Young Farmers Are Inspiring, But Are They Making a Living?

‘Basically, it starts to feel like I’m being financially irresponsible if I keep farming’

After various stints working on urban farms, Shayna Lewis, 38, left Brooklyn to start Dirty Boots Farm with her partner, Matt Hunger, five years ago. With the help of a farmland conservation organization, she was able to lease land in the fertile Black Dirt region of Orange County, New York, close enough to New York City to access the strongest market for organic produce.

Dirty Boots’ CSA, a system in which eaters pay for a season’s worth of weekly produce, was popular. The farm was written up in local food publications. Meanwhile, Lewis estimates she was making about $9,000 per year.

“We were basically breaking even in terms of our living expenses, and we are frugal people. We don’t go out to eat, we don’t buy clothes, we don’t go on vacation. These are basic expenses.”

In January, they moved the farm north, to Kerhonkson, New York, to access more affordable housing. Again, they were able to lease land with the help of a nonprofit, but quickly realized it lacked infrastructure. She hustled to find loans to build a propagation greenhouse and get a furnace installed and ran out of money before she could build a shed.

This year, the farm was in the red. “Basically, it starts to feel like I’m being financially irresponsible if I keep farming,” Lewis said.

Her struggles are far from unique. Over the past decade, especially within the food movement, a popular narrative took hold: of young people driven to grow sustainable, healthy food for their communities and the sake of the planet.

The Young Farmers Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, first held in 2008, is at the epicenter of that narrative. Each year, interest in attendance far exceeds the event’s capacity, so 250 farmers are chosen via a lottery system. Many of the sessions are also livestreamed and get “tens of thousands” of online views, according to the organizers. Energy and excitement around changing the food system for the better are palpable in conference sessions, with young farmers motivated and hungry to learn. But close to half of them receive some form of financial aid in order to afford the trip.

“I’m seeing great examples of farmers that are starting small businesses. I’m also seeing great farms go out of business,” said Jack Algiere, the farm director at Stone Barns, who has been training young farmers for well over a decade.

“There’s a lot of work to do and we need a lot of other people to engage in it if these farms are really going to work properly,” he said. “I think it’s definitely possible [for beginning farmers to succeed]…and I always want to make sure that people have hope in this, because it’s a necessary thing for us to solve.”

While many expected an influx of young, beginning farmers to be represented in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture, published earlier this year, the numbers showed the average age of primary producers rose again, from 58.3 in 2012 to 59.4 in 2017. (The census uses various categories to count farmers; for this purpose, it makes the most sense to look at “primary producers.”) The number of primary producers under 35 did rise slightly, but the number between 35 and 44 dropped by more than 6,700. Primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than six to one.

Do their numbers remain small and stagnant because most of them are barely making a living?

Over several years of reporting on sustainable agriculture, I’ve interviewed dozens of hardworking, idealistic young farmers intent on growing healthy, local, organic food, and as their struggles have gradually piled up in my notebooks, an obvious question took shape: Are fewer young people farming because they are barely making a living?

“It’s fundamentally a risky enterprise for new entrants,” said Martin Lemos, the co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

In 2017, NYFC surveyed 3,517 farmers aged 40 and younger, the majority of whom are first-generation farmers. Many farmers cited student loan debt, labor, health insurance, and affordable housing as significant challenges to farming, but land access was by far the number one challenge. As a result, NYFC works on promoting policies that make land more affordable and has also launched a Finding Farmland Calculator. Many other conservation groups and impact investment firms are working on the issue.

Liz Pickard, 32, graduated from college with a degree in photography and journalism but was drawn to farming. She worked on several different farms in upstate New York over about a decade, making $10 per hour under the table at an orchard, around $9 per hour at a vegetable farm, and $1,400 per month at a dairy farm where she often worked 16-hour days.

That one came with free housing — in the form of a camper without hot water. Her last job was cushy by comparison; at Twin Oaks Dairy, she made $16 per hour and didn’t have to pay for housing, since she lived with her partner. With each new job, she gained valuable farming experience, but there was no pathway for using that experience to advance her career. Small, diversified farms rarely employ anyone other than the owner(s) and maybe a few laborers, and farm manager positions at bigger commercial farms are difficult to find. Pickard searched for manager jobs in vain.

“I came to the conclusion that I needed to have my own farm, or I needed to not do farm work anymore,” she said. “I became obsessed with: How can I start my own farm? Can I do it this way? Can I do it that way? What if I just did one thing and had a job on the side? I went through every single iteration…but ultimately I needed more cash than I had.” At an event, she approached a Farm Service Agency representative and asked about the prospects of getting a loan. She had $4,000 in savings and $60,000 in student debt. The agent laughed before explaining her debt-to-income ratio meant she’d never qualify.

Even if farmers are able to lease or buy land, it often lacks expensive, necessary infrastructure. In 2009, Denzel Mitchell, 43, started an urban farm in Baltimore on six vacant city lots that added up to about a quarter of an acre. At the time, he was also a teacher, but after completing the Beginner Farmer Training Program through Future Harvest CASA, he saw a path forward to make farming a full-time business. “I thought, ‘I can make money on it,’” he said. “I had been to all these farms, seeing all these families do it, and I said, ‘I can do it.’”

Mitchell leased 5 acres of land north of the city in Baltimore County, with a house available to rent nearby, and he and his wife moved their family north to start Five Seeds Farm, named for their five children. The land, however, was little more than soil.

“Somebody had given me a high tunnel, so I put that up quickly and then put up a second high tunnel using EQIP [a USDA grant program] money,” he said, “but there was no refrigeration, no water, no electricity, no greenhouse, no bathroom.…It was literally just a piece of land.”

Mitchell managed to get things up and running, and the operation attracted a lot of young black farmers who were eager to follow in his footsteps. “They were just really jazzed up about the food movement and food sovereignty and black farming, and a lot of those people went on to start their own businesses and do their own thing,” he said. “I think I’m finally at the point where I can talk about this without crying.”

After the amount of money that had been sunk into getting started and the day-to-day costs of operation, there was never enough cash to go around. “We were selling to restaurants, we were going to three or four markets a week, we had a CSA that got up to 70 members. So, we were selling a ton of food. It just wasn’t enough,” he said.

Many young farmers feel strongly about paying workers living wages, but the economics made it near impossible. “It was a scale and production thing,” Mitchell said. “I could have sold more if I could produce more, but in order to produce more, I need more people, which costs more money. So I’d always run into this issue where I’m hitting a wall.”

Mitchell’s wife was in nursing school at the time, so without a second income to pay for household expenses, it was too difficult. He shut down the farm in 2014 and now manages a farm for a nonprofit organization and works for a mobile food business called Blacksauce Kitchen.

Off-farm income, either from a partner working or a farmer taking a second job, is so common in farming, it’s expected. In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 61.4 percent of all producers surveyed reported working some days off the farm in the past year. The numbers were much higher for those starting out: 76.7 percent of new and beginning producers and 78.5 percent of young producers worked off-farm.

At a recent event, Future Harvest CASA executive director Dena Leibman joked that the secret to making a small farm financially viable was to marry wealthy. “There has always been off-farm income,” she said.

The other option is to explore creative business models, Stone Barns’ Algiere said.

“Many farmers I know, who I admire, who are able to make it work are able to find very interesting and innovative ways of creating businesses,” he said. “I would be reticent to say that all of these farms are going to be little homesteads, and it’s going to look like the 1800s. That’s not how it’s going to look. I think that a really important thing to consider is that we have to reimagine how farms work in communities and what other kinds of organizations and businesses they can attach to.”

Consider Moon Valley Farm, which is now made up of 15 acres of land spread out over six sites in the Maryland suburbs just north of Baltimore. The farm operates a year-round CSA program that now has 250 members and sells to top restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Founder Emma Jagoz worked in restaurants after struggling to find a nonprofit job after college. When she got pregnant with her first child, she became more interested in feeding her family local, organic food.
To bring expenses down, she started gardening in her backyard. Soon, she had enough food to sell to her neighbors, so she decided to turn it into a business, starting with 12 local CSA members in 2012. “The second year I decided that this land wasn’t enough because I wanted to grow potatoes and winter squash, which take up a lot of space,” she said while sitting on her back deck, looking out over the main farm site toward a processing shed, hoop houses filled with turmeric and ginger plants, paw-paw trees, and an apiary. “I could grow radishes and lettuce all the time in this little space, but that’s not what people want. They want a diversity of vegetables, especially in a CSA.”

Rather than take out a loan to purchase land, Jagoz knew her next-door neighbor wasn’t using the land behind her house, so she asked her if she should could farm it in exchange for a CSA membership. The exchange was the first of many. Moon Valley has grown steadily each year by acquiring other cost-free plots to farm in exchange for vegetables and caring for unused land. The approach has its own set of challenges — like having to move equipment and employees from site to site — but it enabled Jagoz (who now has a business partner, Jason James) to grow the business with very low expenses before investing in machinery and infrastructure.

Jagoz is a smart, skilled businesswoman and has made other creative choices, like operating year-round to keep customers engaged and growing specialty crops for chefs (including 50 varieties of peppers this season). “I come from a different perspective than a lot of farmers, because I’ve always wanted to have a business. I didn’t necessarily always want to have a farm,” she said. “So, I’ve always had the mindset of an entrepreneur and I think that fundamentally differs from a lot of farmers.”

Algiere said Stone Barns is actively trying to help young farmers develop that mindset, and in addition to more sessions on business and marketing tools at the annual conference, the center is also hosting a Farm Viability Workshop series in November and an Entrepreneurship Intensive.

While Jagoz dealt with the land access challenge in a strikingly creative way, it was also only possible because she was able to start her plot in her own backyard, behind the house she grew up in. In the first few years, the farm paid for itself but did not make any money for her to pay herself. Her husband at the time supported the family with a full-time job. She also did not have student loans.

And even with Moon Valley’s success, Jagoz was thrilled to report that she was finally able to provide health insurance, in the farm’s eighth year, for herself, James, and one other employee. In the realm of startups, that might not seem odd. Entrepreneurs often work 24/7 while starting out, forgoing salaries in favor of getting their idea off the ground. After all of that, many, across industries, fail.

But farming — especially farming that minimizes environmental impact and produces healthy food — is not just any industry.

Pickard, for one, left the cows behind and is now spending all of her time in the classroom, working toward a master’s degree in food studies. “I do hope that I return to farming someday…but I don’t see a clear path forward,” she said. “At the very least, I hope that I can help solve some of these problems, through advocacy or policy work or, just, anything.”

Lisa Elaine Held writes about the food system and sustainable agriculture for various publications, primarily as senior policy reporter at Civil Eats. She also hosts and produces the podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network.

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