In May 2022, I had the opportunity to visit the farm you are about to read about, and what I saw impacts me still four months later. You are about to meet two people who believe in hard work and never giving up on a dream. You are about to meet two people whose enthusiasm for farming made me want to be a farmer too–almost.
The one thing I learned that I hope you do too is that enthusiasm is a fire that can set a forest ablaze. When you truly believe in something and pursue it with tenacity–don’t give up, you are living the American Dream.
This elusive thing we all aspire to live looks successful in the long run, but it sometimes looks like failure in the daily grind. The American Dream is not for the faint of heart; it’s for the visionary.
Some people say that younger generations have lost the work ethic to get anything done, but that is not true of all of us. It certainly is not true of the folks at Sand Box Farms. As you read this story, I hope it inspires you to see innovation, hope, and promise in agriculture and in young people with a dream and a steady hand on the plow.
In a little white 1920s farmhouse in Warsaw, one young married couple is proving that the American Dream is still alive. Sand Box Farms was just a high school dream for AJ Searles, a first-generational farmer, who is as comfortable with a power tool as he is behind the wheel of a tractor or standing in front of a crowd talking about his business. “Because AJ is doing this as a new start-up not something he grew up in,” his wife, Krystle Owen explains, “he gets invited to speak often about his experiences and how he got started in the agriculture business.”
Krystle is equally busy and accomplished. She works as an Agronomy Sales Manager for Southern State when she is not busy farming pumpkins, raising cattle, baking cakes, and balancing several upgrade projects at the farm. “We all wear multiple hats and have to be capable of doing any of the jobs here on the farm,” Krystle says. “We couldn’t possibly do this business alone. We are so thankful for the workers we do have and the other business partners that work with us, but turnover in the labor force is high for agriculture. We have to always be ready and moving quickly to stay ahead of the demands of our consumers. In the industry, seasoned farmers are aging out. Soon there will be a gap of need as great in food production as anything we see in other career fields,” Krystle explains.
AJ Searles and Krystle Owen are members of the NC Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Association (YF&R), an organization of people between the ages of 18-35 who are interested in agriculture. Members of the organization benefit from the Farm Bureau’s larger mission of advancing the agricultural community through networking and educational opportunities. As members, AJ and Krystle have been able to explore operations and learn new practices in states like Florida, Arizona, and Iowa. AJ Searles and Krystle Owen now serve as Duplin County Representatives on the state committee for YF&R. As representatives of the state, AJ and Krystle had the opportunity to meet with legislators in Washington, D.C. to discuss the long-term impact certain bills would have on young farmers and ranchers.
Your voice does matter, and you need to make it matter by getting involved, making the meetings, and having the face-to-face conversations with leaders who make policies affecting you. You don’t have to travel to D.C. to make a difference. Local town governments are important too, and Duplin County has been extremely welcoming to future generations expressing their needs and concerns.Krystal Owen
AJ and Krystle hope to encourage young people to see agriculture as a career field with endless opportunities–especially in Duplin County. “We have advantages here because we are within thirty minutes of a lot of what we need. We produce a lot of our own food in North Carolina, and our products are being sent to other states and countries. In Duplin County, we have some of the best soils, and others are interested in investing in that for what we can do here,” Krystle explains. “You don’t have to leave your county to have a good job, and you don’t have to be a farmer either. There are plenty of other jobs that intersect with farming here.”
Even just a day’s experience on a farm can change a person’s life forever. “Farming gives you the opportunity to see and experience the circle of life firsthand,” Krystle says. “Just interacting with the environment teaches you to be incredibly grateful and not wasteful of the food you have. It also builds confidence, leadership skills, and critical thinking skills.” One of the big pushes in the industry now is to monetize this benefit by increasing agri-tourism opportunities. Even though Duplin is a rural county, it still has opportunities to explore in this area.
Farming today is nothing like it was a hundred years ago. While it may look simple and peaceful, farming life is incredibly complex and diverse. Profitability for farming now is a balancing act of monitoring trends, precision planning, and being as efficient as possible with the resources that you have. “Farming is a business. There is more time spent planning than in a tractor or a field. It is a very strategic, thought-out process,” Krystle says.
Stock market supply and demand determine prices; farmers don’t have a say in it. Government regulations hold US farmers to high standards concerning food safety and business practices all the way down to how a plant or animal is fed, produced, and processed. These standards set a high bar for quality that is further backed by distributors wanting GAP Certification to sell their goods. “Many stores like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, or Harris Teeter won’t even take your product unless it is GAP Certified,” Krsytle says, “but there are lesser quality countries able to produce the same products cheaper with less regulation. Most farmers want to market on a level playing field, and GAP certification is part of that.”
One positive of all the regulations, however, is that it contributes to giving US-made goods a reputation for being better and worth the extra investment. “We have some of the safest food sources around,” Krystle says. “Companies like Carnival Cruise Lines choose us and our products over cheaper options on the market because they know we offer quality goods that are regulated and tracked.”
Technology for farming is continually growing and making it easier for farmers to control what they do from the cab of their tractors, but all that advancement comes at a price. Many farmers live frugal lives and save with the goal of investing in some of this better equipment. “It’s something we all work towards,” Krystle says, “but sometimes we have to start without the technology and use what we’ve got to build the business and make it grow. Not having everything perfect makes you get creative to get the job done,” Krystle says. “For us, success is measured by being smart and diversifying our business to be able to overcome challenges, be good at what we do, and justify our equipment.”
A lot of creativity is required to do well in the farming business. “This year and last, our fertilizer cost went up significantly. It now costs at least three times as much to fertilize the same amount of fields. Also, many of the products we relied on are just going back into production which means they are going to be at least two weeks behind making it to the farms,” Krystle explains. “We have to look for alternative sources of fertilizer or we are forced to buy more expensive options and find other ways to offset cost in other areas of the business.”
Despite all these challenges, most farmers describe what they do as a lifestyle and a calling; they feel drawn to protect and steward the land for the next generations. Even though AJ and Krystle don’t have children yet, they still plan for them today. From the small details of having a bolt bin for parts to the larger details of planning how to repurpose the older buildings and bring new ones, they think about the lives that will be lived on their farm.
“What I hope, is that more land owners will be interested in partnering with new growers to rent their properties and keep the land producing agriculturally instead of turning it over into commercial land,” Krystle says. Landowners interested in connecting with potential renters for their land or young persons interested in developing an agriculture business are encouraged to reach out to YF&R.