As a Produce department staff member (and as an eater), I love this time of year! The long cold winter is fading in the rearview mirror, the sounds and smells of spring proclaim life all around me, and locally grown produce begins taking up more and more space on the Co-op’s shelves. For all the marvels of the modern food distribution system—I can’t really complain about fresh lettuce in January, even if a few aphids come along for the ride—I thoroughly enjoy switching the green, organically grown signs out for the purple, locally grown signs that showcase the many wonderful local farms that provide produce to the Co-op. Even better are the occasions when the farmers themselves make a delivery and I have a chance to chat with them. At first glance their jobs seem deceptively simple. Plant seed. Water soil. Eat/sell plant. As anyone who has tended a garden can tell you, though, a multitude of variables combine to make every plant and every season its own unique challenge. Add to this equation hundreds or thousands of customers and the need to make a living while producing their food and the whole process begins to look a wee bit more complicated. I’ve worked seasonally on organic vegetable farms over the last three years and I’ve often marveled at how farmers manage this complexity: the systems and strategies they have developed in order to consistently deliver a high quality product. Lately I find myself wondering not just about season extension techniques and broccoli varieties, but about the people actually growing that late-season broccoli, about farming as a profession. As it turns out, the farmer is somewhat of a rare breed these days.
“Where have all the cowboys (farmers) gone?”
In a massive occupational disappearing act, the percentage of the U.S. population that derives its livelihood from farming has decreased dramatically over the last 100 years. In 1920, 32 million people lived on 6.5 million farms across the country. The 1987 USDA Census of Agriculture showed 2.1 million farms in the U.S. and a mere 1.1 million people identifying farming as their principal occupation. A big part of this downsizing is that farming, like many occupations, has changed a lot over the last century. Mechanization and advances in chemistry (synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides) have vastly reduced the amount of labor involved in farming and allowed fewer people to farm more acres. In 1900, the average farm covered 138 acres. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture (2007), that figure had nearly tripled to 418 acres. As mechanization and farm size increased, so did the cost of starting a farm. Farm operations relied increasingly on debt. It became harder and harder to earn a modest living on a small farm, and many farmers left the land for other jobs; their operations bought up by larger farms or developed into the newest suburb.
Fewer (and older) farmers, working bigger farms. This has been the dominant narrative in U.S. agriculture for a long time now. But there are other stories developing, stories of people being drawn back to their family’s farm, or folks with no background in farming whatsoever getting their hands dirty for the first time. You interact with the central characters in these stories when you pick up your CSA shares or when you shop at the farmers’ markets. I’d hazard a guess, though, that most of us have a pretty limited understanding of farming.
“Know Your Farmer” is a mantra of the local food movement. Do we? Do we know what motivated our farmers to grow food for us in the first place? What challenges they face? How their profession might change in the coming years? Who better to answer these questions than the farmers themselves? What follows are excerpts from interviews with several small-scale, local farmers, a few of whom are also Co-op employees! Many, many thanks to Dan Neely and Sarah Luetzow of Butterbean Community Farm, Eric Udelhofen of Taproot Farm and Fruit, Anne Drehfal and Dennis Fiser of Regenerative Roots, Julie Engel of The Coney Garth, and Jake Hoeksema of Troy Community Farm.
Born and raised?
Traditionally, the way one became a farmer was by farming. Kids raised on farms began learning the tools of the trade at a young age, gaining responsibility as they grew, becoming major contributors by the time they were teenagers, and likely taking over as the primary farmers as their parents aged. I was surprised to find that none of the farmers I interviewed had any family background in farming. Some had never set foot on a farm until their first job on one and most had never even gardened until they were adults. Why did they decide to pursue this increasingly uncommon career?
Hoeksema: “It was sort of coincidence, honestly. I was an engineer coming out of school which was a good job for about 24 hours, and then I realized I wasn’t cut out for sitting behind a desk working on a computer all day. So I was looking for a job where I could be outside, where I could use my body and my hands. I liked my first season working on a farm well enough to try a second and it was really that second season that solidified it for me. I worked for a really empowering farmer, he got me thinking I could start my own farm, and the rest is history.”
Luetzow: “My foot in the door was an anthropology class called ‘Culture and Agriculture.’ We took field trips to different agricultural businesses. I ended up going to a pasture-raised meat farm to process chickens. I really loved the experience of being on that farm, eating lunch with the farmers, and talking with them. After I graduated, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and there weren’t a whole lot of jobs available. I volunteered on some farms in Spain through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). When I got back, I thought, ‘I’m still interested in this, I want to keep learning.’ And that has been the case every step of the way; in starting our own farm, there are infinite things to keep learning about. I’m creating a job that I find challenging and rewarding.”
Drehfal: “I studied molecular biology at UW-Madison and did a senior honors thesis on prairie restoration, particularly the soil health in that system. I reached the crazy conclusion that healthy plants and healthy food come from healthy soil. The part I really liked about my research project was the outdoor hands-on stuff. After I graduated I got a seasonal job at JenEhr (Family Farm) which was great, just being outside, the community, and being around that much life. Then I did some travelling abroad and as a part of that we WWOOFed in a few places. That kind of grounded me in seeing that this is how a lot of people in the rest of the world live. After I got back I worked on a few different farms and eventually got to the point where in order to keep learning I wanted to throw myself into doing my own thing. I really like the creative freedom of having our own farm. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s cool to be able to design a system and then do it.”
What is your vision as a farmer?
Fiser: “Something I’ve learned is that farming alone can be super isolating. So a big part of what we’re trying to do is creating community. It makes everything better: more enjoyable, more purposeful, more fulfilling.”
Engel: “You know, it took me a long time for me to even consider myself a farmer. When I was working at Stone Barns (Center for Food and Agriculture) a visitor and I were talking and she said, ‘Well you don’t look like a farmer.’ I think it’s really true that in our culture if you aren’t a male over 60 wearing overalls, you don’t really fit the profile of a farmer. So for me as a woman, it took me a long time to say out loud, ‘Yeah, I’m a farmer.’ And I still sometimes hesitate, because I don’t own farmland, I don’t really fit the mold, and the farming enterprise that I have isn’t profitable yet. My vision is to take that enterprise, which is pasture-raised meat rabbits, and make it profitable. I have lots of ancillary projects that could spring out of that, but one thing at a time.”
Hoeksema: “You know when the organic movement started, some of those people had pretty crazy ideas and were really pushing the envelope. ‘Organic’ is now pretty mainstream. There’s still clearly room to grow, but we’re on solid footing as a movement. When it started, people were interested in not only growing great food, but also in solving certain problems and addressing issues they saw in the world around them. I feel like we need to get back to being like those pioneers a little bit. So my vision for our farm is both continuing to do what we’re doing now, which is growing high quality food and training new farmers, but also being a catalyst for some of those ideas that are more cutting edge: exploring more permaculture based systems, dealing with climate change, asking some of those hard questions.”
Have there been any surprises for you along the way?
Udelhofen: “I guess I wasn’t prepared for how many mistakes I would make, but I also didn’t really expect that I would appreciate making those mistakes as much as I do, because those lessons stick a lot better and in a different way than when things go right for you.”
Neely: “One of the things I didn’t think about is that having a business partner who is also your life partner is an incredible thing. It’s a real gift, but it’s a lot of work, too. We have learned a lot about communication and about what we’re each good at doing. It’s a night and day difference even from our first season to our second.”
What challenges do new farmers face?
Neely: “I think the biggest hurdle that a lot of young farmers are facing is access to land: the capital required to buy a farm. There are older farmers who are looking to get out and looking to sell their land, but for a lot of them, that is their retirement package. So if you think about the value of someone’s 401k or investments at age 60 or 70, how could someone in their 20s afford that? That’s a struggle right now: how to finance a farm.”
Fiser: “Another challenge is labor, or more specifically, your own ability to do the work. It’s a limitation that a lot of people overshoot. Every year at the MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Conference I talk to other young couples who say, ‘We just got some land an hour away from where we live, we’re building a house, we’re having a kid, and we’re starting a farm.’ I’ve seen a lot of farm relationships fall apart because the work involved can be a huge stress. I think being cautious about committing yourself too much is really important.”
What are the most rewarding aspects of farming?
Luetzow: “Just interacting with our CSA customers every week. It’s really rewarding to hear all the positive feedback from them.”
Udelhofen: “The most rewarding part of our first season on our own farm was having our wedding there. There were many friends that I had grown up with who didn’t know about this part of my life and they were there helping harvest the food for the wedding. I’m lucky to have a lot of friends and family in my life who want to help. Starting a farm, you obviously have lots of situations where you need help and those have been opportunities to build closer relationships with people.”
Drehfal: “I really enjoy direct marketing (CSA and farmers’ markets). It’s great to hand the produce to someone you know and hear their feedback about it and how much they appreciate it. Especially in August and September, when it’s just crazy go go go time, you need those moments of encouragement. And we eat really well!”
Do you anticipate any big changes in farming in the next 5-20 years?
Luetzow: “It’s going to be really interesting to see how the story unfolds with the average age of a farmer being mid-50s. The fundamental change is going to be in land ownership in the near future. How can young farmers capture as much of that transfer of ownership as possible vs. developers or large industrial farms? That’s the story I’m most interested in.
Engel: “Climate change is a huge part of it. We’ve taken pretty steady weather patterns for granted for the length of human memory. That steadiness is changing and I don’t think we’re acknowledging it. That’s a huge problem and it’s going to be something that forces a lot of change really quickly in farming, especially in larger farming systems.”
Hoeksema: “I think climate change is going to force our hand and change farming in ways I can’t predict. I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult and a lot less consistent. I think farming and a lot of other things are going to change dramatically in the next 20 years.”
Why did you think it was important to become certified organic?
Neely: “It was a costly choice. There was no organic cost-share program last year and it’s gross how disproportionately costly certification is for small growers. That said, organic certification isn’t perfect, but it’s still pretty good. The record keeping that organic certification requires you to do will make you a better farmer. It also seemed responsible to do it because the land was already certified. We rent the land so anyone who wanted to rent the land after us would have had to transition to organic again if we had let it lapse.”
Udelhofen: “We grow organic for a host of reasons: soil health and the health of the food are big ones. As for certifying, it’s really recognizable; people know what they’re getting. When people go a ‘more-ganic’ or ‘no-spray’ route, it’s totally unregulated. You can say whatever you want, and it comes down to whether or not your consumers believe you. Certification at least sets a minimum standard.”
Drehfal: “I don’t think it’s really necessary if you’re doing all direct marketing. There’s a lot we learned in the process, though, and it helps us to be more accountable, to grow and become better farmers. We were interested in doing some wholesale and it has made a huge difference in that regard. In a world of all these labels that don’t mean anything to consumers, I enjoy being part of a movement that does mean something. I think it’s somewhat of a political act to become a part of X number of acres in this country that are certified organic.”
Any advice for new or aspiring farmers?
Fiser: “Get some experience and don’t overcommit. If you don’t have any farm experience it’s easy to fall into this mentality of unlimited resources. The idea that even if you don’t have them, you can acquire them. On some level it’s true that you need to tinker and invent and sort of piece together your farm, but you need to have a good sense of what is accessible. You really have to make do with what you have.”
Engel: “Get experience! There are people that are successful just jumping into their own farm, but it’s so helpful to get experience with other people.”
Hoeksema: “I think the biggest challenge is confidence. One thing one of my mentors said to me was that you’re going to make a ton of mistakes your first year on your own, whether you start now or in ten years, so you should just start now.”
It was a sincere pleasure to interview these farmers. I know all of them and we talk about farming on a pretty regular basis, but exploring their ideas and motivations more formally was really enlightening. If you are a new farmer or are interested in becoming one, I strongly encourage you to contact one of them or another farmer in your area. They have each benefited from insights shared by more veteran farmers and would be happy to do the same for you.