Week 5: June 28-July 4
To Des Moines, Iowa
TRACTOR VS TRACTOR!
Barney literally makes hay while the sun shines. A while later, I'm seeing how the other half farms.
....Sry smallscale, I'm going with the air conditioned cab and CD player... peace.
Like my glasses? They're just to make sure nobody ever thinks I'm cool.
We enjoyed ourselves immensely at the Des Moines Arts Festival! Thank you to Todd the traveling Chobani salesman, our unofficial yogurt sponsor! (We're still looking for an Official Yogurt Sponsor.)
A long and windy ride has never been more worth while...
A day at Rolling Acres Farm, Atlantic IA
A new month and a new state. Omaha here we come!
Around 6:30 am we had made it outside the city limits of Des Moines. We rode into the wind blowing from the nothwest as the sun was climbing, allowing us to watch our shadows following along beside us. All the sudden, our two shadows became three.
Fearing I might fall off my steel steed if I were to look behind me, I let out a slightly confused, "Hello?" Then, the menacing shadow began to hover closer towards me until we were flanked neck and neck! I cocked my head slightly to get a glimpse of this new and mysterious rider and all I saw were teeth! In a massive welcoming smile followed by: "Good morning! Where are you all headed?"
We could not have come across a better duo to ride with and it didn't hurt that their jersey honored the black and orange colors of our homeland (Go Giants)! Before long it was unearthed that Steve and Lars were heading to breakfast in Redfield. After mentioning six dollars all you can order and blurberry pancakes we cut them off. Taking a tip from the hobbits, we ventured towards Redfield with our two new friends for second breakfast.
Showers were on and off for most the day but the 20 mph winds were on... the whole time.
Arriving at Rolling Acres Farm and meeting Denise O'Brien and Larry Harris was akin finding a date palm oasis in the center of a blistering desert. In the same way an oasis offers a burst of color and life in a monotonous sea of sand and heat, Rolling Acres overflows with color, diversity, knowledge and personality (which was a refreshing break from the endless green corn that striped the landscape with more exactitude than the red and white lines of American flags streaming from every lampost we saw that day). With our toes in the Milkweed and our eyes on the bees in the Basswood tree, Denise casually explained that the neighbors are making a dent in her wallet, because for every tree they cut down, she has to make up for by planting a new one on her land. Thanks for Denise, this plot of land is holding about 80% of the biodiveristy for the whole state, or so it seems.
Caitrin took charge of making the German potato salad
You wouldn't believe it but there are carrots hiding in those grasses! Don't worry, we found 'em.
Yet another day where weeding in the garden has proved to be the most productive space for interesting conversation... more on this to come!
While we were out hunting for the legendary potato, an herbicide/pesticide spray truck grumbled up the hill. There were unusual winds coming from the East that day which would have meant overflow drifting onto the Rolling Acres Farm. Larry explained later that day that when he hears the spray truck and feels the East winds it means yet another talk with the neighbors is in store.
Jordan, a farm helper at Rolling Acres Farm, brought us a bounty of mulberries while we were weeding. (Jordan, there is some mulberry pie waiting for you in the fridge)!
Beginning this journey we set out to discover what it is to be a female farmer. Do women offer something special that may provide the chance to transform our current agricultural policy and practice? What kind of farming do they do, and what is the significance of its departure from mainstream ag? These questions are still central, but we’ve found ourselves having to back up even more; in exploring who a female farmer is, we also have to unpack what “Farmer” even means. Notions of who a farmer is, what they grown, and how they grow it are culturally dependent and variable by the social, political, and historical context of different regions.
The premise of our project, for example, reveals one set of assumptions about what a farmer can be: woman, small-scale, organic, raising diverse species of plants and animals, self-supported, sometimes single, and so on.
It turns out the culture-of-agriculture and the state apparatus here in the Corn Belt have very different ideas of what a farmer is.
“Most don’t consider me a farmer,” says Susan Jutz of ZJ Farm who at her peak was feeding over 1,000 people with her organic vegetable CSA cultivated on only a few of her 80 acres (the rest lies in conservation), “growing vegetables is something a farmer’s wife does in the backyard.”
She tells a story that demonstrates how the conception of Farmer in her rural Iowan area is, basically, not someone like her. As the story goes, she recently went to her local farm agent to apply to the US Department of Agriculture’s Equip Program which is designed to help small-scale farmers increase their capacity and productivity through cost sharing on equipment; essentially it is a program designed to benefit farmers like Susan. However, she faced great discrimination throughout the process of applying. The male agent made her “jump through hoops,” making her come back to the office many times with more specific paperwork to prove she counted as an eligible farmer. Part of the struggle, she said, was that despite her presence as a vegetable farmer in the area since 1994, she simply did not fit their image of a farmer. “They think I’m some dope-smoking hippie. When I first went in to apply for Equip—and this is the agency I’ve gone to for years—the agent asked me how many vegetables I was growing in my yard.” After weeks of compliance with the agent’s many belittling comments and unnecessary requests, her application was accepted—but not before she witnessed a male farmer apply for a skidloader and get approved on the spot. “If anything,” she says, “to them I’m a gardener. Not a farmer.”
Since she started farming organically with her husband Larry Harris in the 1970’s, the organizer, activist, and all-around wonderwoman Denise O’Brien has identified as a farmer. “I was out there milking cows, mucking the stalls, driving the tractor, making hay, and doing pretty much everything Larry was. So I called myself a farmer. I identified myself as a woman farmer when a lot of people wouldn’t; they would call themselves farm wives but never farmers” even though, like Denise, these so-called farm wives do a lot of the same work.
Denise’s work with the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN) which she started in 1997, as well as the numerous coalitions and action networks she has organized, focuses on overcoming the gendered and patriarchal nature of farming in rural places. Denise really comes alive when she begins to describe her work with Women Caring for the Land (WCL), a WFAN program. Because women tend to live longer, women own over 50% of the land in Iowa. “If we are going to change this landscape and move towards more conservation land and away from hedgerow-to-hedgerow monocropping, it has to start with these women landowners realizing their power, recognizing their values, and asserting to their tenants what will be done on their land,” Denise pronounces with passion.
A large barrier to the empowerment WCL seeks to inculcate through a network of women landowners is the difficulty of overcoming the male dominance in which many rural women have grown up, and the difficulty of navigating complicated familial relationships that tend to prevent the womens’ voices from being heard. By unlearning deference, being clear about values and land use choices, and gaining strength in numbers, Denise wants to motivate women landowners to see “it’s not just up to “the Farmer,” it’s up to the landowners who are, actually, mostly women.” Denise’s status as an outspoken female farmer and political activist and the work she does empowering women demonstrate the gendered nature of the farming landscape in Iowa in particular and rural America in general.
In Iowa there seems to be a very specific notion of what a farmer is, a cultural role bolstered by the State of Iowa’s crop subsidy structure. A quick glance outside reveals the main crops in Iowa are 1) corn, 2) soy, and 3) other. Large scale corn and soy farmers farm thousands of acres of these crops. Here in the Corn Belt, two thousand acres is considered a medium-sized farm. Crop insurance is a farmer’s best friend. Based on projected yields, commodity crop insurance protects farmers from crop shortages due to adverse weather, pests, etc, so if a farmer does not make as much money as he thought he would based on his production, the government still pays him the difference. In other words, conventional corn and soy farmers with crop insurance make money no matter what. Since their bottom line is taken care of enough to shelter them to the next season, what unfortunately happens sometimes is that if some adversity befalls the large-scale farmer (like the incessant rain that has been pouring from Iowa skies) and they do not plant their crop in time, they simply will not plant at all. They give up because their insurance protects them anyhow.
After telling us this pattern, Susan Jutz posed the rhetorical question, “And they say they’re ‘feeding the world’?”
As opposed to the vast subsidies and insurance available to conventional farmers of commodity crops, there is no crop insurance available for vegetable farmers. None. The state apparatus has a hand in defining what a farmer is and what he—yes, he—grows.
Traveling through the Corn Belt talking to organic and conventional farmers, we can see that definitions of a farmer are deeply culturally entrenched. For one, they are tied up in the broader American affinity for progress at all costs. “Modern” farming accepts new technology as beneficial no matter what; chemical and technological development is seen as necessary to remain competitive and to “feed the world.”
The sad part about the Paul Harvey “So God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl advertisement is its searing, gendered, truth. Piecing together the reality we’ve seen and the descriptions we’ve gleaned, the mainstream farmer is a man who quests for ever-larger swaths of land to convert to corn and soy (since 2004, there has been a 1-5% conversion rate of grassland to corn or soy in the Corn Belt states). Using his enormous machines, GMO seeds, and chemical sprays, he plants and harvests hundreds of thousands of bushels of corn in a matter of days. He kills all weeds with herbicide and calculates how much fertilizer to use based on Iowa State University’s latest statistics. His rows are endless and perfectly straight because of his tractor’s GPS precision. With the recently doubled price of commodity crops, he maximizes his profit by planting fencerow to fencerow, on slopes, where trees once were, on all marginal land that can squeeze out some money. He is white, he is farming like his father and grandfather did. He probably went to agricultural college at ISU where he learned that bigger is better and GM is the way of the future. He is just doing it how it must be done and he hopes the EPA doesn’t interfere.
This description is not to villainize the mainstream farmer; it is more a straightforward description of the typical farmer we’ve met. Importantly, we’ve learned his choices are not so much choices that make him an “irresponsible” or “unethical” farmer. Rather, he is embrangled in a policy structure and economic system that defines how he must farm in order to remain competitive. The intertwined layers of normative local culture, patriarchy, and corporate-controlled markets define who a farmer is, what he grows, and how he grows it.
One thing we have learned is how little we initially knew—and how little we still know—about the cultural dependent notions of what a farmer is, and how these entrenched, gendered, and discriminatory definitions act as hefty political and social barriers to gender equity and environmental sustainability in our agricultural system. This reality we’ve glimpsed here in the Corn Belt fills us with renewed and unending respect for the courage, strength, and commitment of the unconventional farmers who go against the grain to live their principles.
Definitions of a farmer
Big Muddy Urban Farm
While Danelle Meyer is a fifth generation farmer, she is the first female in her family to ever take up the profession as well as the first to use organic practices.
But farming hasn’t always been the obvious choice for her. She admits as a young girl she was embarrassed to be the farm kid. It was only down the road, while working in PR and marketing she realized, “I know I’m not supposed to die doing this.” It was at that point she bravely jumped head first into a six month Agro-ecology course at UCSC. Through the course of the program she felt the urge to return to Nebraska and start farming. “I wanted to start my own business on my families land,” she explained, “It’s all about family heritage to me.” Despite this strong connection to home, when she told her family she was starting an organic business on her grandfather’s land, her mother responded, “That is you telling your dad that his career is a complete waste.” Despite her father’s reliance on conventional methods and her brother’s work as a head honcho at Monsanto, she has remained steadfast to her agricultural beliefs and practices. Danelle told us that she is energized through feeding others, introducing her community to new foods, running a profitable business, and being an organic food advocate.
Even while committing herself to growing principles that implicitly contradict conventional knowledge of her father’s business, she explains that their relationship has never been stronger, “I receive a lot of respect from my community.” In general, she has found that being a female in a field dominated by older white males has been a positive experience. Danelle recognizes her distinct advantage as an insider in the community, “If Everett (my father) says it’s okay, it’s okay.”
In addition to being an independent female business owner, Danelle finds that her greatest asset, is understanding how business and marketing work. She links the 1-5 year turnover rate of young farmers to a lack in business management skills, “Growing vegetables is the easy part, marketing PR is the hard part.”
Danelle’s commitment to unconventional logic and entrepreneurship has secured her position as a community role model espousing strong female leadership. Believing that actions speak louder than words, she continues promoting her vision of widespread food access and education through her everyday.
hope you haven't forgotten our favorite way to tell time
MOOving through three farms in one day (get it?)
While Wahoo might have had the exciting name, the true excitement was all hidden at Darby Springs Farm where William and Crystal Powers are cultivating their farm and garden through principles of holistic managemnet and permaculture design. While walking through their garden, pasture and wetland, we heard their plans to expand their heritage breed pasture-based livestock herd, heirloom vegetable garden, wetland biodiveristy, as well as fruit and nut orchards.
Keep an eye out for Power's Brewing. William's brews aren't only delicious but completely innovative, and, only served locally (at his house). There are few plants at Darby Springs Farm that William doesn't have plans to brew with.
Wes makes smoothies on his bike!
William, the President of the Naitonal Young Farmers Coalition, co-hosted a Young Farmers Potluck while we were staying at Darby Springs! In the shade of the backyard, we discussed the future of food and agriculture in the US while munching on homemade pizza, salad, cheese and brew. William is involved in various pasture-roots (not grassroots) organizations, that organize events like these where folks interested in cultivating resilient food networks can get together and learn through conversation. In his words, "Local food is about relationships- sustainability is about a journey." Part of the journey for William, will be finding ways to bring dedicated young people to the field of farming.
Crystal attended graduate school at Cornell University. She studied Agroecology Engineering and is also a huge proponent of permaculture logic. Her fruit orchard is strategically designed with Day Lilys along the parameter to keep the grass back, as well as various second story plants to support the growth of her orchard. Behind the orchard and bee box we could glimpse the tops of horse heads, one of the personalities that is part of the multi-specie pasture stacking taking place at Darby Springs Farm. Although William and Crystal currently have off-site jobs, their goal is to be on the farm full time by 2020. Part of that vision includes a farm store complete with a certified kitchen and milk parlor.
As a steward of the land, Crystal is determined to preserve the biodiversity present in the salt marsh living within the parameters of their property. While she has taken many system's ecology classes, wetlands are new to her. She explains, "It takes observation to understand a new system." While working at Univeristy of Nebraska Extension, Crystal tries to allow/urge large scale conventional farmers to adopt a more hoslitic way of viewing their own farms.
The morning started with milking these beauties!
Darby Springs Farm currently has two grass-fed, heritage-breed, Guernsey cows. They manage the grazing pattern of these animals to enhance the growth of their indigenous pasture grasses and to enhance the nutritional value and flavor of the milk these two produce.
Next stop, Cheese...
First stop, milk
Last stop, Meat!
At Branched Oak Farm we learned that Nebraska means Flat Water in the Dakota language. A sticky note poised on the altar in their zendo gives a look into the intention that undergird their life and livelihood. It said, "Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." Just the little piece of place name knowledge reflects the care for the land, place, and animals that Doug and Krista Dittman practice at their dairy. The sticky note's wisdom gives another look into their eternally curious outlook.
In both the people they are and the history of Branched Oak, Krista and Doug exemplify a calm openness to unknowns and to the unexpected joys and successes that arise in that open space.
Doug first moved onto the land in the early '90s in what Krista calls his "Thoreau Experiment." He built the brick house by hand, living close to the land without electricity. It was Krista's presence that taught Doug how to see the interconnections and relationships between himself, the land, and the dairy cows, he says.
From that time on their Farm has changed and expanded, but not in the usual trajectory of a couple's ambitious dream eventually manifesting through the persistent hard work and dedication.
We eventually landed at the splendid West Blue Farm!
Branched Oak Farm, Raymond NE
Darby Springs Farm, Ceresco NE
West Blue Farm, Milford NE
One-Farm, Logan IA
The art of pig wispering
They said a horse was beyond my skill level
"It's always a challenge to be heard because agriculture is still a career dominated by men. Women aren't heard, and it's really obvious because of how land is being treated," said Denise O'Brien, founder of Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and longtime farmer and food advocate.
We caught up with Denise at her home, Rolling Acres Farm in Atlantic, Iowa. The organic farm is a true oasis of species (and colorful!) diversity in the monotony of corn and soy. Like the cluster of flowering trees that sands out in the geographical landscape, the minds of Denise and her husband Larry flower like day lillies within the area's uniform intellectual and political landscape. On a sunny day we sat on the sky blue and marroon porch and spoke with Denise about where she sees the future of agriculture.
She orients us in an agricultural system dominated by vertically integrated corporations such as Monsanto whose seed-pesticide-fertilizer combinations have a stranglehold on the conventional farmer who is inevitably male. "We can't blame the farmer because they've really been pulled in," she reminds us, yet we "need to keep working on democracy in our own country."
For Denise, democracy incolces limitations on special interest in politics, gender, equity, and the ability to choose how we live and how we farm. She really comes alive when she describes her work with WFAN's Women Caring for the Land (WCL) program. Her work with WCL provides an effective and affective space for change in the Midwest agricultural landscape. When Denise learned that women actually own more than half of the rentable land in Iowa she knew she had to organize them for change.
"The meetings feed my soul," she says, yet the stories she hears are sometimes chilling. One story she relayed involved a woman who had been married to her farmer husband for 47 years. Upon his death she inherited the land and wanted to conserve some of it by reserving it for grassland and waterways. Her stepchildren intervened through the courts. They claimed she "isn't really a part of the family," and sued her for her failure to maximize the land's value and profitability. In other words, her stepchildren sued her for wanting to conserve land rather than convert every possible inch to corn and soy. A similar strain of ruthless greed weaves through many of the stories Denise encounters through WCL.
"It turns out that women--when asked--want conservation, more families, and food on their land. We must empower women to place limits on what renters can do on [the women's] land because [the women] have a conservation ethic and a different way of valuing the land." Denise's work, therefore, is to contact and connect these women landowners through the circle learning meetings of WCL. By exchanging stories, discussing their values in an all female space, and gaining strength in numbers, WCL seeks to "create a supportive network of female landowners who have the power to change how the land is used."
As we've seen on our journey so far, women farmers tend to have smaller farms, they raise food (rather than conventional farms), have a conservation ethic that informs their sustainable farming practices, and value having more people especially families farming the land. The ethic of care and relational, big-picture thinking runs deep in women. A few days after meeting Denise we were in Milford, Nebraska where an organic farmer named Dave Welsch of West Blue Farm corroborates this tendency. "We rent a quarter section down the road where we grow grain and alfalfa for our cattle," he explained, "and the woman we rent from was most concerned with how we would care for the land. She wanted to make sure we would farm responsibly and conserve the land, actually improve it." This is why Denise targets women landowners as potential allies in transforming the food system: "this is the first time they're being included in the conversation. At first many of them say, 'Me? You're asking me what I want?' But as soon as they're really listened to, they want to conserve."
This is a brilliant entry point for change. Denise has another idea of intergenerational female farmer. In addition to conservation measures on their land, what if women landowners rented a small maybe 5-10 acres, of their land to non-conventional small-scale young farmers raising diverse crops? Such a collaboration would help answer many burning questions: the need for biological species diversity, the need for farms growing food, the huge barrier of land access for young and beginning farmers (especially women), and the question of heirs for the older landowner women.
Creating these connections and collaborations for change is what makes Denise come alive--and us too! "Changing how the land is cultivated"--the very roots of our agricultural system--"starts with women landowners."
Read Denise's own words about this important issue on her blog: firmlyrootedblog.com!
Spaces of Hope: Women Landowners
Darby Springs Farm, Ceresco NE
The hard work and dedication are absoluately there, but Branched Oak is what it is today because of Krista and Doug's ability to listen to others' needs rather than force their own. At first they had laying hens. The commercial venture started with neighbors, friends, and family asking for extra eggs. Next, they asked for chicken meat. Next, they asked for grass finished beef. Each time Krista and Doug strode into the new experiment with the confidence of consumer knowledge and desire. Finally, those same friends, neighbors, and growing customer base began asking for the tightly regulated but wildly popular raw milk.
"I've learned along with our customers," says Krista, "We're following the market pull; milk and cheese is where we really found our niche."
For the last while Branched Oak Farm has been a creamery producing artisanal cheeser. On 240 acres which includes a watershed, pond, riparian zone, Krista and Doug move their 40 cow herd on pasture two times per day. Milking once per day provides them with enough fresh milk to make about a dozen kinds of cheese. (Our personal favorite was the hard cumin cheese!)
In 2005 Krista teamed up with another nearby farmer, Charuth Roth of Shadowbrook Farm, to create Farmstead First, an artisinal cheese co-op. Like the Farm's own changes according to peoples' needs and their interest in providing for people, the co-ops activities are similarly geared towards learning and inclusivity. They provide tours to anyone interested, as well as classes and workshops for beginning cheesemakers.
All together they've helped start five small scale dairies. "It's not about getting the biggest piece of the pie, it's about making the pie bigger, "says Krista, "It's not about taking over, it's about creating change neighborhood by neighborhood," she adds.
Indeed, this expansive and generous mindset is present in the very ethos of Branched Oak Farm.
Sitting in the warm breeze sipping ice water from coveted blue Ball fars, we discussed the crucial differences between their farm and a large-scale industrial dairy. It's a matter of both the "what" and the "how," manifested in a way of raising cows and making cheese that delights in rethinking relationships between self and other, self and land, self and cow. "We enjoy looking at the interconnections." Look and listen they do.
"Krista hates it when I say this, but," Doug tells me, "we're always asking each other what we want, asking the customer what they want, and so on, but we never ask the cow what they want." Well, how do you find out what the cow wants? I asked, a smile whispering onto my lips. "I observe them," he responded in his charmed way. Zen meditation informs his farming in a way that reminded me of the spiritual and integrated natiure of the farming practices at Villa Maria Farm in Pennsylvania. "Zen practice allows me to undo the layers of conditioning that try to define my relationship with the cow. It unpeels the barriers between self and others and lets me see things as they actually are, as not separate. It's simply being open."
Doug and Krista reflects this openness through the warmth of their presence, and through the ongoing changes at Branched Oak that respond to the needs of others--human and cow and land--as we are all a part of one interconnected and (hopefully) complementary web. I hope to remember the sense of spaciousness, care, and experimentation that thrives at Branched Oak Farm. On this educational adventure of Shifting Gears in particular, I seek to follow the zendo sticky note's Instructions for Living a Life: Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About It.
The two youngest groups of farmers we’ve met so far are both thriving in Nebraska. Big Muddy Urban Farm is in its second season of production in Omaha, the original seven friends is now a collective of four core friends, all in their early-to-mid twenties. 26th Street Farm is also rolling through its second season in Hastings, going strong thanks to the skill and dedication of partners Hannah Keen and Will Boal. After meeting Hannah at the Hastings farmers’ market, seeing their immaculate produce, and getting a tour of their neat 1.5 acre farm, we were amazed to learn that Hannah is our age—only twenty two!
The Big Muddy and 26th Street Farm folks have more in common than their youth and dedication to small-scale agriculture. I’d like to compare and contrast these two farms in order to illuminate some barriers young farmers face, to highlight commonalities that contribute to the farms’ viability, and to discuss general themes we’ve noticed amongst young farmers.
It’s a fact that young farmers face significant barriers, particularly access to land. This is because young people generally lack the capital to afford farmland, particularly in fertile areas like Illinois, Iowa, and Eastern Nebraska where land can cost up to $15,000 an acre. It is important to note that Big Muddy and 26th Street are surviving because they were able to overcome this barrier in creative ways; Big Muddy leases land for $1.00 per year from a supportive landowner/family friend, and 26th Street farms on Hannah’s parents’ land. In both instances, the land is cheap or free which allows them to farm in the first place.
Even with this advantage, farming is expensive especially at first with the capital investments in equipment, soil amendment, and so on. This is why both Big Muddy and 26th Street rely on outside income. All members of Big Muddy have off-farm jobs, for example Brent is a waiter at the premier Omaha local food hotspot the Grey Plume. Hannah and Will had saved up a significant amount of money and invested a lot of it in their operation.
Another barrier young farmers face is experience. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC ______) exists to help young and beginning farmers access the resources and knowledge they need to become successful farmers. Hannah and Will’s success is partially attributable to their experience on a for-profit lettuce farm in Oregon, where they learned how to grow and how to hustle, and most importantly how to make farming into a viable business. They also took advantage of a business-oriented eight-week NYFC course. It is unclear how much practical or business experience the Big Muddy folks had before beginning their endeavor.
At the same time, Big Muddy and 26th Street share a distinct advantage: a monopoly of the CSA market in Omaha and Hastings, respectively. Both groups are insiders in their communities so they have access to supportive customers, including a lot of their parents’ friends. “It’s really all in the network,” Brent of Big Muddy told me while we washed lettuce, “We can’t actually keep up with the demand, we’ve had to turn people down for the CSA.” As the only game in town, 26th Street also has a corner on the CSA market in Hastings. After a profitable (yes, profitable!) first year, Hannah and Will increased their CSA shares from 25 to 50 shares and still had to make a wait list.
Another common theme we’ve found in young farmers is transience. Brent of Big Muddy sees his farm work as “not forever.” He wants to make the farm an educational space to teach others how to farm but doesn’t want to keep farming himself. Likewise, Hannah and Will conceptualized 26th street as a five-year plan. They hope to do other farming and growing projects, but at twenty-two years old are not ready to settle down for a lifetime commitment to the farm. The transience of young farmers reflects a larger trend in the Millenial generation: millenials tend to hold jobs for shorter periods of 1-5 years with more job changes than our parents and grandparents who might have kept one job from college to retirement. As well as being a sign of the times, there are myriad difficulties facing young farmers that influence their relatively short farming stints: tough physical labor, a whole life ahead, the draw of a higher paying job, and of course turning a profit. The million dollar questions are, “How do we get young people farming the land, and how do we get them to stay?”
This last aspect, turning a profit, is where Big Muddy and 26th Street diverge. No matter the ethical or moral motivations for beginning an organic farm, the farmer is still embedded in the market, and in our American culture money is what makes the world go ‘round. Therefore, having some notion of how to economically sustain the farm is crucial.
One aspect of a farm’s success is efficiency and properly valuing labor. This knowledge is partially gained through the steep learning curve of experience, which is where 26th Street has an advantage. “You have to know what labor is worth, and how it relates to the actual cost of your food,” says Hannah Keen, who learned these essentials working at the for-profit lettuce farm in Oregon, “We balance labor intensive foods like cherry tomatoes and beans with easy foods like kale or chard in our CSA baskets to even out the value and cost.” Loose leaf lettuce vs. head lettuce is a perfect example of the importance of the labor value-food value relationship. At 26th Street they only do head lettuce because of the ease and labor efficiency; you simply cut off the base, rinse it, pluck off one or two bad leaves, and put it in the CSA box. Big Muddy, on the other hand, does head and loose leaf lettuce. Loose leaf lettuce requires exponentially more work because in addition to the above steps, you must pick off every leaf, wash it multiple times, weigh, and bag the individual shares. The Big Muddy folks do not seem to consider the time/labor aspect as greatly as 26th Street, which has serious implications for profitability, and therefore long-term viability of the farms.
Indeed, we’ve found that a healthy mix of passion and straight-up business sense are essential to a successful farm. The desire to turn a profit and the knowledge of how to do so determines the fate of these young farmers. The Big Muddy collective went in assuming they wouldn’t make a profit in the first few years, and in their third season they still haven’t. Hannah and Will’s intention with 26th Street farm, by contrast, was always profitability. Their farming skill and business minds made their farm money-making the very first season—a greatly admired feat! The fact that they turned a profit their first year kept them on the farm for round two.
So, what is the best advice we’ve heard for young farmers?
Gain practical experience working on a for-profit, livelihood farm where you will learn the business side of farming (as opposed to working on a hobby farm or non-profit farm where making money isn’t as important)
Make use of mentor programs and classes through the National Young Farmers Coalition, Sustainable Agriculture Societies, Agriculture Networks, etc.
Pursue value-added goods rather than raw produce
Save labor, be smart about efficiencies, and carefully calculate these considerations to know how to properly price your food
Be proactive about sales and marketing strategies to attract your customer base
Don’t expect to get rich, but be prepared to work REALLY HARD!