NOTI, Ore. — When Wes Palmer and Natalie L’etoile Palmer established L’etoile Farms in 2011, they needed a mower, so they decided to buy one with the neighboring farm.
The two farms shared the mower for two seasons before Palmer offered to buy out his neighbor.
Even though they were in close proximity, the mower was cumbersome to transport with their trailers and the two farms needed the equipment at the same times. Then in winter, it sat unused.
Although Palmer said it was “a good way to get started,” he is now particular with which equipment he shares, borrowing only two small spreaders from his neighbors when he needs them.
Historically, many farmers of all scales have shared equipment. However, the idea is gaining in popularity among new farmers — especially those looking for a collaborative group, said Melissa Fery, an Oregon State University Small Farms Extension agent.
“A group of new farmers might want to purchase equipment together and have a cooperative, but it allows for more logistics,” she said. “(The trend) comes up more because getting into farming is expensive.”
Cameron Schwartz, a mechanic at the Tractor Store in Eugene, Ore., said because the store mainly sells to small-scale and hobby farmers, it’s something he’s heard many customers discuss.
“They pretty much work together,” he said. “Customers know each other, and someone somewhere is helping someone else. It’s a little community.”
When it gets into bigger, more expensive machinery, Schwartz said it’s harder for farmers to justify lending it. One of the common stories he’s heard from customers is after they lend it, the equipment doesn’t work properly.
“Know who you’re letting borrow your tractor,” he said. “If you’ve known someone for years and years, it might not be an issue.”
Accountability is one of the struggles that can accompany sharing equipment. In 2014, Fery conducted an equipment-sharing feasibility study focusing on a group of 26 farmers in the Mackenzie River Valley. Of the 26 individuals, 16 were interested in sharing equipment because it was too expensive to justify purchasing themselves. The concerns that dissuaded the remaining 10 were worries about damage and breakdowns, maintenance, scheduling, liability, transportation and cleaning.
Fery also recognized that sharing equipment could lead to spreading unwanted weeds and diseases, something that Palmer has to be wary of because L’etoile Farms is certified organic.
“Oregon Tilth wants to know if you’re sharing equipment to see if it will impact your organic status,” he said.
Although Fery said most of the farmers in her study had already been informally sharing equipment, the group compiled a list of equipment that each farm was willing to share with others in the area. This allowed for the farmers to determine at their discretion if they wanted to swap or rent equipment, barter, or pay to have the equipment owner perform the task.
By the end of the study, 32 pieces of equipment were put on the list.
“You get to know your neighbors and find out what they have to offer, and in return, what you have to offer them,” Fery said. “Maybe it’s something simple, like offering time, but offer it back in goodwill.”
This idea for a database is also being used in the Southern Willamette Beginning Farmers Alliance (SWBFA) chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Alice Morrison, who works at L’etoile Farms and manages the database, said that although members were initially enthusiastic about the idea, it has been fairly underused.
“I think the diffuse database of shareable tools hasn’t worked as well as the physical tool libraries I’ve heard of in other NYFC chapters,” Morrison said. “But the idea is there.”
Morrison doesn’t think it’s necessarily a beginning farmer phenomenon, but newer farmers see the necessity of borrowing or renting equipment to get through crucial parts of the season.
“At the end of the day, if you’re struggling to get done what you need to get done, someone will let you borrow equipment,” Schwartz, the mechanic, said. “No one wants someone to fail or lose a bail of hay. Everyone’s been there.”
For Palmer, the experience of sharing a mower was a good way to help L’etoile Farms get started. He said sharing helps farmers get into the practice cheaper and keeps them from acquiring debt.
“You have less initial investment until you grow enough to get your own (equipment),” he said. “That’s good if you could work it out, it’s great. There was ton of investment that I didn’t realize when I started. I was naive about how much infrastructure and equipment I needed.”