Introducing the new FEARLESS component of my Femme Features! It has become abundantly clear in my interviews with these remarkable women how the beautifully varied characteristics and qualities of being fearless are integral to their success in life, business, family and beyond... thus the new moniker!
I can't think of a more perfect feature for the debut of this fearless tag than Katie Swanson, the founder and owner of Sweet Union Farm in Klamath Falls, Oregon! Fun fact: we both grew up in the same area of Gresham, Oregon (her sister was in my graduating class at Centennial High School) but connected for the first time through my Fearless Femme Feature partner (and fabulous photographer) Kelly Armijo.
As cooking and shopping lists are prepared for Thanksgiving feasts, it's a wonderful time to spotlight the work of local farmers like Katie and her team who enrich our tables and our lives.
Katie's work has made a wave of impact in our local community. Sweet Union Farm is a small, diversified vegetable farm just outside the city boundary in Klamath Falls, Oregon. They sustainably grow vegetables for our community on just under an acre. They are passionate about connecting people with their food and providing fresh, delicious, and interesting vegetables... and Katie's passion was evident in our conversation!
How did you get your start in farming?
I was a high school teacher at the time, but had always been interested in homesteading. It took me a while to realize that farming could be a career since I didn't grow up farming and nobody ever presented that as an option. I started to get more interested in the small farms scene in and around Portland. Through reading books, attending workshops and the encouragement of my husband, I decided to apprentice on farms in the summer. I was immediately hooked! It got harder and harder to go to a job where I had to be inside all day. After two summers volunteering on farms, I left teaching and worked full-time on a 40 acre, woman-owned vegetable farm. It was a great experience and I learned a ton. After that, my husband and I moved to Klamath Falls.
What was the prompt/motivation for starting your own business, Sweet Union Farm?
After working on a few different farms, I was bursting with ideas and excited to start my own enterprise. Plus, there weren't a lot of employment options on organic, mixed-vegetable farms in Klamath Falls! I knew I had a lot to learn, so I decided to start small with just 20 CSA members on 1/3 acre. I now grow for 70 CSA members (CSA members are customers with a seasonal subscription to the farm in which they receive produce every week) plus sell to multiple local restaurants and on Klamath Farmers Online Marketplace (KFOM).
What challenges did you encounter?
I would say the biggest challenge to getting started was probably breaking my back. The summer we moved to Klamath Falls, I was in a bus accident that left me with four fractures in my low back. I was using a walker to get around and in a lot of pain for a long time. I had been planning to start my farm the next season and it felt like my whole world had ended. Magically, my sibling-in-law and their partner were working on farms at the time and offered to move to Klamath Falls to help me start mine. With a ton of help from them, plus friends and family, I still started Sweet Union Farm that next season while working full-time at an off-farm job. It was a crazy year with lots of physical therapy and I couldn't have pulled it off without tons of support from my community. Looking back it seems crazy that I still started the farm, but I think moving forward and throwing myself into it got me through that really difficult time. Even though it can be really challenging, the physical labor of farming is what I enjoy most. It demands that I stay healthy and in the end, I know farming makes me stronger.
Beyond that, it's just really hard to get started in farming when you don't come from a farming family with land, especially when you're a woman (98% of all US farmland is owned by white males). I was fortunate to be able to start on the acre that my husband and I owned and expand by leasing land from friends. I've had to teach myself a lot and push myself physically and mentally beyond what I thought I was capable of. It can be really hard not to internalize the limitations our society puts on women. I have to intentionally choose to be my true self every day even if that doesn't fit into a nice box. I'm really fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband who has believed in me since day one and encourages me to be me.
Was there a particular moment when you realized that this was your passion or purpose?
I think it was my first day working on a farm that first summer I volunteered. I even teared up because I knew this was what I was meant to do. I don't want to romanticize it too much. Farming is hard work. At the end of every season when I'm exhausted, I check in with myself and ask "is this still what I want to be doing?". Every year it's a "hell yes!" There's nothing else that I would rather do and there's no better use of my time, skills and energy.
How has Sweet Union Farm impacted the community?
My hope is that Sweet Union Farm has connected people to their food, each other and this beautiful Basin we call home. I think people who interact with Sweet Union Farm walk away more excited about eating local and seasonal food. Nearly every CSA member tells me they eat more quantity and diversity of vegetables because of their CSA membership and I think there's something powerful about feeding your family food grown by someone you know in the place that you live. It's easier to get their kids to eat more veggies when they just taste better and they know they came from farmer Katie!
I think we've made local veggies a little more accessible: we fundraise for scholarships every year, partner with Sky Lakes Wellness Center and Klamath Tribal Health & Family services to get CSA memberships for their patients, local restaurants are serving Sweet Union salad, our veggies can be found online at KFOM, and we participate in Farm to School with the county schools. The Sweet Union motto is, "vegetables are beautiful, land is to be respected and community is our strength". I like to think that the farm has stayed true to that and spread that beauty around the community.
What do you say to encourage other women interested in farming?
I encourage them to find a mentor, ideally another woman in agriculture and work on farms owned or managed by women. I have been so lucky to learn from strong women who have been role models that I continuously look to for inspiration. Allow yourself to be big, take up space and learn something new. There's a strong movement right now in alternative ag that is opening up doors for a wider diversity of people to call themselves farmers. There are so many current and historical barriers to farming for women and Black, Indigenous and People of Color, but that is starting to change and it's really exciting.
All photos by the ever-talented Kelly Armijo of Armijo Designs
Tremendous thanks to Katie Swanson and to her entire team for the ways in which they impact our lives through farming and food, and the inspiration her words and actions provide to live fearlessly in pursuit of ways to make the world around us healthier and whole.