After Graduating From College, It’s Time to Plow, Plant and Harvest

The New York Times


September 24, 2012

RED HOOK, N.Y. — It was harvest time, and several farm hands were hunched over a bed of sweet potatoes under the midday sun, elbow deep in soil for $10 an hour. But they were not typical laborers.

Jeff Arnold, 28, who has learned how to expertly maneuver a tractor, graduated from Colorado State University. Abe Bobman, 24, who studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, was clearing vines alongside Nate Krauss-Malett, 25, who went to Skidmore College.

Mr. Krauss-Malett said he became interested in farming after working in a restaurant and seeing how much food was wasted. Mr. Bobman had the same realization working in the produce section at a grocery store before college.

They had been in the fields here at Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley since 7 a.m. They all said they could not imagine doing any other job.

“Farming appeals to me, and probably to other people, because it’s simple and straightforward work outdoors with literal fruits from your labor,” Mr. Bobman said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re a part of an oppressive institution.”

For decades, the number of farmers has been shrinking as a share of the population, and agriculture has often been seen as a backbreaking profession with little prestige. But the last Agricultural Census in 2007 showed a 4 percent increase in the number of farms, the first increase since 1920, and some college graduates are joining in the return to the land.

Jordan Schmidt, a crew manager here at Hearty Roots, studied environmental science at Wesleyan. Ms. Schmidt, 27, did not have so much as a garden growing up, but in college, she said, she worked at a student-run farm and fell in love with agriculture. So she gave up on research science and moved onto a farm in Pennsylvania after graduating. This is her third season at Hearty Roots.

Hearty Roots, about 100 miles north of New York City, spans 70 acres with a clear view of the Catskill Mountains to the west. At the height of the harvest this year, the farm produced 8,000 pounds of vegetables a week — including peppers, beets and kale — and employed 10 workers. None of them came from farming backgrounds and most had heard about the job through word of mouth.

Ms. Schmidt recalled that her first time working on a farm, she loaded thousands of onions into a greenhouse to dry out, which was supposed to improve their flavor. But the roof was left uncovered, and when she returned the next day, many of the onions had been spoiled by the sun.

“They were caramelized,” she explained, lowering her eyes. Even with experience, she said, she still makes mistakes. Last year, she left a batch of sweet potatoes outside overnight, and they froze.

Still, she is experienced enough now to command a small group of farmers at Hearty Roots. It took some time, though, for her parents to come to terms with her profession.

“They’re like: ‘Can you make it like that? Can you make it and have kids?’ ” she said. But they have slowly come around, and now, Ms. Schmidt said, her mother is an organic food activist among her friends. (Her brother wants to be a writer.)

Hiring college students for the farm can have drawbacks.

“Most of the people here who work for me are here for one season and then move on to other farms, and so that’s actually the biggest challenge,” said Ben Shute, who owns Hearty Roots with his wife, Lindsey. “Every year it’s like training new people.”

But he said it was worth having such a staff.

“A lot of these people are like ambitious young people who want to farm for themselves,” Mr. Shute said, so they are motivated to learn quickly.

On the East End of Long Island, Sean Frazier, 23, and four others, all recent college graduates in their mid-20s, work on Quail Hill farm in Amagansett and have become close friends. Mr. Frazier, a Princeton graduate who until his senior year wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics, said his father wished that he was doing “something more intellectual, or something that’s harder.”

“He thinks I should be using my math skills,” Mr. Frazier said.

Like the workers in the Hudson Valley, the ones in Amagansett have had their share of misadventures. Mr. Frazier recalled that the first time he tried to collect eggs from under a chicken, he was pecked on his hands, surprisingly hard, and promptly switched (though briefly) to a feet-first technique.

Asked if he felt he was missing out on the city lifestyle, Mr. Frazier reflected for a moment. “I much more feel the opposite,” he said. “It would just really bother me to feel like I was inside all day and I was just missing out on everything that happened.”

The federal Agriculture Department said it did not have statistics on the number of college graduates who have become farmers in recent years, but Kathleen A. Merrigan, the deputy agriculture secretary, said in an interview that she believed the profession was becoming more attractive.

“I always joke that in the old days I used to go to a party and people would say, ‘What do you do for work,’ and I would say, ‘I work in agriculture,’ and I’d be left in the corner somewhere with my gin and tonic,” Ms. Merrigan said. “Now I say I work in agriculture and I’m the belle of the ball.”

In interviews at the two farms, the workers said that for them, farming was not a fad.

“I definitely want to end up living on my own farm — that’s definitely my life goal,” said Calvin Kyrkostas, Mr. Frazier’s co-worker, who graduated with a history degree from Oberlin College in Ohio.

Mr. Kyrkostas, 25, said he got into agriculture after working on a Missouri farm one summer in college. He said he became addicted to the feeling of accomplishment that came with seeing — and eating — the fruits of his labor after 15-hour workdays.

And then there was the tractor.

“I’m from Long Island, you know, I’m not a country boy, so it was cool to be able to hop on a John Deere,” he said. “It’s like every little boy’s dream to drive a tractor.”

“You don’t get into farming for the money,” he said. “You do it for the love of the game.”


For my own thoughts on finding good work related to sustainable food and farming, see:

Finding Work