The Life of a Farmer
Insight into farming, business, and family
Luke Groce is a true entrepreneur. A fews years ago he and his wife Katherine dropped everything and decided to start farming. They haven’t looked back ever since. Driven by a love for land, food and people the Groce’s provide chemical-free vegetables and pork products to Louisville residents and restaurants alike. Groce Family Farm was Access Ventures’ first endorsement through Kiva, a micro-lending platform, a little over a year ago. Because of the successful loan the Groce’s were able to purchase a tractor and some pigs that have significantly increased the efficiency of their farm.
Over the last couple years, the farm has grown and so has their family. We spent a few days with the Groce’s on their farm to learn more about their lives. Luke answered a few questions about farming, life and family below.
What does a normal day for you look like?
There are not very many days that are normal. Most start with a cup of Sunergos coffee and some eggs over whatever vegetables are in season, and sometimes some porcine breakfast meats. Usually I’m waking up, emailing customers and others, planning the day and getting together whatever supplies I need for the day. When I get to the farm, I’m checking on the hogs: making sure they are all healthy and present, checking and filling feed and water if needed and investigating their temporary pasture to see if they and the pasture are ready for a move.
Picking days are usually Tuesdays and Saturdays. Those days I’m picking quickly with whoever is helping me and then getting it all packed up for our two farmers markets and our wholesale customers. On other days, when I’m in the garden, I’m mostly working on planting, picking, doing tractor work and killing weeds with a tractor or hand tools.
Why farming? What impact do you hope to have?
I farm for so many reasons: I love food. I love feeding people. I love working outdoors. I love learning and being challenged by new and different problems every day. I love seeing the way abundance and life comes forth out of sunlight, water and inanimate minerals. I love participating very tangibly in God’s cultural mandate to govern creation.
“I want to do work that I can involve my whole family in.”
Farming is nothing, if not a management of complex ecosystems. I believe that farming can treat those ecosystems in a very reductionistic way, or it can honor God’s design and enhance the complexity and beauty of them, while also enhancing their productivity. I hope to continually learn and to shift my farming toward the latter. I hope to impact land with my farming in a way that brings about this type of healing and harmony, and I hope that impact on the land brings abundance to people for generations to come.
Describe your family. Who else helps you on the farm?
My wife Katherine and I have three children: Our oldest son Hugo is three, and his brother and sister, Oscar and Lyda, are a year and a half old…yes, twins. My dad and brother help me on the farm more days than not. My dad has a couple agriculture degrees and worked for a missions organization with rural people, oftentimes helping them with their agricultural systems. A friend of mine sometimes comes and works with me one or two days a week on the farm. Since we live closer to our farm now, we are starting to try to send Katherine out to the farm for a portion of a day to work in the garden while I get a little extra time with our kids. We are hoping to one day live where we farm so that as our kids grow we can more easily share in what we hope to be increasingly overlapping spheres of the home and farming lives.
I love pigs. They are smart, fun, powerful, good looking, affectionate, delicious and they grow fast. There aren’t any terrestrial landscapes on earth that don’t include some animal and it’s impact. All animals create manure. Pigs dig and plow and disturb ground as well. This is one of those liabilities that can be turned into an asset when the size of their pasture paddock and the amount of time they can have access to that piece of ground is managed: think of the difference between being punched really hard and getting a massage; placement and duration are the key variables determining force of impact.
What were you doing before you started farming?
I worked for a few different non-profits that focused on helping various people living with poverty and/or mental illness. Before that, I was studying Political Science at the University of Florida. Katherine studied art and worked in the service industry. At that point I was having a hard time imagining what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to move on from my current field, but was a little bit afraid of trying something so different.
When I was a kid, I loved growing plants, and was amazed that you could grow something productive, tasty, and even worth some money, from a seed and rain and sun. In sixth grade, my Social Studies teacher told our class that there is no such thing as a small farmer in America anymore and that it was just a thing from the past. That stuck with me. By the time I was 25, I hadn’t met any farmers and didn’t have any evidence to make me question him. Just before we got married, a farmer who Katherine bought vegetables from told us he was looking for a part-time worker who had a pickup truck. I jumped at the opportunity, and spent a season being his field hand. Katherine and I quickly decided this was something we wanted to do, and we were starting our own farm the next year.
“My Social Studies teacher told our class that there is no such thing as a small farmer in America anymore.”
What are some things you couldn’t live without on the farm?
Our tractor makes so much of what we do possible. Electric fencing is the single thing that makes raising livestock in a nature-mimicking way possible without unbearable cost, especially with pigs. We can adjust the location and duration of a potentially destructive force on the land in a way that causes it to be a regenerative force, simply from careful management with the tool of electric fencing. I have a lot of hoes that I like too.
What are some of the hardest challenges you face as farmers?
There are so many challenges with running a business, especially a small, vertically integrated one where you are the head of strategy, accounting, marketing, HR, plumbing, ecosystem engineering, botany, agronomy, veterinary medicine, building, delivery, microbiology, etc. Most things that go wrong on the farm though are management induced problems at their core. Because I didn’t have generations worth of knowledge to draw from (farming skipped two generations in my family, and I never knew my great grandparents), I couldn’t just start out with centuries of collected wisdom built into my practices. So I learned from books and podcasts and YouTube and other farmers. I also learned a lot from crop failures and hard times.
One other hard thing right now is that we want to be a farming family and a family farm. Though we are working toward that integration, it is hard on those many long days when we can’t be doing our work all together because of the particulars of our kids ages and the location of our home and farm. It is a heavy thing to know that I’m not seeing my children as much as I’d like now, in hopes of the chance that I’ll see them more next year, or in a few years. But if that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, it was a very steep price to pay.
What is the local food and farming community like in Louisville?
In most ways it is really amazing. The farmers we know around Louisville are really great friends and colleagues. Slow farmers markets, terrible hot and dry spells, crop failures and dead livestock are much easier to weather when you’ve got farming friends who are right there with you. And with the relationships and market demand we have, we generally all operate way more collaboratively than competitively. There are an incredible number of very dedicated eaters who want to buy food from local farmers for flavor, health and ethical reasons. We are really fortunate to have something to offer to folks who key in on any and all of those three reasons to buy.
Who inspires you?
So many people. My wife has worked every day to raise so many tiny people all at the same time. It’s really hard and she’s really good at it. My dad is 73, and he continues to uncomplainingly work hard just because he wants to see me succeed. He also showed me with his life an example of doing something you believe in that wasn’t an already prescribed path. I can’t imagine coming into adulthood without being able to imagine that’s possible. There are a lot of farmers who inspire me and teach me. Most aren’t from this country. But many of them have written or recorded podcasts that shape the way I think about farming and land management. There are a number of local farmers who I interact with and learn from that have been a huge inspiration: Adam Barr, Nick Posante, Todd Childers, Megan Olliges, Darren Bender and many many others.
Originally published at accessventures.org.