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In new food culture, a young generation of farmers emerges

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CORVALLIS, Ore. » For years, Tyler Jones, a livestock farmer here, avoided telling his grandfather how disillusioned he had become with industrial farming.

After all, his grandfather had worked closely with Earl L. Butz, the former federal secretary of agriculture who was known for saying, "Get big or get out."

But several weeks before his grandfather died, Jones broached the subject. His grandfather surprised him. "You have to fix what Earl and I messed up," Jones said his grandfather told him.

Now, Jones, 30, and his wife, Alicia, 27, are among an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen farming as a career. Many shun industrial, mechanized farming and list punk rock, Karl Marx and the food journalist Michael Pollan as their influences. The Joneses say they and their peers are succeeding because of Oregon’s farmer-foodie culture, which demands grass-fed and pasture-raised meats.

"People want to connect more than they can at their grocery store," Alicia Jones said. "We had a couple who came down from Portland and asked if they could collect their own eggs. We said, ‘OK, sure.’ They want to trust their producer, because there’s so little trust in food these days."

Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, said he had not seen so much interest among young people in decades. "It’s kind of exciting," Stephenson said. "They’re young, they’re energetic and idealist, and they’re willing to make the sacrifices."

Though the number of young farmers is increasing, the average age of farmers nationwide continues to creep toward 60, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. That census, administered by the Department of Agriculture, found that farmers over 55 own more than half of the country’s farmland.

In response, the 2008 Farm Bill included a program for new farmers and ranchers. Last year, the department distributed $18 million to educate young growers across the country.

Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, said he hoped some beginning farmers would graduate to midsize and large farms as older farmers retired. "I think there needs to be more work in this area," he said. "It’s great to invest $18 million to reach out to several thousand to get them interested, but the need here is pretty significant. We need to be even more creative than we’ve been to create strategies so that young people can access operations of all sizes."

The problem, the young farmers say, is access to land and money to buy equipment. Many new to farming also struggle with the basics.

In Eugene, Ore., Kasey White and Jeff Broadie of Lonesome Whistle Farm are finishing their third season of cultivating heirloom beans with names like Calypso, Jacob’s Cattle and Dutch Ballet.

They have been lauded — and even consulted — by older farmers nearby for figuring out how to grow beans in a valley dominated by grass seed farmers.

But finding mentors has been difficult. There is a knowledge gap that has been referred to as "the lost generation" — people their parents’ age may farm but do not know how to grow food. The grandparent generation is no longer around to teach them.

So White and Broadie turned to YouTube for farming tips. They scoured the antiques section of Craigslist for small-scale farming equipment.

"When we started, we didn’t even know what we needed," said White, 35. "We found out that a tractor built in the 1950s would drive over our beds and weed them."

She said that they farmed because they felt like part of a broader movement, but that the farmer’s life was not always romantic. Last year, their garlic crop rotted in the ground. Broadie, 36, is unable to repay his student loans. They do not have health insurance, or know when they will be able to afford to buy land.

On a recent Saturday, White and Broadie moved to a farm owned by a couple that wants to support local agriculture. They hope it is their last stop.

That evening in Corvallis, the Joneses prepared for a party at Mary’s River Grange Hall with friends.

Inside, women in woolen sweaters and hats danced to the music of a bluegrass band. There was no formal speech, just the Grange master’s yell that food was ready.

The Grange master, Hank Keogh, is a 26-year-old who, with his multiple piercings and severe sideburns, looks more indie rock star than seed farmer. Keogh took over the Grange two years ago.

He increased membership by signing up dozens of young farmers and others in the region. He had the floorboards refinished, introduced weekly yoga classes and reduced the average age of Grange members to 35 from 65.

The young farmers crowded around a table brimming with food they had produced — delicata squash, beet salad, potato leek soup and sparkling mead. On a separate table were two pony kegs of India pale ale.

It was the first time the Joneses had been to the Grange, and Alicia Jones said they would probably join. She had already told the mead makers that she would connect them with Portland restaurants that wanted local honey.

"Literally, four years ago, this was not happening," Alicia Jones said, gesturing to the 30 farmers who congregated at the hall. "Now, everywhere you turn, someone’s a farmer."

 

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