The New Generation of Organic Farmers is Just What Our Food System Needs
The pioneering organic farmers of the 1950s and ’60s are ready to bow out for some well-deserved rest – but there’s still the matter of finding younger farmers to take their places.
According to NPR, the children of organic farmers aren’t scrambling to take over for their parents, as tradition has long dictated, but there’s no shortage of young people who are willing and able to give organic farming a go – often in revolutionary ways.
Janelle Maiocco, CEO of Barn2Door, notes that the arrival of young, new farmers on the scene is “part of a movement” of millennials moving toward sustainable food.
“They more than us, I think, are very committed to quality of life,” she says. “They want to be close to their food; they want to be part of something bigger that’s improving the globe, and they want to have their hands in the soil and have their own business and just try to do their own thing that they care deeply about.”
Paten Hughes is one such millennial, an actress who came into farming when she started planting tomatoes in her garden and soon after discovered that they were good enough to sell to local restaurants. She was lucky enough to have renowned organic pioneer Lynn Brown as a mentor, for everything from picking plant varieties to learning to train vines, a gift that Hughes says she has yet to master.
She notes that Brown and other farmers his age in her region of California “are so passionate – they’re trying to ignite a fire and help people that even have the slightest interest in growing something really turn that forward.” It is clear from the way she talks about her tomatoes that Hughes has inherited this passion, even if farming isn’t her birthright.
Hughes is not alone in choosing farming as a second career. In fact, if the current trend continues, farmers’ children may actually be finding themselves back at the farm – they’re just taking the long way around.
Josh Lee spent several years as a teacher before coming back to farming, his first love, and Anais Beddard, daughter of the founders of Lady Moon Farms, worked in business strategy and pricing analytics in the wine and spirits industry for six years before returning to her roots.
Jason Bishop hadn’t been actively involved with his father’s farming business for 15 years, but he and his wife decided to return to Living Heritage Farms once they became parents.
“We found ourselves reading storybooks to our kids with idealized notions of farms (or at least what they were like a century ago), filling our grocery carts with high quality organic labeled foods, and dreaming of having more than a back yard to try and find out how green our thumbs were,” he explains. “Then I think I started asking the question, well why can’t this be us?”
While it is clear that these younger farmers respect the expertise and experience of the veterans, they do not always share the same farming philosophy.
Fresno fruit farmer Mas Masumoto tells NPR that that his daughter, Nikiko, doesn’t have the same vision of the work as he does, saying that millennials have “a different need for compliments and this whole life-work balance.”
Hughes agrees that millennial farmers have a need to do things their own way.
“There’s a reason we’re referred to as the DIY generation,” she says. “There’s very much an attitude of: I don’t really see exactly what I want as being available to me, and so I’m going to make it.”
It’s no wonder that Hughes has created a vision of farming that suits her, allowing her tomato business to exist side-by-side with her acting career.
Other millennials make farming their full-time job, but they still add their own touches to the business.
“They just have so much fantastic information at their fingertips, and they have a good, healthy skepticism about the food system as it is today and what needs to change,” explains Maiocco.
Lee, who was raised on a conventional farm, has completely overhauled his approach to agriculture, launching a hydroponic farm in the middle of New York City.
“The way I farm now is 100 percent different from the way I was raised,” he says. “We have to start farming more sustainably, or we won’t be able to farm for many more generations.”
For farmers who were raised on organic farms, the changes may seem smaller, but they’re no less consequential. Beddard, for example, brings the know-how from her corporate, high-tech experience to the farm. She has created a seed database to track seeds and transplants that replaces an antiquated excel and paper notebook tracking system for their 23,000,000 yearly plants.
Andrea Bemis didn’t grow up farming – but her husband Taylor did, and in 2008, they decided to leave their minimum-wage jobs behind and to begin farming as a career, first learning from Taylor’s father and uncle on the organic Hutchins Farm before striking out on their own.
Bemis brings a a creative technological touch with her website, “Dishing Up the Dirt,” which creates a link between farmers, customers, and their food, providing recipes for potentially unfamiliar items in CSA boxes and sharing her and her husband’s continued learning experiences in agriculture.
The outgoing generation of organic farmers my have less to worry about than they thought. The new generation of organic farmers may be coming at farming from a different angle, but these young people are filled with ambition, ideas, and a desire to improve agriculture for the better.
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