The Country Farmer from the City

How can everyone eat local? Co-ops, farmers’ markets, and gardening play a big part in the possible answers for that question. But the key part, and one that is often overlooked, is the role of the small, sustainable, multi-crop farm.

To increase the number of local eaters, we need more local farms. It is not going to be possible for large numbers of people to eat locally if most acreage under cultivation are in farms of the gigantic agribusiness mono-culture type. Small-scale farms are incredibly productive per acre, but they also require more labor per acre than huge spreads of wheat.

The obvious corollary, then, is that we need more farmers. And they have got to come from somewhere, so why not the city?

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Meet the New American (Zen) Farmer, in the Winter 2008 issue of Edible Portland, profiles novice farmers Michael and Jill Paine. Neither of them grew up on farms. Rather, Michael’s interest in farming grew out of a stint in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, which led working on a farm in Costa Rica, which turned into a Master’s in International Agricultural Development at UC-Davis.

So far, their farm appears to be a success. Five years old, their Gaining Ground Farm operates on the CSA model and has a stall at the local farmers’ market. It’s a small operation; Jill has a full-time day job and the farm has a few summer interns. Even with a solid business plan, Michael and Jill still had a hard time getting a bank to lend them money to buy their land. It’s these kinds of structural difficulties which are the hidden barriers to more farms and more local foods.

An related article in the weekend New York Times highlighted several other young, educated, urban people who are interested in local food, interested enough to pack up from the city and start a farm in the country. Are they farming dilettantes or the shock troops of the re-localization movement?

According to Ken Meter, 58, an analyst at the Crossroads Resource Center, a Minnesota-based nonprofit advocacy group for local food initiatives:

“A lot of people in our 20s went to the land and wanted to farm and had a lot of enthusiasm, but not many resources,” he said. “It has only been the last five years where the payment from working your fingers to the bone and supplying urban markets with high-quality produce has been enough where you could imagine making a living.”

The article continues,

Put that together with research indicating organic farmers are on average 46 years old, compared with an average of 52 for all farmers, and the numbers seem to reflect what experts say they see in the field: the demand from consumers for food produced on a small scale, bought directly from farmers, has allowed a younger generation to enter farming, even as global markets drive many conventional farmers off the land. [emphasis added].

“It has opened up a better opportunity than we’ve had in a while for entry-level farmers,” said Stephen R. Gliessman, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies sustainable agriculture. He said many of his students in recent years have started farms after graduation.

The barriers to entry in small-scale sustainable farming are still significant. The high cost of land and others start-up costs make starting a farm a major financial challenge. Distance to urban markets and housing costs are also major factors. Knowledge and practical experience of farming are also hurdles. Even with an increased number of young people doing farming internships during or after college (and I am one of them!), running a farm is still very difficult. Knowing what to plant, when to plant it, how to keep it alive, and how to make a profit are particularly challenging with minimal hands-on experience.

The number of organic and sustainable farms is definitely growing:

“Nationally, there were 8,493 certified organic farms in 2005, using just over 4 million acres of land, more than double the acreage in 2000, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. (The federal government introduced a uniform standard for organic certification in 2002.) New York had more than twice as many certified organic farms, 735, in 2007 as it did in 2004, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. The agency estimates there are three to five times that many organic farms in New York which, like Hearty Roots, choose not to spend the $500 to $1,000 it costs to become certified.”

Still it’s hard to tell whether this is truly the beginning of a movement, or simply the hip thing du jour. In the article, Annaliese Grifffin, contributor to the blog Grocery Guy, says that, “Having a cool cheese in your fridge has taken the place of knowing what the cool band is, or even of playing in that band. Our rock stars are ricotta makers.”

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One response to “The Country Farmer from the City

  1. Pingback: Working Farm or Lifestyle Prop? « Food Mapping

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