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’

Lisa Held
Published in
10 min readOct 4, 2019


Photo from National Young Farmers Coalition

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…