Advice to young farmers

 
Today's young farmers are up against a world of challenges. The move to educate our children about the impact they can make on our global food system is already beginning. 

Today's young farmers are up against a world of challenges. The move to educate our children about the impact they can make on our global food system is already beginning. 

At 7:18 PM on a recent frosty night, the upstairs floor of Patagonia’s SoHo location in New York City grew thick with bodies, city dwellers and rural folk both, many bundled in down coats. A woman played the banjo at the front of the room while onlookers snacked and drank local brews. All awaited the arrival of the evening’s panel, which featured four people working to make farming more sustainable for the future.  

The lights grew dim for the evening’s introduction, a promotional video for Letters to a Young Farmer (Princeton Architectural Press), the anthology organized by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The advice, aimed at entry-level farmers, generally acknowledges the challenges they face and then offers the means for empowerment.

Letters to a Young Farmer features 36 letters and essays from many influential farmers, writers and leaders of our time. 

Letters to a Young Farmer features 36 letters and essays from many influential farmers, writers and leaders of our time. 

Among the guidance shared: 

  • Build connections with your neighbors and the larger community.
  • Work locally, then politically to see that legislation passes to benefit the food system as a whole.
  • Diversify what you grow on your land, what you eat at your table, and the kinds of people you support on your farms.
  • Be realistic about what you’re up against as a small farmer.

The farmers participating in the panel, which included New York City farmer-activist Karen Washington and Courtney Epton, Director of Education at City Growers, agree that farming can be a tough way to make a living. The hours are long and lonely, the risks often high, and the chance for any profit totally unpredictable.

Numbering among the biggest challenges an entry-level farmer faces is the cost of buying land. It’s also expensive to pay for equipment capable of sustaining large-scale production. To help manage, many young farmers rely heavily on government programs to cover basic health and and child-care needs.

So how to encourage young people to choose farming as a profession, not just a spiritual pursuit? This is a topic addressed in many letters.

Mary-Howell Martens, the manager of an organic feed and seed business in upstate New York, writes: "I was young and idealistic, with far more knowledge than experience, as much in love with the idea of being a farmer as I was with the farmer himself," referring here to the choice she made by marrying her farmer husband. "Perhaps that innocent youthful, enthusiasm is necessary to send us into such new, risky territory."

At Lakeview Organic Grain, Mary-Howell Martens ships organic dairy and small-animal feed throughout the Northeast. She also assists her husband, Klaas, and son Peter on their sixteen hundred acres of land where they grow certified-organic grain crops.

At Lakeview Organic Grain, Mary-Howell Martens ships organic dairy and small-animal feed throughout the Northeast. She also assists her husband, Klaas, and son Peter on their sixteen hundred acres of land where they grow certified-organic grain crops.

Move to learn as much as you can before you take that risk, she advises. Be practical about the challenges you will face. "It’s a career in which the variables change each year, as you constantly adapt to climate change, consumer whims, and new technology. It keeps you on the risky but hedgy edge of success and failure for months on end."

"Farming keeps you on the risky but hedgy edge of success and failure for months on end." 

In spite of the book's cautionary tone, there’s reason to be hopeful that farming isn’t losing its allure. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, despite the challenges. This is only the second time in the last century we’re seeing such a trend. What’s more, according to The Washington Post, the majority of these individuals are "highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers" looking to capitalize on growing demands for local and sustainable food.

This energy was made palpable by the cheers and applause from the audience at Patagonia's crowded event, where the panelists all agreed that we must continue to evolve to survive, and we will.

Takeaway: Watch this video to learn more about what moved Arian Rivera, one of Stone Barns’ own, back to the land after pursuing a white-collar career in New York City. 


Lydia Chodosh, a News Fellow for Stone Pier Press, works at the intersection of food and the creative arts.