A new generation of farmers

by Stephen Bramwell

This article was originally published in October 2006

People at Hogsback Farm

From left to right, Sarah, Amy, 3-year-old Liesl with Quincy the dog, and another farm intern in front of the farmstand at Hogsback Farm.

(October 2006) — The pioneers of sustainable agriculture were marked by a combination of daring chutzpa, cultural irreverence, environmental sensibility and opposition-be-damned determination.

Some just wanted to work at home and raise kids in a healthy environment. If nothing else, persistence demonstrated that raising healthy food for community consumption, while not very profitable, still could be a fundamental American occupation.

In the last 10 years, this conviction has rubbed off significantly on aspiring student-farmers, young and old alike.

Class in the raspberry patch
My own education in sustainable agriculture got started in the spring of 2003 when I packed up my things in the Wallingford district of Seattle, drove to the Fauntleroy ferry and crossed Puget Sound to Vashon Island and Hogsback, a three-acre organic farm.

In the years since, I moved from place to place picking up different pieces of agricultural education: crop management, greenhouse operations, animal husbandry, soil science and so forth. Not least, I pulled weeds and harvested long rows of produce with dozens of individuals working, learning and inevitably joining in one form or another the broadening educational base for sustainable agriculture in the region.

We were in effect student-farmers going to market, going to “class” in raspberry patches, and learning the virtues of seasonality, locality and fresh eating.

I began to see the expanding, informal network for education as the most exciting element of the sustainable food movement (my discovery of Red Brandywine tomatoes aside). After all, a land ethic in the philosophical sense could be difficult to grasp, but the value of fresh and healthy food, grown for a neighbor, gives environmental sensibility a homey familiarity.

Willing and able
Mary Embleton is the director of Washington’s Farmlink program, a matchmaking service for farmers and prospective farmers trying to connect with one another in the state. Asked whether farming is dying, Mary gives a resounding “No! I’ve got the numbers to prove it,” she says.

About 300 prospective farmers and 45 landowners currently are enrolled with Farmlink. Not a groundswell breaking down doors to get back to the farm but an encouraging sign nonetheless.

Mary gets the full gamut of modern back-to-the-landers through her office, and they aren’t the cranks they once were made out to be. They are Internet technology professionals, nutritionists and plenty of young people. “Some are the rosy-eyed set,” says Mary. “I send them off to an apprenticeship.”

The Washington Tilth organization provides the most comprehensive Web site in the state for farm internship opportunities. I know this firsthand as I visited the site for the first time in the fall of 2002. After jotting down a few addresses for farms on Vashon Island, a friend and I took off on our bicycles for an autumn tour.

I wandered onto Hogsback farm that fall just as Amy, the principle farmer, was orchestrating a tricky maneuver enabling her then 3-year-old daughter, Liesl, to pee in the autumn leaves without getting her legs wet. We talked and looked around the 2½-acre farm and 14-acre piece of land. Amy showed me the fields and the cabin for interns on the ravine, tucked among the yellowing alders and autumn fog. I ended up staying on for almost two years.

In March of 2006 I returned to Hogsback to meet with Amy and a long-time friend of mine, Brian, who, for the 2005-06 growing seasons, was undertaking the same intern-to-manager program I took on in the 2003-04 growing seasons. Brian and Amy assessed flats of salad greens, broccoli and flowers, and scarcely had the attention to answer questions.

A one-time and short-term air-conditioner saleswoman, Amy is in my mind representative of the type of person returning to sustainable agriculture today. Today’s new farmers come down many paths, but almost any skill earnestly cultivated seems capable of being bent to the task of growing food: attention to detail, physical rigor, sociability, saleswomanship and many others.

The 2006 farming season was not unique at Hogsback in that the farm attracted more interns than it could accommodate. Caitlin, the new first-year intern, had taken over the alder-ravine cabin, which she affectionately named “the shabin” for its cross between a shack and a cabin. The “chop wood, carry water” mentality may not be for everyone but, economically speaking, creativity in arranging farm-intern relationships — including housing — has been a financial boon for farmers and an educational boon for aspiring farmers.

Family farming: to the dustbin and back again
Caitlin is from Grandview, Wash. (across the river from Prosser), where her grandparents settled years ago. As with other young people, her family was bewildered and concerned with her move to the farm. (“You’re going to do what with your college degree?”) Finances were not the least of their concerns.

The visible trend in agriculture over the last 50 years is that of American people fleeing the countryside as from a sinking ship. So, a passion for farming among people like Caitlin makes an interesting point about the changing culture of agriculture.

Today, with less than 2 percent of the population farming and with the average farmer about 55, I wonder: why was farming so intolerable, or made to appear so intolerable, that a generation of Americans felt compelled to skip out, especially when a generation later young people are trickling back into the fields with little more than a strong arm, a sense of adventure and a cavalier disregard for poverty? Has farming become more appealing, or the alternative less so? Or both?

Active work, self-employment and more
Will Hollingbery’s family runs a fruit farm in the lower Yakima Valley. Asked whether he’ll take over, Will gives an apt appraisal of the gamble that mainstream agriculture has become (and an apt interpretation of why so many have left the countryside). “If it’s there, man, I’ll farm.”

His prerogative is not easily understood. Among students at our state’s land grant institution — Washington State University — communications and business majors far outweigh agricultural majors. Furthermore the undergraduate and graduate students that are enrolled in ag programs are tending to non-production fields like ag technology, research and education. Even the “Farm House,” the agricultural fraternity on campus, seems to have little more than a cowboy hat in common with actual farming.

But for people like Will, Caitlin and a few committed farmers at the Farm House and in the new WSU organic program, the writing is on the wall: in what other occupation can a person work out-of-doors, be self-employed and physically active, eat their work and, if farming without chemicals, watch the demand for their product jump through the roof?

The obstacles are daunting: the price of land, start-up capital and housing. Off-farm employment (or an inheritance) is almost a prerequisite to a livable farming income. Yet, a cultural warming to the necessity of healthy farms is creating real opportunities for prospective farmers. Land Trusts, collective land-ownership schemes, community buy-in to acquire capital, and programs like Washington Farmlink help mitigate the barriers.

“The social situation for agriculture has changed totally since the 1970s,” says David Granatstein, a WSU extension agent in Wenatchee. David moved to a secluded farm in the North Cascades from upstate New York in the early ‘70s. “We didn’t have the support back then that you have today,” he says.

Speaking on this topic to a group of alternative agriculturalists in Spokane in 1974, Wendell Berry, a Kentucky writer/farmer/teacher, summed up the situation at the time. “The constituency for a better kind of agriculture is as yet powerless because it has no coherent vision of what is possible. It is (in 1974) without the language that will make it coherent.”

The entry of Big Box and Big Corporate Organic into the movement and the effusive, even abusive use of the word ‘natural’ exposes a little of what has happened between that time and now. Maybe now we have the language and need to generate thoughtful activity to back it up.

Navigating the mainstream
While pressure on the integrity of good farming practices cannot be taken lightly, changing times generate unexpected forms of thoughtfulness.

A good example was the June 20 morning interview on The Bob Rivers’ Show(102.5 KZOK). Out of the shock-effect banter for rush hour, the soundtrack of the old TV show about a farming couple, “Green Acres,” chimed in.

The theme song was Mr. Rivers’ way of introducing the coming conversation on the significance of the new organic major at WSU. He recalled advice given to a young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” The job of the future, Braddock was told, was in plastic. “But in 2006,” Rivers quipped, “The future is organics!”

Wendell Berry probably wouldn’t have anticipated this exchange among the details that, in his words, “produce the sweat and results” of a better kind of agriculture. But a conversation on the meaning of the nation’s first organic agriculture degree program (at WSU) during morning traffic in downtown Seattle is a notable sign of the times. After all, a sustainable agricultural system will be possible only when popular culture is transformed by individual commitments to a livable future in how people choose to eat and grow food.

With this in mind it’s encouraging to see that environmental ideals are indeed spawning a language for mainstream consumption. While the upcoming farmers I spoke to are philosophically motivated, they also believed that “… it doesn’t need to be an altruistic thing we’re doing. Fresh food comes to you locally in nice varieties, and it tastes better on your dinner plate.”

Brian Lowry, the 2006 Hogsback manager, believes that eating well is “the easiest, most straightforward way to get more people more aware.”

Thankfully, 30 years and a pioneering corps of sustainable farmers have had a tremendous impact on the dinner plate, the countryside and the farming opportunities for today’s (and tomorrow’s) farmers in Washington state. For those of us eager to get back on the land, this progress is a sign of good things to come.

Stephen Bramwell is an M.S. candidate in soil sciences at Washington State University, researching livestock-crop rotations for organic farms.

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