Young farmers wanted as generation ages

 By Caitlin Andrews  –  June 05. 2016
youngfarmer
Phil and Becky Brand hold their 4-month old son Tom at their farmstand at Brandmoore Farm in Rollinsford. Photo by John Huff/Fosters.comr a caption

 

When you picture a New England farm, it might look something like McKenzie’s Farm.

Owners Jock and Annie McKenzie purchased the original 5.5 acres of land in Milton in 1987. Half the land was riddled with rocks and brush, and took two years to become plantable and yield a crop.

Now, the main farm is 80 acres, with another 20 acres being leased in Milton Mills. McKenzie’s has survived many calamities, from struggling to get off the ground and turn a profit, to losing an entire crop of strawberries to black vine weevil in 1999, to dealing with the constant threat of marauding deer and porcupines.

Sometime in the future, McKenzie’s will face another farming challenge: changing hands to a new owner. Luckily for Jock, 70, and Annie, 66, their oldest son, Brett McKenzie, 31, is poised to take over the farm, and currently owns 15 percent of the business. Annie McKenzie said knowing her son will take over is a relief.

“It’s nice to know he’ll keep it going, especially when we started from nothing,” she said. “We originally thought we’d have to sell the farm to retire, but now I know we’ll be able to stay.”

The McKenzies view themselves as lucky, as 30 percent of the state’s farms are operated by farmers age 65 and older, according to a study from American Farmland Trust and Land For Good, two organizations dedicated to conserving farmland and farmland access. The study shows farmers 65 and older manage 158,000 acres and own a collective $628 million in land and agricultural infrastructure.

And of those senior farmers, only 6 percent of them have someone under age 45 working the farm for them. For the rest, who are projected to retire within the next 10 to 20 years, the future of their farms is uncertain, and many say they do not know if they will find a successor, according to the study.

“It was a real wake-up call to see how few farmers age 65-plus have a next-generation working person on the farm with them,” said Cris Coffin, policy director for Land For Good. “How and to whom this land and farm infrastructure transfers will have an enormous impact on the future of farming in New England.”

According to Gail William Jellie, director of the state’s Department of Agriculture, census data from 2012 shows there are 4,400 farms operating in the state, with a farm defined as an operation that sells $1,000 worth of an agricultural product. The average age of a farmer in 2012 was 58.7 years, an increase from the 2007 census of 56.2 years.

But while the average age of farmers may have increased, the number of younger farmers in the state has also increased, Jellie said. Census data reports farmers age 25 to 34 increased 5 percent from 2007 to 2012, or from 140 to 186. Other age groups saw a decrease: age 35 to 44 decreased from 542 in 2007 to 449 in 2012; age 45 to 54 decreased from 1,205 in 2007 to 1,108 in 2012. Age 55 to 64 saw an increase from 1,214 in 2007 to 1,295 in 2012.

 

The uncertain future

So where are the young farmers?

Shelly Smith is program coordinator for Seacoast Eat Local, an organization that connects people with sources of locally grown foods and advocates for eating locally. The organization produces Seacoast Harvest, an annual publication of local farmers. She said there are more young farmers in the area than when Seacoast Eat Local was founded 10 years ago.

However, she also feels older farms are disappearing just as fast as new farms are appearing.

“It’s a labor of love with small farms just starting out,” she said. “It’s a hard business to stay in.”

Timothy Rocha, 57, owner of Kellie Brooke Farm in Greenland, gets help running the business from his three children. But he said while his children are invested in the farm, they have their own careers, and probably will not take over the operation. The farm specializes in natural raised meat animals such as pigs, cows and chickens. When he starts to think about retiring, Rocha envisions shrinking production to just a few animals, and sees it eventually functioning as a hobby farm.

“I’m not going to push them (his children) to take it over, because they have their own careers and they can do what they like,” Rocha said. “If they want to come back to this, they can. All’s you need is land to make a farm.”

Rocha feels his farm is unique from other operations. Compared to dairy farms or diversified farms with multiple types of production, he has invested relatively little in equipment, buildings and other types of infrastructure. His animals are free range and outside except for winter when they stay in a barn from the 1800s that was already on the land.

“We have a little more flexibility with what to do with the land than say a dairy farm,” he said. “When there’s a lot of capital and equipment there, it makes more sense to sell it or pass it on as a dairy farm.”

That kind of investment can be a barrier to young people looking to farm, Rocha said. “It’s much tougher than when I first started, because you look at the bigger farms, and they’re not just vegetables or apples, but also corn mazes and restaurants and horse-pulled tractor rides,” he said. “That way, if you have one income stream that’s lagging, you can have three or four to keep you going.”

An example of a diversified farm would be Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls.

Sprawling over 200 acres, the farm holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously operated apple orchard in the country at more than a century old, according to Todd Wagner. His family purchased the land in the 1950s, and Todd is the fourth generation of Wagners to run the farm. Wagner said when his father, Peter Wagner, 72, retires he will take over primary ownership.

The farm features a bistro that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch, and a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program with 200 members. The farm produces a variety of vegetables and also offers pick your own options for fruits such as apples and blueberries, and recently added a 10,000-square-foot retail market area.

Wagner, 45, said he respects farmers who are able to keep it simple and said the resurgence of interest in local food has caused an influx of younger farmers at farmer’s market and more CSAs, which he described as “super cool.” He said being a modern farmer requires wearing many hats.

“I think a lot of young people think they’re interested in farming, and then they find out it’s a tough row to hoe,” he said. “Of all the things I do, farming is just one aspect. It can be anything from playing IT guy, completing wholesale orders, bookkeeping, marketing and promoting, managing staff, and all these other aspects one might not equate with being a farmer. All that stuff is a necessity to farm nowadays.”

Wagner viewed acquiring land as a big challenge to young farmers due to high property taxes and real estate costs in the Seacoast. He said keeping up with a farm as big as Applecrest might seem “staggering” to someone just starting out.

“This has been in my family for almost 70 years,” he said. “You don’t just start something like this. I can’t imagine what it would cost.”

‘It’s so important’

Joseph Sanborn of Sanborn Hope Farm in Rochester said farming still has a rosy image, one that entails simply tossing chicken feed and collecting eggs. He said younger generations may not understand the amount of work involved in a full-scale farm operation.

“If you want to have a few chickens and a garden, that’s a great thing, and I’m not knocking that, but supplying a product for people takes more than that,” he said.

Sanborn said he frequently gets people who want to work on the farm who, after a few days of weeding or other tedious labors, quit and never return. He said owning a farm often means working seven days a week from dawn to dusk, or later. He was recently called out of bed at midnight because his cows had broken through the fence and were on Lowell Street in Rochester. At 2 a.m., when it became apparent he would not be able to capture one cow, he had to shoot it.

“I don’t think a lot of young people have the commitment to see something through like that,” he said.

Sanborn said his 19-year-old son, Joey, has been involved with the farm since he was a child and plans to take over the operation someday. He feels getting people involved with farming at a young age is crucial to them becoming interested long term. He also said that although the local food movement is gaining traction, farming will never be a profitable profession.

“You need to be profitable to be sustainable,” he said. “If you’re young, and are looking to farm, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s so important. Don’t give up.”

Phil and Becky Brand had worked on farms before they leased 200 acres of a working dairy farm and started their own Brandmoore Farm in Rollinsford in 2012. Much of the equipment and buildings were present when they arrived.

The couple agreed they faced a steep learning curve when they started out.

“We were excited, and that kept us motivated,” said Becky Brand, 31. “After a while we knew what to expect, such as equipment problems and weather situations you can’t control. You learn to be more flexible, but it’s taken awhile to feel comfortable with that.”

Phil Brand, 30, said they currently pay $1,700 a month in rent, and believes the rent will eventually increase to around $2,200. He said the amount is more than fair, as the land is ideal for farming. The pastures are next to each other for easy management and the farm is located just off Route 4, allowing for plenty of foot traffic to the farm stand. The stand is the farm’s main source of revenue where people can buy food or come get their CSA share.

“In Maine you might be able to find a big piece of land, but it would be farther out, away from people,” Phil Brand said. “We’re right in the Seacoast, where there’s a lot of supportive people interested in local, organic food.”

An invested and established community was key to the success of Brasen Hill Farm in Barrington, according to Eleanor Kane, 28, and Theo Wiegand, 33, who bought the farm from the Warren family in 2013. Kane recalled that they moved into the farmhouse in August — and the next day, people were showing up to buy vegetables. The farm also had the advantages of having a livable house to move into and was known for its Christmas trees, which provided an influx of cash in the winter when most farmers are not making money.

“We were able to hit the ground running and expand,” Kane said. “The Warrens were great community members, and they did so much to help us transition here.”

But moving into Brasen Hill did not come without its challenges. Kane said she and Wiegand, along with their animals, moved from leased land in Massachusetts in the middle of the farming season, which presented logistical and financial obstacles. And taking over the farm came with its own set of expectations, as the Warren family had owned the land since 1947.

“We get people who are upset we don’t do strawberries anymore, because they used to pick strawberries here when they were children,” Kane said.

Wiegand said for young people interested in farming but who do not come from a farming background, learning what’s involved could be daunting.

“Traditionally, farming was a family thing, and knowledge was passed down from parents to children,” he said. “But that’s why we need to learn from each other — there are a lot of young people out there with innovative ideas. It’s just a matter of putting it out there.”

Kane said even if young farmers can buy a piece of land, they might run into other obstacles, such as the size of the land or, if buying an operating farm, not having their vision fit with current operations.

“In our case, the farm worked out well,” Kane said. “There’s a lot of people like us looking for farms. You just have to connect the players.”

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