MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa — It’s a cool, stormy morning at Rhizosphere Farm, and Terra Hall stands in the drizzle in one of her large fields, pointing out her last heirloom tomato plants.
Her last green beans. Her final potatoes.
After more than a decade of growing, marketing and selling local, organic food, this will be Rhizosphere’s final season. Hall and her husband, Matt, announced this spring they’d decided to quit farming.
“If we made money doing this,” Hall said, “I don’t know that we’d ever stop.”
It’s a struggle that many, perhaps even most, small farmers understand, even farms as popular as Rhizosphere.
The farm’s stand is arguably one of the most eye-catching of any vendor at the farmers market, and unarguably one of its most popular: Its colorful, carefully arranged produce often sells out early in the day. Despite that popularity, plus regular restaurant customers such as Block 16, La Buvette and The Boiler Room, the farm has never made a profit.
Its owners pay their scant staff more than they’ve ever made themselves, and the couple has always maintained second jobs outside of the farm.
“Farming is really just a series of gambles,” Hall said. “You can’t do this if you don’t like to gamble. It’s something you do because you love it. But when you can’t pay your bills, you can only run into a wall.”
The story of Rhizosphere is more common than one might think, said Ben McShane-Jewell, a University of Nebraska extension educator based in Blair.
As farmers markets have continued to experience incredible growth, they’ve become saturated, he said. Small farmers now vie for market share not just from their fellow vendors, but also for the fixed base of shoppers.
Sign up for the Go newsletter
This complete guide of local music, movies, dining and entertainment will have you weekend ready.
“It’s fierce competition,” he said. “It becomes hard for any individual farmer to make a profit.”
Lots of market customers also carry a “romantic notion” about farming, McShane-Jewell said, which simply isn’t reality. Small farmers face challenges in weather, weeds, pests and the difficulty of the physical work itself.
“It never stops,” he said. “The help is almost none. A lot of it has to be done by hand. It’s back-breaking work.”
The Halls met in 2005 at a farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, where Terra was working. She decided to move back to the Midwest (she’s from Council Bluffs), and in 2008 ended up in Fairfield, Iowa, farming at the town’s transcendental meditation center. Her husband, an Omaha native, stayed in Oregon to work, and both saved money toward the dream of their own farm.
Rhizosphere officially started in 2009 on a rented one-acre lot in Waterloo, Nebraska, with a manufactured home where the couple lived. They started a community-supported agriculture program, and soon expanded to a second piece of land down the road.
In 2011, most of the crop got decimated by a hailstorm. The next season, Rhizosphere had one of its most successful years, and the Halls decided it was time to buy their own place. They took a year off in 2013 to look for land.
They ended up in the Loess Hills on a flat 5½-acre piece of land where the previous owner had been growing alfalfa without chemicals.
The Halls planted a “food forest” — it includes grapes, quince, Asian pears and blackberries, among other fruits — and a medicinal herb garden full of pollinators. They grew a variety of crops: rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, many types of leafy greens, onions, sweet potatoes, green beans, beets, leeks and carrots.
“When we started, I wanted to grow whatever I could,” Hall said. “But we were doing too many things and not making enough money.”
They started to focus the farm on what restaurants might want, growing more unusual crops like fava beans and salsify, a plant with an edible root that resembles a parsnip.
That focus made them a favorite of chefs, said Paul Urban, who has worked with the farm for years at Block 16. He specifically remembers the farm’s colorful greens, carrots and asparagus, and he loved the farm’s crop diversity.
“They always have something really different,” Urban said.
He cites one example from this season: crosnes, a Chinese artichoke that tastes and crunches like a water chestnut. He served the root as part of a spring vegetable hash with fresh halibut, a lemon buerre fondue and local nettles.
Urban said Rhizosphere has always been one of the most consistent and most organized farms he’s worked with.
“We are just really bummed that Rhizosphere is going away,” he said.
The farm continually raised its prices, Terra Hall said, in an effort to stay competitive, and though none of its market shoppers or restaurant customers balked, it wasn’t enough.
She said the responsibility she feels, particularly to restaurant customers, is one thing that’s kept her going. But she said she reached a point where she couldn’t continue selling for less at the farmers market.
“Growing clean, good food locally costs way more than we can charge at the market,” she said.
McShane-Jewell said small Nebraska farmers are often hampered by pricing. Nebraska is still catching up with the rest of the country.
“By and large, most customers are not going to pay six or seven dollars for a dozen locally produced eggs, even though that’s what it costs, or even more, to produce them,” he said.
Farmers market vendors are competing with large farms, too, many of which sell their products for just a couple of dollars at large supermarkets.
“It becomes very challenging for a small farmer to make the argument that eggs produced down the road using sustainable practices are worth the six-plus dollars.”
Hall said she isn’t sure how much the farm is losing; they’ve struggled to keep good records. Of all the crops they’ve grown, she said tomatoes are the only ones that regularly turn a profit.
Erin Schoenberg, the sales manager for Lone Tree Foods, an organization that connects small local farmers to wholesale buyers and chefs, said the small farms she works with share that struggle.
“Consumers think that local food is ‘special food that I spend more money on during the weekends,’ ” she said. “It’s not their daily food.”
And while Lone Tree doesn’t work with Rhizosphere, she said she understood the farm’s challenge.
“There’s a fine line between putting on a happy face at the market while also dealing with the realities of farming,” she said.
Hall is still figuring out what she’ll do next. Matt will continue his work year-round as a contractor. They plan to stay on their farm, and she said she’s looking forward to spending more time in her herb garden.
Maybe she will help people plant their own gardens. Maybe she’ll run a small CSA. She hopes to continue some relationships with restaurants. Either way, she knows farming is part of her identity.
“It sucks to work so hard to be so good at something,” she said. “Part of what kept us going is that we were good at it, and getting better.”
The other part of what she feels? Relief.
“(The decision to stop) has been four years in the making,” she said. “It’s a long time sitting with the reality of it. But life is much bigger. Maybe I can help other people understand that, too.”