Half of all current farmers are expected to retire within this decade, according to the US Department of Agriculture; for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older. Those numbers are troubling, not just for our agricultural industry but also for rural communities and future generations of consumers who will grow increasingly detached from their food sources.
But then there is the Greenhorns — a non-profit dedicated to recruiting and supporting young farmers across the country (this group is one of several with similar missions). In a new book published this spring, readers can learn more about these Gen X and Y farmers who are part of a movement that could reshape our relationship with work and food.
Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers (Storey Publishing, $14.95) is a collection of "narratives...that we believe to representative of the beginning-farmer experience in contemporary American life" edited by Zoe Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, and Paula Manalo — themselves all members of that next generation. Each of the short essays, in its own way, addresses the question: "What is it to be a new farmer in America?"
Divided into eight sections, they tackle everything from the challenges of coming up with an agricultural business plan to gendered division of labor to wireworms to draft horses. They are moving and philosophical, amusing and irreverent. They are inspiring, instructional, and for the most part they avoid romanticizing the agrarian life.
I particularly enjoyed "Moral Clarity through Chicken Killing," by Samuel Anderson, the livestock coordinator at the Massachusetts-based New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, who writes about the mobile poultry-processing unit that he trains independent farmers to use. The mobile unit was developed in an effort to revitalize small, pasture-based, independent chicken farming — as opposed to "big poultry," which dominates the industry and ensures that "for the farmer, the killing and processing of his birds is out of sight and out of mind."
Enter the mobile processor, a legal and affordable alternative for small producers. To take advantage of the mobile unit, the farmer has to be extremely hands on, involved in the killing, plucking, and eviscerating of his birds. It's a way to bring an act of farming back to the farm, and it could be a welcome solution to Maine's poultry processing problems.
Another educational essay comes from Luke Deikis, of Quincy Farm in New York, who describes the unorthodox path he and his partner Cara Fraver took to purchase 48 acres of farmland. "I Figured We'd Buy a Small Piece of Land" shows how for young farmers, actually settling down can require "a delicate dance among ourselves, two nonprofits, and the family selling the property." The piece calls to mind the Maine Farmland Trust's FarmLink, Buy/Protect/Sell, and Farm Viability programs, all of which are helping create opportunities for new farmers.
In these pages, the reader will find personal revelations, too. Casey O'Leary, owner of Earthly Delights Farm in Boise, Idaho, writes about how she "used to believe I wasn't a 'real' farmer because I didn't survive on my farm income alone." Once she embraced her off-farm job as a landscaper, her perspective shifted. "My relationships with my lover, friends, and family have improved because of my ability to keep the farm in a part-time box. I wiggled around to make room for everything I love...and my business has become more interconnected because of it."