Students came to my neighbors’ farms to learn about sustainable agriculture and the way that land use affects communities. We assembled a group of farmers and local food leaders together to talk with the students and offer our various perspectives on food, ecology, local economies, and the future of the land. There were two things that stood out at the gathering.
First, three of the farmers on the panel were under the age of thirty. We are all small farmers, some bigger than others, but together we feed hundreds of mouths within 100 miles of our farms with locally produced meats.
The second thing that stood out was that in the group of twenty-some students, two raised their hands when asked if they were thinking of farming themselves.
There is something going on in farming. A whole new generation of young people are coming up from colleges, particularly elite ones, to try their hands at agriculture. They are doing this partly out of idealism, but they are also doing it because they are beginning to see that there is a market which needs to be met. We are in the midst of a revolution that has been quietly building under the noses of the old power brokers.
But young people moving into farming are sure to experience many challenges beyond the day to day of trying to grow things. They will not see much help from the government. The USDA and FDA will make it difficult for them to add value to their products because too many of their rules and regulations vary between draconian and irrational. An institution like the USDA that had "get big or get out" as its official policy is no friend of farmers.
Young people entering farming will also face the major obstacle of financing. It takes money to farm, and the best strategy is to avoid debt like the plague, be innovative on how to get things for free or very cheaply (it helps to be handy), and don't quit your day job. Wendell Berry gave me this last bit of advice when I was getting started, and it is advice I would give anyone. Building a farm business takes time, and it is best to grow slowly, building your skill set and systems, a process I am still very much in the midst of.
Young people would also do well study the work of a healthy Amish farmer like David Kline who lives in a community that ignored the trends and are now the trendsetters. Kline has a system in place that makes his work productive and relaxing with long lunches and plowing sessions that are half plowing and half birdwatching (with a little archeology thrown in). Some people get to do that only with their leisure time, but on the well-run farm they are not distinct. This protects from burnout, which is a major problem facing any beginning farmer.
Any beginning farmer should avoid rushing. If you are young, you have a lot of time. Don't try to have eighty acres going full-blast right away. Find a scale of work that is appropriate to you, and slowly build as your skills as finances allow you. That is my advice out of my success, but more out of my failures.
Finally, as Joel Salatin once told me, the biggest final factor is sticking with it. The market is there; it’s time for a new generation to meet it.
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2008.