Planting New Farmers for the Future of Food

There are more than two million farmers in the United States, but most of our food is produced by fewer than one in 10—and their average age, according to federal statistics, is 57. The proportion of farmers over 75 is rising, and one-fourth of all farmers plan to retire within 20 years. Who will grow America’s food?

If the buzzing, humming crowd I met recently outside New York City is an indication, the answer is: People younger than 30 who are coming to farming out of a desire to remake agriculture into smaller-scaled, regionally balanced, tech-friendly, and diverse—both the crops being grown and the people growing them.

I was at the Young Farmers Conference of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit educational center and 80-acre, four-season farm tucked into the beautiful grounds of a former Rockefeller estate. The conference is the keystone of the organization’s Growing Farmers Initiative, an effort to help young and beginning farmers who have no family background in agriculture understand the tasks and financial challenges ahead of them. The meeting, which draws several hundred people a year, has been going since 2008 and sells out months in advance.

“At the turn of the 20th century, before the industrialization of agriculture, you were either in a farm family, or you probably knew one,” Jill Isenbarger, the Center’s executive director, told me. “We lost that knowledge transfer. Ninety percent of people in the room at this conference are growers—but 80 to 90 percent of them had no connection to farming before they started. The volume of the conversation, when you walk in during meals, is stunning; they’re so hungry to share their knowledge and their struggles.”

Michele Hatchette (left), cofounder of the nonprofit HarlemSeeds, and Courtney Pure, who farms on Long Island, NY, at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Michele Hatchette (left), cofounder of the nonprofit HarlemSeeds, and Courtney Pure, who farms on Long Island, N.Y., at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

I saw that all over the conference. At the end of one breakfast, I met Courtney Pure, who is going into her third season working at the vegetable CSA farm of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum on Long Island, and who was exchanging stories with Michele Hatchette, who founded the nonprofit HarlemSeeds with her sister to teach city youth about farming, food and health. “Some of us are just coming out of college or just trying to start farms and businesses; that can be isolating,” Pure said. (She’s 26 and studied filmmaking.) “Meeting people who are not too far away, who are also just starting and have the same issues, it’s a help.”

At lunch, Kelsey Ter Meer, an educator at the Queens County Farm Museum, found herself next to Julia Wockner, who operates Woolly Goat Farm with her mother outside Fort Collins, Colo. Woolly Goat is new, and the Queens property has been farmed continuously for 318 years, but “we’re navigating the same problems,” Ter Meer said.

Keely Gerhold (left), a rooftop farmer in Brooklyn, NY, learns how to butcher a chicken at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Keely Gerhold (left), a rooftop farmer in Brooklyn, NY, learns how to butcher a chicken at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

The conference offers hands-on training—how to slaughter a chicken, build movable greenhouses, rotate crops for soil restoration—but the most frequent topic of discussion, and biggest hurdle, was money.

“It’s a lot harder to enter farming than it once was,” Juli Obudzinski of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, who taught a workshop on farm policy, told me. “You need money, you need a sound marketing plan, you need business skills. We’ve seen a lot of farmers start—they find some land to rent, they get a loan, they find markets for a CSA—but they are not able to sustain the business beyond five years.”

In fact, one-fifth of new farmers left farming between 2007 and 2012, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition. In a 2011, 1,000-person survey, the group found that the price of land and the lack of credit were the biggest obstacles preventing would-be farmers from getting into agriculture or sticking with it. Twice as many young farmers as older ones were leasing land, the group found, a precarious situation in which a new farmer could invest time and energy but does not build up equity. Few were buying land because farmland prices have been at historic highs: large farms near urban areas are attractive to developers, and away from cities, older farmers are seeking enough money to fund their retirements. And younger farmers are especially unlikely to qualify for the loans to cover such big purchases, because many of them are still carrying college debt. (The Coalition has launched a campaign and hashtag, #farmingispublicservice, that seeks to extend the kind of loan forgiveness offered to new teachers and doctors to new farmers as well.)

At Stone Barns, Clara Coleman—a farm consultant and daughter of four-season farming pioneer Eliot Coleman—presented one possible answer to the lack of land and affordable credit: purpose-built shared farms that new and young farmers could rotate in and out of. Her ARC (Agrarian Resource Collaborative) Farm project, a design that fits into a 200-acre parcel, comprises ten 12-acre blocks holding pasture, field crops and tunnels for cold-weather operations, plus a central hub for packing, storage and transport.

“I think it would be attractive to young farmers, immigrant farmers, women farmers, people with restricted resources, people who don’t have all the expertise to run a farm independently,” she said. “I love the idea of a farm couple doing it on their own, but I think we need to make room for farmers of all kinds.”

Attendees at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference listen to a lecture on greenhouse growing. Photograph by Ben Hider

Attendees at the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference listen to a lecture on greenhouse growing. Photograph by Ben Hider

There were plenty of those at the conference: Jennifer Rosenthal of Chicago creates edible gardens for chefs. Keely Gerhold, who spent part of the conference learning to slaughter and butcher chickens, grows salad greens and hops on a Brooklyn rooftop. Cailyn Brierley is an apprentice at a farm founded by a New York land trust, works as what she wryly calls a “personal farmer” for city people with Hamptons estates, and hopes someday to have a farm of her own.

“I can say ‘I don’t care how much money I make, I just want to have this farm dream,'” she told me, laughing a bit. “But I’m hearing elder farmers encourage us to talk about the challenges: how do you contribute to the market, how do you earn the support of consumers, what kind of farming is right for you.”

Whichever type of farming that turns out to be, there was no question the new farmers at Stone Barns felt more validated pursuing it. They ended the three days (which were both studious and raucous—there was local beer and wine, and one night, a contra dance) as revved-up as political delegates and as bonded as kids after summer camp.

Saying goodbye to them, Craig Haney—until recently Stone Barns’ livestock manager, and just named the director of the Growing Farmers Initiative—reminded them that they’ll need those connections and that energy for the hard work ahead.

“Our world desperately needs talented, smart farmers like you, to help us grow a food system in which good clean food is the conventional agriculture,” he said. “It is our collective mission to support those of you who are jumping in to meet this challenge: to help you find the seed money, the land, the markets, to help you save seeds and shear sheep and find peers and partners.”

He sent them off with a quote, like a benediction, from Wendell Berry, the philosopher-poet of American farming. “Together,” he told them, “we can practice resurrection.”