Osana Waterstone brews coffee each morning before walking to work. It’s a short distance – only as long as it takes him to step through his front door. He lives in a house built on the back of a 220 square foot trailer with his wife, Alva, 27, and three children, Isaiah, 8, Orion, 7, and Linnea, 1.5. The home is located in a small secluded valley east of Junction City, Oregon, where Waterstone and his family tend their five-acre farm.
Waterstone, 28, is one of the few young Americans opting for an agricultural life at a time when farmers in the United States are retiring faster than they’re being replaced.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture found about 3.4 million farmers in the United States. In 1950, that number was over 25 million. Farms are bigger today and modern technology means fewer people involved in the farming process.
But farming is a still a trade that continues through inherited knowledge. In 2012, the rate of new farmers had dropped about 20% from five years earlier and the average age of a farmer increased by just over one year.
With Thanksgiving behind us, the 2019 Holiday season is in full swing. That means a lot of big dinners. On Thanksgiving alone Americans will consume 49 million turkeys and a dizzying number of potatoes, according to Insider. While we gather to share food with friends and family, it is important to think about where the bounty comes from and who grows our food.
The Waterstones mainly grow seedstock. Their crops are processed for the seeds which will be sold to other growers or seed companies, eventually used by home gardeners.
On a chilly fall day the family harvests seeds from dried marigold plants by hand. It’s a slow process, only around 10% of the seeds are fertile. From just a few plants they hope to get enough viable seeds for larger crop, a process that takes multiple years.
“I think seed saving is maybe a little less important to the general population than it was a hundred years ago. Seeing as how it’s a big part of how we eat our food, I think it’s kinda important to keep it alive and thriving,” Waterstone said.
The family’s crops benefit the community in unexpected ways. In October, they harvested a crop of delicata squash. He sent thousands of pounds to the local food bank where volunteers scooped out and returned the seeds he is after in exchange for keeping the sweet flesh.
The Waterstones’ operates mainly on contracts that are paid out in December and January. They spreads that money out to keep the farm running and support themselves family throughout the year.
To supplement their income Waterstone grows produce like kale and radishes during the summer, which he sells to The Kiva, a small grocery store in Eugene. Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat come from farther away.
A 2010 study from the University of Oregon estimated that less than five percent of food purchased in Lane County was produced locally. The USDA said as of 2017 there are about 2,600 farms in Lane County with an average size of 77 acres.
Alva Waterstone, Osana’s wife, feels lucky to be part of a community where there are a lot of small farms. She said they are in it for the lifestyle, not the money.
“There’s a famous quote, ‘farming would suck if it wasn’t for next year’,” Alva said. “It’s all about dreaming big, and then being happy with what you’ve got in front of you.”
Farming is not for everyone, said Harper Keeler, who runs the UO Urban Farm program.
“It’s kind of a calling, it’s spiritual in some ways. I think there are folks who just like the romance of being a farmer, but it’s darn hard,” Keeler said.
The Waterstone’s lifestyle requires sacrificing modern comforts. They walk to the neighbors’ farm office for phone or internet access. The small size of their house affords little flexibility, but the family seems to thrive on the closeness, frequently giggling and joking as they dance around the tight quarters.
In spite of the challenges, Alva said she wouldn’t trade their life. “The pleasure that I get through walking through the field with a cup of coffee in the morning is just like off the fucking charts. There is nothing better than being connected with a space on the earth and feeling the responsibilities and the joy,” Alva said. “I want to make sure that we are leaving the soil in a better way than we began.”