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Second-Career Farms: the Future of Agriculture?

As people begin to develop a renewed interest in where their food comes from [1], 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 [2]:

‘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 [3], 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 [4] 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.

Follow @gracyolmstead [5]

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#1 Comment By a Zook On July 22, 2014 @ 8:20 am

If you can, buy their product – forgo the big-box and buy whatever you can from these people. We need them and we need the culture they will bring.

#2 Comment By John On July 22, 2014 @ 8:43 am

In the county where I grew up in eastern West Virginia, the farm acreage has slowly but steadily given way to housing developments. On one level, this is a function of the market determining the highest and best use for the land. On another, it’s the kids of these farm families wanting different lives for themselves – more money and fewer hours worked.

If farming is profitable, it’s usually because some prior generation of owners made long-lasting capital investments from which current owners reap the benefits, like the father in the Narratively piece who owns the equipment needed to raise feed grain for his son’s dairy cows. The children of these farmers can build on their parents’ experience and hard work, but only if they choose to.

#3 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On July 22, 2014 @ 11:31 am

As a Loudoun County native (left long ago) I have to LOL sadly at this. The last of the original sons of the soil sold out in the Reagan era so that big, tacky houses on 10 acre lots could cover the countryside where I used to roam and shoot Black Angus cows with air rifles. Now the same county government is flogging the concept of boutique truck-farms as picturesque hobby-career for the art-yuppie sons and daughters of the original exurban McMansionites.

#4 Comment By SteveM On July 22, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

Sadly, I think this is another example of what used to be the middle class scrambling to make money any way possible because there are few decent wage jobs available.

There was a story in the New York Times a couple of years about some recently graduated Millennials from NYU who took unpaid internships on an organic farm. I.e., they lived in tents and worked as field hands for free.

They rationalized/romanticized working for free because it was an organic farm. The farmer on the other hand was all business. The college educated “intern” labor was even cheaper than the basement wage Hispanics he would have had to hire instead.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 22, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

I have had friends whose parents were farmers. I have done farm work. I love the outdoors. The early morning roust ups.

I even enjoyed the work. Hard as it was. Early family breakfasts . . .

And this is not the family farm in which the land has long since been paid for.

But as a life — all that equipment costs big money and big money to maintain. I love country side life, just doubtful I would love to live it.

But it sure is nice to walk out in the open and not see another house for miles and miles.

#6 Comment By Bart W On July 22, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

I live in south Alabama 2/3 of the farms have gone and farm land has shrunk but the output has increased. The number of hobby farms have shot up. Almost all have other jobs part time or full time. I myself have a garden big enough to feed my family and most of my friends with fresh produce year round. I just know I could never make a living doing it.

#7 Comment By daniel m On July 22, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

As a 30 year old produce farmer in the midst of my seventh growing season, I can relate to the difficulty of making a career of farming, but I also am thankful to have started young and see that I have a lifetime of knowledge to gain and accumulate and maybe it won’t be until my childrens generation takes over that we have the required experience and infrastructure to be sustaining. All this to say, great for anyone starting a farm later in life, but the cost is so high physically, financially and emotionally I wonder if they can succeed.

#8 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 22, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

The second career is by now a fully developed phenomenon. Why not farming? It’s a choice, and as far as I’m concerned anything that keeps farming alive, and provides an alternative to agribusiness dominated by multinationals, is a good thing.

#9 Comment By Benjamin P. Glaser On July 22, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

Farming has never been a largely profitable endeavor.

There is a reason why subsistence farmers have always been among the poorest of the poor.

#10 Comment By Mr. Mike On July 22, 2014 @ 8:46 pm

One reason why it’s hard to make a living on a small farm is because you cannot slaughter, butcher and, sell the mean from the animals you raise. Farmers should be able to sell their own meat directly to consumers. I could see not letting them sell to commercial concerns like stores and, restaurants, but directly on the farm to someone like me! Some scientists might balk, but I don’t know if they are really correct or just being Captain Safety! I’m sure the slaughter houses and, big meat concerns don’t want a new source of competition.

#11 Comment By Dylan On July 22, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

I have to agree with Myron Hudson. Perhaps it often is a hobby or a “boutique lifestyle choice” by the descendants of those yuppies to whom the “real farmers” sold out, as the unworthy craftsman contends. But at this point, you ain’t gonna get much else in the realm of an “alternative to agribusiness dominated by multinationals.”
I’m sure it’s very hard, and a lot of these second-careerers start out holding romantic notions and end up discovering they aren’t really up to it. I’ve held romantic notions about farming myself — I haven’t actually tried living that lifestyle, and it’s very possible I’d fail at it.
But there are those that are up to it and do succeed — I’ve met a few of them. And I can’t think that there’s anything at all wrong with that.

#12 Comment By rebecca On July 23, 2014 @ 10:54 am

Sustainable farming methods are often hard to install because of certain government regulations that go overboard; see [6].

Mr. Mike, I live in Tennessee, and recently directly purchased meat from one of the many cattle farmers in the state that do this. One may purchase a whole animal, a half or a large group of pieces, as I did. There are state regulations that require the meat to be harvested & processed in a registered USDA-credentialed facility (from page 5 of [7]: “Animals must be processed at a USDA-inspected facility that is credentialed for the animal species to
be processed. Meat must be properly processed, packaged and labeled under USDA inspection (according to USDA requirements for commerce). That is, the meat must be federally inspected and properly labeled according to state and federal requirements for retail sales.”

There are allowances for custom harvesting (i.e. slaughter) and processing of meat, but such meat is not allowed for sale; it is only to be consumed by the owner and his/her guests. These facilities are not subject to daily federal inspection, but still must be registered with the USDA and are subject to the same federal humane harvest regulations as USDA-credentialed facilities. According to the same document as quoted above, there are currently 150 custom harvesting/processing facilities in Tennessee.

Many of my coworkers (at a large chemical manufacturing plant) grew up on farms, and still farm on the side. One of the major plant engineers has a large cattle farming operation on the side and sells sides of beef (slaughtered according to regulations) to several of us coworkers.

This is not a perfect scenario, but it still is great from the consumer as well as farmer end that direct purchase of meat is so widely available around here. And this does not count the large number of egg/chicken farms and vegetable farms in the area that sell directly to the consumer or through farmer’s markets, CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture), etc.

#13 Comment By Chris On July 23, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

Wow so many nah-sayers, been-there-before, did this did that. You really think that the factory food system we have in place is helping any aspects of people’s lives in this country? You haven’t looked into it enough.

So what if these people fail, so what if they didn’t grow up doing this, they are obviously looking towards a brighter future and working on something to help people get better and more nutritious food.

Maybe they don’t turn a profit or maybe they use their previous business skills (that not alot of farmers have) and put them to good work. Maybe it puts a giant smile on their face day to day – is that worth more than money?