Signing My First Lease
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
By Andy Breiter
The road to signing my first agricultural lease, which I just did a month ago, was winding. I was asked to reflect on that journey as I start my farm, Grama Grass and Livestock.
It began in the fall of 2012. I was a newly minted graduate from the University of Denver. The ‘real’ world was approaching and I didn’t know much about what I wanted to do. What I did know was that I loved food--especially eating it. As a way to postpone the reality of getting a job, I convinced my parents and myself that it was a good idea for me to WWOOF for three months. I’d get to travel, eat great food, hang out, and buy some time before I had to really figure things out. Little did I know that those three months would have a significant impact on the rest of my life.
I minored in Spanish in college and I knew that I liked cured meats, like jamón, so I chose to go to Spain. My farming experience was nada, but who cares? I was mainly going to eat and see the sights. I had never worked on a farm or really been on one before, but I figured it couldn’t be that tough. At random, I got in touch with three farms and coordinated three one-month stays. I was off!
I landed in Madrid, immediately met up with a friend, saw a soccer game, and ate jamón. This whole Spain thing was going great! Then I took an all night train ride, followed by a bus ride, to Orgiva, Spain. Upon getting off the bus in the middle of this tiny town nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a sudden wave of, shit, what did I get myself into? flushed over me. But I was already in it, so I took a deep breath and walked the quarter mile to the little finca that I was to stay on for the month. Within the first hour of arriving at La Burra Verde, I realized how little I knew: I could barely speak Spanish, I could hardly hold a shovel, and I couldn’t even eat the precious jamón that I was after because the farm was vegetarian-based!
As the first month flew by and my anxiety waned, my appreciation for the land, the plants, and the animals grew. I actually was enjoying the work. The bounty of fresh vegetables and homemade cornbread we ate daily allowed me to gain a deeper level of love for food--not just jamón--because I started to understand, although minimally, how it was grown.
After moving to my second farm, just outside of Ronda, I noticed that something in me shifted. I started thinking about farming in a different light. I started asking, could I farm? At the time one of my best friends was a farmer, but I, Andy, couldn’t become one...could I? Farming was ‘too hard’, plus I was ‘too smart’ and life was about making money and being comfortable. I can’t do that as a farmer.
As I contemplated becoming a farmer, Chico, the farm owner on the second farm, asked what I was going to do when I moved back to the United States. I gave him an answer, in my much improved Spanish, that I love food and want to work in the food system, but I wouldn’t become an actual farmer, because, well, I couldn't. Or at least I couldn’t picture myself as one. But in truth, the conception of Farmer Andy percolated in my head for the rest of my stay in Spain.
I moved to the third farm where I met a well-known character in many farming circles: the philosopher farmer. Juan el Alemán taught me much on his farm, including two sayings that I have yet to forget: “I know I know nothing”, something that was abundantly clear to me the moment I stepped off the bus in Orgiva, and “poc a poc hast al fin:” little by little until the end.
After three months in Spain, I moved back to Chicago where I had to enter the ‘real world’. Farming, to me as well as to the community in which I was raised, did not count as the real world, so I still couldn’t be a farmer, but I was able to get a ‘real job’ working with farmers. Besides, I thought that the job I got--working with a local food distributor--was a good compromise. What I didn’t realize was I wasn’t truly listening to myself, nor the call from the land that grew in volume every day since stepping off that bus in Spain. After two years of living in the city, that call grew loud enough that I had to listen.
I said screw it, dropped the image of myself that had been ingrained in my head since I was a child, and got a job working as a ranch hand in Wyoming. I was off on a new adventure and this time I was going to lead with my heart. I was committed to trying this farmer thing out. It took a year and a half before that commitment paid dividends. I can still remember the exact moment--the moment when my head and my heart in unison told me that I am a farmer.
It was a grey day in August of 2016. The Eagle Ridge Ranch cowboys and I woke up at 4 in the morning. We had a long cattle drive ahead of us that day. When we got to the cattle out in the sagebrush sea, everything was normal. I was on my horse Shadow; the rest of the crew were on theirs. The cattle had lined out well. The clouds had kept the day cool and the aromatic combination of cow pies and sage pollen had me pretty attuned to the land. I was just pokin’ the cattle along with the rest of the ‘boys, nothin’ else around us, but the land and some cows. Right then it hit me: I am a farmer. Everything was normal and my body, mind, and heart accepted how great this normal was. I had found some sort of peace.
Soon after, my time in Wyoming was up. I moved to the Golden Hoof in Boulder where my roots grew deeper. I found new layers of community. Daily lunches consisted of Alice’s renowned soups and some homemade jamón! Not only did these lunches revolve around the food we were growing, but they revolved around conversation. We talked about agriculture, we talked about nutrition, we talked about community and we talked about life. Through these discussions I started to realize I was ready--I was ready to start my own farm.
Of course starting a farm is not easy. It is hard to find land, let alone be able to work the land successfully to make a living. I started asking people about possibilities. Figuring out where there was opportunity. I put in an unsuccessful bid with Black Cat Farm on City of Boulder land. I spoke with ditch companies, private landowners, NRCS, Boulder County and more. Nothing seemed to be catching, but all that talking made it so people knew that I was trying. Finally, in mid-June I got an email from Sylvia Hickenlooper with NRCS saying that there was a property available to lease. I took one of my farm dads, Karel, out to the property to see it. Right away, I knew that this was the opportunity I had been hoping for. It's not perfect, but it allows me to get started. I signed the lease.
The farm, the dream that had been building since walking off the bus in the Sierra Nevadas eight years ago, is beginning. The cows are coming. And now I find myself at a new starting point. I still know that I know nothing, but I realize how far I’ve come. I realize that the only way I could’ve made it to this point was through the support of a strong community. From the people who have listened to me and encouraged me, to the farmers who have taken a chance and been patient enough to educate me on what farming is about, from my peers who have shared in the work to the animals who have taught me more about myself than I could’ve ever expected: thank you.
Farming is not what I originally thought it was. It is more ‘real’ than any other job. It teaches you about life and death. It shows you that you are not in control. It is humbling and dirty--the best kind of dirty. It gives you an appreciation for the seasons, for the moon, for a single cloud that might make your afternoon a little more tolerable. It challenges you physically, mentally and emotionally. At its core, farming is about noticing: being aware of everything that you see and using your built up knowledge to make the best decision that you can.
Now that I am a farmer, it’s hard to imagine a different path for myself. Poc a poc, hast al fin.