Back to the land: are young farmers the new starving artists?
Eight years ago, Liz Whitehurst, then 25, was working in digital communications at a policy organization in Washington DC and dreaming of life outside a cubicle. She started exploring a different kind of existence by volunteering on local farms. When the farmer who provided the locally sourced vegetable box she signed up for invited her to work the fields one day, she was starstruck. “You’re my hero,” she recalls telling the farmer. “I want your life.”
Today, she has it. Whitehurst grows a wide array of produce on Owl’s Nest Farm, set on a few acres in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (she bought it from that same farmer). Whitehurst grows sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash – everything is handpicked. She also provides greens to a local pizza kitchen which was recently named one of the best new restaurants in the country.
She runs the farm with two other millennials: Foster Gettys, 29, who lives on the property with half a dozen chickens as pets, and Sara Policastro, 23, who manages the farm’s small rotation of volunteers.
Whitehurst likes the autonomy. She likes being outside. She likes having visible proof of her efforts at the end of the day. “You can see the thing you accomplished – you weeded the bed,” she says. “And in an office it’s like, ‘Oh I sent all those emails.’”
At 33, her life amid the dinosaur kale and pink beauty radishes would strike many as admirable, even romantic. And she’s grateful for the farm’s convenient location 30 minutes outside Washington DC, where people will pay a premium for the fresh, locally sourced greens she sells. But there’s a catch: she works longer hours than she ever did at her office jobs in Washington – for thousands a year less. When she goes into the city to sell on weekends, she’s often too tired to do much socializing.
Still, she’s one of the fortunate: she was able to lease the land in the first place and buy out her co-founders because her family was in a position to lend her the money. For others wanting to follow her footsteps, access to a life unplugged is even more difficult.
‘It is a pipe dream around here’
While Americans spending most waking hours on screens, Whitehurst is part of a small but growing movement of young people seeking out a more agrarian life. While the number of farmers aged 35-54 dropped from 2007 to 2012, there was an increase in millennial farmers by 2.2%, according to census data.
The young people coming into the profession are fueled by idealism but, like the hippie generation before them, and the many traditional farmers who have been driven out of the industry by its brutal economics, the reality of life on the land isn’t as simple as they had hoped.
Farming requires a lot of immediate capital without offering any immediate way to repay it, and the statistics for new farmers are grim. More than half of US farm households report losses from their farm businesses each year. Net profits have been falling for years, with cash income cut almost in half since 2013. Median farm incomes, which have remained effectively flat since 2015, are projected to fall again this year.
That hasn’t dissuaded 26-year-old Bronte Edwards. “I do think there’s a resurgence in the millennial generation to turn back to the land,” says Edwards, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in agriculture at Santa Rosa junior college in northern California.
She hopes to start a farm of her own one day and capitalize on the prevalence of farm-to-table restaurants and a culture among affluent urbanites where fresh, local ingredients are chic. “People want to buy food that’s organic, that’s grass-fed, people want to know the face that feeds them,” she says. “In cities, where you eat is like what brand of clothing you wear.”
The only trouble is, she can’t afford to get started.
“It is a pipe dream around here,” says Edwards of buying land in Santa Rosa, 25 miles outside tony Napa Valley wine country, where land is prohibitively expensive. But she says she’s inspired by artists who rely on outside funding to fund their dreams, and wants to use a similar model to build not just a farm, but an educational center for sustainable agriculture. She knows it won’t be easy, but Edwards isn’t easily discouraged. “I’m a masochist,” she jokes.
The day we speak Edwards is just back from a day helping a nearby farmer – an older woman she refers to as “the OG of artisanal cheese” – tend to hundreds of ewes she’s had artificially inseminated.
“She’s climbing over fences and handing me these sheeps that were just born,” Edwards recalled, still a little awed. “People who work in agriculture, they’re tough, some of the hardest-working people around. She was like, ‘Goddamn, I’m too old for this!’ I’m 26, and I have a hard time!’”
It’s only going to get harder. Changing weather patterns make long-term plans and investment increasingly difficult. Edwards’s hometown of Santa Rosa was devastated by wildfire last year, part of a historically unprecedented spate of California wildfires linked to climate change.
Edwards isn’t the only one concerned about irregular weather. “We’ve been here 10 years and every season has been completely different. It’s just really erratic,” Attila Agoston, tells me over pumpkin pie one night in his unheated barn. He met his wife when they were working as fuelers for aircraft on scientific missions in Antarctica, and both settled down to start a farm near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. This year turned out to be one of the rainieston record.
As undaunted by weather as a man with his background may be, he worries about the unpredictability. “If I’m expecting it to rain next year, I’d want to invest in more high tunnels,” he says of the unheated greenhouses used to keep crops dry. “We just had our highest wind gust this last year – 70 miles per hour. It dismantled a tunnel with one gust. I want to invest but it’s also a liability. It’s getting windier.”
Still, Agoston wouldn’t trade places with anyone, gesturing out at the 900-acre nature preserve abutting his land. “We work hard and are at the whims of nature like all farmers, but at the same time we live on a huge, beautiful plot of land,” he said. “Plus, we eat very well!”
That appeal Agoston nods to is what members of the National Young Farmers Coalition want. More than 100 members of the group, which was founded in 2010 in New York’s Hudson Valley, lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill during an unseasonable snow spell last month to push some of their priorities – improving access to farmland, credit and markets, better support for training young farmers – ahead of a vote on the 2018 farm bill’s reauthorization. The long-delayed $867bn farm bill was finally passed last Wednesday.
“Overall, it’s a very usual farm bill for what’s an unusually bad farm economy right now,” says Andrew Bahrenburg, NYFC’s national policy director. He sees the bill as imperfect, but better for their lobbying efforts. It includes many wins for young farmers, like increased funding for farmers’ markets and coordinators in all 50 states to provide outreach and assistance to new farmers.
Brian Estes, a 33-year-old NYFC memberfrom Washington state, says the group’s day of lobbying in DC, which involved flying in farmers from all over the country, showed how many young people are interested not just in agriculture but in changing policy.
Still, Estes would like to see the government do more to level the playing field between large agribusiness and small independent farmers. “Profit margins are going in one direction, and it’s to a small pool of folks who are very well-resourced,” he says.
When going back to the land fails
At the dawn of the 1970s, amid growing consciousness of environmental degradation and unrest over the war in Vietnam, young people were feeling the urge to get back to the land – a kind of lived protest.
They organized themselves in loose collectives, started organic farms, experimented with communal gardens and tried out alternative living arrangements in defiance of monogamy’s restrictions. But these new ways of living presented their own challenges and in the years that followed, many would revert to more conventional lifestyles.
Back-to-the-landers (of whom Bernie Sanders was one) were dismissed, as millennial farmers today may be, as unrealistic dreamers (Hillary Clinton, long before her presidential matchup with Sanders, dismissed the movement as “mental masturbation”: an interesting exercise in philosophy, perhaps, but no way to live in the world).
Even Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden helped inspire future generations to live closer to nature, failed at self-reliance in many ways, and has been derided for accepting home-cooked meals from his mother and entertaining visitors, since his little cabin at the pond was actually quite close to a busy railroad, not isolated as his text suggests.
Similar things haunted the young idealists I spoke with. One farmer guiltily confided that he still buys ice cream at the store, while another told me of the time she “scandalously” purchased broccoli rabe out of season.
Five years ago, Sarah Silverman, inspired by a classic homesteading text, The Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom the Washington Post once called “the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement”, left urban life in the California Bay Area.
She and her husband bought a half-acre plot of land in Forestville, California. Some friends built them a chicken coop as a wedding present and they filled it with chickens; they got a dog, a second cat.
They returned to Oakland earlier this year.
The initial challenges set in like a series of plagues: rats, termites, wasps, a huge ant colony. The septic system needed to be replaced, foundation had to be treated, first for subterranean termites and later, for flying ones. “We killed black widows and knocked down wasps’ nests and were constantly trying to seal up holes to rat-proof our home,” she recalls. They didn’t succeed: when rats chewed through the dishwasher water line, they had to fix it; the rats then chewed through their heating ducts, so they had to replace those too.
Between all the repairs and each working full-time jobs, they found little time for gardening or tending chickens. “We were working to pay for our mortgage and still buying our produce at the grocery store but feeling really guilty about it because we had this big garden plot,” Silverman, 34, says.
Meanwhile the community of other young homesteaders they’d imagined never materialized. “The pressure is really intense there because farm jobs do not pay enough so people had to have off-farm jobs working part-time or full-time. That kind of pressure made it hard to get together with people because people are strapped for money and time,” she says.
Now that they’ve moved back to the Bay Area with their new baby, things are so much easier Silverman says they’re like kids in a candy shop. “We felt like the city was calling us back and we were actually city people all along,” she says. “We just needed this experience to teach us that.”
It doesn’t work for everyone, or perhaps, for most. But 1970s-era experiments shouldn’t be completely written off, as their positive legacies abound, including an enthusiasm for fresh and organic foods, a thriving artisanal market and a growing commitment to clean energy.
Thoreau’s ideas also have their place. His living set-up, while not as self-reliantly monastic as he made it out to be, did provide the conditions for the creation of his masterpiece, even if his work was probably aided by his mom’s home-cooked meals and proximity to rail.
It’s been called hypocrisy, but it might better be described a lesson: do as Thoreau did, not as he said.
Originally published by The Guardian on Dec. 17, 2018