For more than four decades, the University of California, Santa Cruz has operated a training program for organic farmer wannabes. UCSC’s apprenticeship in ecological horticulture teaches everything from soil management and crop planning to farm equipment usage and marketing. The six-month course isn’t easy or cheap, but last year more than 180 people vied for 40 slots, says Jan Perez, a research associate in UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems department.
As the nation’s agricultural community continues to gray—the average age of an American farmer is 57, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the enthusiasm for programs like UCSC’s is good news for organic farming advocates. While overall interest in farming is declining, interest in organic agriculture is on the rise.
But according to a 2009 survey of UCSC farm apprenticeship students, America’s new crop of farmers is remarkably different than previous generations. More than 75 percent have college degrees, and at least half say that one of their primary goals is to educate people about healthier food. “There’s a lot of intentionality rather than just wanting to learn the mechanics of being a farmer,” Perez says. “There’s a general feel of wanting to do good stuff in the world and wanting to change the food system.”
That consumer interest translates into more potential for profit—a key consideration for 20- and 30-somethings who have grown up watching conventional farmers struggle to make a living. “With [community-supported agriculture programs], farmers’ markets and other direct-marketing opportunities, young people are seeing more opportunity in organic than conventional farming,” says Traci Bruckner, assistant director of the Center for Rural Affair’s Rural Policy Program. As a result, the average age of organic producers in the United States is 10 years younger than conventional farmers, says Mark Lipson, senior policy analyst for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Many of today’s young organic farmers are nontraditional: Most didn’t grow up on a farm, Bruckner says, or even in a rural area. Quite a few are women. Almost all see farming as “a decent way to live and to raise kids,” she says. And they put a premium on education, networking and farm-community programs.
Lipson, who began farming in 1983, says today’s young organic farmers also tend to be more pragmatic than his generation. “While I see reflections of my peer group when we were young—incredible enthusiasm and energy and willingness to sacrifice a lot—there’s also a higher proportion who have a good idea of what they’re getting into and a more realistic view of what it takes to last.”
Here’s a look at three common types of young organic farmers who may soon be supplying your produce sections.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming, 28
Hudson Valley, N.Y.
After finishing her first full season on her 300-acre farm, where she grows vegetables and artisanal herbs and wrangles rabbits, ducks, pigs and chickens, you’d think Fleming would be celebrating. Instead, she spent last November driving the Hudson Valley’s back roads, looking for a new farm to lease.
Like many young organic farmers, Fleming can’t afford to buy her own property. “If you’re coming into this as a first career, you’re not going to have the money to buy land and build your infrastructure and run your farm all at the same time,” she says. “If you lease your land, you can start small, grow your business and in six or seven years, you can buy.”
But landlords can break leases or refuse to renew them, forcing young farmers like Fleming to move their entire operation. Fortunately, Fleming’s farm search last fall paid off—she found a new property before the spring planting season. “You have to be pretty motivated if you want to be in agriculture,” she says. “There are a lot of people now who are using brave and unusual ways to build a business around farming and food.”
Fleming fell in love with farming during summer visits to her mom’s farm in Switzerland. But that love didn’t come with an instruction book, so after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in conservation and agroecology, she apprenticed on farms in Switzerland and California before joining forces with Tyler Sage, 23, to start Smithereen Farm. The partnership is professional only, replacing the family-based farm model. Smithereen also uses two interns to help with daily operations.
Fleming views collaboration as an important part of modern organic farming, not only to supply labor but also to bring isolated rural people together for education and networking. She runs Greenhorns, a grassroots nonprofit organization, out of the Smithereen farmhouse. Greenhorns is working on a documentary film about organic farmers and also provides a guidebook for young farmers, along with national networking events and workshops. The foundation’s next phase is to form a political coalition that will lobby for low-interest loans and grants to help farmers buy land, and to add more organic provisions to the 2012 Farm Bill. “Young farmers are into political awareness—there are claws on our paws,” Fleming says.
The urban farmer
Kipp Nash, 33
On the surface, Nash had it made. After graduating from college with degrees in computer science and math, he got a job in the tech field. But after a couple of years of sitting in front of a computer, Nash discovered that society’s version of success wasn’t necessarily his. “I realized that in the tech industry, we’re disconnected from the real world, from nature and natural cycles,” he says. “Real deep down, I had a strong desire to be living in a more direct and simple fashion.”
Nash quit his job and hit the road, “seeking out new experiences.” In 2003, he found his calling while working on an organic farm in Crested Butte, Colo. Eager to learn more, he signed up as a volunteer with the nonprofit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, working on farms in Mexico and Central America. Finally ready to start his own farm, he moved to Boulder in 2004. But not only was land scarce, it was expensive.
So Nash tried to scratch his farming itch by turning his backyard into a vegetable garden. But it wasn’t enough. “I didn’t want to be a gardener; I wanted to be a farmer,” he says. He decided to start his own version of a CSA—an NSA, or neighborhood-supported agriculture program. He put an ad in his neighborhood newsletter and distributed fliers announcing the formation of Community Roots urban farm. His proposal: “Share your yard with me. I’ll build you a garden, you’ll get some of the produce and I’ll sell the rest.”
Four homeowners signed up immediately and by the end of the 2009 harvest, Community Roots numbered 13 urban farms. Nash does all the work, from prepping the soil to harvesting the veggies, and sells his share of the produce at farmers’ markets, restaurants and through CSAs. “In very basic terms, this is a form of modern-day sharecropping,” he says. It also comes with sharecroppers’ wages: Nash drives a school bus part time to make ends meet.
While Nash’s ultimate goal is to own a farm bigger than a city lot, he also wants to continue to encourage NSAs throughout the country. “We’re going to need a lot more farmers in the future, and they’re not just going to appear,” he says. “They have to start somewhere, and front and backyards are good places to start.”
The second-gen co-op
Hillary Wilson, 25; Alice Brooke Wilson, 32; Tom Philpott, 43; Sara Safransky, 31; Franya Hutchins, 25
Blue Ridge Mountains, N.C.
Like many kids who grew up on farms, Hillary and Alice Brooke Wilson spent their youth focused on getting off the back 40 and out into the world. Alice Brooke earned college degrees in philosophy and sustainable development, and worked as a journalist and in community gardens in New York. Hillary enrolled in North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College to study history and political science. But in 2004, when developers began lurking around their farm, the sisters decided to move back home and preserve their roots.
The Wilson sisters’ farm is definitely not their parents’ farm, however. First of all, there’s the name. Alice Brooke and Hillary, along with three friends, rechristened Springhouse Farm as Maverick Farms to reflect their world view. “Because we see social justice as the food system’s most crucial issue, we are dedicated to transforming food and farming practices to support cooperative, not subordinate, interrelationships between the economy, ecology, society and politics,” Hillary says. “Farmers and those who work the land have traditionally been at the forefront of social and environmental movements, and we continue in that tradition.”
The sisters and their partners see Maverick as an “open laboratory, experimenting with human-scale farming techniques and traditional food preparation.” Springhouse Farm sold hand-picked vegetables to local restaurants; Maverick Farms hosts farm dinners and rents out rooms in the family homestead to agritourists. Its latest project is a CSA that last year partnered with 13 area farms and 50 local families, and is expected to expand to 100 families this year. Maverick also recently launched a Farm Incubator and Grower program to mentor local aspiring farmers in organic agriculture and marketing techniques.
“We see the sense of urgency with which young people are facing environmental and social justice issues as a departure from previous generations, and we are excited by the palpable sense of change in the air,” Hillary says.
The store connection
Today’s young organic farmers are eager to market their cause, which makes them a perfect match for your store. “We’re ambassadors for the natural foods industry—we all have rosy cheeks,” jokes Severine von Tscharner Fleming, owner of Smithereen organic farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. “Seriously, though, we are able to communicate with eaters about why we do what we do, and we try to get people to care about their food and to get started on their personal organic revolution.”
Not only can these young farmers serve as the face of your buy-local program, but they’re also looking for store sponsorship of their community, education and networking events. To find them, check out the map at serveyourcountryfood.net.