By Lauren Manning
Many people think you have to plant your feet firmly in one location to sew roots. For some folks, however, the exact opposite is true. Last year, Joneve Murphy embarked on a 10-month journey that snaked 29,000 miles across the globe through 13 countries.
“The idea for this project started a long time ago,” says Murphy, who grew up living abroad and traveling with her family from a young age. “My career in agriculture left me with time to gallivant in the off season, and at first I would just go backpacking for a month or two each year.”
Murphy has an impressive resume as an organic farmer, with 10 years of experience under her belt including a prestigious gig as the farmer-in-residence at Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington
As Murphy became more involved with farming, her off-season sojourns involved fewer ruins and beaches and more farm visits and explorations of local food systems.
Soon, the idea for her yearlong agricultural safari was born. Murphy left her post at the Inn at Little Washington and set sail.
The carefully planned route allowed her to meet over 145 food producers around the world, whom she photographed and blogged about for her recent project, Farmer Seeking Roots.
13 countries, 145 producers
The journey began in Europe with jaunts through Ireland, England, France, and The Netherlands. It brought meetings with farms large and small, cooperatives, incubator programs, and all sorts of production methods old and new. There were farmers raising meat, poultry, dairy, and vegetables, along with less standard fare like oysters and snails.
The next leg of the journey took Murphy to Southeast Asia, bringing her face-to-face with Ethnic tribal groups, large growers, NGOs, subsistence farmers, and universities. There were farms nestled in the mountains, next to oceans, and on top of shopping malls.
She developed a number of goals for the trip, like collecting information about traditional farming methods and focusing her time on smaller farms while also connecting with each county’s agricultural leaders. She also offered consulting services along the way.
“The generosity and openness of the people that I’ve met has been the largest. It’s not really that the generosity exists, but the fact that it seems to be ubiquitous amongst the farmers I’ve visited,” Murphy explains. To her, the warm welcome felt throughout the journey is no coincidence; it’s part and parcel of the farming industry.
There were a few surprises along the way. She discovered strong support for the organic industry and the sustainable food movement. “Overall, it is evident that it is a consumer-driven movement; if you demand it, the farmers will produce it, whether they believe in the cause or not.”
She also recognized that the farmers harbored a deep sense of love and pride for their land. But while some felt optimism toward the future and spoke fondly about the next growing season, others harbored fear stemming from weather events and the desperate need for a successful harvest.
Farmers by choice
In every country she visited, Murphy also found young farmers.
“Not all of them are farmers by personal choice. Many farmers are farmers because their parents were, and with no access to any type of higher education, they really have very few other options,” she says. In Bangladesh, for example, 60 percent of the population is involved in food production. Many of the young farmers continued in the industry out of a sense of responsibility to maintain the farm for the next generation. Many of them donned this fate ungrudgingly, says Murphy.
“We have to remember that in this country and many others, we have the privilege of choosing our careers,” she says. “That is not yet a global truth.”
She found many “farmers by choice” in Europe, Singapore, and Thailand, many of them becoming the first in their families to enter the agriculture industry. Murphy didn’t come from a farming background either, and focused on environmental biology during college. Familiar with her fondness for food activism, a friend suggested she find a farm apprenticeship. “I found my first position as an apprentice on an organic farm, and within three weeks I was hooked.”
When she first made her transition into agriculture, many people responded to her decision with shock. How could someone with a college degree choose a career in agriculture—a career some saw as below her capabilities and a fettering of her potential. Despite the naysayers, Murphy thinks farming is becoming a more acceptable and common career choice regardless of someone’s background and education.
“Young people need to see agriculture as a respectable profession, and that need continues to rise. Without them the last generation has no one with which to share their wisdom, and that stock of knowledge is lost,” says Murphy. “In this country we seem to have found a new respect for the profession, but in others, farmers are still seen as uneducated and simple people. When this attitude prevails, the migration of young people to the city marches on.”
In the U.S., public perception of farmers and the business of growing food is changing, hollowing out the old stereotypes about farmers being gray-haired men in overalls.
Never stop learning from other farmers
Murphy recognizes the challenges that young farmers face, particularly when it comes to finances. “I think student loan forgiveness would go a long way in counter-acting the currently low salaries found in agriculture,” she says. “We need to make agriculture a financially viable profession for young people and young families.” She’d also like to see more efforts to connect young farmers with land and more public funding for food hubs and beginning farmer incubator programs.
For those aspiring to follow in Murphy’s footsteps, she has a bit of advice. Work on many farms and learn from as many farmers as possible before striking out on your own, she says. And keep visiting other farms throughout your career, regardless of how experienced you become.
“This exchange of knowledge is so important and can be invigorating. I find that I walk away from these visits brimming with ideas of how to adapt their practices to my own work. There is so much we can learn from one another and it’s easy to become stagnant in the way that we do things on the farm.”
In her travels, Murphy found a lot of commonality among young farmers.
“Many of them are activists and big thinkers, passionate and seemingly infallible in their beliefs,” she says. “The integrity and sense of purpose found in this type of thinking is both infectious and inspiring.”
Photos by Joneve Murphy unless otherwise noted.
By Holly Rippon-Butler, Land Access Program Director
Forgive me if we’ve met in the past three months and I don’t remember your name—I’ve been on a bit of a whirlwind tour, talking about land access, hosting workshops, and listening to concerns from young farmers and ranchers. At the end of February I made my way from upstate New York to La Crosse, Wisconsin for the annual MOSES conference. In March, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Colorado. And at the end of March I hopped on a plane to Iowa.
Although I may not remember the name of every individual I met, I remember their stories. There were stories of heartbreak—a third farm move in three years, off-farm jobs that don’t leave time for farming, organic certification negated by spray drift—as well as stories of success: land made available by benevolent neighbors, successful family partnership, invaluable mentorship, and support from dedicated non-profits.
Although acquiring a ranch with adequate water rights in Colorado may seem like an altogether different undertaking than finding a place to farm in the fertile dairyland of Wisconsin or amidst the uniformly plowed fields of Iowa, I was struck by the similar themes emerging in young farmers’ search for land:
1) Access to land is within reach; access to secure land is hard.
Most farmers I heard from seemed to agree – with some hard work and strategic networking (through Craigslist ads, friends of friends, or letters to landowners) finding land on which to farm was usually not too difficult. Sometimes, bartering for produce could be enough to secure a year’s lease. While none of these opportunities went unappreciated, they often did not provide the security needed to establish and grow a business. Farmers commonly struggled with the inability to invest in infrastructure and build soil quality; burnout from moving their business; and frustration from trying to maintain tenuous relationships with landowners. (more…)
By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm
One of my absolute favorite pastimes is cooking. I recently realized that one of the reasons I like spending time in the kitchen is the continual experimentation and learning, as well as the satisfaction when I finally get a certain dish “just right.” I have become a much better cook than I was in my college days, and I often tell Will that my goal is to be an exceptional cook by the time I’m an older lady. Since it is a task I enjoy, I spend a lot of time thinking about it, looking up tips, trying new recipes, memorizing recipes I love, and learning patterns and methods so that I don’t always need a recipe to prepare a meal.
While washing the dishes the other night (and thinking fondly back to supper), it dawned on me that I love cooking for some of the same reasons I love farming. They both start out with trial and error and challenges that I can work through myself, at my own pace. I can gather information from experts, but then I get to try things on my own. I’ve become a better farmer over the past two years, and I know that I will do even better on the farm over time, just as I have become much better in the kitchen over the last ten years. Both activities also reward me with good food at the end! (more…)
On April 10, a group of farmers will take the stage at BAM in Brooklyn. Or rather, well-known actors will portray real farmers from the Hudson Valley, a circumstance even more improbable in the life of most farmers, who don’t usually experience fame beyond their own farmers market tables.
The production, called GOOD DIRT, was created by Mary Stuart Masterson (At Close Range,Fried Green Tomatoes) and Jeremy Davidson (Tickling Leo, The Americans). They’re also the founders of Storyhorse Documentary Theater, which they started so they would have a platform to tell the stories of their neighbors in the Hudson Valley and elevate ideas and voices that are often marginalized.
For GOOD DIRT they interviewed farmers from Soul Fire Farm, Green Goats Farm, Northwind Farm, Tello’s Green Farm, Denison Family Farm and Hudson Valley Seed Library. The April 10 premiere is a benefit for the National Young Farmers Coalition, and all tickets include admission to an afterparty at BAM where guests can meet some of the farmers and their actor counterparts.
By Caitlin Arnold, Furrow Horse Farm
As we head into our second year as a farm, I am amazed at what we accomplished in just one short year. I remember back to our first few weeks on the farm, when our main field was just a cow pasture; we had yet to put up a deer fence, hoophouse, or wash station; and were thick in the process of starting up a business.
When we got started in January 2015, I was often overwhelmed by the amount of work we needed to put in to turn our leased property into a production farm. The list of tasks seemed endless, and I was dubious of our ability to get it all done, especially on top of working our off-farm jobs. But with the help of our friends and family, we created a productive 1.5-acre plot that successfully provided for a 15-member CSA, two farmers’ markets, and multiple wholesale accounts.
Looking forward through 2016, I am thrilled to not be putting up a deer fence and buying all of our tools— instead I can put more energy toward planning, advertising, and fostering business relationships and new possibilities. We can also focus on our relationship with our team of horses; our goal is to not have to rent our landlord’s tractor for any field work this year. (more…)
By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm
Preparing for this final Bootstrap Blogger post, I went back through my earlier posts and was immediately reminded of just how far we’ve come in a matter of months. The first few posts were all about digging fence postholes and scrounging for cash, and now we’re on to funny piglet stories and taking orders for grass-fed beef. When you’re down in the “day to day trenches,” it’s easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of farm chores and forget to celebrate the mini-successes along the way.
I encountered a few “oh god” moments over the past year:
- A barn-building back injury turned into lots and lots of doctors visits and physical therapy.
- Juggling off-farm professional opportunities (income producing) with farm responsibilities (not yet income producing).
- Budget cuts meant the loss of a contract employment opportunity that had been covering my farm expenses (forcing us to dig deeper in our already empty pockets).
- It turns out piglets are Houdini-like escape artists.
And I made some wonderful memories:
- Sharing our farming story with half-a-dozen community groups and agriculture publications.
- Feeling the pride of owning a self-funded (and debt FREE!) farm for a full year.
- Joining Kansas Farm Bureau’s Ag Advocacy SPEAK team.
- Sleeping in the barn when the piglets arrived (I’m pretty pumped about my piggies!).
By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres
The winter in south Texas isn’t a time to take off or slow down. Thanks to a mild winter, we are lucky enough to grow all 12 months of the year. Take that, California! Our winter is pretty much like what I think the rest of the country experiences during spring. Thanks to the mild weather, farmers aren’t the only people in south Texas who grow food.
More and more I meet people at the market who come up to my table and tell me they are growing everything I have, discuss growing notes, and leave without a purchase. While at times this can feel like a low point, I have begun to understand that the more people try to grow their own food the more people will realize the amount of effort and time that goes into growing crops, especially on a larger scale.
As gardening and homesteading continue to rise in popularity, folks will concede that battling farmers over the small amount of money we charge isn’t unreasonable. Being haggled for $1 is frustrating.
I recall meeting a guy in Jamaica last year—while on what seems like the last vacation of my life—who said something that really stuck with me. He was selling cheap, beaded bracelets for $5, which was more than they were worth. But I was in the buying mood, so I offered him $3. Dejected he said, “Man I’m broke, I’ll take whatever.” It caught me off guard. (more…)
By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm
A Day in My Life I get up early—6 a.m.— and go for a quick run. I also print off lecture handouts and skim Wall Street Journal over breakfast (the digital version—it takes days to get the printed version delivered out here). Then I don a suit (but don’t bother with makeup) and pack my satchel with the days’ necessities.
My university classes start at 8 a.m. As a student, I wasn’t all that fond of early morning classes, and I can certainly sympathize with the glazed, “don’t call on me” looks my students’ project at the podium. After class, I skedaddle out to faculty parking and crank up my 20+-year-old pickup truck (it’s the only one in the lot with a hay spear and mud flaps).
I shift gears from business professor to marketing consultant and spend the next few hours pounding out social media strategy for a client. I work through lunch and start client calls at 1 p.m. The beginning of the year is big in my business, so I’m hoping to land three more retainer clients. Maybe then I can start putting a “dent” in my student loans and building a savings nest egg.
At 3:30 p.m I swap the business suit for Carharts and cowboy boots. Hooking up my peeling stock trailer, I drive out to a rural farming community west of Bushong, Kansas, a Depression-era ghost town with a Cold War missile silo perched above the desolate remnants of the town. It’s a fascinating and eerie place—oh, if only these Flint Hills could talk…. (more…)
By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm
As I begin my third year as a farmer, I find most of my thoughts divided between two major categories: farming is really hard, and farming is really rewarding. But it might help if I break those ideas down a little more. Here are the top five things I want you to know about being a farmer:
1) Local food advocates often tell people to get to know their farmer, but it is really nice for farmers to know their customers as well. As someone who is direct marketing the majority of my products, it is a joy to meet the folks who eat my food. It is heartwarming to hear what customers are cooking with food I’ve raised, to learn what their favorite vegetables or cuts of meat are, and to know that their toddler requested more okra after being offered ice cream. I love knowing that someone bought an extra dozen eggs because he recently bought a pasta maker, and that he has perfected is mother’s pasta sauce. I treasure these moments, and these relationships.
I believe that I am often more excited about my regular customers than they are about me (I’ve had to stop myself from trying to hug a few of them after not seeing them for a couple of weeks)! If you are someone who knows your farmer, just know this—your farmer values you too!
2) Farming is physically, emotionally, and financially difficult. Farming means long days; hot days; cold days; wet days; and many, many muddy days. Hopefully I’ll get better at delegating and time management as I grow as a farmer, but right now farming means that the words “weekend” and “evening” are not in my vocabulary from April-October. Farming means that during the main growing season, I probably won’t be attending any cookouts, I will not be preparing supper until after the sun has set, and I will be responding to emails and doing record keeping after 10 p.m. (more…)
By Sara Black, NYFC Development Coordinator and Organizer
Last year I had the privilege of chatting with Elizabeth Henderson, a pioneer of the CSA model in the United States and an agrarian leader committed to resisting the many injustices of a cheap food system with the power of cooperation!
Liz co-founded the Genesee Valley Organic CSA in Rochester, NY in 1989, and later Peacework Farm in Newark, NY in 1998. She’s the author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture*; the honorary president of the international CSA network, Urgenci; and a core leader behind the Agricultural Justice Project and its Food Justice Certification label.
From the outset of our conversation, Liz took me to school, sharing advice, concerns, history, and visions; we talked about her Food Justice Certification label, the need for “smashing racism” as we build a new food system, and the minimum wage.
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Sara: It’s been nearly 20 years since Sharing the Harvest was first published, and quite a few food and farmer movement waves have unfolded since then. Where do you think farmers and activists have gained the best ground, and what challenges are most pressing?
Liz: Well, there’s been a huge increase in the number of CSAs. At the same time, as you’d expect in a competitive capitalist society, someone will find a way to commercialize it and cheapen it. So there’s also been a proliferation of CSA-like food services. Some of these are really nice cooperative ventures with farmers sharing resources and setting up websites, as a way of cooperating and sharing markets. But a lot of these are just aggregators who are using the CSA image to make some money. Those aggregators are making it harder for CSA’s that are based on farms.
They are providing a lot of competition, making farmers think “How can I make my project more convenient for people. Give them a choice every week? Ask for less of a time commitment? Deliver to people’s door?” That undermines the basic concept of CSA: sharing the risk. CSA’s are the only form where conscious consumers get to share the risk with their farmer or group of farmers. So, when farmers give up on that, they are giving up a lot.
In our food industry, the biggest direct sales markets have gotten up to maybe 10 percent of what people are buying, and that’s in places like Vermont. But that still means that 90 percent of the food people are eating is coming from stores, super markets, buying clubs, food services. Now all these food hubs are springing up. Someone had the bright idea, “Ah, yes, we can aggregate!” But food hubs don’t guarantee a price that covers farmers’ costs of production, and they don’t ensure that farmers are getting a living wage and paying living wages. We haven’t figured out a way of doing those larger sales with a price point that allows family scale farms to thrive. Economics are still very, very challenging. (more…)