By Nikki Seibert Kelley @Wit_Meets_Grit
“The truth is, over the years you realize that the work never goes away. You do your best and at the end of the day you try to find satisfaction with what you accomplished,” reflects Mark Cain on the demands of farm life. After 33 years invested in Dripping Springs Garden, Mark Cain and his partner Michael Crane understand the reality of working sunup to sundown to realize their farm dream, a process that literally started from the ground up. Unlike the more traditional inter-generational farm transition, Dripping Springs Garden represents an increasingly more common farm narrative: the first generation farm. These are farms started by individuals with no family land, no hands-on childhood experience, and no predetermined operation to take-over. Every decade, the number of these first generation farmers grows and in recent years has reached a tipping point that demands a new model for supporting new and beginning farmers. As this new breed of farmer enters the market, they are seeking opportunities to gain hands-on experience from the ground up, they need alternative land access models, and most importantly, seek mentors that understand their perspective. Enter Mark Cain, the farmer with a degree in ecology with a passion for the outdoors who fell in love with the potential for organic farming to help heal the land, heal himself, and heal his community. Without family land or formal training, Cain’s story is similar to so many new farmers striking out on their own to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience to pursue the dream of owning a farm. Over the last several decades he and his partner have taken an idea and transformed it into a successful business in the Ozark mountains of northwest Arkansas, all the while helping guide others on the path to realizing the farm dream. “They’re like farmer shamans, guiding others into community-based organic agriculture in our part of the world,” says long-time friend Keith Richards.
So what steps did this successful operation take to get where it is today? To start, they studied at the feet of other masters of industry and have continued to adapt, grow, and hone their craft over the years. Their land was selected because it was a beautiful, isolated space surrounded by nature, not because it was previously a working farm, so they understand the challenges of building a operation from the ground up. They have developed their business with intention, choosing to invest in time and planning to maximize each acre to ensure a diverse range of crops can be grown and harvested year-round for market. While others may have increased acreage or markets, Mark chose to instead diversify crops, refine production techniques, add high tunnels, and focus on developing a successful internship program. All of these elements are components farms across the region can adopt, adapt, and utilize to grow their operation.
Yet the most compelling aspect of Dripping Springs Garden is not the cultivation but rather the culture, one that is focused on not only surviving but thriving. Mark embraces regenerative agriculture, a reflection of his deeper belief that the farming can be restorative instead of extractive to both the environment and the community. Mark has seen first-hand how despite farming’s potential for positive, the one resource that suffers the most in the industry are the people. The demands of farming require a unique combination of both physical endurance and mental resolve but many entering the industry push too hard, too soon, for too long, often resulting in injury, breakdown, or burn-out. For the team at Dripping Springs Garden, it is about finding the balance of passion, hard work, and honoring yourself. Cain achieves this balance by operating the farm on a Mediterranean schedule allowing for mid-day siesta for yoga, meditation and relaxation during the warmest hours of the day. Mark is actually a certified yoga teacher and provides interns with the opportunity to join him in practice. The daily break provides “a golden opportunity to let go of everything for a little while to restore the body and mind” according to Cain. Dripping Springs Garden also provides time for family meals, with Mark and Michael cooking, eating, and socializing with their four to six interns to enjoy the fruits of their labor and socialize in a non-work setting. While the schedule and activities provide a more balanced work day, Mark also credits them with keeping him from experiencing the exhaustion many at his stage in the business often feel. Mark notes, “I have other things that I find value in, especially those that allow me to be creative. People have to find those unique outlets they can integrate into their operation.” He also stresses the importance of having young farmers working alongside them, not only as an investment in the future of farming but also as a way to reconnect with the joy of farming through the eyes of the interns (a view you can share from the farm’s Instagram feed, run by the interns).
With all of the incredible experience and success, it is enough inflate anyone’s ego but I can assure you these are still two humble farmers interested to helping others by sharing their journey. Mark admits he has “made a million mistakes and tried to learn from a few” but still has a passion for farming because according to him, they have balanced farming with creative outlets and are surrounded with aspiring farmers still in awe of the daily farm life. He knows that many people look at his model, his schedule, and his approach and will say “I don’t have time” but believes if he does not take care of himself and his employees, the operation will not be the regenerative system he is striving for. Cain’s zen approach to farming is something we can all take to heart, “We have to feel good about what is happening right now. Not what could be. It is not about waiting for something to give you peace but finding it in the moment.”
Mark is looking forward to sharing more about his unique journey in January 2018 at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Chattanooga, Tenn. where he will kick off the conference in his plenary session with an exploration of where he began and the lessons he has learned along the way. We hope you will be joining us to learn from Mark and the other 90 speakers during the 56 educational sessions, short courses, field trips, and networking events. Register today to take advantage of early bird rates! Living on a tight budget? Check out our fee waivers.