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Posts Tagged ‘grants’

Why We Farm: New Farmers are the Heart of the Food Movement

Friday, May 13th, 2011

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.

Just a few days after I left my position at Johnson’s farm, Travis accepted a new job at another farm in Austin.   I found out they were hiring, and I encouraged Travis to apply.  What’s nice about this new farm is that they have animals—pigs, goats, chickens, and sheep.  Neither of us have much experience caring for farm animals, so this is a good opportunity.  The position is full time, and though Travis doesn’t have a specific job description yet (those are hard to come by on farms), I hope it’s a good experience for him and he learns a lot.

I was tempted to apply, too.  The farmers, a married couple, seem like activists at heart and two people I’d really like to get to know.  But as much as I’d like to work there, the reality of health insurance, rent payments, and just being able to go out to dinner once in a while is pushing me to look for something else.  More often than not, this is the quandary young farmers find themselves in: work on a farm and gain some experience and contacts, but lose the financial capacity to begin a farming project of their own.  Or, work a desk job in order to have disposable income that can be put toward a farming side project, but lose out on the important contacts and relevant experience.  At the heart of this issue is that most farmers do not or cannot pay their employees a living wage, much less offer any standard benefits.  Until young people can both work on a farm and be competitively compensated for it, I’m afraid young farmers are going to remain a rare breed.

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Why is creating new farmers important?  Because new farmers will be, must be, at the heart of any meaningful change in our food system.  Currently, the United States does not produce enough fruits and vegetables for its own population to eat the USDA-recommended 5 daily servings.*  How can we move forward on any food issue until this most basic problem is addressed?  How can food activists encourage people to buy local, to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, to look for sustainably grown foods, when the supply of these products simply does not exist?  How can the major voices in the food movement—Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, the Huffington Post, food and sustainability blogs like Grist and Politics of the Plate, even Michelle Obama—how can their words be anything more than meaningless rhetoric until they seriously talk about the simple point that Americans simply cannot start eating better if we don’t first grow better food to eat.

But while it’s a simple problem to understand, it’s a difficult one to fix.  Because American farming has been neglected for so long, corporatizing and conglomerating into a few hands, it has stagnated.  For young people who would like to go into farming, there is no way in.  For older farmers who would like to retire, there is no way out.  Within farming, there is no upward mobility.  In short, the industry of farming is not just ailing, it’s dead.  It’s been dead.  The question we have to ask ourselves now is how can we revive it.  The answer is to focus on creating new farmers.

You might ask, what about all the media stories that highlight young farmers, champion resources for farmers, and show men in plaid shirts with dirty hands?  Aren’t these signs of a revitalized farming community?  Media stories like these rarely tell the entire story.  They consistently highlight only two kinds of farmers: middle-aged career-switch farmers, and young farmers with land in their family.  What this does, essentially, is gloss over the two most important, all-but-insurmountable obstacles for young would-be farmers: land and capital.  For those with one or both of those items, farming can be a reality.  But for the majority of young people with neither, beginning a successful farm is nearly impossible.

What about farm internships or farm work?  Can that be a realistic entry into becoming a farmer?  While logically you might think so, working on farms can sometimes be detrimental to beginning an independent farming operation.  Because farm work offers a lot of work with little pay, young farm workers can easily find themselves in a rut–perpetually working on farms but never having the skills, money, or space to farm for themselves.

What about finding small urban spaces to farm?  An abandoned lot or a community garden?  Can this be a cheap way for new farmers to get their start?  Urban farming, gardening, and rural farming are all vastly different things.  For a farmer who would like more than one or two acres, good farmland is difficult to find, and expensive once you find it.  In addition, land in and of itself is not enough.  Just to begin farming in any real, professional sense, you need at least: a good piece of land, a good well, a barn, a greenhouse, irrigation equipment, a washing station, a cooler, a tractor, fencing, seeds, and other miscellaneous tools.  Most young Americans do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to drop into a start-up business, nor do they have the experience to run a successful farming operation.  So they begin working on farms instead.  However, they soon find that working on farms provides few opportunities to begin a farm of their own.

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So to cut to the quick, serious talks about young farmers need to enter the food conversation.  There are ways to help young farmers.  And the way I see it, they’re called incubator programs.  Much like incubator kitchens, an incubator farm would provide the space—land, infrastructure, tools—for young people to farm without the massive startup costs.  It would train them in running a farm, not just doing farm work.  It would allow them to build a customer base and learn what grows well and what doesn’t.  If you have land and you want to help the food movement, do not try to start a farm for yourself.  Create an incubator program, and you will help train an entire generation of future farmers.  Create nonprofits with the mission of educating young farmers.  These are the kinds of programs we need, government or privately run, to make real change in our food system.

The current journey young people make through farm internships, low-paying jobs, and aimless searches for land is not sustainable, not fun, and not attractive for the smart, dedicated young people who can feed America in the future.  The key to the most basic and most effective change we can make to our food system is in the young Americans who, despite every scrap of common sense they have, have decided to try to make a career of farming.

* Marion Nestle, Food Politics

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

HOMEGROWN Inspiration: Building with whole trees, community supported foraging

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Tree architect living room

There’s a fascinating article in today’s Home section of the New York Times about forester-architect Roald Gunderson and partner Amelia Baxter and their company Whole Tree Architecture and Construction. Gunderson explains the structural, aesthetic and environmental benefits of building with whole trees. Photos and accounts of the projects they’ve built for themselves and local farmers are stunning.

Baxter, a one-time urban farmer, also runs a forest foraging CSA and grows an impressive amount of food in their 20 x 100-foot passive solar greenhouse.

Greenhouse made from trees

Greenhouse watering

We’re so impressed with the practical, affordable and simple life that they’ve created. Thanks for the inspiration!

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