back to the farm

I’m catching up on my Metafilter reading with my one good eye, and I thought that I’d pass along a link to this recent conversation about the renewed interest in farming among the post boomer generations. I found the following comments to be particularly interesting. It’s all stuff we’ve discussed here in the past, but it’s nice to see it all tied together and presented from a different point of view. (The parts in italics below are pieces taken from posts that preceded these.)

Wow. I’m rarely on the cutting edge of anything, but like Miss Tea I see this phenomenon in action daily, and eat a lot of food that people like these folks grow. Despite snark by those less familiar with the phenomenon, it’s not pie in the sky, and I do think it’s an important movement worth paying attention to.

I also don’t think it’s a passing trend at all – the Style section debut gives that impression with its typically shallow coverage and focus on the affluent, but you have to consider that many young and youngish farmers have already been at this for 10+ years. Even new graduates figured out four or five years ago that soil science was where it’s at and have planned accordingly. If it’s a trend, then so is graphic design or programming.

Except for that whole thing about being miles from your closest neighbor

So, I live in coastal New Hampshire less than an hour from the cities of Portland, ME, and Boston, MA, and there are two small cities of 20,000 that make up our community. Those cities are surrounded by formerly almost abandoned, rural/industrial towns that are now becoming healthier. The many young farmers in our area work land in the surrounding towns, but not all of them necessarily live on the land they farm. Even those that do are 10 minutes from a world-class microbrewery, bookstore, and live music. We also have loads of regular events that people come to. May through October, the weekly farmer’s market becomes a big hangout meet-and-greet, and in between there are potlucks, picnics, contra dances, and stuff like that. No one in this region is really isolated unless they want to be. They do spend long days on their farms alone or with 1 or 2 others, but they can spend evenings in company very easily if they like.

What I don’t get is where the hell they’re getting the capital to start these farms.

They’re definitely not all rich kids. What many are doing is trying alternative models for farming. In my area, for instance, there’s no way a brand new young farmer just buys land. No way. Not even two or three acres – land values are just too high. So what happens is that many will start out as tenant farmers. Many have found land by approaching one of the hundreds of defunct New England farms that have been lying fallow for generations, where the family still owns the land but no one actively farms. There is a huge oversupply of these places, especially due to the 1980s dairy buyout. Farms that aren’t farmed any more. So they strike deals with the landowners to farm a couple of acres of this existing property. Often the owners will let the farmers do this for free – they’re happy to see the land back in cultivation and the equipment put to use. Sometimes they’ll charge a rental fee, which is often nominal. Close relationships develop. Occasionally, at some point, there may be a land transfer or sale between owner and established farmer.

Some also get capital by starting CSAs. People who have done programs WWOOF and have apprenticed farms for a while build up a resume and history of success. When they can line up access to some land, they sign up supporters for CSA shares. You pay up front, a few hundred bucks, and then you receive a share of the harvest on an ongoing basis throughout the season. You share the farmer’s risks but also the yields. The farmer gets a kitty of a few thousand bucks to buy seed, feed, tools, equipment, etc. Produce that doesn’t go to the CSA can go to markets, wholesalers, or direct buyers like local restaurants. The goal is to make enough to live on and plant again next year. Most farmers I know aren’t that interested in making a ton of money. Many also work other jobs – one works all winter in a really high-end restaurant in town. Another freelances setting up websites for people. Another makes jewelry. Some of them have spouses who don’t farm – they teach or work in nonprofits or libraries or something, so there’s one non-fluctuating income coming in. All in all, these folks work pretty creatively so that they can do what they love.

They probably need to drop any pretension of competing directly with agribusiness.

That’s just it – they actively do not want to compete with agribusiness. They are opposed to large-scale farming. They are going into small-scale, community-based farming for reasons having to do with their values and convictions, which don’t support large-scale agriculture and the environmental and social damage they believe it causes. Their produce and meats are priced noticeably higher than the products of agribusinesses, and they are matter-of-fact about that: that’s the price it costs to raise food within your community paying fair wages for labor, not receiving any subsidies or tax credits and not using questionable practices to create food that is artificially cheap- what agribusiness does. They are intentionally working toward building (rebuilding, actually) a food system with far greater dependence on small-scale local farms than on national sources of supply. Some are motivated by environmental concerns, some national security concerns, some see themselves as uniters and community builders, some just like plants – but all have deliberately chosen not to go the FFA/ag-school route of entering industrial farming.

The New Zealand lamb and apple argument has some merit, but often it’s just trotted out as a “take that, locavores” quick mention without real examination. When the English researcher says this…

The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby–well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.

…he’s right. So if we want a lower carbon footprint, we need to be a little more sophisticated. If you embrace a style of eating that aims to improve community and the environment, you end up eating more seasonally. You eat fewer red peppers in February, and more butternut squash. You do a little more of your own food storing (lately people have been asking me to put on programs about freezing, drying, canning, and root-cellaring. There’s a lot of interest in learning to store food in peak season so it’s available all year). You look at climate and region. Is New England a good climate for growing oranges? No, it’s not. So maybe you eat fewer oranges than you once did. Or if you want oranges in your diet, you can still make the case for a difference between oranges from Florida and oranges from South America. One is a bit higher on the sustainability scale than the other. Organic romaine lettuce is really popular. It takes an insane amount of water to grow organic romaine in the hot Mexican desert so it can sit in the grocery store year-round. Meanwhile, it takes very little water to grow romaine in the cool New England spring in a greenhouse. Eat romaine that’s local when it’s in season, when it’s fresh and plentiful and not resource-intensive, and you have reduced your carbon footprint. Insist that the same grower force romaine to grow through July and August, and you’re going to see that they’ll need much more water and an artificially cooled and shaded greenhouse space. Some benefit is lost. So looking only at how far food has traveled is too simple a measure.

Though I’d argue it’s still a darn good one to start with. The carbon-footprint concern is only one consideration that local food supporters take into account. There is a good economic argument (spend your money in your community, and it stays in your community. When I spend my money at the giant grocery store, the profits above wages paid go out to the corporate offices in a suburb south of Boston, where they in turn go to whatever the local economy is in that suburb – to kids’ Irish step dancing lessons, golf course fees, to Panera bread and more large retailers, who then ship profits out to other corporate headquarters cities to reward office work. That’s all well and good and easily found. But money paid to a local farmer stays here, in my own community. The farmers use it to buy seed and feed locally, to buy supplies from the local hardware store, to pay cover charges to see local musicians at local venues, to support local nonprofits through donations and event tickets. What goes around very clearly comes around; my town’s small enough to see it directly. The nonprofit that employs me doesn’t get any donations from national chains. But we have been very generously treated by locally owned businesses, including farms. Building community and increasing local food security are equally good reasons to eat local. For me, since it’s six-of-one, that alone would be enough reason to support them. The overall reduction in carbon load is a bonus.

I have to say I am a little baffled by the intensity of the snark here.

Absolutely. I’ve been lucky to be involved with folks like this for a few years now, and I think it’s nothing short of a renaissance. In general, they’re great people whose quality of life and sense of purpose are to be envied. And I think they first proposed in my town in 1980: it was a hippie idea which would never work may be leading the way in a shift in consciousness. I can remember when recycling was introduced to my city in 1980: it was greeted derisively as a hippie idea which would never work. People would never willingly sort their trash! So inconvenient! What was the point – landfill space was infinite! So to see a world a couple decades later in which recycling is an unremarkable fact of daily life which, wonder upon wonders, creates economic benefit too is somewhat interesting. People out in front of the mainstream do change our systems. I’m excited to support farmers like these. I like them as people and their presence in our community is a definite boon.

And there was also this, left by another commenter:

I’m one of the subjects of the NYT article, which doesn’t go deep enough to answer some questions and assumptions in previous comments:

Farming is a job and 90 percent of it is drudgery. Smart young folk won’t last long in it, not unless they make enough money to pay other folk to do the actual farming while they stay inside and play at being landed gentry.

Not really! There’s some drudgery with any job, but I’ve found diversified farming to be extremely challenging and stimulating. I talk a bit about this in the multimedia section of the NYT piece.

Deciding to start a farming operation in Tivoli (or buying an existing one) is a little bit like camping on the roof of your daddy’s apartment building on the upper east side. . . If the farm goes tits up you can still sell the land for around 20-30 thousand an acre. (Which means that’s what you paid to start your farm.)

We started our farm with no money– rented land, borrowed equipment, did everything we could by hand, and got money for seeds and expenses from our first 30 CSA members; by the second season we saved enough to pay the bills and buy a cheap used tractor, and we’ve kept expanding without taking out any loans ever since.

In the case of my farm, we don’t own any land, couldn’t possibly afford it in this neck of the woods (due to the prices you cite). Renting farmland around here, though, is very affordable, since so many of the landowners have no interest in actually working the land themselves. So our biggest long term problem is that we don’t have permanent access to our land, making our long-term farm prospects shaky. Our ideal situation would involve having a very long-term lease on farmland held by a land trust; we know some farmers in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere who have this arrangement. (Equity Trust is one of the leaders in this movement.)

Which is to say, if these kids weren’t rich white kids, would it have made the “Style” section?

The author of the article definitely had particular angle to his story in mind, wanted to choose city kids who have moved to the farm as an extreme example of this movement. For the record, of the many young farmers in this movement, I don’t know any (myself included) who fit the hipster profile; the author stretched things a bit to make the story sizzle. Seems to have worked well to get folks to pay attention to the article, since you all are lapping it up– and I don’t see folks posting about the young-farmer stories that have been portrayed less flashily (such as you might find here).

Just because some people in New York are doing it doesn’t mean it’s a trend yet.

I wouldn’t call it a “trend” yet, but there is a whole lot of energy and enthusiasm among young people in this movement. I am meeting more and more young folks, in the U.S. and internationally, who are working on farms, and many of them are starting their own operations– I’m not talking trust fund hobby operations, these are scrounged together by any means necessary, and they’re making it happen against all odds. And there is huge demand for the produce now, dramatically more now than I’ve seen in the 10 years that I’ve been working on farms, so there is room for the movement to grow very significantly.

I don’t want to scare Linette and Clemenine and go all Mosquito Coast on them, but I do think that we as a family need to agree to something like a ten year plan that will see us on a farm… Of course, by then, I’ll be too old to do much of anything except sit in a rocking chair and play checkers… I guess Linette and I had better hurry up and start having more kids/farmhands.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 18, 2008 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    We are Urban homesteaders. :) At least we’re trying to grow our own food and eat locally grown food.
    I have no desire to live in the sticks, so we’re doing it in our own Ypsi back yard.

  2. Dick Cheney's Extending Taint
    Posted March 18, 2008 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Geez Man. Give the posters some credit!

    First post is by Miko.

    The second by brshute.

  3. mark
    Posted March 18, 2008 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    You are, of course, right, Taint. Sorry about that.

    And thanks.

  4. mark
    Posted March 18, 2008 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    And I don’t know how I’ve missed you, Pale Green Acre. I’ll put a link to your site on the front page ASAP… I look forward to hearing more about your adventure.

  5. Bounty
    Posted March 19, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Is there a good resource for Michigan farm listings? I used to real the Rural Property Bulletin, but I’d like something more Michigan focused.

  6. Craig
    Posted March 20, 2008 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    There might be some kind of local or regional association that Tantre Farm and others participate in.

  7. Lisele
    Posted March 21, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I found the idea of forming a relationship with a landowner and putting the land back under cultivation a very intriguing idea. I come from a farming family and always thought one day I would return to the Garden State and take over my sister’s farm — since she’s a lot older than me and has no kids. But one thing led to another (her husband’s kidney failure, development pressures, the loss of the farming community, change of the economy to cassinos) and they lost the farm about a year ago. It’s about to become sprawl, probably named after my in-laws’ family. Sigh.

    Why couldn’t we “back to the land-ers” form a cooperative effort and do something like this? Thru Growing Hope, I’ve been offering classes thru the years in building cold frames to extend the harvest, seed starting, medicine making — could also do food preservation, making jerky and preserving meat, freezing, canning. Seed saving is important, also
    succession planting, etc. All my expertise has been going into the community gardens but I’d really love a more expansive canvas.

  8. Posted March 26, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Well, I just heard tonight by letter that Asa Wilson is closing Boxelder Acres, his CSA on Superior Road. I am deeply sad about it. I’ve been a customer for years. Asa really reminds my of my brother-in-law and all the other farmers I grew up with. It seems like a terrible loss for our community.

    But.

    Perhaps now would be a good time to approach him about a coop farm.

  9. mark
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    I was never a member of Boxelder, but I’d heard good things. And I like your idea of a coop, but I wonder if they’re too far from town. I’ll move this up to the front page and see what people think. Thanks, Lisele.

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