New Farmers Take Root
Novice farmers are embracing the role of “agripreneur,” backed by a host of new Extension programs from Oregon State University to help first-time farmers find big opportunities in small markets.
This is serious business. The need for new farmers is growing.
The average age of farmers in the U.S. is 57; and more than half are expected to retire soon, according to Garry Stephenson, head of the OSU Extension Small Farms Program. “We will experience a large transfer of land in this country in the next couple of decades,” he said. “And we will need more new farmers to fill in the gaps.”
For nearly 20 years, the OSU Small Farms program has supported the growth of small farms in Oregon. Today, OSU offers several programs for first-time farmers, from an intensive hands-on apprenticeship in urban farming to an eight-week comprehensive course on farm management and business.
For many young people today, farming is a cause. “Their enthusiasm rivals that of young software start-ups of the 1990s,” Stephenson said. “That same dedication, interest, and enthusiasm for farming have made it a social movement. Farmers are rock stars. They get standing ovations during meetings and other food-centered gatherings. They are respected.”
In 2011, the New York Times featured Oregon’s young farmers, and National Public Radio reported “... there’s a new surge of youthful vigor into American agriculture.” It’s a movement that spans generations and politics, according to Stephenson. And the number of participants grows as the value of farm-direct sales rises. The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture in 2007 reported a value of $56 million for farm-direct sales, a 144-percent increase in five years. This includes direct-to-consumer sales from farmers’ markets, roadside stands, “pick your own,” and CSAs—Community Supported Agriculture, in which the public buys shares to receive locally grown food.
“Many people have neither an agricultural background nor adequate agricultural training to begin a small farm business,” Stephenson said. They find out how difficult it can be to make a profit in farming. And they learn that success means managing risk. OSU’s eight-part course “Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management” focuses on planning a farm enterprise, from assessing land and water to understanding labor and financial management. Over the last three years, 250 potential new farmers signed up for the course.
Take Meri Wallace for example. As a child, she tended the garden that fed her large family. Now in her 50s, she wants to build a business from her garden, growing and packaging the herbs that she and her husband Jerry have been creating for gifts for years.
The Wallaces were drawn to the Growing Farms course because in-depth planning is the focus of the curriculum. Meri acknowledges that before they took the course, they had no idea how much they didn’t know. They learned, for example, that the procedure to dry and package herbs for sale must follow strict food-safety requirements. They hadn’t factored in the cost of packaging and transportation or crop failure and liability insurance. OSU faculty helped the Wallaces realize they needed to be specific, start small, and proceed slowly. “We would have been fools not to take this course,” Meri said.
The Wallaces developed a comprehensive plan, and now their herb business is thriving. They plan to buy an additional 23 acres near Prineville to expand the business into a spacious herb garden open to the public.
Retired veterinarian Robert Bradford took the Growing Farms workshops in 2009 to help him clarify his goals and measure the risks of his farming venture. Now, successfully planned and operating, the Bradford Family Farm in Rogue River is the first Oregon-licensed chicken and rabbit processing facility in southern Oregon. The license allows the farm to sell the meat at markets, restaurants, and grocery stores.
Not all new farmers are ready for intensive business planning. The Agripreneur program helps prepare those who are just beginning to consider farming as a business and a way of life. Developed by faculty at the OSU Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Jackson County, this program helps beginning farmers plan an appropriate agricultural enterprise. From April through October students work at least two hours a week in the SOREC teaching garden and in the classroom learning about soil fertility, irrigation, pest management, and other topics of agricultural science. Jennifer Lawson and her husband enrolled in the Agripreneur program and have since enlarged their business of selling specialty greens and tomatoes to local restaurants.
But where do city dwellers learn the real dirt on farming?
The Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship (BUFA) is a hands-on, hand-scale program, a partnership between OSU Extension and Multnomah County. Located on a two-acre section of the Portland Learning Garden Laboratory in southeast Portland, BUFA provides in-depth training through hands-on farming, classes, field trips, and supervised internships to provide the skills needed to design and manage urban farms and gardens.
“Most of the interns have never had a garden or grown food at this level,” said BUFA instructor Jen Aron. They come to BUFA with interest in growing small-scale market gardens or in providing fresh local food to homeless shelters and neighborhoods where fresh produce is difficult to come by.
Teresa Gooden, for example, signed up for the apprenticeship because she wants to be self-sufficient with a small farm and possibly a sliding-scale CSA. Matthew Phillips enrolled in the apprenticeship to get expert advice on how to deal organically with pests, weeds, and fertilizing. He wants to start a small market garden to grow food close to home to accommodate his only transportation, his bike. Willow Aevery has always been a city dweller but wants to have a nonprofit farm that grows vegetables for local homeless shelters. Amanda Soto and her husband hope to eventually have a farm as their sole income and teach their three boys how food gets to the table.
In gardens and classrooms across Oregon, OSU Extension is helping people learn to farm. There are OSU programs designed especially for women farmers and programs that help school children grow food for their school kitchens. Each year, several hundred farmers, novice and seasoned alike, gather at OSU’s Small Farms Conference for a full day of workshops, seminars, and networking. Stephenson sees great hope in the strength of these gatherings to create opportunities for economic development and diversity in agriculture. “If these enthusiastic people have access to credit, land, and the applied research and education from land-grant universities, there will be an astonishing new group of farmers to feed the future,” he said.