By Emily Beck | Photography by Ariel Fried
Ali Clark is a busy woman. She’s a farmer with a strong sense for business and creativity, and she’s not one to settle for a conventional lifestyle. At 27, she is the co-owner of Little Mountain Farm, the sole owner of Snowshoe Candy Company, a founding board member of Big Muddy Urban Farm, and City Sprouts’ marketing and communications manager.
The first time I met her, it was July and sweltering hot. Big Muddy was announcing its Aspiring Farmer Residency program––an opportunity for those interested in farming to spend a year learning to formulate and execute a farm plan together––and celebrating with music and food. Ali seemed excited and energetic, wearing a straw hat decorated with dried flowers and greeting everyone she saw as if they were friends, because they were. Her (and Big Muddy’s) connection to the neighborhood they served was apparent. So is the fact that Ali loves connections––between people, food and the planet.
One of Ali’s dreams is to own a farm, and she’s getting closer and closer to that goal. Last year, on rented land in Honey Creek, Iowa, she and her partner, Scott Yahnke, started Little Mountain Farm, a small-scale organic vegetable operation. They balanced self-employment with off-farm jobs, constantly evolving their methods and learning from mistakes, trying to become better. “It’s kind of like a big puzzle that you’ll never actually finish putting together,” she said, “but it’s fun to work on.”
She had experienced the cycles of the seasons before, but not quite like this. While managing Little Mountain, the excitement of ordering seeds at winter’s end, the anticipation of the first harvest, the joy of putting together community-supported agriculture (CSA) program boxes and meeting people at market, the impossible rush of July and the reset in fall was all their own. Ali said she realized the importance of seasonal reprieve, of ebb and flow, of taking personal time amidst the endless to-do list. She loved having a direct connection to CSA members, allowing their tastes to shape her crop plan and vice versa. Now she’s hooked on farming and all the challenges and rewards it entails, with the intention to only move forward.
“I really love direct marketing food to people … I love that about Snowshoe Candy Company, too. It’s a direct connection to the consumer at the end of the day … they appreciate it more because they know you put work into it,” she said. “It’s a really satisfying feeling, of producing something someone is excited to consume and seeing people come together over that versus consuming it really fast and moving on to the next part of their life.”
Ali moved to Omaha in autumn of 2011, after finishing college. Omaha seemed like a good fit—Midwestern like her native Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but just far enough away to be her own. She knew she was interested in food and farming but didn’t have solid plans or a set job. Right away, she set to work meeting people. A visit to City Sprouts on her first day in town led to a Food Not Bombs meeting, which led to a potluck, which led to the stirrings of Big Muddy Urban Farm, which led to Little Mountain Farm, her current operation. She made it a goal to meet with three new people every week for coffee who were somehow connected to food. “If you want to do something, throw your net out wide,” she said.
City Sprouts led Ali to meet Matt Cronin and soon after Dan Egan, who happened to be her neighbor. He would lead her to Brent Lubbert, James Lemieux, Cait Caughey and Tyler Magnuson, who would become her partners in creating Big Muddy. The group that formed wanted to learn more about sustainable community farming, so together they hashed out a plan for a profitable farm in the city and made it happen. Within the first year the farm was managing five plots somewhat scattered around Omaha, and now has six plots more centrally located within the Gifford Park neighborhood. Big Muddy also has two renovated houses––one is now being used for the residency program.
“It wasn’t a monumental idea or anything,” she said. “It wasn’t called Big Muddy [at first], it was like ‘let’s have a farm in the city,’ and then we met over coffee and tea … in each other’s living rooms, and created Big Muddy.”
The work was challenging. Although she had farming experience from previous jobs, Ali acquired a lot of skills and knowledge from Big Muddy. It was a starting point of learning crop planning, starting crops from seed, marketing to a CSA and, perhaps hardest of all, keeping a continuous harvest for an entire growing season. For her, the work was both demanding and a great a privilege.
“There were certainly a million moments throughout the whole process where I was like, ‘Isn’t this great?’ And there were also moments where I was like, ‘I’m covered in dirt and weeds and I’m sweating and I’m hot and this is awful! What was I thinking?’” she said. “But there were more moments where I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I get to do. I chose to do it, but I also get to do this.’”
Eventually, most of the original founders outgrew the scale of Big Muddy and moved to their own operations. Although Ali now runs Little Mountain Farm with Scott, she is still the secretary on Big Muddy’s board of directors, and dedicates time every week to the continuation of the nonprofit. “We just scratched the surface with Big Muddy,” she said, “but it was a launching point.”
Recently, Ali and Scott announced on their website that they won’t be farming this year. They intend to use 2017 to plan what’s next and to look for a long-term spot they can call their own.
Right now, Ali sits on somewhat shaky ground. She isn’t sure where she’ll move when her lease is up, or where she’ll work. But she does have a dream, a plan and a lot of community support. She wants a small-scale mixed vegetable and flower operation, along with a larger-scale area to grow what will become ingredients in her candy products. She envisions a farm store that would highlight locally made items––not just her own––and sell her homegrown produce in warm months and her candy in cold ones. Ali said she’s open to moving states––maybe to Wisconsin, where her family still lives––but she’s hesitant about the idea of leaving the community she’s worked so hard to become a part of.
“Finding somewhere to grow is a community process,” she said. “We’ve felt so supported so far.” Since announcing the plan to find somewhere more permanent, people have been spitballing ideas and offering up their connections, opening opportunities tenfold. A few CSA members told her they’d be there, ready for her whenever she returned to farming.
So now they’re navigating, scouting out places, solidifying ideas and taking a break from farming in Iowa so they can give Little Mountain space to grow into what they’re dreaming of.
Emily Beck is currently immersed in environmental and sustainability studies at Indiana University in Bloomington and dreaming of the day she can keep her own chickens. And goats. And bees.