Working Farm or Lifestyle Prop?

Apparently, the New York Times has decided that urban dwellers relocating to the suburbs or rural areas to start small farms has become a trend: they’ve followed up their March 16th article on young people starting organic farms with another article today about their middle-aged counterparts. I commented on the initial article here.

On a certain level, this makes a lot of sense. The number of acres being cultivated organically has certainly been increasing rapidly, up to 4,054,429 acres of cropland and pasture or ranch land in 2005, up from only 914,800 acres in 1995. It’s still only .51% of American cropland, but that’s an increase of over 400% in only a decade. 2005 is the most recent year for which the data is available on the USDA’s Economic Research Service website (the data I’m citing is in Table 3: Certified organic and total U.S. acreage, selected crops and livestock, 1995-2005). Even the most organic crops, like carrots, lettuce, other vegetables, and apples (at 5.8%, 3.69%, 4.66%, and 3.35%, respectively), still make up only a tiny fraction of the harvest. Meat and milk don’t even come close, with milk cows representing the largest orgnic herds, with .96%. Organic agriculture is growing faster and faster; the amount of cropland increased over a million acres between 2004 and 2005 alone. I’m sure it’s increased a lot more between 2005 and now, mid-way through 2008.
Demand from consumers is certainly strong. As another ERS/UDSA website says, “[The] USDA does not have official statistics on U.S. organic retail sales, but information is available from industry sources. U.S. sales of organic products were $15.7 billion in 2005—nearly 2.5 percent of total food sales—and will reach $17.8 billion by 2007, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.”

So, there’s sharply growing demand (circa 2005), we import more organic food than we export (at least in 2002, when we imported $1 billion to $1.5 billion of organic food and exported between $125 million and $250 million. Why is the data so old? No idea, but I’m sure the disparity is still there) and consumers are both more mainstream and willing to pay a high price premium for organic products. (Lots of additional reading.)

I don’t know how much the steep rise in food costs over the last year have affected organic purchasing trends, but my guess is that people will still buy organic where they can, or try and buy certain organic items, like milk, even if they switch back to conventional apples or plums. Here’s an April 18th, 2008 New York Times article on the topic, and my post on the costs of organic food.

So, if there are more organic farms, there must be more organic farmers, right? I don’t know how much of the increase in organic acreage is due to conventional farms switching to organic farming methods or existing organic farms expanding their operations vs. new farmers starting new organic farms.

Regardless, the middle-aged neophyte organic farmers have a lot in common with their younger idealistic counterparts: they’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemna, they want a more meaningful life, they’re tired of the rat race. All the usual reasons. The key difference, according to the article, seems to be the older farmers’ attachments to their middle-class or upper middle-class lifestyle.

Mr. Gibson, who sells at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays, is a case in point; he may have dirt under his fingernails but he also has B.M.W.’s in his driveway. “I’m a rough-it kind of guy,” he said recently, “but I like my amenities as well. We knew we’d be here the rest of our lives. And we didn’t cut any corners on the house.”

Indeed, the house has a theater that wouldn’t be out of place in a Steven Spielberg residence, a wine cellar and a log cabin annex with a magnificent dry stack stone fireplace, a billiards table and a stuffed bear and bobcat glowering down between beams made of North Carolina pine — each beam an entire mature tree.

This is very New York Times-esque: a lavish, almost envious description of the property. But how does this connect with their farming?

Anecdotal evidence suggests the number of urban professionals trading BlackBerries for manure spreaders is growing fast. In the last three years, for example, membership in the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, a nonprofit trade group, has grown by a third, to about 1,700, with 45 percent of members certified as organic farmers. Many of these are “people from New York City,” said Greg Swartz, executive director of the association, “everyone from stockbrokers to teachers, writers, fund-raisers.”

“They have enough funds to be able to purchase farmland,” initially as second homes, he said. “It’s a nice bucolic retreat, and then they get excited and want to do something more active.”

It seems to be the change in home life, as much as in career, that appeals to the post-professional farmers.

Although Mr. Gibson estimates that he spends 12 hours a day raising his grass-fed Angus and persuading the public to pay premium prices for it, he says he has more time than he ever did in his former life to focus on what matters.

“We had a gorgeous home,” Mr. Gibson said of his family’s five-and-a-half-acre spread in Katonah, N.Y. “But I never sat outside sipping a cocktail, holding my wife’s hand. I do that now. It was all about making money and living that life and going on to the next business deal.”

What does it mean if farming is a life-style rather than calling or even a job? Will these farms be successful enterprises, or is this something of a trendy, expensive hobby, albeit one that fits in well with the greenwashing so prevalent today.

Obviously not all second-career farmers just jump in and try and make a go of it. The people behind Flying Pigs Farm, purveyors of truly delicious bacon and pork chops, took the slow route, and are currently very successful full-time farmers with sought-after product.

Ms. Small, a former development director for Williams College, and Mr. Yezzi, a lawyer, bought their farm in 1997, but moved slowly. They didn’t get their first pigs, three of them, until 2000, and didn’t start farming full time until 2004. They now have 500 pigs, 500 laying hens and 1,000 meat chickens. Ms. Small still works three days a week in the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., office of the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is dedicated to protecting farmland. She said she does so because she believes in the organization’s mission but also for the health insurance it provides her family. “It scares me when I hear people quitting very good full-time jobs to jump into full-time farming,” she said. “I think a slow transition works very well.”

Mr. Swartz of the organic farming association didn’t know where to start when asked about common mistakes second-career farmers make. He apprenticed for seven years on a nearby produce farm before he thought he had the know-how to go out on his own this year. “They’re not benefiting from the generational farmer’s knowledge,” he said of second-career farmers, and going on to list, “everything from buying the wrong-sized tractor, to the wrong implements, to not tilling at the right time — and not having a market for your product before you plant it.”

So, what’s the dividing line between a project and a productive farm? Sales? Acreage? Zoning? There are people in Hawaii who are snapping up expensive land in a development called Kealanani, zoned for agriculture, dreaming of fruit orchards and the “agrarian lifestyle.”

Homeowners can lease their land to another farming outfit, raise livestock themselves or grow the crops of their choice. Mr. Friend and Mr. Kyno say they expect residents will grow a variety of tropical fruits and other cash crops.

Valerie Van Balen, 30, is one of the first buyers. She was drawn by the property’s situation above Kealia Beach, a popular strand on the northeast side of the island where Ms. Van Balen likes to surf. She also wanted to buy a home with a farm to contribute to Kauai’s local food supply. Ms. Van Balen, the owner of Majestic Gems, a fine jewelry store on Kauai, plans to work on the farm. “I want to grow tropical flowers and fruit,” she said. “Mangoes and avocados — all the good stuff.” She also plans to grow cacao, which is used to make chocolate.

Is this a farm, or more of a kitchen garden? Again, what constitutes a farm? When a certain percentage of your income is derived from the crops?

In August, Kate and Dean Silliman decided to buy a lot at Kealanani, hoping to build a bigger home than the 1,500-square-foot house they now occupy in the nearby town of Kapaa. Having a farm appealed to them as they enjoy spending time outside with their two young sons. The couple went into contract on a $500,000 six-acre lot in the Kealanani development in September.

It’s not just the prospect of agrarian living that appeals to buyers. Kanuikapono, a charter school based in Anahola, a town 3.5 miles away, may lease an old plantation building on the development. Mr. Kyno said the school was hoping the site at Kealanani would allow it to expand, perhaps adding a high school curriculum. “Who wouldn’t want their kids to walk to school?” Ms. Silliman said.

In August, Kate and Dean Silliman decided to buy a lot at Kealanani, hoping to build a bigger home than the 1,500-square-foot house they now occupy in the nearby town of Kapaa. Having a farm appealed to them as they enjoy spending time outside with their two young sons. The couple went into contract on a $500,000 six-acre lot in the Kealanani development in September. [emphasis added]

It’s not just the prospect of agrarian living that appeals to buyers. Kanuikapono, a charter school based in Anahola, a town 3.5 miles away, may lease an old plantation building on the development. Mr. Kyno said the school was hoping the site at Kealanani would allow it to expand, perhaps adding a high school curriculum. “Who wouldn’t want their kids to walk to school?” Ms. Silliman said. [emphasis added]

This sounds a lot like the classic agrarian narrative of the romance and beauty of the land, but divorced from the practicality, risk and heartbreak associated with farming today. Farming is nearly always an incredibly demanding, 365-day a year job, where your costs are fixed and your returns dependent on weather, luck, and the market for you cash crop. My fear is that many of the type of new farmers profiled by the New York Times are more attracted to the lifestyle than the actual reality of farming, and will soon founder and give up.

As the Hawaii article points out:

This hybrid development of luxury homes on working farms is in part a result of Hawaii’s long and bitter history of residential development on agricultural land.

Owners of agricultural land sometimes plant a few coconut palms, or graze a horse in the backyard, but ignore the laws that require them to “derive income primarily from agricultural activities on the property,” said Ian K. Costa, the director of planning for the County of Kauai.

Mr. Costa said that plantation owners on Kauai began selling off large tracts of agricultural land in the late 1980s. These parcels covered “essentially half the island,” Mr. Costa said. Because of the sales, “80 percent of the agricultural land is owned primarily by nonfarmers.”

Mr. Friend [one of the developers] believes that most residential developments on agricultural land have not gone far enough to preserve the lands for agricultural uses. Developers “create what locally they call gentlemen’s estates,” he added, “where there’s large landscaped acreage but no agricultural activity.”

The development intends to avoid that by requiring buyers to have an agricultural plan in place before purchasing a parcel, and the contract allows a lien to be put on the property if the plan isn’t implemented.

Still, agriculture advocates question whether buyers will be able to derive a significant income from their small farms. “If you preserve and protect agricultural land but farmers cannot be economically viable on the land, then it’s defeating the purpose,” said Andrew Hashimoto, the dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Mr. Friend, though, sees farming more as a lifestyle than an occupation. “It’s not a golf-course kind of property,” he said of Kealanani. “It’s rural. There could be livestock. There will be tractors and field equipment.

This is really the crux of both of these cases: will this land actually be working farms, or merely elaborate set pieces with the appropriate props and rhetoric? In the Hawaii case, it seems like the farm-as-set will prevail. It’s an open question as to whether the new second-career farmers will be able to make a successful go of it.

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2 responses to “Working Farm or Lifestyle Prop?

  1. Nice jab at the Times. Regarding Mr. Gibson, (he’s also the beef guy at my local Greenmarket in Carroll Gardens), I think if you compare his “second-career” farming lifestyle with full-career farming it’s easy to criticize. But if you compare his second-career farming lifestyle with the lifestyles of his former colleagues, I’d personally congratulate him for choosing to get out of the rat race and do something interesting with his life. Hopefully his farm will continue to be a working farm. I don’t think we are particularly in danger of all the good farm land being bought up by rich city-folk that aren’t truly passionate about farming.

  2. I’ve been reading your blog since yesterday, when I was looking for information about food deserts and some data on the benefits of say, starting a community garden in Hunt’s Point. Your writing is admirably thorough and informed.

    I’m an intern at the Eat Well Guide (www.eatwellguide.org), an online resource for finding local, sustainable food in the US and Canada. We also have a blog, The Green Fork (blog.eatwellguide.org), that focuses on the same issues. Soon we’ll be adding a travel tool so users can map out routes and find sustainable food along the way.

    I hope you’ll check us out and consider adding us to your About Eating Locally and Local Food Resources sections in your blog sidebar. We’d be happy to add Food Mapping to our own Green Fork Blogroll, because we share the same goals of joining people to their food.

    Best,
    Lucy

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