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Of course, if you happen to grow up on good land, you’d be crazy not to try your luck at farming it. At least, that’s Zoë Bradbury’s take on things. After spending a number of years working on farms and for various sustainable-agriculture nonprofits, Bradbury, 29, decided to return to the 80-acre parcel of Oregon coastal land her parents bought back in the 1970s and farm it.
“Had I not had land to come back to — that would have been my biggest obstacle,” says Bradbury.
In addition to being a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the sustainable-food nonprofit Roots of Change, Bradbury began farming two acres, growing both annual (carrots, beets, fennel) and perennial (asparagus, raspberries) crops. Her mother and sister already ran their own small businesses on the land, giving Bradbury access to a faithful customer base eager to buy what she planned to grow. But even with land and a ready-made market, Bradbury says, the first year was rough.
Last spring, after startup expenses (a greenhouse, an irrigation system) and operating expenses (seeds, soil amendments), Bradbury hit a common snag: she was broke. On her blog, Diary of a Young Farmer, Bradbury wrote, she decided to hit up the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for a farm loan.
As Bradbury soon discovered, however, the USDA offers loans based on a projected income that did not take her time-intensive organic practices into account. And the government agency uses rock-bottom commodity prices — only 14 cents a pound for carrots, for instance — to determine a farm’s crop value.
When Bradbury explained that she would be able to get much more for her organic vegetables, she was told that she’d need three years of sales numbers to prove her organic claims. Bradbury, of course, had only just begun to farm the land.
“On my 2.5 acres, growing about 25 different crops and selling them at the state commodity prices, it looked like I would gross about $4,900 for the whole year — which would make me eligible to borrow a few hundred dollars from FSA,” wrote Bradbury. “Maybe enough to buy a stack of Megabucks tickets and hope for better luck from the lottery than the USDA.”
Last fall, Severine von Tscharner Fleming teamed up with Zoë Bradbury to pen a Grist editorial outlining the key political, economic, and cultural needs of young farmers. The 2008 Farm Bill didn’t answer most of their calls for change, but it did take one small step toward embracing young farmers: $75 million was allocated to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which will offer start-up support for new farmers through additional credit provisions, conservation incentives, and assistance programs. Just what percentage of this funding will go toward supporting small-scale sustainable farmers is still in question. But von Tscharner Fleming is optimistic.
“Young farmers will often be setting themselves up in a model of agriculture that’s pretty low investment; they’re just not as likely to step into something like industrial hog farming where they’d need a million dollars’ worth of concrete to get started,” says von Tscharner Fleming. “Not that federal funding doesn’t go to some young factory farmers, but more likely the people coming in with principled stewardship ideas and community-service ideas are going to come into para-urban areas around core areas of settlement and grow food crops like vegetables, rather than huge commodity crops.”
Another way around federal funding gaps is buying and leasing land with others. Take Arethusa Farm, a small collective that’s part of the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont. Arethusa is one of the longest-running and most successful Intervale farms, where 13 farms operate on 120 acres with more than 60 full-time and seasonal workers, plus young apprentice farmers. Over the years, Arethusa has tinkered with the cooperative-ownership model, swelling to four owners before dropping back down to two co-owners, Thomas Case and Ben Donner, plus a crew of hired workers.
Case, who spent three years working with the local collective Digger’s Mirth, believes the collective model appeals to young farmers interested in democracy. “But it’s one thing to talk about those ideals and another to live them,” he admits. Running a farm as a four-owner collective meant a lot of time spent discussing the workings of the business rather than farming. And, in the end, the profit margin wasn’t wide enough for four owners.
On a larger scale, however, some cooperative models are proving very effective at recruiting young apprentice farmers and providing them with what it takes to start their own small farms. Perhaps the biggest, most successful example is CROPP, the 1,322-farm cooperative behind the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie products. Since 2005, under the title Generation Organic, CROPP and Organic Valley have worked to motivate and support a new generation of organic farmers and “save the family farmer from extinction.” Most importantly, however, the cooperative model allows members to set a consistent price on their products.
In case of third-generation dairy farmer Peter Mahaffy, 32, the cooperative has meant that he could pick up where his grandfather left off.
“I went into an agriculture program in school not knowing whether I would ever milk cows again. I just didn’t think it was practical,” says Mahaffy. His parents had switched to raising beef cows, and it wasn’t until he graduated and got a job working under a CROPP member that he was shown the real value of organic methods.
Mahaffy learned how to graze cows on a rotation, so that they always have a fresh patch of grass after milking. Soil tests, manure application, and keeping grass nutrient-rich quickly followed. Within a few years, he and his wife had invested in 60 of their own cows and moved back to his family’s farm in Coos Bay, Oregon.
“I had the resources and the farm and I would have kicked myself for not trying to make it work,” says Mahaffy. Now, he says, the stable price and the marketing power of the cooperative means he can continue farming without worrying about growing to compete.
Thanks also in part to the growth in demand for organic dairy, Mahaffy says, his farm “can get better without having to get bigger.” He also likes knowing that his farm helps take care of the nearby river and surrounding land. But he likes the little things, too.
“After milking, in the spring or fall, when the cows are out on new pasture and it gets dark out early, all you hear is a hundred cows surrounding you, tearing at the grass,” he says. “I know, that’s just one of those sounds not everyone is going to be able to hear.”
Twilight Greenaway works for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), where she writes about efforts to create a more sustainable food system throughout the Bay Area.
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