by Erica Romkema
It’s no secret that more and more young people in the U.S. are looking to establish careers in local, organic, and small-scale farming, despite the risk, instability, hard work, and moderate income. Even many well-established career adults are abandoning their corporate jobs to start farms – and writing books about it. Most of these folks are unapologetic about their choices, choosing instead to either shout to the rooftops about why they’ve chosen a lifestyle such as this one, or to quietly go on doing what’s important to them. Yet as much as farmers enjoy their independence, getting started and continuing successfully depends upon a network of support from other farmers, researchers, landowners, and the general public.
Connecting to the land
Khaiti and Andrew French, who run Living the Dream Farm in Clayton, Wisconsin, were drawn to farming because “of loving good, real food and caring about how animals are raised in agriculture.” They are famous for their duck eggs in Minneapolis circles, and also raise turkeys, rabbits, chickens, and goats. Farmers such as the Frenches, inspired by voices such as Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann, seek meaningful connection to the land, family-centric lifestyles, and practices that are in line with their carefully considered ethics.
Not all young or beginning farmers come from farm families, and as interest in this career grows, so does the need for learning opportunities. Internships and apprenticeships can be extremely valuable, if they are well designed and if participants can make do on low wages (if any). Farm schools are springing up here and there, and colleges with sustainable agriculture programs – Warren Wilson in North Carolina and The Evergreen State College in Washington, for example – fill up with students eager to learn traditional methods and community-based approaches to farming.
Nonprofits and conferences on local, organic food have becoming increasingly common, and resources, especially via the web, are everywhere. The Minnesota-based nonprofit, Land Stewardship Project, offers a Farm Beginnings course, field days, and a regional network that helps give farmers a running start and continued support. Regional listservs run by nonprofits and land-grant universities put local and sustainable-minded farms in touch with one another and keep conversation and information circulating.
While there will always be more to learn, the knowledge is there, as are people who are excited to share it – so those interested in farming primarily need to determine which method works best for them, according to their schedules, budgets, timelines, and goals.
Land access a major challenge
According to Luke Gran, the Next Generation Coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa, “the top five challenges our beginning farmers tell us include: land access, capital/financing, legal questions/regulations, marketing, and infrastructure.” Rising land prices make purchasing even a few acres a challenge, particularly when metropolitan areas often provide the best market for organic produce; farmers must decide whether to have less land close to a city but at a higher price, or more land further out but with the added cost and time involved to truck produce into the city. Many farmers begin by renting for a while; some plan to rent long-term if not indefinitely.
Farmer Connor Murphy worked with several organic Community Supported Agriculture farms before moving on to work with the Boulder-based nonprofit Growing Gardens. “It is difficult, if not impossible,” he says, “to properly plan a land-based business if you are not sure how long you will have your land. Trying to secure good land requires a lot of capital and not a little bit of luck.”
Leasing remains a viable (and sometimes the only) option for some, but many farmers dream of owning land from which to build their home and business. High land prices combined with competition from corporations, however, makes the initial cost prohibitive.
Murphy adds that “many states have or are developing programs to connect retiring farmers or others who want to see their land stay in agriculture with young farmers. I think that the landlink programs might be the key for the next generation of farmers.” Landlink programs, such as New England Land Link (NELL), make the connection between farmers who would like to be sure their land stays a family farm with those who would like to run one, rather than simply selling to the highest bidder.
Mike & Jody Lenz run Threshing Table Farm, an 80-member vegetable CSA near Star Prairie, Wisconsin. These Farm Beginnings graduates recently completed their fifth season on a 10-acre property where they also live and raise their three children. The two continue to be active Land Stewardship Project members, sharing their experiences with others getting started in farming. Jody says, “There are a lot of people that really want to farm out there. If you have land that you don’t know what to do with, consider renting or selling to a beginning farmer. If you want farmers to be in your communities, strengthening them – buy your food from local farmers.”
Eat for change
Khaiti French echoes her: “The Midwest is a hotbed of amazing new and existing organic / sustainable farms, and this is a treasure. Supporting the kind of farms you want to see exist is what makes this possible.”
In a world of big governments and big corporations, small farms are springing up to make change on landscapes and in communities. Individuals put their dreams and hopes on paper and then into action, but simply having farmers producing the food in this manner isn’t going to revolutionize our food system. A significant factor in whether local and sustainable production can succeed – and possibly even overcome corporate and factory food production – is if the region’s eaters, people like you and me, are ready to buy it.
Are we willing to purchase fresh, highly nutritious food at prices that fairly compensate farmers for the work they’ve done? Are we ready to reposition food within our budgets, not seeing it as the place to cut the most cost but rather acknowledging that food is one of the most important things we can spend our hard-earned cash on – something essential for our survival? And finally, are we able to see that how we spend our food dollars affects not only our personal physical health but also our social and ecological communities?
While volunteering, education, and advocacy all matter a great deal, perhaps the most important thing that you can do to help the organic / local / sustainable movement succeed is to participate in it as a customer. Create and be the other side of the equation, so that those who produce are able to make a livelihood while restoring the land and reclaiming local community. Sign up for a CSA share, purchase food at farmers’ markets, and choose local whenever you can. In return, you’ll get to take home fresh, nourishing food and the satisfaction of doing something good for yourself, your neighbor, and future generations.