Millenials Suit Up as Next-generation Farmers

With aging farmers retiring, a bumper crop of new workers is stepping up to tend the land and feed their souls.
December 28, 2012
 Millennials Suit Up as Next-Generation Farmers

America’s farmers are, on average, pushing 60, and after years of backbreaking labor, considering retirement. More often than not, their children aren’t taking over the family business.

That puts the future of countless acres of fertile, family-farmed land into question. Farm bureaus across the country are working to ensure the future of that land by helping a younger generation enter the agriculture profession.

Take, for instance, the Maine Farmland Trust, which works with Maine FarmLink to connect would-be young farmers with untended land. To date, the trust has completed 56 “links,” representing 4,987 acres in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties.

“Because the majority of Maine farmers are now of retirement age, getting new farmers onto the land is imperative,” says Maine FarmLink on their site. “Farmers who wish to retire do not have anyone to take over the farm. Likewise, many people who want to farm do not have the family or resources they need to get started.”

FarmLink is just one of many collaborative endeavors connecting next-generation farmers to the land and resources they need in order to help keep U.S. farms viable now and into the future. From farm apprenticeships to leases and full-out land purchases, younger farmers are working with and for agriculture veterans in their twilight years to continue tradition and preserve farming history.

Sometimes these stories are so good, they draw the attention of filmmakers.

When Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles in 2005, they initially had a hard time finding farmers markets where they could buy farm-fresh food. But as they worked their way into the market community, they got to know a number of farmers, and were inspired to create a film called GROW!

The farmers featured in GROW! range in age from 23 to 38. Twelve are Georgia natives, and while most of the others are from the South, a few have migrated from Northern states. Most of the farmers are college educated and hold degrees in such varied subjects as accounting, chemistry, physics, English literature, photography, theology, horticulture, political science, business, history, education, BioSystems Engineering and computer science.

Not all who wander are lost; this is an interested, passionate, educated and very creative group of individuals.

Of the 12 farms, four are managed, two are on traditional family land, two are renting or leasing, three are borrowing land, and one farm is owned in partnership with one of the couple’s parents. All work on their farms full time and are able to make a living by farming.

“The ability to grow food is an art and a skill,” says GROW! filmmaker Owen Masterson. “Eating well is a choice. When you factor mono crop farm subsidies, antibiotic and pesticide overuse, environmental damage and health concerns into the equation, organic is not more expensive or elitist.”

“Sometimes at screenings there are the ‘doubters’ who ask, ‘But can this kind of agriculture feed the planet?’ What’s more important to think about is that these young farmers are feeding their communities by producing better, healthier food using practices that preserve the land without the use of synthetic, petro-chemical based fertilizers and pesticides,” Masterson adds.

Colin McCrate and Brad Halm of the Seattle Urban Farm Company are part of the urban farm movement. The two went in the opposite direction of their Georgia colleagues, moving to Seattle after working on large farms. In addition to recently releasing the book Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard, the two work designing, installing, and maintaining urban-food production systems in the Puget Sound Area.

Halm tells TakePart that he’s known a handful of people who started their first urban garden, fell in love with it, dropped everything and moved to the country to start a new farming career—all in the course of just a few years,

“This is obviously a big decision and usually means walking away from high-paying corporate jobs and changing school systems—in addition to buying flannel shirts and mud boots,” Halm says. “I remember one client in particular who started with a small raspberry patch and a single raised bed. Three years later she was farming four acres with vegetable crops, 150 fruit trees, a couple of sheep and a huge flock of chickens.”

He adds that urban farming is no different than country farming other than the amount of space one has to work with.

“The good news is that, to create a healthy, functioning food system we need a lot more urban farms and a lot of local, small rural farms. As perspectives about the food system continue to change, I hope that more people will have the motivation and opportunity to find their place in sustainable agriculture—wherever that may be,” Halm says of the growing organic farming movement.

For Masterson, shedding a light on these new, younger farmers has been as fulfilling for him as the audiences he is educating.

“Over and over we hear the refrain: Thank you for making this film. At festival screenings and Q+A’s we are happily surprised by the number of people that, after watching GROW!, want to know where they can find young, beginning farmers like those in the film for their unused land. For many it was as if someone turned on a light in a room they didn’t realize was dark.”

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