December 1-7, 2014
The average age of the American farmer is now fifty-eight. To help transition from grey hairs to greenhorns, farm incubators and farm fairies lend a hand in preparing a resilient and thriving green collar industry based on values of sustainability.
In this week’s edition of Food List, we see how incubating knowledge is just as important in the classroom as it is on the farm with our Know Your Food film, 57.
We will be taking a closer look at how the next generation of farmers are being trained to value organic, sustainable practices.
However, young farmers are not the only green collars facing obstacles; Jane Black and visionaries at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture are bringing to light the issues of land and creative solutions for the aging American farmer demographics.
And while the topic of American farmer demographics is on the table, Lisa Gale Garrigues from YES! shares with us the dreams made true by farm fairies and farm incubators of ALBA for seasonal farmworkers.
57, the average age of the American Farmer in 2013. Where will we find the next generation of greenhorns and how will they be trained for these green collar jobs? Food education isn’t limited to helping the people who grow our food; we also need edible schoolyards like that of Alice Waters in Oakland, California to educate our school children about how to make healthy food choices.
It was clear from the beginning of my farming internship at Chubby Bunny Farm that my boss, Dan Hayhurst, loved the work of growing vegetables. Most mornings I would be lying in bed, just waking up around 6:30 am, and I’d hear his truck roll up to the barn. I’d listen as Dan got out and started hauling sacks of feed out of the barn to drive out to the small flock of chickens and few pigs on pasture. This was my cue to get up and stumble about my trailer, putting on filthy work pants and shirt, probably mildly hungover, quickly frying eggs and making coffee so I could meet him and my co-interns in the greenhouse or at the tailgate of his truck in time for the morning meeting. I knew he’d been up for hours thinking on the farm, planning the most efficient way of doing all the days’ many tasks, and it was barely 7 am.
The average age of US farmers is on the rise. In fact, for everyone farmer or rancher under 25, there are five who are over 75. Fortunately, with the growing interest in food and sustainability, many young people like Jake & Karen Fairbairn of Lazy Crazy Acres Farm & Creamery in Arkville, NY (pictured left), are inspired to pursue careers in sustainable farming. And with this new found inspiration comes a growing number of resources.
Title: Growing Farmers
Location: Stone Barnes Center for Food and Agriculture, Pacantico Hills, NY
Featuring: Livestock Manager & Educator Craig Haney and Megan Schilling, his apprentice and a self-proclaimed greenhorn
Found on Page 37 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
GROWING FARMERS: An initiative to grow the next generation of farmers…with an ecological consciousness. The average age of the American Farmer is 57*.
AS AGRICULTURE SHIFTS FROM SMALL FAMILY FARMS TO LARGE INDUSTRIAL PRODUCERS, WHO WILL TRAIN THE NEXT GENERATION OF AMERICAN FARMERS?
The Growing Farmers Initiative at Stone Barns is designed to increase the number of sustainable small and mid-size farms through internships, workshops and conferences that…
1) Increase technical knowledge of organic and sustainable agriculture production and processing
2) Show small farmers how to enhance their operations, build qualified staff, and gain access to land and market
3) Provide opportunities for beginning farmers to build strong networks of personal and professional support.
*As of November 2014, the average age of an American farmer is now 58
Walk through a farmers market at this time of year and all seems right in the world of sustainable agriculture. Young, fashionably scruffy 20-somethings have rhubarb, spring garlic and greenhouse tomatoes, and plenty of advice on how to use it. But the vibrancy on display masks a grim reality: The number of U.S. farmers continues to shrink; the U.S. farm population shrunk 4 percent over five years, according to the 2012 agricultural census. Today, there are twice as many farmers over 60 as under 40. What’s worse: When those older farmers go, their land may disappear with them.
Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community’s struggle to change the way it eats.
Title: Farm Fairies
Location: Lonesome Whistle Farm in (the future Republic of) Eugene, OR
Featuring: Investors Jerry & Janet Russell, and farmers Jeff & Kasey White
From Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
When the money fell out of the domestic real estate market after the crash of 2008, speculative investment moved into rural landholdings, creating historic spikes in agricultural real estate prices. Prospective farmers were simply priced out of the market.
Jerry and Janet Russell recognized the value in healthy, sustainable food systems and banked in the local food system. They connected young farmers, such as Jeff and Kasey, with valuable farmland and helped them jump-start small farms in their local community.
As Farm Fairies, Jerry and Janet worked their magic and structured creative financial agreements which allowed Jeff and Kasey to purchase land, set down permanent roots, and do what they love.
Nine years ago Octavio Garcia was a seasonal laborer, spending long days bent over another man’s field in California’s Central Valley, picking strawberries for $6.25 an hour. Today the 24-year-old is manager of his own 6.5 acres, growing strawberries, tomatoes, garlic, and other produce on land leased to him by ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, Calif.
ALBA is one of a growing number of “incubator farms” across the United States dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. According to NIFTI, the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University, there are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states—up from 45 projects at the start of 2012. More than half the 5,700 aspiring farmers they serve are refugees and immigrants who will help fill an important demographic gap as current farmers age out of the profession. The average farmer, according to USDA Census of Agriculture statistics, is now over 57 years old.
Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Garcia heard about ALBA from a fellow migrant worker. He went to an introductory talk and decided to take the five-year training. “My earnings are not huge,” he says, “because I am still investing most of what I make back into the farm. But they are more than $6.25 an hour. And what I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want.” Garcia looks forward to buying his own land with help from California FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that offers loans and matching funds to beginning farmers. There are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states.
Chris Brown, executive director of ALBA, believes the program is a good model for ending poverty among seasonal farmworkers. For farmworkers, he says, “It’s very difficult to break out of poverty. We’re trying to help them pursue their own business.” Though learning new regulations and marketing techniques can be challenging, ALBA’s beginning farmers often bring solid agricultural experience and entrepreneurial skills to the program, he says. Their hard work, plus growing consumer interest in buying organic, has helped ALBA’s annual produce sales go from $500,000 in 2008 to $5 million in 2014. “This is money that’s going back into the pockets of farmers. What I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want,” says Brown.
ALBA, started in 2000 on land sold to the federal government’s anti-poverty program in the 1970s, is one of the oldest incubator farm programs in the country. Earnings from organic produce sold to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Stanford University help build economic self-sufficiency for beginning farmers and fund 70 percent of ALBA’s operating budget. The rest comes from USDA and private grants.
Aspiring farmers pay sliding scale tuition to attend ALBA’s introductory course part-time while working other jobs. Graduates can go on to the Incubator Farm Program, which provides subsidies to lease land and equipment over a five-year period. Of the 200 people who have completed the introductory course, Brown says, 90 have entered the incubator farm program, and around 25 now lease their own land elsewhere. He hopes those numbers will double over the next few years.
Mauricio Soto, 44, is Viva’s general manager, in addition to running his own farm. Photo by Amanda Wilson / Viva. At Viva Farms, an incubator in Washington state’s Skagit Valley, farm-to-community fellow Leigh Newman-Bell also sees the incubator model as a way out of poverty for seasonal migrant workers. “It always shocks me that a high percentage of farm workers are also receiving SNAP benefits,” she says. “How is it that people who grow the food can’t afford it themselves?”
Seasonal farmworkers who take advantage of incubator farm training will also lead healthier lives, she adds. ‘Many of our farmers worked as migrant laborers on large conventional farms prior to starting our program, and they came here because they wanted to farm organically to avoid being exposed to harsh pesticides.”
Newman-Bell says the program is highly valued in the community. Though only 26 people have participated in Viva’s program so far, “If you were to include all the family members, volunteers, community members, and friends who come out to lend a hand, that number would easily be in the hundreds,” she says.
Mauricio Soto, 44, worked for more than 20 years on farms in California, Washington, and Mexico. He took Viva’s training and now works as its general manager, in addition to leasing a three-quarter acre farm from the organization.
“The classes that Viva offers are very interesting,” he says. “If you apply yourself, you can do well. Working my farm I feel happy and free.”
YES! reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world.
Title: The Greennhorns
Location: Greenhorn Headquarters Hudson, NY
Featuring: Severine, Tess, Hallie
From Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America
Severine founded the Greenhorns to enhance the visibility of the Young Farmers’ Movement. Their self-made tools include films, books, radio programs, Internet and public events.
(Their event formula = pie + beer + workshops + ice cream + performances + spit roasted pig + dances)
GOVERNMENT POLICY SETS THE FRAMEWORK, BUT FARMING IS ABOUT CULTURE AS WELL AS COMMERCE. IT’S ABOUT GROWERS WHO TACKLE THE DIRTY LOGISTICS SOIL RESTORATION, HABITAT PRESERVATION AND LOCAL FOOD SECURITY.
The greenhorns feel that fixing the food system happens one farm and one farmer at a time. They reach out to kids who haven’t considered farming or even been exposed to it using a combination of media and in-person engagement. Severine says, “Imagine filling a grange hall with children felting wool, a spit roast pig, farming elders, young farmers, a punk rock trombone band… and then the congressman shows up to give a talk.”
Community resources for those who wish to farm locally
1. farm education courses
2. agricultural mediation
3. agricultural census
5. grant programs
6. agricultural politics campaigns
7. mailing lists
The Greenhorns use signs like these at events to make passersbys think: “Who are those strong, young, confident people with dirty clothes?”
It included four massage tables, herbalists, health care advocates, film screening (with panel discussion afterward) and Maine-made root beer Tess is researching the upcoming Greenhorns’ New Farmers Almanac; a miscellany of agricultural history, statistics, philosophy, rural sociology, essays, poems … and a planting calendar. Hallie is project manager for the Greenhorns’ GPS-based mapping website and a short film series about agriculture (she’s also a part time organic farmer). Severine runs Smithereen farm. It produces dried herbs, wildcrafted teas, meat rabbits, geese, pigs and vegetables. “We are Greenhorns, we are young farmers!”
This Almanac is the Greenhorns second one, but still new. The first wrinkles have arrived from squinting and grinning, but they’re still young! This issue’s theme is Agrarian Technology, and holds a civil, lived testimony from people whose work, lifeworld and behavior patterns beamingly contradict normative values of the macro economy called America. Find below a teaser of what is included in the journal.
Farming knowledge is important to foster in future generations, but can be a daunting industry to embrace. Sarita Schaffer discusses how her incubator enables beginning farmers to grow, balancing the business component with the agricultural component of owning a farm.
Q: So, why teach farming?
Because we want to keep eating. Future generations will probably also want to eat. We’re facing a pretty massive generational crisis in agriculture right now. The average age of farmers in the US is 57 years old and not getting any younger by the minute.
Q: How much is education of young farmers part of the incubator and how much of this education is spent on the values related to farming?
We have a six-month classroom training, where experienced farmers come in and talk to folks. We visit farms too, but the real education is getting the land and getting into the marketplace.
Everything from our class really begins with values. One section we do covers the production component of agriculture and the other deals with the business side of agriculture.
On the production side, everything starts with the premise that sustainability is a continuum and even the farm is a continuum. One example is pest management. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, you might have integrated pest management where you’re still using very minimal amounts of chemicals but going out monitoring very scrupulously to make sure that you are only applying when it’s absolutely needed and at the time when it’s going to be most effective.
We talk about the values of sustainability and how we are in a transition time, where it’s hard to be completely extreme in some of these things. Some people come to the course initially not wanting to use petrochemicals at all in their farm. But at the end of the day, we are still part of where the whole society is in its development. Perhaps it’s going to be hard for them and they might sacrifice having customers if they can’t even deliver the product.
On the business side we start with the whole business plan and no matter the business, it should all really start with your personal values and what the mission of the business is. And that’s true for the way that we teach the course, particularly with agriculture where you’re unlikely to get very wealthy. You’re not going to last long as a farmer if you’re not embodying and living out your ecological, social or economic values.
Q: Is it a safe assumption that a majority of farms that are started by young farmers are destined inevitably to fail?
Possibly. We’ve only been around for 3 years so everyone that we’re working with right now is still going. They have different phases of business the same way any business does. That’s a reason why we have a whole national network of small development business centers and incubators.
A number of new businesses will fail, and agriculture is certainly not the easiest business to start in. There’s an extremely high startup cost and very slow rate of return. Not to mention just the daily physical labor of running a farm and having to do all the management and sales. But the farms that we work with so far have been incredibly successful.
Having the support of an incubator has been a huge part of that. We’re significantly lowering the risks that folks experience. Hopefully they are getting the same amount of reward the first year, but at much lower risks.
Sarita Role Schaffer co-founded Grow Food, a nonprofit that connects new farmers to internships, apprenticeships, and hands-on education on more than 2,600 sustainable farms and food projects in the U.S. and 56 other countries. Sarita has advanced organic farming and agricultural education in New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, and Cuba. She currently serves as regional director of Washington State University’s Latino Farming Program and directs GrowFood’s newest project, Viva Farms (www.vivafarms.org), a farm incubator and food hub that helps beginning and immigrant farmers become farm owners
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