So you want to be a farmer?
Deep Rooted Farm's greenhouses in February snow.
The average age of the American farmer is notoriously high. As the number of people still farming continues to shrink, the age of those who still farm continues to go up. According to the USDA’s 2007 census, the average age of the principal operator of a farm was 57 years. Despite an increase in recent years of younger people getting into farming, the next 20 years will need to see a huge transfer of farm land from one generation to the next. The Agrarian Trust estimates that up to 70% of U.S. farmland will have to change ownership in the next two decades.
What sorts of avenues are available for young people interested in farming to gain access to land? In recent years, there has been an influx of younger folks taking up farming, but there are a number of obstacles. In addition to the daunting amount of hard labor and the steep learning curve that young farmers must grapple with, land costs are at historic highs, driven by real estate values, speculative investments, and a scramble by existing farmers for better quality land as increased flooding makes some areas less attractive.
Organic farming also requires the sort of long-term investment in soil that deters short-term leasing. All of these factors are reflected in USDA numbers that show principal operators of farms 65 and older outnumber farmers 35 and younger by a factor of 6:1.
Who are the farmers who will be producing your food in the next decade? What are the challenges they face and what are the opportunities they have? We spoke to several new farmers, who have put in one year, two years, and ten years on the farm. We asked them about their experiences and challenges in farming in the 21st century.
Ross and Devon Ballinger are embarking on their second year of farming on a half-acre 10 miles north of Rochester. When we spoke in mid-January they were still planning what this year’s planting would be. “We’re still in the process of converting dreams to plans,” Ross reports.
Neither of their parents were farmers. They met in college in Ohio, where they were both liberal arts majors. Devon, who also happens to work at People’s Food Co-op, is from Northfield, Minnesota; Ross from Southern Ohio. “My family was suburban,” Ross says. “I remember playing the game of “Life” with my family when I was little and in the first section you spin to get your career—mine came up farmer; I started crying.”
After college and a few years in the work world, Ross and Devon decided to take stock and do some traveling. They ended up working on WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms in New Zealand and Turkey. The WWOOF program gives people who are interested in farming an immersive farm experience on various organic farms around the world.
When the Ballingers returned to the States, they ended up in the Twin Cities working on urban farms. A friend in Minneapolis had a relative, an Organic Valley producer, in the Rochester area with some farmland he was willing to lease. “We just kept following the clues,” Devon says. “Pieces keep coming into place for this decision [to farm].”
In addition to the WWOOF program, they also took the “Farm Beginnings” course offered through Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project (http://landstewardshipproject.org). They’ve found that established farmers have been very generous with their knowledge and advice. If possible, they recommend that aspiring farmers work on someone else’s farm for experience before attempting to set up an operation.
The Ballingers are committed to organic farming almost as a matter of course: “We came into farming as a way of treating the world,” Ross begins; Devon finishes the thought: “We farm organically because we want to be stewards of the land.”
People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse had a treat last summer when a new, local tomato producer started supplying the store with delicious fruit. Deep Rooted Farm of Westby, Wisconsin specializes in tomatoes and flowers. The owner, Tiffany Cade, grew up on a dairy farm in the Westby area.
|Tiffany Cade at Deep Rooted Farm.|
She studied environmental conservation in school, then worked in Chicago—managing distribution for a Wisconsin CSA farm. Along the way she too spent time in a WWOOF program in New Zealand, and did a stint in Cuba studying permaculture. Cade says she always knew farming was something she wanted to do. Her family knew it as well. “My father used to tell me: ‘You just wait, you’ll end up farming.’” Now that she’s back in the area, Cade is happy to have her family close by. “My grandmother came over to help me plant tomato flats last year.”
For resources and advice in getting started, Cade has found publications and conference seminars from the NRCS, Acres, and MOSES to be helpful. She’s a fan of Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, published by Acres USA Press. She’s also found that other farmers, especially other women in farming, have been generous with their advice.
Looking back over her experience thus far, she laughs and says that she wishes she hadn’t tried to do so much all at once. “We didn’t really need to put up the woodshed right away. Some stuff can wait.”
Tiffany Cade or the Ballingers could be living in New York, chasing world domination at Goldman Sachs, or making paradigm-shifting films in San Francisco, but instead they’ve chosen the farmers’ life. “Farming is what makes me happy,” Cade says. “I don’t mind getting up early, and the city will always be there.”
Neither the Ballingers nor Cade seem that interested in starting up a CSA program. “It’s a great model,” says Cade, “but I’d want to keep it a small program, keep it personal.” For the coming year the tomatoes are again the focus. Deep Rooted will have cherry and slicing tomatoes and five varieties of heirlooms in the hoop house. The farm may diversify next year by adding peas, peppers, and cucumbers, but for now Cade says she’s taking it one day at a time.
Two Onion Farm has been operating outside of Belmont, Wisconsin, for a little over ten years. The owners, Chris and Juli McGuire, started with less than an acre in vegetables. They now have four acres of veggies and an acre in fruit trees. Over the decade, Two Onion Farm has slowly built up a steady CSA customer base.
Chris McGuire looks back at the first years of Two Onion and says: “We started out thinking we’d do a small farm and not get too large, but discovered that with the cost of equipment and other expenses it wasn’t really viable to make a living. Outside labor and a little machinery can make it a viable, profitable farm. You need to think clearly about what you need to earn.”
In spite of the rise in land costs, McGuire believes that the outlook for new farmers is very promising. “Compared to 20 years ago,” he says, “the opportunities for training have really improved. There are also more markets for your produce. Not just farmers’ markets either, but institutional markets (schools, hospitals, etc.) for produce have really blossomed.”
The hurdles for start-up farming seem steep, but as McGuire points out, the support system—the number of people who are willing to help, to lend advice and capital—make the journey less lonesome. “There’s such a culture of sharing in this business. We’re basically competitors, but I’ve never had a negative experience with other growers,” McGuire says.
People’s Food Co-op shoppers support these efforts. If you are interested in seeing more local farm produce in your
co-op or at your local farmers’ market, support the growers in your area, or check out the short list of resources below
if you are interested in sponsorship of local agriculture.
A short list of resources:
Land Stewardship Program Farm Transitions Toolkit: http://landstewardshipproject.org/posts/530. The LSP offers a Farm Beginnings Workshop several times a year.
Agrarian Trust: agrariantrust.org. Agrarian Trust helps sustainable next-generation farmers access land.
The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) at UW–Madison: http://www.cias.wisc.edu
Beginning Farmers: www.beginningfarmers.org Beginningfarmers is a comprehensive compilation of information resources on farm financing, finding land, business planning, agricultural production and marketing, and more. Take their farming quiz to discover if farming is right for you.