Learning to Farm

In the not so distant past, the main mode of gaining farming knowledge was by growing up in a farming family. The mothers and fathers of little farm kids everywhere imparted their knowledge to their offspring for generations. In this way, families knew their land intimately, the children’s knowledge of farming practices was nearly intuitive and land, machinery, livestock and outbuildings were passed down generation to generation. However, the days of the family farm have all but come to an end. People who grew up on farms are increasingly moving from rural areas into more urban centers. The median age of farmers has increased steadily while the number of farmers has decreased. The U.S. census doesn’t even list farming as an occupation any more.

So, what is going to happen to small scale American farms? 

This is what small-scale sustainable agriculture looks like!

I just finished a few days of farm sitting at one of my favorite farms: Sun Circle Farm (I blogged about that farm before, here)!  It is run by woman fairly new to the farming scene.  I work for Amanda, a 25 year old farmer who has been learning how to farm and farming for the last four years.  At the farmer’s market, about half of the farmers are first generation and have been farming for less than a decade.  These farmers are amazing, and as an educator, I can only wonder, how did they learn to farm without growing up on farms?  The resounding answer is experience!  This experience includes both experience working on farms as well as learning from others’ experiences on farms.
Sasha helping me learn the ropes. 
Beginning farmers are not new, but their numbers are increasing. According to the U.S. Government, they are those farmers who have farmed for less than ten years on farms that are 1/3 the size of the median farm in the county.  More commonly these days, the Beginning Farmer is one who did not grow up on a farm. Just like some farm kids want to become big city lawyers, some big city kids have always had an attraction to the hard work and expansive skies of farming. As the trend of agriculture moves away from the traditional family farm, the role of Beginning Farmers is becoming increasingly more important and support of these farmers is more necessary. While Beginning Farmers aren’t new, the rise in interest in farming among young people in recent years has helped reverse a scary trend that seemed to be leading to the end of non-corporate run agriculture in our country.
“Small-scale farms foster diversity!” Says Maybe, enjoying open pasture.
All life moves in continuous cycles of growth and decay. Life, both large (think the universe) and small (think amoeba) and everything in between, starts out as nothing–but a twinkle in the eye of an ancestor. Then, it grows to its maximum potential before decaying and dying, returning to nothing. Some cycles are so fast or so slow that change is imperceptible. This same cycle can be seen in individuals as well as groups. It can be seen in physical life as well as intellectual and social lives. Agriculture has also followed this cycle. We can look at it on a farm by farm basis as well as the industry as a whole.
“We prepare great beds for integrated farming methods!” The pigs remind me.
On a farm by farm basis, we can see that a single farm most likely started out as a small enterprise. Maybe a farm started out as a homestead or vegetable garden and then grew to be a farm. As the farm grew, the farmer hired more workers and purchased more equipment. Soon the demand for goods forces a farm to grow quickly to keep up with expectations, this might mean destroying land, water and soil in the name of profit, or buying out weak farmers nearby (lowering the number of farmers as well as the diversity of farmers in an area). It seems like a lot of these farmers get to a point where they are largely run by corporations and are vastly different from the farms they once were. It is no wonder a child growing up in a “farm family” like this isn’t loyal to the farm and has no yearning to pursue agriculture. Eventually the large corporate farm moves in a straight line, blind to its chemical outputs, blind to the nutrition content in the produce coming out of the land, wholly focused on quantity and profit.  This Big, Bad, Blind mode of agriculture cannot last, and these farms will eventually perish due to unproductive waters and soils and a lack of interested workers.
Small scale farms have small scale machinery and enthusiastic interns!
As a whole industry, the size of farms have grown as the number of farmers have decreased and their ages increased. With larger farms comes heavy mechanization of seeding, cultivating and harvesting. I do love a nice tractor, but some of the large machinery used in monoculture crops is scary and irresponsible.  Some of our most productive agricultural lands are being sorely mismanaged (at least in my opinion).  Even organic agriculture is taking its toll on our resources.  This is due to rising corporatization of organic production.  While an organic factory farm is far less damaging to resources than a conventional farm, there is still a lot we can do and ARE doing!  I know I’ve said this before–but small scale, organic, sustainable farms are the future of agriculture.  The food from these farms might seem outrageously expensive at times, but the taste, nutrients and peace of mind that come with the food more than make up for the price difference. Pair those intangibles with your own vegetable garden, goats, backyard hens or some other home-grown goodies and the cost seems more bearable.
This salad mix is tastier, healthier and prettier than ANYTHING you can get at the grocery.  It also has a flower, does Dole do that for you?
Who is going to manage these farms and how will they learn?  Well, hopefully we’ll still have some young family farmers to keep up their families’ farms, but new crops of young farmers need to learn and are being taught in increasing numbers.  I for one, did not grow up on a farm!  We did have a larger than average vegetable garden for our suburban town.  My father was the tender of the garden while my mother was the animal lover (we never had much in the way of farm animals, but we heard about them a lot).  However, farming as an occupation wasn’t ever on my radar until I went to college. There I volunteered some time on a couple of small farms, took a horticulture class, and worked for a small bed and breakfast with an attached farm.  However, if I had tried to farm after this it would have been a comical disaster.  If I tried to farm on my own, now, it would still be a comical disaster (hopefully a bit less comical).  My present work on Spring Creek Farm has been, by far, the most educational experience I’ve had on a farm so far.  I think two or three full seasons on a farm are necessary for a wannabe farmer to gain the basic skills necessary for farming.
Even farm dogs need sunny afternoon naps once in awhile.
Now, there are farmer incubation programs available for wannabe farmers, there are apprenticeships available nationwide as well as internships and college courses.  The Beginning Farmers I know are incredibly intelligent, self-motivated, strong minded and strong bodied.  Without the intuitive knowledge gained from growing up on a farm, these farmers are voracious readers of books, magazines, journals and others’ notes.  They foster community through networking ideas and sharing knowledge with one another.  Because of the smaller size of many of these farms, second jobs are taken or spouses have other jobs to supplement income.  These small farms are really hard work for those involved and the monetary payback is often minimal.  This movement doesn’t seem to be profit-driven, rather it is environmentally driven, community driven and survival of our species driven.  It is a beautiful and necessary movement, and I’m happy to be embarking on it with so many other Farmgirls (and boys) around the country.  Let the experiental learning to farm continue!

  1. Well written. There is a great program for Beginning Women Farmers through Holistic Management. It covers all the bases. So exciting how many young people are interested in being part of food production.

  2. I really enjoyed your article. I live in a small town in Iowa and we really enjoy gardening. I wish that I could own a few farm animals but I can’t. When I was younger I would stay with my grandparents who lived on a farm and I would have a lot of fun helping Grandma gather eggs in the morning or whatever else there was to do.
    Donna W.

  3. Kat Oliver says:

    Lovely article. I have seen first hand the rise of the small family farm here locally as more farmers markets are opening every year. Locally grown is the trend as there is such an improvement in the quality of the food provided. I have embarked in a career in fiber and wholesale hand dyed yarn and am in the process of developing a registered Shetland flock of sheep with the notion of developing an American Shetland yarn. My back ground is being a military brat. But l have educated myself via a lot of classes offered by local ag colleges and extension services. I volunteer for 4H and local schools teaching knitting, spinning, and dyeing. I think it is important to share knowledge.
    Kat at Sweet Tree Hill Farm in VA

  4. Kat Oliver says:

    Lovely article. I have seen first hand the rise of the small family farm here locally as more farmers markets are opening every year. Locally grown is the trend as there is such an improvement in the quality of the food provided. I have embarked in a career in fiber and wholesale hand dyed yarn and am in the process of developing a registered Shetland flock of sheep with the notion of developing an American Shetland yarn. My back ground is being a military brat. But l have educated myself via a lot of classes offered by local ag colleges and extension services. I volunteer for 4H and local schools teaching knitting, spinning, and dyeing. I think it is important to share knowledge.
    Kat at Sweet Tree Hill Farm in VA

  5. hobbit says:

    So glad to read articles like this. I did grow up on a farm and it was the best. However, my mother wanted something better for us and sold the farm!!!!I have spent my whole life doing what I could to be a farmer.I had to,it what was in my heart and soul. Our farmer’s market runs all year long and it’s so busy in the winter you can hardly get to the vendor.It took about 5 years to reach this level but, thanks to that "never say die" attitude of our New England farmers it has blossomed into something wonderful.I hope this attitude catches on all across the land.People happy to meet and greet their neighbors…….I love it.

  6. Shery says:

    Wow, I did not know about farmers not being listed on the Census. Wow wow wow…SCAREY. The ‘bread basket of the world’ … not so much anymore is what you’re telling me.

    In our corner of the agricultural world – Ranching – the average age of the American rancher is 75. Frightening. American citizenry seems to be either clueless(?) or uninteresing in caring. I guess people are ok with being by & large dependent on other nations for food…?! So very bizarre that a country so rich in Ag history and just as promising for continuance in Ag self-reliance [as a nation] is going the way of consumerism in all four corners of our existence.

    I so hope that enough of you youngfolk see what is a’foot and move away from this trend.

  7. Beth says:

    Hi Alexandra.
    Great article! I agree with you completely- we have to support small organic farms. I try to buy local, organic (if possible), and also have a garden and chickens. I’m happy to see more small farmers markets springing up every year in my area of central Pa. I’m currently renovating my mother’s family homestead to start a School of Country Living, where people can learn some of the skills that sustained us in generations past. At one time it was a small, busy dairy farm with a herd of cows and its own milk bottling plant. Sadly all of that is gone now, but the spirit of the place remains. It’s encouraging to know that there is a new crop of "Beginning Farmers" on the land. Best of luck…"

  8. Valerie says:

    I have several family members currently that are farmers, which farming has been in the family for generations. Most of my relatives have anywhere from 800-1200, however as they all have cows, they use several hundred acres of their land is then used as pasture land. A few of my cousins are currently helping out as farmhands to my uncles and grandpa, mainly due to the high price of land they are unable to purchase their own right now. When the time comes at some point the land that my family members own will be passed down to them. I even know farmers that will purchase land from a neighbor (a private sale is usually done instead of a public one), that they do not necessarily even need, but do so in order to ensure big corporations are not getting the land. They will then either have more acreage for their cows or grow alfalfa or just have it be fallowed to preserve it. I think beginner farmers should be given low interest rate loans to start out and be able to purchase land and equipment. My uncles and grandpa love to talk farming to people, so if someone is starting out I highly recommend trying to find a seasoned farmer in their area to get advice from.

  9. Carmen says:

    For the most part, I like your article but you said something that annoys me every time I hear it. "The food from these farms might seem outrageously expensive at times." Sorry but if you buy the food "from these farms" at Whole Food it is "outrageously expensive" but it rarely is if you buy it at a farmer’s market, unless you chose to go to one with very high fees where the growers have no choice but to charge high to make up the fee. I sell at a farmer’s market where the vast majority of us use organic methods to grow what we eat and sell. Because there is no middle man and we run our own farmer’s market, our prices are comparable to what the local Walmart charges for non-organics. If people would visit their smaller farmer’s markets they would find out that eating organic doesn’t mean selling your first born to do it. If people who are into organics keep telling other that organic prices are "outrageously expensive", people who may want to eat organic will not even try buying from those of us who want to keep it affordable for our neighbors because a preconceived notion perpetuated by articles like this one.

  10. Andrea says:

    I have recently (2.5 months ago) moved onto and I should say into a family farm that has been on set-aside for the past 12 years so even though it is a farm , it’s only a beginning farm. We are slowly adding and learning as we go and I love to hear other newbie stories. I’m 36 and would never have guessed that this is what I would want to do, but after having my daughter the normal consumer driven life I had been leading seemed all wrong. We only have gardens and chickens, ducks, and geese right now but will add crops next year along with a few dairy cattle, bees, and possibly a few sheep or goats…oh and a few pigs. 🙂 We hope to bring in more biodiversity with small amounts to help soil and labor amount. To anyone out there thinking about it…I say you gotta try it even if you don’t have a farm to play on, there are so many that would love any help they can get, go volunteer! There’s nothing that beats fresh dirt on your hands and animals calling out to you as you walk by.

  11. Sheree says:

    You are an inspiration! I have wanted to farm since the 70’s when I was a teenager. After retirement from a vastly different career, I bought 5 acres in IL complete with 100 yr old home, corn crib, & 150 yr old barn. I am living my dream! Better yet, my daught and her family are with me. We are renovating, getting gardens started, and even have 2 cows in our pasture (they belong to a neighbor farmer) but the smell is authentic! I too see this as a wave of the future and what better time then in these trouble economic times. Hope to use some out building as guest homes to eventually start a B&B so others can "play farmer" and catch the bug!!

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