This is one of an occasional series of farm-to-table chef and farmer profiles.
Annie Woods lives just down the road from her parents’ home, but getting here — to the small acreage she leased in January 2014 and has named Dark Wood Farm — took planning and courage.
For Woods, starting her own sustainable farm was both a homecoming and the fulfillment of an ambition to live ethically, doing good for the environment while running a successful business.
The 34-year-old farmer was raised outside of Burlington, Ky. Her mother was an elementary school teacher, and her father worked for a company that made the plastic cords that bind crates.
“When I was little,” Woods said, “I hated helping in the garden, because mainly my job was to pick and break beans, which I thought was just an odious task because it was hot and boring.” She laughed. “And here I am picking beans, talking to you right now.”
Small Farm, Big Produce
Dark Wood Farm is self-supporting, turning a profit, Wood said, in its second year. Its produce is available at two area farmers markets (Northside on Wednesdays and Findlay on Sundays) and to a group of 25 CSA members. (Community Supported Agriculture is a subscription service for sustainable/organic farm goods.)
If you’ve eaten at any of the farm-to-table restaurants that buy her produce — including Bouquet in Covington, Littlefield in Northside, and Cheapside Cafe downtown — you might have enjoyed Woods’ salad greens, herbs and other vegetables. Woods has one full-time employee and often has a second person helping part-time.
Growing right now at Dark Wood, where Woods lives in a trailer that was included in the lease, is lettuce, kale, broccoli rabe, radicchio, radishes, turnips, spinach, beets, carrots, celery, collards, and more. “When I tell people I grow all of this on one acre, (they) are just astonished. They don’t realize what you can produce off a small (plot).”
Winding Road Home
In a phone conversation, Woods said her mother had thought she wouldn’t return to live in the area. Woods got her undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Kentucky at Lexington and then her masters in ecology at the State University of New York’s (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse.
Having worked as a teacher’s assistant at SUNY, Woods graduated unburdened with student debt. She knew she wanted to work outdoors and thought she might find a job as a wildlife biologist for a state agency somewhere.
A stint with AmeriCorps took her to southern Washington state, where she did trail work in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest along the Columbia River.
Meanwhile, her interest in food production’s role in the environment had begun in her undergraduate days at Lexington. “I was thinking about pesticide use and meat consumption,” she said. “And the people I was hanging out with and in classes with were talking about those things.”
In Washington, she said, “There’s so much going on in that region of the country with food, and sustainably grown food. I got a whole lot more interested. I started visiting farms and trying to volunteer and help on farms. After that I was like this (organic farming) is something I think I might want to do. So I got a job on a farm to make sure.”
She worked for two years on a diversified organic farm in Duvall, WA, outside of Seattle. At 100 acres, 15 of which were cultivated, it was a complex operation, and she said she was fortunate that the owners were willing to share all aspects of the business, from planning to bookkeeping, as well as best practices of growing organically.
Going it Alone
Woods decided it was time to go out on her own and put the farming lessons she'd learned in action. Family and friends scouted, and on Jan. 1, 2014, she moved into a trailer on the land she leased from a family friend near Rabbit Hash. It helped that they had a tractor she could use.
There are many roads that lead a person to organic farming, and Woods’ was made easier in having no student loans. “I don’t have school debt to pay off, and if I did I don’t think I would have ventured into something as risky as starting a farm.”
She paid her rent and start-up costs with her savings. “When you’re starting from nothing you have to get a shovel and get a hoe and flats to grow the (seedling) plants in and plastic posts to keep your seeds in. … a lot of it was whatever I could beg or borrow … but I (also) put out a lot of my own money to buy things I needed.
“Before I ordered any seeds or put anything into the ground I had to have a growing plan -- what I was gonna grow, when and where in the garden was it going, and how was I going to rotate my crops and how much did I think was that going to produce? And all of that tied to a budget. … putting up a greenhouse, buying seed, buying a refrigerator. Compost that I’d have to buy and potting soil.”
In March, she began planting.
“And that,” she said, “was I think the scariest moment. I just invested a lot of my personal funds into something, and I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to grow a radish.”
Growing a Future
The radish grew.
“So it was like the end of April and finally I had some really nice radishes growing. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to be all right. Stuff is growing.' Once I started going to the market I could breathe a little bit easier, like ‘All right, I have vegetables, people are buying them.’”
Some professional associations, like the American Institute of Architects, provide how-to documents for starting a firm. There’s no handbook for how to start a small farm, organic or otherwise. Government regulations, access to help, and tax codes are written for farms much larger than the single acre Woods grows on.
But there is a supportive community of like-minded farmers and chefs, who tend to share information freely and whose interests are aligned in wanting to build a sustainable-foods economy.
When asked if she’s ever tempted to cut corners, or use chemicals, Woods answers in the way of many farmers I’ve spoken with in the area.
“No, I don’t. My dad, he jokes, he’ll see me out here pulling up weeds, and he’s like, 'You know Roundup would take care of that a whole lot easier.' But the reason that I got into this was because I wanted to eat food that was in line with my ethics, because the foundation that this farm is built on is based on my desire to not have Roundup in the environment -- or any of the other pesticides and herbicides. I try when I’m making decisions on the farm to be true to those ethics.”
At the peak of the summer season, Woods said she works 70 to 80 hours a week. She has to pay her own health insurance, and the operation is all on her shoulders. The satisfaction is in living well and doing good.
“I like being my boss. It’s way more work than any job where I had benefits and salary before — it’s way more work for less compensation, but I don’t dread getting up every day. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time and energy on a job just to do what I want in my free time.
“To see the faces of people you know and love and you’re giving them food, it’s a very rewarding feeling," Woods added. "And I get to come outside every day and work in a beautiful place. And I like to hope that even though this is leased land, hopefully I’m improving the soil, at least not doing harm to this little spot on the Earth. And that’s a good feeling.”