40 farmers under 40: Readers' choice
You nominated your favorite young farmers, and here they are: Forty of the nation's brightest green thumbs, quietly nurturing a food revolution from their own back yards.
Thu, Sep 24 2009 at 9:30 AM
After we published the original roundup of "40 farmers under 40," it became abundantly clear that, from coast to coast, America loves its young farmers (and the food they produce). So we invited you to tell us about your favorite farmers under 40 — idealistic, eco-friendly, under-the-hill agrarians who are helping you bring home healthier bacon, as well as beets, lettuce, organic milk and more. And you responded.
We dug through a bounty of votes and e-mails from across the country, then we dug up some dirt on 40 of your nominations to create this inaugural "readers' choice" edition in our "40 farmers under 40" series. We've numbered the entries to help you navigate through the list, but they're in no particular order — this is an egalitarian compilation, not a ranking. These farmers all bring their own skills, backgrounds and crop varieties to different communities, and the real winners are the locavores who get to eat all the natural grub they grow.
Like the first time around, this list encompasses a motley crew, consisting of authors, activists, educators, entrepreneurs, parents, siblings, sons, daughters, plenty of Californians, and an Iowan raising postmodern pigs on his organic family farm. The farms themselves are just as eclectic, ranging from 400-acre spreads to backyard plots, Brooklyn rooftops and everything in between.
Now, let's get farming ...
1) Charles "Chaz" Holt, 32
Born in the late '70s on a small North Georgia dairy farm, Chaz Holt was hooked on farming from the get-go. After his family switched from a dairy to a beef-cow, poultry and hay farm, he began to understand that if a person stays in agriculture, he has to be able to evolve with the markets while maintaining a personal moral direction.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor's degree in agricultural science, Holt moved to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where he served as an agronomist and crop advisor. He worked with more than 30 different crop types, ranging from cherries and hazelnuts to turf grass and corn silage and far beyond.
It was in Oregon that Holt learned organic farming methods, direct marketing to consumers, and how to spot trends and quickly meet demand. He then moved to Montana to manage Simplot Soilbuilders, a large, conventional farm-service company. After a year of disgust at the way farms were suffering as the corporate farm-service industry was still booming, Holt quit and started his own all-organic farm and farm-supply business.
For three years Holt grew along with the organic-farming industry. He was elected to the Montana Organic Association as the vice chair for two years and was one of five state "agriculture bio-based innovation" coordinators funded by the Montana Department of Agriculture to assist agriculture producers in adding value to their existing operations. He also holds a current certified crop advisor certificate from the American Society of Agronomy. From there, Holt and his family moved back to Georgia to live on the family farm in a sustainable and organic way.
2) Novella Carpenter, 36
Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, started urban farming in Seattle 10 years ago when she first got some chickens and bees and plowed up her parking strip to plant fava beans and kale. After moving to the Bay Area, she began squat farming on a derelict lot next to her apartment in the middle of a rough part of Oakland. She's raised fruits and veggies, chickens, bees, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs and goats.
Sales aren't the main point of Ghost Town Farm — Carpenter regularly gives away produce to her neighbors, barters with locals and sometimes sells to underground restaurants. She also runs an urban feed store/biofuel station in Berkeley with four other women, where they sell feed and teach classes about keeping chickens, bees and rabbits in the city. Lately, she's become obsessed with goats and goat cheese, remembering fondly the goat-milking scene in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.
3) Alex Needham, 28
4) Alison Parker, 30
While living in Austin, Texas, Alex Needham worked in a restaurant and Alison Parker worked for an environmental nonprofit. Both became increasingly aware of and interested in food politics, and decided to tackle their interests in a hands-on way by interning at a farm. Collectively and separately since, they've worked on organic farms from Oregon to Wisconsin to Texas to Central America. Both have also worked with urban farms and have helped with the startup of school gardens in low-income areas. Last season, they were married on the farm where they once interned in southern Wisconsin.
In 2009, Parker and Needham decided to take a leap of faith and start their own venture, Radical Root Farm, in northern Illinois. There they run an organic community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and market farm, selling to the metro Chicago area, and try to limit the farm's fossil footprint by using mostly hand tools. They grow a diversified collection of vegetables, including many heirlooms, as well as medicinal herbs. Parker teaches plant medicine workshops, and the couple also plans to make their farm into a working permaculture model, eventually teaching urban permaculture workshops in Chicago.
5) Juan "JP" Perez, 26
Three years ago, Juan Perez (pictured, right) convinced his father, Pablo (left), to enroll with him in the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association's (ALBA) Programa Educativa para Pequenos Agricultores (PEPA), a program that trains aspiring small farmers in sustainable production methods, as well as marketing techniques. Pablo had farmed before, growing conventional raspberries and flowers on five acres of leased land in California's Central Valley. But Juan wanted to try his hand at organics, and he wanted to do it as a family. Upon completion of the PEPA program in April 2006, Juan and his father leased a small plot of land from ALBA and named their farm J&P Organics.
Juan spends most of his time cultivating, harvesting, working at farmers markets and delivering CSA boxes. He's also responsible for the bulk of the farm's marketing and direct sales. He and his family grow a wide variety of crops, including artichokes, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, garlic, kale, heirloom tomatoes, onions, potatoes and more.
Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Juan delivers as many as 200 boxes across Monterey County and the Bay Area. He says both he and his CSA members value the personal interaction that community-supported agriculture provides. Members tell him what they liked best in previous boxes and share how they prepared their produce, and every week Juan tucks a newsletter containing simple recipes as well as a brief farm update into each box.
Juan anticipates expanding his acreage and applying his educational experience to the practice of sustainable farming. "I've been talking to my parents and the thing is, we want to buy our own farm — I don't know how many acres — and raise chickens, cows, pigs and have orchards — apple trees, peaches, cherries and pears. I can see that happening in a couple of years."
6) Stacey Murphy, 35
Stacey was born and raised in a suburb of Detroit and spent many hours in her mom's garden, picking snap peas and eating them before she could bring them inside. She has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and worked as a vehicle dynamics engineer for Ford (she also raced cars for Ford, including a Formula One car). She also has a master's of architecture degree and enjoyed working on public projects in New York City.
Murphy founded BK Farmyards in April, and this growing season is her first as an urban farmer. BK Farmyards partners with developers, homeowners and city agencies that want to transform idle land to farmland. This season, BK Farmyards has several backyard farms in Ditmas Park and is starting a CSA in that neighborhood. Next season, the company will continue its expansion of farms in Ditmas Park and is working with several developers to convert three acres to farmland around Brooklyn.
The mission of BK Farmyards is to connect landholders with farmers. Each neighborhood will have a slightly different agenda depending on the people involved. In Gowanus, BK Farmyards is working with a developer who wants to build a chef community and cafe around a working farm. In Bed-Stuy, it's working with a farmer who wants to supply affordable produce to bodegas.
7) Tricia Borneman, 34
8) Tom Murtha, 36
Tom and Tricia Murtha met in Philadelphia 12 years ago and started on their farming journey together, learning by doing. They were both raised in suburban Philly — he across the Delaware River in Haddon Heights, N.J., and she in Bucks County, Pa., where they now live and farm. The couple met after college and fell into "farming" after reclaiming an abandoned lot near the warehouse where they lived in Philly. Tricia also worked with a couple through City Year doing organic gardening in North Philadelphia's public schools.
"We just loved it," Tricia says. "Tom would come help out after a long day of house painting and sink his hands into the soil and dream of a life working side by side. Gardening and farming spoke to our ideals and the way of life we dreamed of in so many ways."
Tom and Tricia left Philadelphia and embarked on a farming journey that took them from an internship in Connecticut (where they lived in a tiny old chicken coop), to a farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley (where they lived in a geodesic dome), to northern New Jersey (Genesis Farm), to a farm in Bucks County (where they lived in a barn loft) and finally to where they are now. Each farm they worked on was a little different: One marketed solely through farmers markets, one just via restaurants and one only using a CSA. This allowed Tricia and Tom to amass a wealth of experiences as well as the confidence to embark on their own.
The couple formed a unique arrangement with their current landowners and created Blooming Glen Farm with their help. They rent the land and the house, and they're currently working with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture to develop a long-term agreement with the landowners.
"Many young farmers face the issue of how to get into farming if you can't afford to buy land, so we hope to create some sort of model that others can look at," Tricia says. "The land we are on is preserved for agricultural use, but the area we are in grows more houses than farmers, despite its rich agricultural heritage."
In four years, Blooming Glen Farm has grown from five to 20 acres in cultivation and boasts a CSA with more than 300 families. Tricia and Tom also attend two farmers markets and do some wholesale. The couple had five young farm interns working with them over the summer season, which Tricia found vastly important: "We can still vividly remember what it was like to be interns ourselves, and we love to share with other young people what we have learned in hope that more farms will sprout up around the country because of it."
9) Annie Novak, 26
10) Ben Flanner, 28
Rooftop Farms, a 6,000-square-foot organic produce operation on top of a three-story warehouse in Brooklyn, is a beacon for urban farmers everywhere. The new but already high-profile farm is the product of a coalition between Goode Green, a green-roof design and installation company, and two young urban farmers, Annie Novak and Ben Flanner.
After Flanner quit his desk job at an online stock-trading company earlier this year, he teamed up with Novak, a seasoned farmer, and they contacted Goode Green about setting up their own farm in the city. The company was able to hook up Flanner and Novak with spare roof space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and used a crane to haul 200,000 pounds of soil on top of the building.
Since its start in April 2009, Rooftop Farms already serves local restaurants such as Eat and Marlow & Sons, as well as a weekly farm stand. Flanner and Novak also host two apiaries on their roof, more than 30 varieties of produce, and workshops designed to spread urban farming throughout New York.