first year was exceptionally difficult because we still lived in Madison and I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. So when we tried to find land for the farm, the cost was pretty prohibitive. Maria's folks had some land a couple hours away that we rented from them. Her mom who would monitor the animals while we were away, and her father helped us get shelters built for the animals. We drove back and forth between Madison and the farm every weekend, and when it was time to take the chickens in for processing, we'd have to do it in the middle of the week. I would pick Maria up around 11:00 p.m., we would drive and get to the farm around 1:00 a.m., go to sleep, wake up at 4:00 a.m., catch a bunch of chickens, take them to the processor, come back, shower, and then go right back to Madison for work.

Green: What all do you produce on the farm?

The chickens Holman raises on his farm

Holman: Our first year was just chicken, and a few turkeys for Thanksgiving. Our goal was to diversify what we did on the farm. We've gone from just chickens to growing about 5,000 broiler chickens, 400 turkeys, and 500 ducks. We do annual vegetable production and a lot of perennial crops as well. We're shifting a lot of our acreage into perennial agriculture, because they allow us to do a lot of work up-front and then minimal maintenance work whereas annual vegetable production is more labor intensive.

Green: After seven years, do you both still work on the farm?

Holman: This year we have a half-time employee, because we had a baby earlier and Maria still works at a nonprofit. I'm a full-time farmer so we needed somebody that could step in when Maria had to step out.

Green: What was it like running a whole farm before you hired this person?

Holman: Our farm is 41 acres and there's always something to do. Now, I have a much better grasp of what I need to do and when I need to do it. Earlier on, there was so much to do and I wasn't quite sure how to best prioritize things. These days, I get up early in the morning, eat a small breakfast, and head out to a two-to-four-hour chain of chores: feeding the animals, checking their water, clearing some areas to make sure the electric fence still works, or building a new structure for hogs over winter.

I come in for a small lunch typically around noon, and then I'll go back out until about 5 or 6 p.m. Then I’ll come in and cook dinner. After dinner, I'll go back out until 9 p.m. We have livestock guardian dogs, so I'll move them to their spots for the evening. Your day is as long as the sun is shining during the summer. Early and late in the year that doesn't change too much, but I'd say that, in general, there's a little less to do because you're not in the peak of the growing season.

Green: How has having those different jobs previously—in the military and in academia—affected how you look at work as a farmer?

Holman: The military framed the way I approach life: When something goes wrong on the farm now, I don't sit around feeling bad about it. In the military, things would go wrong and you immediately had to shift so that your mission was complete. That approach to work translates pretty directly into farming: You're often operating, especially as a beginner who didn't grow up on a farm, in a world full of unknowns. It's not a matter of if something will go wrong, but when. Wisdom isn't cheap, so some of the things that go wrong can be frustrating in terms of how much money you lose.

Academia helped too, because teachers work an incredible amount of hours, which translates again into farming. The task that you're completing might not be done before sunset, but it doesn't matter—you've still got to keep doing it. What I don’t think people appreciate about farming is that it's very cerebral. A lot of people see farming as a bunch of blue-collar hicks that don't know too much; they think that they're just throwing seed in the ground and got chickens or pigs or whatever. They’re often portrayed as being simpletons. When I left academia to farm, there were a lot of people who really had a difficult time understanding why I would do that. In general, there's so much you have to be thinking about on your farm at all times. Having that mental endurance is super important.

Green: What kind of bond exists between you and your community since you’re new to town?

Holman: In the beginning, it was hard to find community because we were so busy on the farm. Two or three years into farming, I was still pretty much stuck on an island and I wasn't aware of who was out there. Now, we are a part of a very strong group of farmers, and those who are supportive of agriculture. There's a lot of projects that we've worked on together through a couple different nonprofits and Wisconsin Farmers Union.

We sell most of our products to restaurants in Madison, but also to a farmer's market in Appleton—so we have this extended community. In the restaurant world, we have long-standing relationships with a very strong community of chefs and restaurateurs. I often remark to people at the farmer’s market that they're like friends of ours, rather than straight-up customers. People sometimes feel odd if they're not purchasing something, and I remind them that our relationship is not built solely upon whether or not you buy something from me today.

Green: How would you say farming and selling food has revealed how America looks at food and what it takes to produce it?

Holman: I would say that, in general, most people are still very ignorant about food production; they simply don't know. Food is just at the store or maybe at a farmer's market. Food is just made available and then they purchase it. The Secretary of Agriculture talks a lot about how incredible it is that people have delegated the act of feeding oneself and one's family to a bunch of farmers who they may or not know. There's some truth to that.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a cattle farmer, a lettuce grower, and a tobacco farmer.