Danielle Sanderson (She/Her)

Danielle has been farming on farms not her own for the past 9 years off and on. Currently she is in her second season at a farm right outside of Portland, Oregon, growing vegetables, flowers and dye plants.

I don’t have a title set in stone. The title “harvest manager’  has been tossed around, or ‘wash house manager”.  I’m in the area where I receive the harvest, wash it and pack it.

I am all-things-vegetable.

I grew up in the fertile environment of Napa, California and was surrounded by all the plants, fruit trees, vineyards, garden beds, olives – an oasis of edible plants. I felt very connected to that environment and always have and always wanted to do the chores based on the landscape.

So that is where it all began.

I just knew from leaving home that I wanted to study environmental studies. I was in and out of trail work, but I love food and I love cooking.

I love preparing meals and sharing bounty with my community. I just think it’s such a great way to connect people. It just kind of came naturally to me.

There is a sustainable agriculture program at the University of Montana where I went to school. I pursued that and got a degree.

I’ve really been farming ever since.

I took a year off as a wilderness ranger.

I just love physical labor and reaping the benefits. And seeing your effort come to life.

The school had a farm, too – a farm off site called the Peas Farm. They require in the degree that you take at least two semesters of internships at the farm. That’s where I really got my hands in the dirt and through my professor got a job at his family farm. Things just fell into place from there. It was so fun to be a part of that program. There was on-farm education and schools come out and do tours, and they have their own CSA. My passion was definitely planted. It all grew from that experience at the Peas Farm.  

It hasn’t really felt like a decision to work for someone else on a farm. It’s the way it has to be in order for someone who is seeking a farming career to start. There’s mentorship and you really have to practice the skills in order to become successful.

It’s not like any other career where you can be interviewed, take on the position and the training follows. It’s a learned lifestyle.

I definitely am on the path of starting my own farm. There is an incubator program here in Portland that offers aid in all types of ways. They have affordable land and resources, tractors, mentorship opportunities, and most of all, a community where everybody is learning how to start their own small farm business. 

I didn’t get in this season and that was hard.

I knew I had what it took and I do have what it takes. That’s the only way I can make it happen. I don’t come from money. I don’t come from a family that has a farm. 

I’m trying to think of creative ways of making that come true – land access being the number one challenge. I went through the motions of creating a business plan and budget and all the things you think you would need to get yourself prepared for that process. But I’ve recently enrolled myself in a small business development course because I’ve never run a business myself and just knowing the bits and pieces about taxes and marketing has been really eye opening to see how much I don’t know about running a business. 

I’m really trying to put myself on the track to be successful because I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I know how hard it is to run a farm in this day and age. 

I’m one of those very small percentages who wants to put in the work to make that small change in my community. 

It’s what I know I’m here to do on earth.

I want my own farm because I feel like taking on full responsibility of my own business. I know it’s what I want to do.

I love working with and for this farm owner, but sometimes I want to do things my way. I want to be challenged to really take it all on. I just feel really invigorated with that idea. I feel ready.

I don’t want to work for my boss my whole life. I want to be able to be the one who has created a community like she has. I feel so special to be a part of it, and I kind of want to create that myself. 

It’s been interesting because the people I’ve worked for have all been women.

I don’t think it was a conscious decision to apply for all these different jobs and then get all these different jobs that were at women-owned farms, but I think that has played a part in how strong and resilient I’ve become.

I’ve been shown who those people are who are strong and resilient and who have made it as women farmers – small farmers, too.

One of the most prominent issues for farm workers is someone else taking the credit.
The face of who owns the farm is on the website. The other people who are making the farm run aren’t even mentioned or given the credit.

That feels really unfair. 

For instance, I was the farm manager of a 50-acre operation. I only had a couple years of consistent farm experience under my belt. The farmer to this day can’t keep people employed year after year and that’s because of the way that they are paid. Because of that, I had to be thrown into this position of farm manager. Throughout the season, she never trusted me enough to even say thank you or give me the credit for how much work I was putting into this position even though I didn’t have the compatible experience. 

I had to leave.

I was doing too much work for the pay and for the lack of appreciation I was given. Another experience with this same challenge is that this huge community of people just went to her for thanks and for acknowledgement even though I was standing right next to her! It was crazy! I’m the one running the farm for you!

It’s frustrating that some people don’t take me seriously because I’ve decided to pursue a career as a farmer.

And I catch myself saying to other people: “I’m just a farmer”.

Danielle, give yourself some credit! 

I feel like people think it’s an easy job. It’s a necessity of life to grow food and people just don’t understand how much work it takes to provide sustainably grown produce and that includes being sustainable for the people who are growing the food. People who are in an office or work on a computer and get paid $40/hr, they get more credit than the blood, sweat and tears that are poured into farm positions

I also think people think work shouldn’t be fun, you shouldn’t be enjoying your quality of life while you’re working. 

That’s the whole reason I’m farming, there is this other type of pay that isn’t not monetary. That is what keeps me around honestly. It’s never been about the money. It’s about the experiences and I feel like my time is spent doing things that are good and things that keep me mentally and physically healthy…and other people too. 

I feel like I’ve met that match of a dream farm, to be honest.

  • At my current farm, I’m given the space to put in my ideas and what I think should happen.
  • Responsibility is shared equally, and my boss does so much to make sure our community knows that she couldn’t do this without us –  that we are the backbone of the business and it’s so true.
  • And we’re paid well. She’s trying to get us to be paid $20/hr this season. A lot of that is because she has low cost for leasing the land because she has a sweetheart deal with the landowner. Because of the low costs, she can pay us really well and the diversity of our market too – she’s been creative and she is a bonafide hustler. She knows how to find the markets and make money.
  • She’s also been an advocate her whole life for racial justice and gender equality. She’s so inspirational, you can probably hear it in my voice. She’s 37 years old. She’s young. With having a younger boss I can relate to her more and she can relate to me more.
  • The commute isn’t that bad for being able to farm in Portland, it’s 30 minutes to the job site. It’s a beautiful drive and I work with one of my best friends who is the flower manager. I honestly feel like I’ve met my match with working for a farm that I don’t own.
  • I’m always learning.
  • I’m given the appreciation – she says thank you to us more than we can even remember. If we mess up, she’ll say thank you – it’s that kind of thing.
  • She’s been patient with me with things that don’t come naturally – like being a leader for our crew, because I’m the youngest on the farm and I have the most responsibility. She is building my confidence and my communication skills. I’m still learning these things. 

If I wasn’t able to find something else,  I would definitely stay there.

My relationship with farming is honestly one of the only stable and sure aspects in my life.

And it’s funny because the aspects of farming are so much out of our control!

The bond that I share with the piece of land, the plants, the insects, the soil, the weather, and the cycles that I have the privilege to experience is like nothing else on Earth.

I return year after year because I feel one with these cycles. It’s natural for me. It’s in my heart, body, mind, and soul. The connection is so fully a part of me that I can’t picture myself pursuing anything else as a career. 

In the realm of farming, what keeps me up at night is the conundrum of how politicized agriculture has become.

The gaping fissure between big ag and small ag is so obviously convoluted in so many ways.

Folks like me who have the purest passion for feeding their community fresh produce do not have the fair chance at making that dream come true. It is so hard to make it as a small farm because most of society expects food to be cheap, and that is simply not the case…not for sustainable, organic operations that strive to better the environment and ecosystem.

Big ag has mechanized, poorly treated, and abused all that farming is to make the operation as cheap as possible.

The price of land, water, infrastructure, and wages involved should be compensated the true amount of their value and worth.

And farmers full of heart for this career should be given the opportunities to make it easier to succeed. Because what we do is strictly for others. And we know we aren’t going to be monetarily rich…but boy are we rich in our connections with the Earth, and to me, that’s worth it.