What do you think of when you hear the word “farm”? Maybe you think of diversified family farms like those a hundred years ago, with red barns, dairy cows, and lush green grass. Or perhaps you imagine the large mechanized farms that dominate agriculture today, with enormous tractors harvesting vast fields of corn. Attending the Permaculture Voices conference earlier this month opened my eyes to a new kind of farm, the type of small scale farming attracting a new generation of educated and environmentally conscious young farmers.
Many new farmers are drawn to an agricultural lifestyle as an alternative to white-collar urban society. If you work a desk job, you may have forgotten the satisfaction of engaging directly with nature and creating something of value with our own hands. Growing food reminds us that we are deeply connected to nature and that we must care for the land in order to survive. My neighbor baked bread made from wheat he grew in his own backyard and milled into flour himself. I collect eggs from chickens I raised myself in my backyard. These experiences help to literally ground us when so often we can’t see or touch the fruits of our labor.
In addition, consumers are growing more aware of the problems with conventional agriculture. Our current agricultural system based largely on fossil fuels, chemicals, and monocropping damages our bodies, our society, and our environment. We are finally ready for an alternative and are eagerly buying food grown in a more sustainable and healthy manner, as demonstrated by the 76% growth in US farmers’ markets since 2008.
This confluence of supply and demand has created an opportunity for a new kind of farmer who doesn’t fit the old stereotypes. Young farmers who want to create the future of agriculture, growing diverse crops with little capital on a small farm. These farmers embrace new techniques and unconventional approaches. Luke Callahan teaches how to profitably grow indoor microgreens in your own basement with less than $1000. Tim Boucher wrote a book on how to start a small farm with less than $1000. SPIN Farming shows how to make money intensively farming small urban and suburban lots. Curtis Stone’s urban farm grows vegetables profitably in suburban backyards. Jean-Martin Fortier profitably grows vegetables on a 1.5 acre farm. You can find other stories of successful small-scale sustainable farming in podcasts such as Permaculture Voices. The Greenhorns, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and other similar organizations are helping to nurture this new generation of farmers.
We need these new farmers. The average age of American farmers today is 57 and many do not have children willing to take over the family farm. I am so glad to see a new generation of motivated young farmers step up to grow healthy farms and healthy communities.