Spring is the time of year when Deena Miller, owner and operator of Sweet Roots Farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, thinks of quitting. Her body hurts, money is tight, and just enough of her organic, love-sown seeds have sprouted from the ground that she can see her failures: wimpy leaves, frost-stunted sprouts, roots chewed through by beetles. It’s the fourth season that thirty-year-old Miller and her partner, Robbie Martin, have farmed three and a half acres on a slight slope in the fertile Grass Valley, north of Sacramento. And yet despite the challenges, each year has proven better than the last as they learn the particulars of the region’s microclimates and their farm’s soil — what grows best where, just how long to wait to plant the heat-loving tomatoes and cucumbers.
“This time of year is always really tough, but it gets easier,” Miller says, adjusting her cap. She sports a tool belt and well-padded iPhone, allowing her to simultaneously work the fields, answer e-mail, and receive business calls. “I’ve been weeding carrots for the last hour, so I’m a little grumpy,” she says with a smile. She snaps off a lingering asparagus stalk — its brethren were harvested last week and sold to the local co-op — and hands it to me. We chomp our snack, and I admire the farm. To my untrained eye, it looks handsome and bountiful with its rows of green cascading down the hill, not a disappointment in sight.
Growing up a few hours away in Lake Tahoe, Miller wanted to work in the environmental movement but never expected to be a farmer. She was nineteen before she even met one. “I wanted to work outside, and I wanted to better the environment, but I just didn’t know how to engage,” she says. “There aren’t many jobs out there, and a lot of the messaging felt kind of negative: ‘Don’t do this, and don’t do that.’” While studying at the University of Santa Cruz, she enrolled in agriculture classes with the thought of becoming a school garden teacher. “But the more I learned about agriculture, the more I saw it as a tool for change,” she explains. “I realized that, to me, the difference between the environmental movement and growing food is that growing food is really positive. You’re saying yes, instead of asking people to stop something.” She met Martin at a farm education program in Santa Cruz, and the two relocated to this plot of family land to try their hand at cultivating organic vegetables, fruits, and flowers.
Miller and Martin are part of a growing demographic of young, beginning farmers — farmers by choice, not by heritage — who have committed themselves to small-scale agriculture. Often with strong educational backgrounds and urban or suburban upbringings, these young people have chosen their vocation over many other options available to them, and, like Miller, they’ve done it largely out of a deep environmental ethic.
Miller looks out onto her farm. The diminishing daylight suffuses everything with a saffron glow: young apple trees not yet bearing fruit, her husband running the tractor, a shaggy llama, like a gangly guardian, standing attention at the fence. “Here I’m building something,” she says. “And I like that. I like that we’re stewards of this land, that we’re building the soil and taking care of the pollinators, the bees, the birds — it’s just so positive.”
She thinks for a moment. “What’s hard is when you’re so tired, and your body hurts so much, and you’re so poor. We finally figured out we make less than five dollars an hour. How much do you sacrifice for this vision?
“But when I get down, I think about a conversation with my mom that really helped me,” she reflects. “She asked, ‘If everyone was doing what you’re doing, would the world be a better place?’ And the answer is, of course, yes. Yes, it would. And that’s why I do it.”
She perks up and listens for a moment. “Oh man,” she says. “I hear a gopher.” She turns and inspects the ground behind her. I’m sure she’s joking. The wind rustles through the leaves, the adjacent stream gurgles by, and Martin turns the tractor in the fields behind us. It should be impossible to hear anything so small over all this ambient noise. But she knows these three and a half acres so well that she can hear a gopher, that tiny subterranean threat to all she’s built, burrowing underfoot.
IN THE SUMMER of 2004, I fell in love with a boy who lived down the road from the tumbledown house I rented with friends in central Vermont. He was home for the summer from college, and one of his jobs was to paint his sister’s barn. She was a goat farmer who, at the age of twenty-three, had started Blue Ledge Farm, along with her husband. I’d drive to Blue Ledge in the still-warm evenings to find my new boyfriend packing up the ladder while his sister, Hannah, and her husband, Greg, let the goats out to pasture. Their two-year-old daughter assisted, tugging at their pant legs and chasing the goats into the field. The couple met at Bates College; starting a farm had been their collective dream, one that at first surprised their friends and family. They borrowed and scrambled to purchase land in Leicester, Vermont, along with milk equipment and goats, and got to work on what is now, ten years later, a successful small farm.
Hannah and Greg were the first people I’d known who’d chosen farming rather than inherited it. My mom grew up on a farm in California’s Capay Valley, about two hours north of San Francisco, where her family grazed cattle and harvested almonds. She and her six siblings spent summers picking tomatoes; in high school she was teased for wearing second-hand clothes. She left for college at sixteen and went straight to Berkeley, ready for city life and big ideas, bidding the Capay Valley goodbye forever. My grandfather also fled farm life. He grew up a dirt-poor farmer’s son near the Chesapeake Bay, but trained his eyes on a future at Harvard University. Although I’d been raised to respect farming, I’d also understood that it was something you inherited and, often, left behind.
Now, ten years after meeting Hannah and Greg, I have more than a dozen friends around the country who have started successful commercial farms. While I feel unreasonable pride in my two backyard tomato plants and my teeming pot of mint (three varieties!), these friends post pictures of their tractors and kale fields on Facebook and Instagram, send mass e-mails advertising their CSA (community supported agriculture) shares, and fashion adorable, hand-drawn logos to brand their goods — their lives and livelihoods a combination of hip and nostalgic. One friend calls it the “farmster” movement. Just flip through the pages of Modern Farmer magazine to see how the aesthetic and identity have become almost sexy and chic.
For many of its participants, the movement stems from a sense of social and environmental responsibility. “My decision to become a farmer had to do with my feeling very strongly that farming is a nexus for social, ecological, and political change,” explains Matthew Shapero, owner and operator of Buckeye Ranch, a lamb and garlic operation down the road from Sweet Roots Farm. A dashing 2006 graduate of Columbia University with a BA in Eastern religions, Shapero is equal parts rancher and Brooklyn-hip. Like many of the new farmers, he came of age during a time of economic hardship, climate change, and general disenchantment with business as usual. “Becoming a farmer felt like the most radical vocation I could choose,” he says.
Today’s green movement is considered by some Millennials and Gen Xers to be an equivalent to the Civil Rights struggle — the organizing principal propelling young people into action. Recent decades have seen unprecedented environmental demonstration in Washington, as well as committed political activism from the likes of 350.org, which is staffed almost entirely by Millennials. Yet during this same era, the movement has nevertheless suffered major blows due to legislative decision-making (or lack thereof). As a result, disbelief in government as a driver of meaningful change seems to be growing, as well as turning some young, would-be activists, like Miller and Shapero, toward small-scale farming.
One young farmer, Trish Jenkins, who co-owns and operates Cycle Farm in the Black Hills of South Dakota told me that the connotation of what it means to be an environmentalist is changing. “To me, twenty years ago, it meant people who saved the rainforest,” she said. “But we’re making a difference on our own land. We’re storing food, we’re sequestering carbon, we’re using our bicycles to take our crops to market. People still need to write letters, and lobby, and wear their ‘Save the Whales’ t-shirts. But they need to do the hands-on work, too.”
It helps that on a farm one can see the results of that work every day. As Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a young farmer and activist, explains, “I think for a lot of people, the economy of the farm is comfortable and manageable. It represents a level of complexity that’s compatible with the human spirit and capacity for change.” In addition to growing food, von Tscharner Fleming stewards an almost impossible list of other projects, including Greenhorns, a resource-sharing and networking platform for beginning farmers. “The farm can be a refuge,” she says, a place removed from the tiresome systems of degradation, a chance to reshape the scale and nature of economic and ecological transactions.
THE SURGE OF NEW INTEREST in agriculture comes at a good time. According to Jill Auburn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The American farmer on average has gotten a little older, and we need replacement farmers.” Today’s average farmer is fifty-eight, and the question looms: what will become of U.S. farmland in years to come? Congress tried to tackle that question this year when it authorized $100 million in grant funds for new farmer initiatives (up from $75 million in 2012). And the number of new farmers is certainly growing. The most recent agricultural census shows that, between 2007 and 2012, the number of young, beginning farmers increased nearly 12 percent. Though small farms remain on the decline nationwide, they are very much on the rise in states like Vermont, with farms earning up to $50,000 in sales showing the most growth — meaning that it’s small farms like Blue Ledge making such a noticeable comeback.
These new farms look very different from the large-scale agriculture that defines much of rural America. California’s Central Valley, for example, is a landscape that feeds millions of people in part by forsaking its own. Although Fresno County gleans more agricultural profit than any other county in the U.S., it has some of the most atrocious air quality rankings, highest pesticide poisoning rates, and worst labor exploitation statistics (largely of undocumented Latino workers) in the country. Spend enough time in these pummeled places and one can feel the ecological and spiritual burn of industrial-scale food production. Some also hear a quiet call to arms, the urge to start a venture of one’s own — to do something more than just spend dollars at the farmers’ market.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming explains that we have for a long time needed “a compromise between humanity’s needs and ecology’s needs, a kind of peace path that is the very opposite of top-down.” Environmentalism, she says, has often been associated with a top-down, regulatory approach: “some white guys getting some tax benefits for some nature preservation for some polar bears. But the small farming movement is a populist approach to this problem.”
Small farms tend toward ecologically intelligent practices, like the use of organic fertilizers, crop rotation, renewable energy, composting, and local distribution. Though the market for food grown with these practices represented only 4 percent of total national sales in 2012, organic sales are up 183 percent since 2007. And the number of farms that have moved beyond the “certified organic” stamp and integrated other sustainable practices, such as renewable energy production, into their operations and culture has more than doubled since 2007.
Despite these efforts and a growing food consciousness, changing the agricultural industry remains challenging. Matthew Shapero, from Buckeye Ranch, had decidedly high hopes when he got into this radical affair of sustainable meat production five years ago, but now there’s a bit of jadedness setting in. As he puts it, a small-scale farmer is “still very much strapped and inured by the current food market and by the practices of industrial agriculture.”
Another barrier to change is financial. New farmers need money to get going, and most enter the profession thanks to access to land or capital. There’s also the added cost of equipment, a huge upfront investment. All of which skews the demographic of new farmers toward those who’ve got money or access to it. Matthew Shapero teamed up with a friend whose family owns land to kick-start his lamb operation. Deena Miller and Robbie Martin also farm family land. Blue Ledge Farm borrowed family funds to get started.
THE CYNIC MIGHT wonder if they’ve seen this before, a modern version of the back-to-the-land movement. Today, that movement — which saw thousands of flower children, some from privileged backgrounds, retreat to the woods to set up self-sustaining co-operatives and communes — is often regarded as a cliché of failed idealism.
When asked how the current small-farm revival is different than the back-to-the-land movement, von Tscharner Fleming says, “Oh, I’ve only been asked that question a thousand times.” She points out that the back-to-the-landers had cheap land. “And we don’t. But we do have a marketplace that’s craving what we’re producing, and the back-to-the-landers had to build that from scratch. Also, we have the internet.”
The internet allows farmers to share resources and best practices so that newcomers can easily solve problems, such as how to stave off aphids or mitigate late-season frosts. It can also link farmers to lower-priced land and equipment. Customers are easier to find, too, especially given the rise of CSAs, which provide a reliable market and source of capital in advance of the growing season. And then there’s the new ubiquity of agriculture: it’s happening everywhere, including in cities and suburbs. All of this amounts to a web of relationships — an emerging connective tissue among farmers and consumers — allowing more small-scale goods to be sold.
That emerging connective tissue is likely to be an important factor in new farmers’ long-term success. It’s the antidote to what author Novella Carpenter calls “the isolation problem” — to the disconnect, and ensuing loneliness, of life away from civilization — which was a crux of the back-to-the-landers’ short-lived experiment. After too much time on a farm with too few people, many of them retreated from the woods and fled back to cities and towns. But the new generation is building a culture of connectedness and solidarity, supported by initiatives like Greenhorns, which might be regarded as isolation inoculations. On the days when farmers feel like quitting, days that overwhelm, days when they can’t take a break from the sun or hide their disappointment that their high-hopes garlic is blighted, it’s possible to remember all the others around the world who, just like them, are engaged in a common struggle.
“The thing about farming — it’s like one of the more fragile and tragedy-fraught and heartbreaking pursuits you could choose,” says von Tscharner Fleming. “Being part of a community, you get used to overcoming setbacks. I find when I am around farmers, people don’t complain about ‘I can’t’ — they just figure out how to get it done.”
Will the Farmsters and the Greenhorns, the Millers, Martins, and Shaperos stick around? Or will they meet the fate of the back-to-the-landers, look for easier lives, urban or suburban comforts? Or, worse, will they ultimately crumble under the weight of the agricultural system, massive and heartbreaking, that they’re trying so mightily to change by their own hands?
Surely some will quit, move on, make a change. This summer, Shapero is selling off his yearlings and harvesting the last of his garlic, at least for a while, and getting ready to enter a master’s program in range management at University of California, Berkeley. He wants to improve the environmental practices of farmers — his own or those of others, he’s still not sure. Miller and Martin don’t have plans to leave, but if they ever do, they say that they’ll take their farm experience and the ethic with them. And if the current trend continues, each year will bring thousands of new, young farmers who could take their place.
I’D LAST ABOUT THREE DAYS as a farmer, this I know. But as I drive out of Sweet Roots Farm, bidding Miller and her guardian llama goodbye, past the farm’s trickling brook and into the emerald foothills of my state, I feel both the import and the appeal of farm life. I see how interacting with small-scale agriculture — as a consumer, visitor, or farmer — is healthy for us all.
I remember an overcast day ten years ago at Blue Ledge Farm in Vermont, when Hannah and Greg’s two-year-old daughter, the farm’s tiny blond empress, came upon a dead goat out in the pasture. It was splayed on the grass, stiff and unmoving, ready for burial. She gave the creature two nudges with her rain boot. “Dead,” she proclaimed. Then we turned toward her family’s plentiful farm where her mom was planting peas, her father was setting newly poured wheels of cheese on shelves, and newborn goat kids were scrambling frantically around their pens in search of their mothers’ udders. She ran to join the parade.
This child understood much more than I did about the mysterious workings of the earth. But will she one day take over her parents’ farm? Or will she, like some children of the back-to-the-landers, sit in an urban apartment, poking fun at the naïve experiment of the previous generation? It almost doesn’t matter. She’ll be better fit for the perils of the changing world than so many of us, I remember thinking, as I trudged toward the barn for milking.
Listen to Lauren Markham talk about the next generation of farmers at orionmagazine.org/multimedia.
Yes, there are numerous networks of young farmers springing up including the New Agrarians in Canada (http://youngagrarians.org), the Young Farmers Coalition and as noted by the article, the Greenhorns in the US, http://www.thegreenhorns.net …the latter of which also hosts a podcast, farm hacks where everyone tinkers on hard farm problems, and community mixers all over the place to gather new farmers together to share ideas, dance, and eat together in real time. It’s essential for the movement of growers going back to the land that they build community like this, so any young farmers reading this, do look them up.
There is also a growing community garden movement. This is nothing new. Home gardens, children’s gardens, urban gardens, and the like have enjoyed popularity off and on for the past century and more. During World War II, they were called Victory Gardens. In 1944, 42% of the US vegetable supply came from these gardens. Just think about what we can do for our hungry world if we duplicated this effort.
How gratifying it is to see a back to the land movement by young people, and all in traditional farming (now called â€œorganicâ€ farming). I, too, live on a small lot â€“ just two acres of hardscrabble land of clay and bluestone, but have decided to allow Mother Nature do the farming. She grows a variety of wild edibles which I have learned to identify, and so can include them in my dietary fare.
This type of farming allows me the time to better the environment by writing a political satire column for an on-line news magazine and by directing a regional peace academy, in addition to some wildcrafting. War, with its various missiles and bombs is known to be destructive of the environment.
We must all do what we do best to protect the land, water, and air for ourselves and a few generations to come.
Peace and parables,
I live in southwestern Michigan, and the sad irony here is that the majority of farmers who I know grow crops that they cannot eat: soy beans and commodity field corn being unpalatable raw materials that are mainly synthesized to become something else. And, the ag subsidy system that props them up works entirely against small farmers who want to grow, healthy delicious food that benefits people and the land. Yet as a motivator for innovation that imbalance can be a force for good. Unlike their counterparts in $300,000 tractors, today’s small farmers are at least free to follow the dictates of their own conscience and intellect. (Which suggests to me that the best among them won’t be making $5 per hour for very long.) In the process, they are also building a local food culture and local food system that millions of us yearn for. We can, and should, vote with our wallets to support them. In another 10 years, I believe we’ll be surprised to see how far they’ve turned things around.
You buried the lead … these folks who are the face of the young farmers movement are white, educated, and have access to financial and social capital to break the otherwise inhospitable policy arena for small scale farming. They acquire the bulk of funds from the new USDA programs and farm incubators. They grew up using internet and will use it to their advantage. Without land reform and assistance for farmers and farm laborers at the bottom of the ladder, this farming revolution will amount o nothing more than a hobby, or perhaps a resume builder for grad school.
Thanks for your thoughts, AC, and yes, finances are a big part of this puzzle. The author spoke about money and privilege in the young farmers movement in a companion discussion recorded for Orion’s podcast. She spends the entire last part of the conversation teasing apart the truths and offering more analysis, please have a listen:
I found Jim Hightower’s recent commentary on the young farmer movement very helpful in framing the question of who can’t access land and why, here’s the meat of it: “Such money handlers as BlackRock (the worldâ€™s largest asset manager) now offer big pieces of Americaâ€™s heartland as an asset that super-rich penthouse dwellers can own and till for mega profits. As a result, ag professors report that their farmbelt conferences on land economics â€“ which normally draw an audience of farmers and local farm lenders â€“ are dominated these days by Wall Streeters, and American farmland investment seminars are even being held in Dubai and Singapore. But this Wall Street land rush is a flimsy fad, for itâ€™s not based on economic realities. While crop prices are at record highs today, the painful historic record is that they will plummet tomorrow, destroying the cash flow that makes the hedge fund investment in land work. Then, of course, the gabillionaires will rush to shed their overalls. But who will line up to buy the land? Certainly not real farmers, who canâ€™t afford the inflated Wall Street price. And especially not young people who want to farm, but who’re already finding it hard to locate affordable land. America desperately needs this next generation of food producers, yet weâ€™re letting Wall Street speculators literally wall of the land they need.”
Thanks for an excellent article – and appreciate some of the comments, especially about the privileged elite nature of today’s young farmer converts.
This is a problem that has plagued the organic and back to the land movement all along, and that may be shifting a bit with some of the urban farming innovators in places like Detroit and Cleveland.
Also important to note that the seventies ‘back to the land’ folks (of which I am one) certainly did not disappear or fade back into urban or academic comfort. Many (if not most) of us have remained as mentors and role models for young farmers, and/or taken our farming passion into strong education, entrepreneurial and advocacy work.
The success of the organic industry has been thanks mainly to our ranks of activists and entrepreneurs, still committed to a just and democratic alternative for the food system and the economy that may yet offer a path to planetary healing.
I am personally proud of my various roles as farmer, author, activist, educator, and organic regulator, now home gardener and on-line teacher. My greatest source of hope lies in learning from my Green Mountain College & Prescott College students who will carry that success to the next level.
I own a new restaurant (bakery, brewery & wood-fired pizza) in Nevada City, CA – the same community where a couple of the farmers featured in this article farm. In the three months we’ve been opened we’ve been able to source all of our vegetables, fruit, eggs & meat locally, largely from farms that have been in operation for less than ten years, many run by farmers younger than 40. In fact, tonight Deena & Robbie (featured in the article) will bring in some fennel for a caramelized fennel sandwich we are featuring this week, then sit and eat a meal grown by their hands and the hands of others in our community, prepared with care by people who have deep respect for the labor that went into producing it.
In response to the folks who say this is nothing new, I beg to differ. Our small community is being dramatically transformed by our bourgeoning farm economy, and a town that was largely made up of people over 50 has an influx of young passionate people who have chosen to fall in the love with this land, care for it and make this place their home. From my corner of the world it feels quite revolutionary.
more emphasis should be put on the value of knowledge on the land and how to cultivate, benefit from, and take care of life. it has been to long to remember the ways of our ancestors, it is gone. but we are able enough to utilize our technology that is too often misused. we can avoid lousy air conditions, we can steer away from pesticide poisoning, and we can provide jobs for everybody. it should not matter where they’re from or where they were born. we are not different, we all have limbs, we all have complex irises. its ludicrous to imagine someone from a disadvantaged home to be incapable of ingenuity. it is easier said then done, but we need to change. this is a beautiful example of an alternative to our present lifestyle, our ill-informed views. i have some experience working on the land, at first yes it is a pain, but when you open your mind and allow it to think, to create its own fantasies, you would experience something that today the meaning is altered and tainted by the worlds love of conflict. Freedom. i ask to anyone who reads this to pass it on, and ask someone to tolerate one more minute of discomfort, one more minute of frustration, it will be worth your while to finally finish the task and know that you didn’t need anyone to keep pushing you, anyone to tell you what is wrong or right. just that you finished what you strived for.
Not just in the USA either. In Europe there’s a growing movement of people towards poorer nations such as Portugal and Bulgaria where abandoned farmland, thanks to rural depopulation, is affordable and available in homestead-sized parcels. It’s a movement that crosses income, age, class and national boundaries. While the consolidation of family farms into supersized industrial units or the ownership of vast tracts of land by the privileged few has made it well nigh impossible for any but the super rich to buy into land in some of the Northern European countries, Southern Europe has a different tradition and pattern of land ownership. People are moving there in droves and beginning to form vibrant international communities, which include local people returning to the land as much as immigrants from the richer north who’ve been priced out of their own agrarian economies. I’m one of those people, and it’s a truly exciting thing to be part of.
You’ve also left one significant word out of the equation: permaculture. It’s this design discipline – teaching the creation of earthworks which ensure maximum retention of water and fertility on the land, for restoring and building degraded soils using natural resources, for stacking multiple functions into a highly integrated and self-sustaining system which mimics natural feedback loops – that’s galvanising many of this new movement of back-to-the-landers and giving them a solid theoretical foundation on which to build and experiment. It’s not enough to grow without chemical inputs. We have to rebuild what’s been lost.
I am a 6th generation dairy farmer. Our family owns what is considered a “small farm”. We cherish our animals, care for the environment and encourage our children’s involvement in agriculture. However, I took note that one couple in the article figured they make less than $5/hour. Unless a farm is profitable over the long run, it will be nothing more than a “hobby.” Unfortunately, even with 75 milking cows, our family relies on off-farm income in order to live modestly. I think we have to be careful to not judge the families that decide to have larger farms in order to provide a living . As other generations or siblings want to be part of the family farm, the farm has to expand in order to sustain several families. I think we have to understand that in order to feed the world while caring for the environment, it will take all kinds and sizes of farms. Many a person who may live in poverty just wants affordable, safe food.
What matters is that some people have the courage to change the world, what does not matter is who they are.
Anyone can change the world with what they can do, but they have to do it.
Good tidings all!
we grow pesticide free produce – cannot call it organic we have not the seal of organic
the customers that purchase the produce tell us that they can taste the difference between the pesticide produce and the pesticide free.
I am so happy that we decided to play a part in bring back our earth to how it was intended.
I was an agricultural journalist for more than 35 years and wrote about such neo-farmers many times. I loved their idealism and lamented their all-too-common failure. I’d write about them and then go back five years later and find that their farm business, their dream, and their cash reserves had vanished. Those that survive for more than five years typically are kept afloat by off-farm income: a spouse doing software development via the Web, a nursing job at the nearby hospital . . . indeed, that is the path to survival for most farms, even those passed down from one generation to the next. 75% of America’s farm families earn 75% or more of their family income from off-farm sources. That off-farm income is the biggest farm subsidy of all. America’s farm families keep doing it out of stubbornness, hope, and love . . . until they just admit defeat and quit. Sad but true.
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