As people begin to develop a renewed interest in where their food comes from, many young people and urbanites are seeking out agricultural lifestyles, giving up desk jobs for tractors and field work. But it’s difficult to kickstart a profitable farm, especially as a primary career.
A new initiative in Virginia is striving to help these new farmers—even while encouraging them not to quit their day job. Created through a partnership between Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office, and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development, the new program targets Loudoun County residents who are launching second careers in agriculture. Program coordinator Jim Hilleary explained to the Washington Post:
‘Across the nation, there’s this recognition that there is a new type of farmer emerging, and that is generally a second-career farmer,’ he said. ‘Virginia Tech realized that, and they drafted a curriculum for beginning farmers. And what we’ve done here locally is to take part of that statewide curriculum, localize it and apply it to the residents here in Loudoun County.’
These second-career farmers, says the Post, now “account for the majority of new agricultural business owners in the county.” This model will probably continue to increase in popularity: even while a lot of mid-sized farms are suffering, there is a “growing army,” as the New York Times put it, of small local farms, springing up in response to the sprouting market for organic and locavore foods. But many of these aspiring agriculturists don’t know what they’re getting themselves into—and this where Hilleary’s program steps in:
Rather than delve into the technical elements of farming, the worksheet urges aspiring farmers to think more broadly about what they hope to accomplish and to thoroughly consider what a new agricultural venture will demand of spouses, children and other family members.
“That’s where I’d say that this is distinct from other introduction-to-farming programs,” Hilleary said. “It doesn’t teach you how to be a swine producer; it doesn’t teach you how to raise cattle. . . . Rather, it helps you develop a mind-set for the challenges that are to come. And if people say ‘This is not for us,’ then that’s a success, because we just saved them a lot of time and money.”
Modern farming, bombarded by federal regulations and certification requirements, can be an expensive endeavor—even if you only own a small farm. Aspiring farmers need a program like Hilleary’s to help them grapple with the real costs involved in their chosen vocation.
The article reminded me of a piece I read last year about the newest generation of farmers, and how they’re faring: Narratively published a feature about married couple Dan and Kate Marsiglio, who left their teaching jobs in 2005 to start an organic farm. Though they’ve made great improvements over the years, they’ve also found farming to be more difficult than hoped:
In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America. To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.
Eight years after they launched their farm, the Marsiglios are still barely breaking even, and all thought of retirement remains in the murky unknown. Meanwhile, the gritty everyday work of farming grows more wearing with every year.
It will be interesting to see how these new second-career farmers cope with the difficulties of the modern industry—and how they’re received by more established producers in their area. Hilleary mentioned the “raised eyebrows” that these young farmers can get from veteran family farmers, even while “newcomers might have misconceptions about established, conventional farmers.” Hilleary hopes the initiative will bind both groups together: “We want to help them understand that they are tied together by common goals, and they shouldn’t allow themselves to be in categories like old versus new or organic versus conventional,” he said.
The way Americans farm seems to be evolving at present—current growth represents a more decentralized mode of agriculture that seems popular and promising. It may be years or even decades before such endeavors turn into full-time work. But through initiatives like Hilleary’s, perhaps we will build a band of farmers who can confront these challenges head-on.