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Young Farmers: Back to the Land and Down to Business

A New Wave of Savvy Young Farmers Plows Ahead 

New farmers are filling a small-scale niche long abandoned by industrial agriculture. As Rebecca Thistlethwaite says in the first chapter of her new book Farms with a Future, mid-sized farms are the hardest to maintain.

The USDA Census from 2007 says as much — farms earning between $10,000 and $100,000 per year disappeared in droves, while farms earning less than $10,000 cropped up like chickweed after a spring rain. As production is scaled up, stresses on the farmland and the farmer increase, but profit doesn’t necessarily keep pace. Regulations are often more stringent for larger farms, such as Vermont’s laws about selling raw milk which reduce the pressure on the smallest producers but require mid-sized ones to do expensive testing and reporting.

But a sense of place is the true spirit of local food, and these days small and even tiny farms are starting up all across the country, feeding their communities fresh food, grown organically, and creating fun lifestyles for the entrepreneurial folks who started them. Perhaps more than any previous wave of back-to-the-landers, small farmers today are approaching their missions with a desire to do it right and make a lasting, positive impact. With inspiration (and funding) from the Slow Money movement, and from farmers like Richard Wiswall (another Chelsea Green author), newcomers to the field are proceeding with caution to match their passion and harnessing the tried-and-true methods of sound business to create a resilient and sustainable food system.

New farmers are doing market research before they start digging, and writing business plans before they go out and buy a bunch of peeping chicks. Sustainable farmers like the ones FarmPlate profiles on their blog are looking for unmet needs in the local foodshed, and developing high-value that both make a tidy profit and increase the vitality of the local food culture. At the 5000 plus new farmers markets that have opened in the first dozen years of this century you’ll find the unique fruits of their labors: specialty ferments like sauerkraut or kombucha in wild new flavor combinations, artisan farmstead cheeses, heirloom vegetable varieties long thought forgotten, grains grown and ground by hand, and heritage breeds of beef, poultry, and eggs.

Here at Chelsea Green we have a dedicated interest in the growth of this movement. We’ve built our own business model on the strength of the growing desire for living more in concert with nature, eschewing fossil fuels, and coming to a deeper understanding of ecosystems and how they sustain us. We’ve seen that desire grow over the past thirty years, and while we’re pretty sure Monsanto and Exxon Mobil aren’t going away anytime soon, we know the values embodied in sustainable agriculture are a palpable alternative to the trainwreck pattern of development humanity has been pursuing over the past century and a half.

Nowhere is it more obvious that a shift is happening than in the realm of small farms and local food, and the new wave of farmers is taking the overused concept of sustainability farther than ever. By working with livestock and composting systems to restore the health of the soil, and often using horses instead of diesel-powered tractors these farmers are going back to the future (or Yak to the Future, as one Vermont company puts it). They’re putting small but important elements in place to build diverse and strong food systems by fostering strong relationships with their communities. Even the efforts farmers are making to protect their own financial and emotional sustainability by thinking carefully, doing good old-fashioned market research, and developing flexible and ambitious business plans is pushing the envelope and expanding the meaning of sustainability.


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