Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Finding Other Young Farmers

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

While in Brewster, I became friends with a writer, homesteader, and political voice in Putnam County named Jeff Green.  I remember the first time I met him, he said to me, “Nobody comes to Ryder Farm because they’re interested in agriculture.”   I raised an eyebrow. “I’m interested in agriculture,” I said pointedly.

A month and a half later, on a balmy evening in June, I would realize what Jeff meant.  Farming remains a marginal occupation.  Consequently people, especially young people, find themselves on farms for a myriad of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with an interest agriculture.  It may have been Betsey’s welcoming nature that took in a particularly offbeat miscellany of people that summer, but finding a group of peers has been a consistent challenge for Travis and me since we made the switch to farming as a career.

It was one of the few June nights without rain, and Travis and I were sitting at the big round table in the farmhouse kitchen reading sundry organic farming magazines that had arrived in the mail.  Autumn was at the stove, gazing into a giant stainless steel pot, which was bubbling away.  She had just come back from a foraging walk, and had brought home dozens of edible wild plants. Autumn was a fairly attractive, thirtysomething girl, but she carried herself like she was afraid of the wind.  A hypochondriac, she would often latch onto Betsey’s nursing background, asking about the symptoms for whatever disease she was sure she had contracted that week.  When she ventured into the field, regardless of the weather, she donned giant sunglasses, a wool cap, and a sweatshirt about ten sizes too big.  She clutched a full gallon of water in her hands at all times.  Autumn wasn’t much of a conversationalist, unless you were talking about foraging–which I indulged her in from time to time.

“I’m making pokeweed,” she said, not moving her eyes away from the boiling pot.

For a moment Travis and I didn’t know she was talking to us.  I said, “What’s pokeweed?”

“It’s a plant that’s extremely poisonous.  If I don’t cook it just right it could kill you.  But if I do it right, it sort of tastes like asparagus.”  Her voice was matter-of-fact.

As I stifled a laugh, Evelyn walked into the kitchen, clutching a bag full of raw meat to her chest.  “Hi Autumn.  I got meat.”  Autumn barely acknowledged Evelyn.  The two didn’t get on.  In fact, Evelyn didn’t really get on with anyone at the farm.  Having been through some rough times with her family recently, she was supposed to be using her stay at Ryder Farm as a time to recuperate.  Instead, she had taken to alienating the people around her, and was finding herself isolated.  It didn’t help that she had the social skills of a captured raccoon.  Suddenly, Evelyn cocked her head back and yelled at the top of her lungs, “BETSEY!  I GOT MEAT!!”

Startled, I began looking around.  No one had seen Betsey all evening, so I wasn’t quite sure who she was yelling at.  But a moment later, Betsey, who had been upstairs napping, came down to investigate the commotion.

“I got good meat, Betsey.  Now I don’t have to eat that crap you buy,” Evelyn started.

My eyes shot over to Betsey, who didn’t miss a beat. “Well that’s great!  We can all have it for dinner.  I’ll get John to grill it.”

Betsey was extremely fond of family-style dinners in the farmhouse kitchen, and pounced on every opportunity to eat together.  Travis and I learned to avoid these dinners, because they were always awkward.  But just like that, we were trapped.  Betsey called everyone in, and one by one, the Ryder Farm interns began to file into the kitchen.

Chris came first.  Chris had started his internship a month before Travis and me.  He had had a string of jobs around the area and farming that summer was the next on his list.  What was most interesting about Chris was his complete aversion to learning about farming.  The entire season, he was perpetually unable to identify crops–any crop.  We’d ask him to weed the turnips and we’d find him in the beets.  We’d ask him to pick cabbage and he’d come back with kale.  As the season progressed, the interns learned not to ask him to do things.

“Chris,” Betsey said, “Can you run and get some Swiss chard from the field?  We can have it with the meat.”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  Then hesitantly, “That’s the one with the leaves, right?”

“Green leaves, white stems,” Betsey said impatiently.

Chris gave an exaggerated nod and disappeared out the door.  Will appeared after him.  A 17-year-old boy from a school in New York City, he was at Ryder Farm to satisfy some sort of school credit, and it was clear this was not his ideal summer.  Will’s activities during the day consisted of walking around the farm aimlessly, playing with his tiny dog, and starting random fires.  Suffice it to say he wasn’t much help in the field

Katie came in close behind Will, looking sullen.  A recent college graduate with a degree in chemistry, she came to the farm as a sort of break between college and real life.  The only problem was that she seemed to hate the work.  Katie was a victim of the romantic aura farming has to the general population.  Once we started working in the rain and mud, it wasn’t long before Katie stopped showing up.  In the evenings, she was depressed.

Ruth walked in last.  The one well-adjusted intern that season, Ruth was a college junior using her summer to get a better perspective on her environmental studies major.  John had given her the plate full of cooked meat and she carried it awkwardly to the table.  “Okay, dinner,” she said.

Autumn looked sadly at the plate of meat.  “I’m a vegetarian,” she said coldly.  “Well we’re having Swiss chard, too,” Betsey pointed out, as Chris reappeared from the field …with bok choy.  Betsey looked on for a moment, then thanked Chris and began chopping.

Dinner was served a few minutes later: brisket, bok choy sauteed like Swiss chard, bread, and salad.  Autumn looked at her plate of greens then said, “Well I guess I can have some meat tonight, since it’s here,” and began munching on brisket.  She gasped suddenly, “Betsey, this meat is pink! Will I get e coli?”

“If you get sick Betsey will have to take care of you, since it’s her meat,” Eveleyn cackled, then began shoveling brisket into her mouth.  Next to her, Katie was staring at her plate, picking up her bok choy with her fork and letting it slowly fall down.  Will was smashing the salt and pepper shakers together like they were fighting.

“If you eat undercooked meat, do you get sick right away or does it take a few days?” Autumn asked.

“I don’t think the meat is undercooked,” Betsey tried.  The salt shaker flew across the table.

I shoved a few more bites in my mouth and excused myself, which meant Travis also had an out.  We went back to our guesthouse and began laughing hysterically at our lot this summer.  We had expected to meet a group of young people like us–interested in farming, thinking of starting a business, involved in food or environmental issues.  Instead, we found ourselves in the midst of a group of people with an interest in farming that was tertiary at best.  It was funny, but it was also lonely.  Since then, thankfully, we have met other young farmers who are serious about the business, and connecting with them is extremely important to us. But as of yet, peers come few and far between.  For anyone considering a career change to farming, it’s a reality best to be prepared for.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa

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4 Responses to “Why We Farm: Finding Other Young Farmers”

  1. Wow! What a nightmare! I’ve always wanted to find time to intern on a farm but, like you, I would expect to meet folks with an equal interest to mine in starting up a farm or at least learning a lot.

  2. I would LOVE an internship like that! I’m quite the opposite of your comrades, I can’t get enough of the outdoors. I love hard work, as much as it wears me out, I love the ache in my muscles after stacking hay or weeding in my little garden. However, I’m stuck inside a lot when the weather is bad – raising two little boys’ll do that to ya!
    I live on an organic dairy farm that I also help work and I’m slowly starting my own little homestead.
    I too have been looking for some other young farmers. I wasn’t raised on a farm so I’m still fairly knew to the lifestyle. I’m really glad that I stumbled upon your blog!

  3. Stephanie, I can’t say that every intern experience will be like mine, but over the few years I’ve been on farming, it’s been surprising the number of reasons people find their way to farms. I think the lesson to draw is to consider the rigor of the intern screening process when looking for a farm to intern on (though you still might not be completely safe then =)).

    Ashley, here in Austin there is a small but growing community of young farmers. It’s really inspiring to meet other people who are trying to make it work. How lucky to have access to an organic dairy where you can learn at your own pace! Glad you are enjoying the blog! Hope you keep reading.

  4. This is actually a nightmare..I really liked this kind of a farm…I wish i had a one like this.

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