Many of you have probably heard the often-cited statistic that the average age of a farmer is more than 58 years old. The exact number varies by state – for example, in Nebraska, where I’m from, it’s closer to 56 – but overall, the numbers point to a disturbing trend: farmers are old and have only been getting older for the last 30 years. That said, in the process of filming our new documentary, Growing Cities, we’ve met so many incredible young and beginning farmers that it’s hard not to be optimistic for the future.
The film follows my childhood friend, Andrew Monbouquette, and I as we visit urbanites who are challenging the way this country grows its food one vacant lot and backyard chicken coop at a time. We’ve found city farming has remarkable power on many levels—it strengthens communities, creates jobs, revitalizes blighted areas, and much more. But, perhaps the most exciting thing to me is the pervasiveness of young people who are so dedicated to fixing our food system.
At nearly every farm we visited we found young people fulfilling roles from educators to head farmers. Some were just out of college and farming for the first-time, whereas others had completed apprenticeships or other courses of study which prepared them for their work.
In many ways it seems that urban agriculture is our generation’s back to the land movement, but with some crucial differences. Today’s young farmers are not running away from society’s problems but tackling them head on. They are helping solve issues of hunger, childhood obesity, and giving hope to many communities where there was little previously. And many of these young people are taking the lessons they learn in the city, in both farming and community-building, and going on to apply these to their work in peri-urban and rural areas.
And sure, while many young people are flocking to urban centers like New York or San Francisco (as they always have), there are many who are putting down roots in their less assuming hometowns, like Youngstown, OH or Des Moines, IA. It’s these farmers who are on the leading edge of this movement, taking it to places it’s never been before.
For instance, in my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska a collective of young people came together to form Big Muddy Urban Farm, which has a 25 family CSA and grows on vacant lots throughout the city (full disclosure: I live with two of them.) In the heart of industrial corn and soybean country, these farmers are a shining beacon of hope and a wonderful example for neighbors, many of whom don’t know a CSA from a GMO – which, let’s be honest, is probably true for a majority of the US population.
To me this is our blueprint for changing the food system – we can’t continue to go back and forth with those who are already in the movement — we must branch out and work in the places that need it most, often in our own backyards. As Eugene Cook, a farmer in Atlanta says in the film, ‘Grow Something, Grow Where you Are.’
Please help Growing Cities spread these inspiring farmers’ stories to millions on PBS! Pledge $75 to the campaign and you can get an NYFC prize pack including a Farmers Unite tee, NYFC membership, button and more!
Learn more and donate on their Kickstarter page: www.kck.st/1kDfhgP
NYFC has two new editions to our team. At the end of May, Holly Rippon Butler joined the team as our Land Access Campaign Manager and Eric Hansen as our Policy Analyst, based in DC.
Holly is a third generation dairy farmer and will split her time in the field with her family outside of Saratoga, New York and developing strategies to increase land access for young farmers with policy makers and land trusts. Prior to joining NYFC, Holly worked with American Farmland Trust and the Agricultural Stewardship Association.
Having grown up on a farm, she took access to land for granted. She says her own desire to farm, and a growing awareness about the challenges faced by young farmers without a family farm, especially in regards to access to land, inspire her work. She is so grateful for the farming opportunities she has, and wants to create that opportunity for others.
She started her work by traveling to DC to give recommendations to NRCS as they make rules for the Agricultural Land Easement Program (See Land Access Rulemaking). Now, she gears up for a workshop she will facilitate in the fall for land trusts to help them provide better access to land for young farmers. She will also be developing a guidebook on working with land trusts to access affordable land.
If you have a land access story you would like to share, or if you have questions about Holly’s work, she’d love to hear from you.
Eric will be our first DC-based staff person and will bring his experience from his time with the Meridian Institute and the Senate Agriculture Committee to his policy work with NYFC. Eric recently completed a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management at Duke University, but can’t wait to get his hands dirty working for young farmers.
His passion for farms springs from his love of cooking and eating local food. His work is motivated by a desire to help reconnect community to their food sources. His professional passions are federal agricultural policy and community-based stakeholder engagement. As a member of the NYFC staff, he looks forward to engaging his professional and academic experience to begin to strengthen our food systems at their source: farms.
In the coming months, Eric will track USDA rulemaking activity for the new farm bill, with particular attention to how rules will impact young farmers. Further, he will work to build relationships with key players in the USDA to make sure rules are not only proposed, but implemented that prioritize young farmer needs.
In addition, Eric will connect with young farmers to help NYFC better understand the state of young farmers today. He will conduct an online survey (you can participate!) and a number of one-on-one interviews with farmers specifically about their experience trying to participate in USDA programs. If you have a story about applying for a USDA grant or loan, or trying to access some other form of USDA support, Eric would love to hear from you – email him directly at email@example.com.
It’s National Pollinator Week, meaning it’s time to take a moment to recognize some of the smallest and most important contributors to agriculture. Over 70 percent of crops, from almonds to clover to squash are dependent on insect pollination. While we are all familiar with honey bees as pollinators, thousands of other insects are involved, including butterflies, beetles, and native bees. In the U.S. alone there are over 4,000 species of native bees that contribute heavily to agricultural production. Annually, insect pollination contributes $20-40 billion to U.S. agriculture, and a recently published study indicates that an abundant variety of bee species can lead to greater yields in crops like blueberries. Unfortunately, in the past decade honey bees and many other native pollinator species have been in decline, due in part to pesticide overuse and loss of habitat.
Given the key role of all pollinators in successful crop production, all farmers need to be aware of how their agricultural practices effect pollinators. For young and beginning farmers, helping pollinators thrive on the farm may not be topping to-do lists, but there are several easy ways for small farmers to encourage pollinators. For many of you already practicing sustainable farming techniques, you may already be implementing important steps like growing a diverse range of crops and reducing your use of pesticides, especially a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are highly toxic to bees and other insects.
Supplying habitat is perhaps the easiest contribution young and beginning farmers can make to supporting pollinator health and productivity. Each region of the country has its own unique flora that is attractive to both domesticated bees and native pollinators. Learn about the flowers, grasses, and weeds native to your area that attract pollinators and consider growing them around your barns and in buffer strips around your fields. For example, milkweed grows throughout most of the country and is an invaluable food source for the Monarch butterfly, and in the Northeast, goldenrod is loved by honey bees and native bees alike.
It can also be very helpful to pollinators to supply them with housing. Most species of native bees throughout the country are solitary, meaning that they do not mimic the hive structure of domesticated honey bees. While they may live with other members of their species in, for example, a hollowed-out log or abandoned rodent dens, they each have their own individual pocket within the structure which they do not share. But native bees will also use man made habitats easily made with plastic tubing or purchased relatively inexpensively and attached to trees or barn siding. Most of these bee houses can be reused year after year.
You may also consider allowing a small commercial beekeeper to use your land to temporarily house their bees. On my family’s property in upstate New York, a local bee keeper drops off his hives from late summer to mid-fall; using our land in exchange for a crate of honey. The bees gorge on clover, hay, goldenrod, crab apples, and wildflowers before being loaded up and taken to Florida for the winter.
These are only a few examples of how even the smallest farmers can encourage pollinators to thrive…and be present to pollinate their crops. During this National Pollinator Week, look around as you go about your daily chores. Those bees, butterflies, and beetles you see are working right alongside you, participating in the success of your farm.
A quick message from farming attorney extraordinaire Rachel Armstrong about new resources available from Farm Commons.
Hello Farmers and Food Advocates,
We all know how vital good food safety practices are to our community of farmers and eaters. But, bad things can still happen to the best of farmers. Farm Commons has just released a new, detailed guide to the legal aspects of a farm-related food safety incident. The detailed legal explanations explore the background behind the law while action points help farmers move forward with reducing their legal risk exposure. Download the food safety legal guide at our website. Or, if video works better, watch our recorded webinar on the subject.
The beginning of summer also brings the beginning of farm events! From tours to festivals to dinners, farmers are developing new ways to show off their awesome operations. But, these events come with increased legal risk. Fortunately, many of these risks can be managed effectively. Farm Commons’ newly updated guide to “Hosting Safer, More Legally Secure On-Farm Events,” is now available. While learning about how things can go wrong, farmers and advocates will also find action points to help reduce legal risk exposure while having a great time. Download the on-farm events legal guide at our website. We have a webinar on the subject, too. Watch it anytime at www.farmcommons.org/webinars.
Farm Commons strives to provide accurate and relevant legal information to farmers- to meet that goal we ask folks accessing our resources to provide their name, email address and location. This allows us to efficiently issue updates or corrections and to get feedback so we can constantly improve. We appreciate your help.
Thanks so much and a happy growing season to everyone!
Farm Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides the legal resources sustainable farmers need to become the stable, resilient foundation of a community-based food system.
Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, I am the owner of a small fruit tree company, Legacy Fruit Trees- where I specialize in custom grafting and growing hard cider apple varieties (for now). This year, my first year, I’ve pre-sold 4000 trees which I’ll graft, grow, dig and ship in the coming months. Two days a week, I manage Foggy Ridge Cider’s 18-year-old, 8 acre hard cider orchard which contains 40 varieties of apples noted by people like Thomas Jefferson for making the highest quality cider.
Every day of working in the orchards is a learning experience because each variety wants to grow differently. When I’m not grafting and growing trees for other people, I’m grafting and growing trees for my future fruit and nut orchards (4 acres this year, many acres to follow). I currently have a collection of 650 apple varieties and have plans to design and plant a commercial-scale fruit and nut forest using a diversity of apple genetics and native Appalachian species.
Last year I moved back to Virginia (my home state) to start my businesses and orchards after many years spent in Maine, where I developed my passion and purpose for growing fruit and nut trees. My interest started on a small apple-tree-covered island in Maine and expanded to include MOFGA’s Apprentice and Journeyperson programs, where I steeped myself in the culture of apples.
After 6 years of immersion, incubation, management and experiments, I received an opportunity to move back to Virginia where I could pursue my life goals of unlocking the potential of old varieties and bringing heirloom fruits back to the general public.
Many of the fruits I associate myself with have genetic resistances and tolerances to diseases facing the East Coast (even the South) and they are also purposeful- contributing to the best fresh eating and value added products one could consume. Hard cider is a product I specialize in, but I can also recommend handfuls of varieties which will make the best apple pies, apple molasses, mince meat, apple sauce, dried apples, and many other products.
In the next few years, my trees will start to produce and I look forward to having people try these exceptional varieties. Perhaps they will like them so much that they will want a tree of that variety growing in their yard. And perhaps I can tell them how best that tree wants to be grown. Retelling history, preserving ancient genetics, producing high quality ingredients, and creating lasting relationships with our surroundings can all be brought about with an apple tree. And that’s why I love what I do.
This article was originally published in Edible Santa Fe Issue 32, Early Summer. You can find the original article at www.ediblesantafe.com. You can also read the article here.
On a crystal clear March day, Brendon Rockey palms a handful of soil from his family potato farm near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The sandy loam still holds moisture from the last snow, though the spring sun has melted all but the highest snowpack on the surrounding Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. Center pivots stand dormant, dotting Colorado’s San Luis Valley as they wait for the irrigation season to begin. (more…)
When I was young I wanted to be many things: an architect, magazine editor, zoologist, but a farmer was not one of them. The closest idea of a farmer I had was my grandpa. I knew he had cattle, and a barn, and a lot of farming equipment, but eactly what he did I was unsure. (more…)
I am a farmer because of the way it makes me feel at the end of the day. The physical exhaustion that my muscles carry into sleep, the weary contentment of finished labor lulling my brain to stillness. Some days I farm solely for the satisfaction that weeding can bring. I farm because I’ve never been very good at sitting still and because I’ve always been a morning person. I farm because I love feeding people, I delight in seeing the joy that can result from something as simple as a head of butter lettuce. (more…)
One sure way to make a younger Nate laugh: just tell him that one day he would intentionally and willingly choose to be a farmer. (more…)
Recently, I had a conversation with a woman whose fifty-one years of experience farming inspired her to warn me away from pursuing it. (more…)