August 29, 2014

Meet the Future of Farming

by: Pamela Hess, photos by: Molly McDonald Peterson

There’s a crisis in farming: The average age of a farmer in the United States is between 57 and 59. Thirty percent of our farmers are beyond retirement age. And the USDA says we need 100,000 new farmers a year – that’s right, every year – to continue American food production at current levels.

Here, we turn those statistics on their head. Meet the new generation of farmers in the Capital Foodshed. The 29 local farmers under 40 on these pages combine a love for good food and hard work with scientific inquiry, bountiful philosophy, and, in most cases, a finely honed aversion to cubicles.

 * for the full interview from our young farmers and slideshow of the farmer photo shoot, click here *

The Farmer and The Cook
Forrest Pritchard and Nancy Polo, 37 & 38
Smith Meadows  – 490 acres
Berryville, Va.
Free-range cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens and turkeys, and handmade pastas and empanadas

“My one wish: That when people ask ‘Why is organic food so expensive?’ that they are then obligated to first answer the question: ‘Why is all the other food so cheap?’ One question has no meaning without the other, yet it is this first, and more salient question, that rarely gets answered.”  — Forrest

How and why did you become a farmer?
Forrest: “I grew up on our family farm.  I decided to become a farmer around age 19, and double majored in geology once I made that decision.  Every time I came home from college, I saw more and more farms disappearing, being bulldozed into townhouses or strip malls.  I vowed that I wouldn’t let that happen to our farm, or at least go down trying. Fifteen years later, I’ve never felt more optimistic about the future of farming.”

What do you love about being a farmer?
Nancy: “I love being part of a farm that is sustainable for the environment and brings real nutrition to busy families who work away from farms. I love knowing that the food I make in my kitchen makes several meals a week much easier for busy moms to put on the table.

 

The Cubicle Refugees
James and Holly Hammond, 34 & 29
Whisper Hill Farm – 3 acres
Rapidan, Va.
Vegetables, herbs, cut flowers

How did you become farmers?
Holly: “I left our family farm to attend college at Arizona State University.  When I left, I didn’t want anything to do with it.  I wanted to get away and experience the city life and all it had to offer.  Over time, I realized I missed green spaces and going out and eating food straight from the garden.”

James: “My wife and I started a community garden while living in Tempe, AZ.  My day job consisted of a sales position where I sat in a cubical on the phone all day. The garden became a source of inspiration as we fed ourselves, observed nature, and physically worked. Over time we began dreaming about gardening on a much larger scale.  We eventually decided to quit our city life in Arizona, move back East, and make a go of our own farm and a new way of life.”

 

The Accidental Farmer
Ethan Berry, 24
Belle Meade Farm – 150 acres
Sperryville, Va.
Rabbits, chickens (for meat and eggs), and produce (a little of everything)

“Most people say ‘Wow, really? You don’t look like a farmer.’”

Why did you become a farmer?:
“I needed to provide for my family and took a job with Belle Meade as a farm hand, and then discovered a passion for farming and the life style it provides for my family.”

What is your favorite time of day and why?
I don’t really have a favorite time of day, but if I would have to pick it would be lunch time because I am usually pretty hungry by then.”

 

The Chef
Mike Peterson, 28
Mount Vernon Farm – 830 acres
Sperryville, Va.
Grass-fed, grass-finished beef & lamb, pastured soy-free pork and eggs

How did you become a farmer?
“I came to Mount Vernon two and a half years ago for a six month internship from cooking at The Inn at Little Washington. I felt that it was my responsibility, as a chef, to have a deeper respect and understanding not only for the farmers that were growing the food I was using in restaurants, but also to gain an education on raising animals.”

What’s the hardest part?
“The toughest and the most rewarding are all in the same for me.  It’s a great feeling knowing that we have provided a great life for all of the animals on the farm, but whenever the time comes for each animal, it doesn’t make it any easier.  It’s a humbling experience knowing that an animal is giving its life to feed us.”

 

The Newlyweds
Jill & Buddy Powers, 25 & 23
Powers Farm (at Grey Gables Farm) – 227 acres
Swoope, Va.
Powersfarm.com
Pastured chickens, eggs and turkey, and a Polyface beef herd.

“I wish people understood about farming is that where they get their food from is a big deal.  Farming can be done in a lot of ways and most people, as of now, are not farming sustainably or healthily.  They should know there more and more people working to raise and grow the best stuff they can, and that is where they should be getting their food from.” — Buddy

How and why did you become farmers?
Jill: “The simplest answer is that I married into it…. We got married in April of this year and started farming right when we got back from our honeymoon. Talk about culture shock–laying on a beach in Jamaica one week and literally butchering chickens the next week! It was quite an adjustment, but I survived my first season as a farmer/farmer’s wife!”

 

The Environmentalists
Stacey Carlberg, 31
Casey Gustowarow, 30
Potomac Vegetable Farms (West) – 8 acres
Purcellville, Va.

Why did you become farmers?
Casey: “After graduating college with a degree in environmental biology and doing conservation work in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was not really sure what my next step was going to be…I had always had farming very far in the back of my mind.”

Stacey: “Farming combines my desire to do something worthwhile and meaningful with my body and mind, while meshing with my environmental ideals. I have a short commute to work. I get to teach other young folks (my workers) about farming every day. I get to be physically active. I am able to work with my partner. Together, we get to problem-solve and strategize. It’s never boring. And, at the end of the week, I get to see the fruits of my labor distributed amongst hundreds of customers. It is very tangible and satisfying.“

 

The Urban Agriculturalist
Meredith Sheperd, 28
Love & Carrots
Private gardens all over D.C. and the surrounding area

“Love & Carrots was created in an attempt to help steer the nation’s capital towards transforming from a ‘food desert’ into a food-productive space where everyone is taking part… I believe there are hundreds, maybe and hopefully thousands, of people in D.C. who have the space and would love to grow their own food but are intimidated, feel unprepared, or don’t have the time.”

What’s the goal of your farm?
“To open the option of a ‘reverse CSA’ with all the gardens I’ve installed. We would organize a weekly collection of extra produce from willing Love & Carrots gardens to deliver to food shelters.”

 

The City Girls
Lola Bloom and Rebecca Lemos, 32 & 32
City Blooms – Community green spaces all over the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Herbs , vegetables, annual and flowers.

What’s your goal as a farmer?
Rebecca: “Providing safe spaces and food in areas that are lacking both.”

What do you love about being a farmer?
Lola:  “I love learning things the hard way – there is no Internet site that will tell you the future, and so you have to live through it patiently and figure things out (like why cucumbers kept biting the dust this summer) as you go along.”

What’s your favorite vegetable?
Rebecca: “Arugula. Because 1. I like how unassuming it looks but it carries a punch (fun to taste right out of the ground with kids, it surprises them) 2.It’s other name is rocket, awesome 3. I met my significant other (a farmer) over a bed of arugula he was selling.”

 

The Boutique Farmer
Joneve Murphy, 31
The Inn at Little Washington, 1/4 acre
Washington, Va.
Vegetables and micro greens

“I would like for people to understand that the food in the grocery store isn’t real.  Vegetables don’t come out all the same size and color and blemish free, they are individuals, and the carrot that’s a little too short or the cucumber that curved a little while growing is just as good.”

What do people say when you tell them you are a farmer?
“Five years ago people would often ask if I got into it as a family business, and when I said no, I was often asked if I went to college, as if I could be doing something better with my education.  These days that all seems to be changing; the position seems to have become much more hip.”

 

The Ethicist and the Scholar
Andrew and Mary Kathryn Barnet, 25 & 27
Open Book Farm – 25 acres
Myersville, Md.
Pastured chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and vegetables.

“Local sustainable food does not have to be exorbitantly expensive–if you buy in bulk (or through a CSA), direct, you can buy food that is both ethically produced and affordably priced.  Farmers markets, especially in big cities, are often held up as proof that the local food movement is only for the wealthy.  But farmer’s markets are not the only way to buy good food!” — MK

How and why did you become a farmer?
Andrew: “At college, I was thinking hard about ethics, and I realized that I needed to know the effect I was having on the world in order to evaluate my actions. I was also becoming concerned about the pollution of land and water and the mistreatment of farm animals, so agriculture was a natural fit. I can see for myself that my animals are happy and my land healthy.”

MK: “I love living in the country.  I love the fact that I have neighbors who will drive their tractor over to help us pull out rocks; I love the lack of traffic as well as the fact that you occasionally get stuck behind old men driving their hay baler on the road between fields.  I love getting down on my hands and knees and seeing seedlings emerge. I love stopping on sunny days to scratch my dog in between tasks.”

What’s the hardest part about farming?
Andrew: “For me, the hardest part is trying not to worry. There are so many potential disasters beyond my control that I’d go crazy thinking about them all. An older farmer told me recently that worried farmers either quit farming or quit worrying. I’m hoping for the latter.”

 

The Legacy
Rob Moutoux,31
Moutoux Orchard -70 acres
Purcellville, Va.
Fruit trees, vegetables, dairy, lambs, pigs, chickens, and small grains

“I’ve been farming on my parents land the last 10 years, and just bought a farm of my own right next to theirs. I’m a third-generation farmer and have always loved it since a very young age.  I like spending my days outside.”

 

The Anthropologist
Maureen “Mo” Moodie, 28
Arcadia Farm – 4 acres
Woodlawn Estate, Alexandria, Va.
Vegetables, herbs and flowers

“I want to reconnect people with where their food comes from and what food actually is. I want to encourage and contribute to a landscape that is dotted with sustainable farmers serving their local economies and supporting themselves and their families. …It’s really hard to survive as a farmer and make a living. The food system is fundamentally broken and, as necessary consumers of food, we have the power to change that. “

Favorite vegetable?
“Beets because you can use the whole plant and I’ve tried really hard to grow great beets. I love thinning the seedlings for microgreens and storing and pickling the roots for the winter. I also love growing and eating green beans as it feels like farmer vindication for the pain they are to harvest!”

 

The Animal Lover
Donald Edmonds, 40
Edmonds Farm – 200 acres
Ottoman, Virginia
Grass-fed, free range, antibiotic/steroid free bison, hogs, ducks, chickens, rhea, goats.

“When you raise animals it is seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When calves need help you have to be there. When piglets drop in the rain and it is freezing out in the middle of the night you are there warming them up and making sure they are eating. It is not just a 9 to 5.”

Favorite season? 
“The fall, cooler weather. The bison like to play tag and run more in the evenings and you can sit on the porch and feel them through the earth as they run, and feel their breath in the air.”

The Businessman-Farmer
Michael Snow, 33
Willowsford Farm – 2.5 (now) to 250 acres (later)
Aldie, Va.
Veggies, fruit, and in the future eggs and meat

“Don’t wait: start by starting.  Grow some annuals, grow some perennials, take a few business classes, and most important build a grubstake.”

Goal?
“To grow great tasting food, in a way that I can feel good about. And to not have to worry about money.”

Favorite vegetable?
“I do like the daikon radish…”

 

The Hippie and the Country Boy
Erica Hellen & Joel Slezak, 26 & 27
Free Union Grass Farm – 40-50 acres
Free Union, Va.
Chickens for meat and eggs, ducks for meat, and beef cattle

How did you become farmers?
Erica: “I was a wayward environmentalist at hippie school Warren Wilson College… discovered that food was the big black hole in the environmental movement and derived so much fulfillment and meaning from growing my own food.  Interned at farms in Oklahoma (her motherland), North Carolina, and at Polyface and Caromont Farm in Va., met Joel and made a go of it.”

Joel: “I grew up milking Jersey cows on his family’s land in Free Union.  I wanted to take control of (my) food supply… and decided raising chickens was the way to start.  I met Erica while delivering meat from Polyface, then kindled a farmer-romance while she worked at Caromont.  Decided to jump right in! Also, we both hate bosses.”

What do you love?
“The contrast between being really poor and eating extremely luxurious meals.  Being outside all the time.  Having no guilt about what I did with my day.”

Favorite season?
Erica: “Summer because it’s hot!!!! And you can farm in a bikini.”

The Educator
Sarah Bernardi, 38
The Farm at Walker Jones school – 1 acre
The corner of New Jersey and K Streets NW, D.C.
Vegetables, berries, herbs, bee hives, and a small fig and persimmon orchard.

“A lot of people ask me what I’ll do in the winter, to which I usually respond…rest.”

Goal?
“To inspire the kids at school, their families and the people that live nearby to eat more vegetables by introducing them to new ones, teaching them how to grow them and cooking them up for them! At our farm, we want to create a space where kids not just from our school, but from schools all over the city, can come to connect to the earth, be inspired, and begin to assume some responsibility for their own health and the health of the planet, all while learning about sustainable agriculture.”

 

The Aesthete
Emily Cook, 36
The Farm at Sunnyside – 40 acres
Washington, Va.
Organic vegetables, organic apples, Asian pears, blackberries.

“Secret organic farmer food fetish: Cheetos.”

Why did you become a farmer?
“I blame a cucumber, and my mother. She had just moved into D.C. and I had just moved home from college.  My mom had a headache so sent me out to buy cucumbers for her taboulleh salad.  She said, ‘You can turn left and go to the Safeway, or turn right and there’s this little farmer’s market.’  I turned right and found New Morning Farm’s farmer’s market at the Sheridan School at 34th and Alton Pl., NW.  I was amazed — I had never seen anything so beautiful.

What do people say when you tell them you are a farmer?
“’Oh, that’s wonderful!’ This often makes me want to kick them in the shins. Come pick tomatoes in 110 degree heat and tell me how wonderful it is.”

 

The Bee Farmer
Cy Bearer, 29
Bearer Farms – 19 acres
Louisa, Va.
Japanese Maples, figs, and honey

“I’ve always known that being outdoors was the secret to being happy. And I’ve learned that actually producing something and then taking it to market is an extremely rewarding way to make a living. Working on parts of things can be unfulfilling.”

What do you love about being a farmer?
Being a beekeeper forces me into a meditative state at least once a day. And for all the hard work of operating a small farm, it makes a certain portion of my day fairly blissful.

What’s the hardest part about it?
There is always something to do. I feel like I’m never finished. It’s a shiny problem considering I really do love what I do.

 

The Family Farmers
Shawna DeWitt and Attila Agoston, 36 & 40
Mountain View Farm – 53
Neersville, VA
Certified organic vegetables and pastured raised meats.

“We fell into farming after our first internship.  We didn’t even realize such a lifestyle was possible until we tasted it.”

What don’t people know or understand about farming that you wish they would?
“It’s endless work but there is also an endless amount of arenas you need to research and be knowledgeable in…soil science, meteorology, marketing, politics, business, animal husbandry (vet care!)…that’s the best part about this career.”

Favorite time of day? 
“Dusk…the day is over, we’re all in the garden enjoying the light, harvesting vegetables for dinner. The kids are running around the farm and it all seems right.”

 

The True Believers
Zachary and Sara Miller, 28
Timbercreek Farm – 300 acres
Charlottesville, Va.
Chicken, eggs (though not necessarily in that order) beef, and pork

“Every time you purchase a product you vote for how your food is produced, so consider closely the criteria that you apply when you buy food.  The example that best illustrates this issue is the one of price.  When you purchase farm produce using the criteria of price you send the farmer one message: ‘Use the cheapest possible production methods to bring me the item that I want at the lowest possible price I don’t care about the collateral damage or the diminished quality.

“If you demand more from your food, farmers will deliver.  And if it costs more it’s because the real cost of quality food production is more.  Believe me, there isn’t a farmer I’ve met yet that’s making a killing being a farmer. “

If you weren’t a farmer what would you be?
Zachary: “Sad and directionless.”

Pamela Hess is the editor of Flavor.

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Comments

  1. Eric Becker says:

    Hmmm…. They’re all white?!? There aren’t any up-and-coming non-white farmers in the DC foodshed? I doubt that very much.

  2. KH says:

    I am disappointed that the author of this article failed to highlight the growing amount of farmers of color. In fact, just recently the NYT posted an article about the growing number of immigrant farmers emerging from the woodwork, harvesting and selling organic produce across the country.

    I am an Indian woman adopted into this country. For the past few years I have been immersed in the politics of food justice and have even grown my own garden of vegetables. Beyond that I have worked on two farms, one run exclusively by Native Americans in Minnesota.

    Our society needs to flip it’s perception of the farmer. Not all farmers are white. The future of farming is, in fact, more colorful than your article depicts. Here is a short list of organizations and people who reflect my sentiments:

    http://www.blackfarmers.org/

    http://browngirlfarming.com/

  3. Grog says:

    Real farmers wear plaid.

  4. Diana Boeke says:

    My husband and I just finished our first season as new, full-time farmers. Lots of reading, lots of enthusiasm, very little hands-on experience, but we relate to almost everything everyone above says about this lifestyle, and the importance of food. We’d had enough of the rat race, and just quit our jobs and started farming. Not sure if we qualify as young, as I’m past 40 and he’s getting there, but we pretend we have that kind of energy! Our farm is Glean Acres, in Madison, Virginia. We have just over 5 acres, but we aim to make a living with chickens (meat), vegetables, and small fruits.

  5. rachel says:

    Thank you. I really enjoyed reading this :) The article made me think of the young organic farmers in our area. It’s wonderful to see and know that there are many others! Also very inspiring.

  6. Jessica says:

    This is awesome. As a young couple raising our children on a farm and solely supporting ourselves with it, it is great to see the other young couples trying to do the same thing! This is inspirational. Thank you!

  7. Bob Dobbs JR says:

    what a shame that this little story turned into something so ugly like a race riot. i guess being politically correct is more important than the fact that we (or, at least, our children) will eventually starve to death because not enough people (black, white, red, yellow, purple, etc) are going to be growing our food. we’ll be too busy pointing out the fact that “the poor forgotten (insert neglected minority here) didn’t get mentioned in some little article that at least 23 people are going to read!”

    quit whining and go plant a garden!

    p.s. i’m kind of mad that my Eskimo brothers and sisters didn’t get a mention for not being mentioned. HATERS!!!!

  8. Steve says:

    Not only are they all white, but they appear to be all straight. Where are the gay and lesbian farmers?

    • Amanda says:

      To you they may all appear to be straight, but I personally know that isn’t the case. While I do wish this article highlighted a greater diversity (of all kinds) in the future of farming, the most important point to take away is that these people are doing good work to make sure our communities continue eating healthy local foods.

  9. Stan Doric says:

    Inspirational sure would be beneficial for schools to have class tours.

  10. Cate says:

    I don’t think I saw anything in those interviews about the impediments they’ve had to surmount, including government regulations, inspectors/inspections, enviros against beef & poultry farming, etc. What’s needed is to tell people about the obstacles they’ll face and how to get around them. People can come up with their own fairy dust and rainbows.

  11. Pamela Hess says:

    Hi Eric and KH — thanks for logging in. We invited 46 farmers, including five black farmers (one grape grower, and then a mix of produce and livestock farmers). All the farmers we contacted were invited to forward the invitation to their farming friends because we know there are many folks in our food shed doing great work whom we don’t know about yet. Our only requirements was that they be 40 years old or younger and be raising food rather than commodity crops. The 29 farmers in this issue were the ones who responded to the invitation and who were able to make the photo shoot in Sperryville, Va.

    Thanks, KH, for the resources.
    And thanks for reading Flavor. We really appreciate your feedback.

    Best,
    Pam

  12. Erin & Chase says:

    Very inspirational to see so many young farmers delving into the farming lifstyle! We are looking into taking the plunge and getting our hands dirty soon! Looking for any advice and insight anyone might have for two young people!

  13. Scott says:

    Add to the list of (potential) obstacles the expanding use/abuse of eminent domain powers by local (Purcellville Town Council), regional (Loudoun County BOS; Roanoke Housing Auth.) and state authorities to forcibly wrest land from land owners to support non-public/special interests. Purcellville alone has done this against five properties in recent years, and shortly expects to slice up a working 200-year old farm. Read the recent Flavor article ‘Paving Paradise’.

  14. Good article,glad to see young farmers in any color.I’m black and i really don’t care what color you are as long as you get off your butt and get your boots on the ground!Keep on farming and ranching!!!

  15. Tom K. says:

    Its not just about whether or not there are farmers of color represented here. Research the background of the places or “farms” that these people come from or work at. Nobody can remotely afford land in this part of Virginia, but the developer who owns 4000 acres is so noble to allow some “businessman-farmer” the chance to grow a little garden for their millionaire clients with a 2000 acres “preservation” area. In other words, i.e. cant make money on that so they double the price for the developed land. Mountain View Farm is another one. Owned by wealthy investors, its a write off for them. Altruism and capitalism are often polar opposites, and now all the real estate speculators are scrambling to create farms to ease the tax burden on over priced land they cant develop. Most of these people in the article have so many unstated advantages that they couldn’t do any of this without them. But you will never hear that in an article b/c farming is so “cool” now. I know, I’m a real farmer who doesn’t have gobs of money being thrown at me. I have to survive like the rest of the real black and white Americans…..

    • Pam says:

      Hi Tom:
      The young farmers we featured in our winter issue (“real Americans” all) work their land under many different financial arrangements. Some farm land that has been in their families for generations; others lease land under long-term leases (long-term if they are lucky); some are contract farmers, receiving a salary for working the land for that season but have no stake in it or job guarantee otherwise. Still others work as farmers for non-profits that have secondary missions (for instance, in education.)

      The common tie is their commitment to working the land sustainably — and the fact that none of them are getting rich farming. Agricultural tax breaks, while sometimes abused by people who exploit loopholes in the law, are meant to make it possible for farms to continue to exist even in the face of galloping real estate prices, which we think is a good thing in general. Indeed, the city of Virginia Beach has a novel program that pays farmers not to develop their land — nearly a third of the oceanfront city remains in agricultural use because of it.

      Thanks for reading and your comment.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called for 100,000 new farmers a year across the nation. In the foodshed surrounding Washington, D.C., a young generation of farmers—a diverse mix including educators, chefs and budding entrepreneurs—is rising to meet this [...]

  2. [...] of which, check out this great article on some local farmers in VA Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  3. [...] Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak were featured in Flavor Magazine’s “Meet the Future of Farming” Issue. Self-described as “two farmer/foodies who decided to join passions and make a go of [...]

  4. [...] Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak were featured in Flavor Magazine’s “Meet the Future of Farming” Issue. Self-described as “two farmer/foodies who decided to join passions and make a go of [...]

  5. [...] Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak were featured in Flavor Magazine’s “Meet the Future of Farming” Issue. Self-described as “two farmer/foodies who decided to join passions and make a go of [...]

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