hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Generation Organic

Why young people in a high-tech age are rediscovering farming



Contributing writer


On a cold winter night, the gathering of 20- and 30-somethings animated a large hall at the Saratoga Springs Hilton with warmth and laughter.

A quick scan of the scene left no doubt that the occasion couldn't possibly be a singles event or a high-powered business affair. Instead, the young people seemed to have the natural camaraderie that comes from sharing the same special calling.

At a time when many of the region’s traditional large-scale dairy farmers are stressed to the point of selling off their herds, the turnout for this "young farmers mixer" revealed that some people see a bright future for agriculture in upstate New York – especially agriculture of the small-scale, organic variety.

The average age of farmers in New York has been rising steadily for years, from 53.5 in 1997 to 56.2 in 2007, according to the most recent federal agriculture census. That’s part of a national trend that has raised concerns about the future of U.S. food production.

But in just the past few years, there are signs that a growing number of young people are pursuing farming as a career – and a lifestyle.

One factor in this new back-to-the-land movement is the desire for more meaningful experiences in a consumerist age, explained Rachel Schell-Lambert, the beginning-farmer coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, which hosted January’s young farmer mixer in Saratoga Springs.

Her peers, Schell-Lambert explained, are drawn to farming because it’s "productive and creates something useful and necessary in their communities – providing food, caring for the land."

For these idealistic young people, making money isn’t the top priority.

"We have a shared ideal and passion, ethical values that go beyond the economics," Schell-Lambert said.

Building a support network

The young-farmer mixer has been the opening event for the past three years at the organic farming association’s annual statewide conference, which this year was held at the Saratoga Hilton.

The idea for the mixer originated with a group called the Greenhorns, a national grassroots organization that aims to recreate a rural culture and support systems for young farmers.

Greenhorns founder Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who farms in the mid-Hudson Valley, and her loosely organized band of supporters have orchestrated old-fashioned, farm-themed celebrations for young farmers, apprentices and other farmers-to-be across the country. They are happy to see others pick up and spread the concept.

Sometimes the Greenhorns hold gatherings around what used to be traditional reasons for rural people to get together, like sheep shearing or fall butchering. In so doing, young and aspiring farmers get exposed to new skills and experiences while also getting to know their peers.

"NOFA-New York is trying to maintain that vibe," Schell-Lambert said. "Farmers need to have friends."

The Saratoga festivities started quietly. Several dozen people gathered around tables or stood engrossed in conversation, many with bottle of beer in hand. Another 15 or 20 young farmers sat on the floor in a circle, munching a light dinner of beef and tofu slickers and a fresh spinach salad with almonds and dried fruit.

Soon a scruffy band clad in outdoor work clothes was making rousing music. Old-timey string band tunes alternated with country blues and an occasional a cappella work song. Later a set of reggae enlivened the evening. At intervals the floor came alive with freeform dancers.

Lots of laughter came from one corner of the room where pairs and trios awaited their turn in a laptop-powered photo booth. A table piled high with outlandish accessories added to the silliness.

The young farmers could take part in a beanbag toss or guessing the number of beans in a jar. (The correct answer was 1,111.) Schell-Lambert pointed out that estimating volume and weight actually is an important agricultural skill.

This year the organizers also invited service providers from a variety of agencies, like Farm Credit, to meet potential clients at the mixer. Often beginning farmers incorrectly assume that mainstream agricultural agencies aren’t pertinent to them, so the relaxed atmosphere of the mixer might be a good place to break the ice, Schell-Lambert explained.

Rural solitude – or isolation

Unlike most of the other young farmers at the gathering, Sarah Lyons Chase came from an agricultural background. Her family still has a working dairy farm in northern Dutchess County, and she served as president of the FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) club at her high school.

Chase, 23, graduated from a liberal arts college in Ohio in 2010 and returned home to help her brother with the Amazing Real Live Food Co., the value-added dairy business he’d launched about four years earlier at the family farm in Pine Plains. At first Chase helped with marketing, but her brother soon taught her to make cheese, and she took over as a cheese maker.

For now, Chase lives off the farm in the city of Hudson. She concedes that her next goal of transitioning the farm to a pasture-based dairy will require her to move back to the farm, though she worries about being isolated as a young person there.

In contrast to Chase, however, many of the young people at the young farmers mixer said they were drawn to agriculture partly because of its distance – physically and spiritually – from modern urban living.

Darcy Hutzenlaub has been working as field manager at a 3-acre nonprofit farm that uses land owned by the Long Island town of East Hampton and gives away all the food it produces. The job couldn’t be more different from her first, short-lived career in the fashion industry.

"After college I fell for the consumerism of America," Hutzenlaub said, adding that she soon discovered "how false and deceiving it could be."

Raised in New Jersey but with dual French and U.S. citizenship, she credits her European parents with giving her another cultural perspective. Now, she said, she embraces the beauty she finds "in reality and in inner things, rather than in materialistic visions."

Hutzenlaub studied Biodynamic agriculture at the Nature Lyceum on Long Island before taking her current position at Food Pantry Farm, where she said she’s learned the discipline required to run a productive farm. For her next project, she dreams of developing a model community farm that doesn’t depend on the largess of the very wealthy.

Yolanda Gonzalez, a friend of Hutzenlaub, calls her personal Web site "I eat green." The 2009 college graduate lives in the suburban Nassau County village of Mineola -- not the kind of place where you’d expect to find an aspiring farmer. But in mid-March, Gonzalez will be moving temporarily to Maine for an apprenticeship with the famed organic market gardener Eliot Coleman.

Gonzalez said her introduction to agriculture occurred almost by chance. Expecting to get a summer job as a waitress, she changed her plans when a friend invited her to come to Manchester, Vt., where the friend was volunteering at the organic farm then known as Teleion Holon. (It’s now called Earth Sky Time Community Farm.) Through a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, Gonzalez and her friend worked at the farm in exchange for room, board and a chance to learn about organic practices.

The next summer, Gonzalez and her friend started a community-supported produce buying club for fellow college students in the Rochester area. Later, she held a series of jobs in and out of the food system, including managing one of the Greenmarkets in New York City and working at a farm owned by the Nassau Land Trust.

More paths to farming

In recent years, Schell-Lambert said, more and more farm apprentices and young farmers have been participating in the organic farming association’s January conference. The association has responded by creating new programs and opportunities, including workshops designed for beginning farmers and, since 2009, scores of scholarships to its winter educational conference.

This year, the association awarded about 80 percent of its 134 scholarships to beginning farmers -- a broadly defined category encompasses everyone from young people considering a farming career to apprentices and those with up to 10 years experience running a farm.

The goal is to help new farmers get into the profession and be able to thrive.

"We are considering different ways to support that bridge between apprenticeship and confident, independent farming," Schell-Lambert said.

Similar efforts are under way across the New England. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardens Association, for example, has pioneered a journeyperson program, with funding from a private foundation, that supports 25 new farmers in their development every year. The program boasts an extremely high success rate.

This year, the six chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association are kicking off their own journeyperson programs under a new three-year USDA grant. With the exception of Vermont, which will have a larger program, each chapter, including those in New York and Massachusetts, will initially offer two slots.

The program enables new farmers to subsidize their educational needs according to their individual learning goals. Journeyperson farmers receive a stipend of up to $1,100 over two years to reimburse business planning courses and agricultural workshops. The program also pays for them to work with an experienced farmer of their choosing as a mentor.

Schell-Lambert expects the program to eventually yield a large harvest.

"We’re creating the next group of farm leaders," she said. "In two decades’ time, these will be the big names in the organic farm community."

Linking farming with academia

John Paul Sliva is a Glens Falls native who went to college in college in Oneonta to study for a career in the music industry. But in the summers and after graduating, he raised organic vegetables at a small farm near Lake George, mainly to supply the kitchen of the Farmhouse Restaurant at the Top of the World resort.

Last year, Sliva, now 26, landed a job as the farm coordinator at Bard College, where he’ll be developing a half-acre "model sustainable farm." Besides giving students a way to connect with the natural world, Sliva said, the project aims to help students become "intelligent, ethical stewards" of natural resources. Toward that end, he organized a local foods dinner for 350 people at the college, raising funds for flood-stricken farmers. He also started a community garden in nearby Red Hook.

More and more jobs like Sliva’s are popping up at the interstice of agriculture and other fields such as education, social services, nutrition and community organizing. The result is new opportunities for beginning farmers as well as a new awareness about food production among people who might otherwise be quite detached from it.

Clemens MacKay said he "fell in love with farming" when he pursued a farm internship as a break from college. He managed to complete his undergraduate degree in engineering, but after graduating, he spent three years pursuing farming, with internships in California and then at Markristo Farm in the Columbia County town of Hillsdale.

A lack of affordable land puts the brakes on some young people eager to farm. But MacKay’s parents, who’d been back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, owned a farm in Cobleskill, and it was available for him to use when he was ready. Now he lives in the house where he was born. (His parents had moved into another house, off the farm, years ago.)

This year, the third for MacKay’s Solstice Hill Farm, he’ll be growing four acres of vegetables, raising chickens for meat and eggs and expanding his compost operation. Last year, despite flooding from the tropical storms that caused him to lose a fifth of the harvest, was the first time the farm "actually made some semblance of money," he said.

Ginny Moore, originally from Philadelphia, made food production the focus of her environmental science major at McGill University. She was also able to take a number of classes at McGill’s agricultural school. Then, after finishing up a one-year apprenticeship at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville, she accepted a winter position at the Farmscape Ecology Program just down the road.

There, she works with a new farmer narrative project, interviewing farmers who’ve been in Columbia County for less than 10 years. Come spring, she’ll move to western Massachusetts to work at Crabapple Farm, which raises vegetables, sheep, beef cattle and small grains in Chesterfield.

Partnering with weekenders

Although Taylor Tribble and his wife, Courtney, started Red Oak Farm in Stuyvesant eight years ago, he still qualifies as a beginning farmer. The couple, who have two young children, drove up from Columbia County to Saratoga Springs for the mixer but opted not to attend the three-day conference that followed.

Like so many young farmers who don’t come from an agricultural background, Tribble, 33, got his first taste of farming while in school, in his case majoring in geology. In his hometown of Clifton Park, he got hired at a pick-your-own operation.

"It seemed like a good summer job," he said.

But after he went from working at the farmstand to fieldwork, farming became something more, and he went back every May. Later, the farm was sold and turned into a housing development.

After college, Tribble and his wife worked together at Blue Heron Farm in the Finger Lakes. Three years later they found appropriate land and willing landlords through the Farmlink program at Cornell and started their own organic vegetable farm and community-supported agriculture operation.

They were able to enter into an arrangement with a New York City couple that owns the farm in Stuyvesant. Tribble runs the farm (his wife has since become a massage therapist), and their partners invest in the infrastructure and help out on weekends.

Recently the Tribbles added to the tillable land available to their farm by purchasing a landlocked parcel from an older dairy farmer trying to avoid foreclosure. The land was more affordable because the development rights had already been sold and conserved.

But there’s another sign that the Tribbles are making the transition into the ranks of established organic farmers: Last year, Red Oak Farm hosted its first apprentice.





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