“The most peaceful thing in the world is plowing a field. Chances are you’ll do your best thinking that way." — Harry Truman
A farmer once said to me that the closer you get to the land, the less money you make. So why in the world would a group of college graduates head into farming—where they will face back-breaking labor, intense isolation, hellacious weather, voracious pests and diseases that overnight can lay waste to months of effort that is rarely profitable, anyway?
Well, it turns out that there are young people who are searching for what many of their parents’ generation were also looking for at one stage or another: Something authentic, honest. An experience they can own and be fully responsible for. Will all these young farmers stay in farming? Like any small business venture, some will make a go of it and others will wash out, sometimes quite literally. But we need all the young farmers we can get.
Cause for Concern
With more than 300 million of us living in the United States right now, less than a third of one per cent claim farming as their principal occupation, or about 960,000 people. Some might take this as a sign of progress. Hey, outsource farming to China and Mexico. That’s fine, perhaps, when a barrel of oil is $105, but what happens when the price of oil starts climbing. That asparagus from Mexico that was so cheap before also doubles in price because of trucking costs.
But regardless of the price of oil, there are, of course, cultural benefits in passing on the hard-won experience of today’s farmers to the next generation. US Secretary of Agriculture Tim Vilsack has outlined the problem: “We need to be concerned about how many people are actually going to be able to farm, and how we replace those who are retiring and those who pass away,” he says. “The average age of the farmer in America today is 57. We had a thirty percent increase in the number of farmers over the age of 75, and a twenty percent decrease in the number of farmers under the age of 25.”
In fact “all over the world, farmers are getting older,” according to Peter Nixon, an Australian sheep and grain farmer and international chairman of the Nuffield Farming Scholars Program.
“I Got into Farming to Pay Off My Milk Bill”
Sean Stanton, who is 39, started farming 12 years ago when he had to work off a $150 milk bill he owed to Dominic Palumbo of Moon the Pond farm in Sheffield, Massachusetts. But after paying the bill, Stanton decided to start farming on a small scale with the 10 acres of land that his parents owned just north of Great Barrington. “I didn’t want to compete with Dominic’s operation, so I started with 25 chickens. Eight weeks later when we got to processing, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to do that anymore. It’s only a few hours, but it’s pretty intense if you’ve haven’t ever killed animals for food.”
Despite his initial reservations, Stanton decided that the whole process of raising animals was something he couldn’t walk away from. At first, Stanton saw raising chickens as supplemental income while he was in college. But by the end of the summer he had raised more than 425 chickens. Then he bought some pigs and cows and farming became a full-time job.
With the price of farmland doubling over the last 10 years, finding affordable places for beginning farmers is a real challenge. Stanton has been effective at gaining access to land from neighbors who want to keep land in agriculture. The landowners get a tax break and agriculture vistas (and aromas). Stanton gets access to land for next to nothing.
These days Stanton even has a restaurant connection. He works in close partnership with renowned chef Dan Barber to raise crops and eggs for Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington.
Oxen, Not Tractors
When I first met farmer Rick Ciotola, he was in Sheffield, Massachusetts training a team of oxen who were secured cheek by jowl with a thick wooden yoke. For a brief minute I felt like I had stepped back in time. Who trains oxen today? Turns out Ciotola had his reasons. Born in the Bronx, the 5-year-old Ciotola moved to New Jersey when he was thirteen. His father ran a machine shop that handed industrial repair and where Rick learned to become a good mechanic. Taking a degree in construction management at Roger Williams, Rick started looking for work that “provided something necessary to society like teachers and policeman, a civil service, rather than a job simply to make money.” While he was good at construction management, rising quickly through the ranks, Ciotola was uncomfortable with the amount of waste in construction, and how the old farms and fields were being turned into condos. After hiking the Appalachian Trail for seven months in 2005, Rich was looking for a place to live in the Berkshires that would meet his rustic sensibility. He found a room-for-work situation at — ironically — Dominic Palumbo’s Moon in the Pond Farm. It turn out that his experience organizing construction projects was put to good use organizing and managing tasks on the farm and working with the crew.
Some will make a go of it and others will wash out, sometimes quite literally
After three summers with Palumbo, Ciotola headed out on his own, inspired in part by a presentation showing how draft animals can be used in farming. Telling a local dairy farmer about his plans to buy a team of oxen, the farmer offered to let Ciotola train two bull calves (males have little value in a dairy operation.) Compared to oxen that produce and distribute waste that helps farmers, experiencing a “face full of diesel fuel in my face” running a tractor really turned Ciolota’s head. Oxen do a fabulous job pulling logs out for lumber with minimal impact and going places that tractors can’t go. In fact, much of the work on a small farm, according to Ciolota, can be done as quickly using oxen as tractors, and improves the soil health of the fields in the process. It’s not that Ciolota doesn’t use a tractor. He does have a small one but, with little faith in the fossil-fuel economy, owning oxen is a great way to hedge his bets.
Today Ciolota is almost completely self-sufficient and healthier than ever. In the summer he grows veggies on two acres for himself and to sell at a farmers market. The fall is a good time to hunt deer. In the winter he uses his oxen for logging.
For him, “there is nothing better than having a beautiful meal with friends at the end of the day with food I have grown.”
Life with Chubby Bunny
Dan Hayhurst and his wife Tracy have been running Chubby Bunny Farm a 52-acre parcel in Falls Village, Connecticut, since 2003. With a degree in Philosophy from Boston College, the 38-year-old Hayhurst worked on four farms in five years before leasing and eventually buying his own land in 2006. The time he spent as an apprentice and the care he takes today in his farming practices make his vegetables a thing of beauty. (I learned to really love green leafy vegetables thanks to Chubby Bunny.) But its damn hard work to get them that way. The first time I met Dan he was hand-weeding the organic carrots. That’s just the way he rolls.
Listening to Hayhurst talk about soil is a lesson in itself. By using cover crops, (plants that suppress weeds, build productive soil, and control pests and diseases), he adds key nutrients that make his vegetables not only tasty, but replenish the soil in the process. He believes it’s important to use products and practices that are compliant with organic standards and deliver “nutrient density in our crops.” That means “plenty of compost, avoiding herbicides and synthetic pesticides.” Sustainability for Hayhurst is not only about “choosing sustainable inputs; it is constantly striving for a better and healthier ’farm, which encompasses our employees, our neighbors, our customers, our family, our animals.”
What he has learned over time is that in addition to maintaining the land, Hayhurst has to take care of his crew by effectively motivating his team and managing their time. The crew includes Dan, four apprentices, full time from April though October, and in two hourly locals to “bang out weeds” at peak times. His wife Tracy, meanwhile manages the books, their website, and the CSA, which attracts 300 paying customers. Like any progressive management consultant, Hayhurst builds the effectiveness of his team through mutual respect and ongoing education.
Getting into Farming
Not everyone who gets into farming is necessarily young. There are career changers, urban escapees, and even retirees. It certainly helps to have some life experience running a business, not to mention a lot of energy and the sheer willingness to take on the challenges of a farm. But regardless of age, beginning farmers should start small. Rick Ciolota recommends working on a range of farms over a number of years to gain experience. Equally important: Keep your town job. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition found that 73 percent of young farmers must work away from the farm to make a living. Meanwhile, only 22 percent of beginning farmers turn a profit in their first year.
To me there is something so elemental, pure and powerful — honest is a word I’ve heard more than once — about working a farm that attracts young people to farming. For the health of our economy and our collective wellbeing, I hope that these young farmers stick with it.
FOR MORE Beginning Farmers Family Farm ManagementThe GreenhornsBlue Hill FarmChubby Bunny FarmMoon in the Pond Farm
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There are practical and existential reasons to raise chickens. You get fresh eggs, rich fertilizer, bug control and an essential part of your composting system. Before you plant a garden, you can use chickens to clear and fertilize the ground. They require little effort other than changing their water, cleaning out the coop and feeding them.
A Mother Jones analysis compared eggs from battery chickens to pastured chickens and found that pastured eggs were better for you:
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