The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 28:
Sept. 17, 2012

KYPP Nugget: The Many Faces of Farming

The Many Faces of Farming: Background
Ashley Loehr of Sparrowbush Farm
New Farmer Ashley Loehr of Sparrowbush Farm in Livingston.

The material for this column was gathered through the New Farmer Narrative Project, begun last fall as a way to gather stories and a greater understanding of people who have newly started or taken over farms in the area within the last 10 years. 

The Project has been displayed at libraries and other venues throughout the County this summer in the form of the 17-panel Journey into Farming exhibit.  In case you missed it or would like to further explore the exhibit, each panel, including a map of area new farms (pictured below), is also available as a PDF that can be downloaded from the New Farmer Narrative Project page on our website. 

Do you know of other new farms to add to the map?

One component of this project has been an ongoing effort to map new farms that were started within the last 10 years in Columbia County and its environs.  We could use your help:  do you know of new farms that are not on the below map?  If so, please be in touch with as much detail as possible about any new farms you'd like to see added to the map. 

Map of New Farms

What New Farmers have to say...

At the heart of this Project are the diverse thoughts and experiences of new farmers, described in their own words.  Here are some of those descriptions, related to the different subjects discussed in the column:

Childhood experiences with food and agriculture:

"As a kid, I always played outside a lot.  My dad always had a garden.  We didn't eat the majority of our food out of our garden, but it always had a presence in our life, and I had my own one-foot by two-foot plot, as did my sister, and I would grow a cherry tomato plant and a pea plant, because that's what I liked to eat, so that's what I chose to grow.  As a kid I had no inkling that I wanted to be a farmer."

"I think my grandparents had a lot to do with it, because they were still connected to eating farm food.  It was a big deal for me when I was a little kid - I would spend a weekend alone with my grandparents and my grandpa would take me out to the farm and we would harvest all different kinds of stuff...and then we would bring it home and my grandma and I would can for the rest of the day..."

Learning how to farm:

"I still feel like a beginner.  I think that's one of the biggest challenges for someone coming into farming that didn't grow up with it, is to get that experience...."

"My first season, I definitely based a lot of my systems on the other farms that I had worked at, just mimicking what I had learned and adapting it to the resources I had."

"Apprenticeship sets you up a little more for those mentoring relationships, and employment not so much.  Maybe in some cases, but if you're getting paid, then you're not getting paid in someone's time."

What they love about farming

"I enjoy being able to observe nature, being outside and seeing how, at different points in the season, plants grow differently.  Colors look differently in the spring and summer and fall.  I don't know too many people whose job it is to really be able to experience that.  It just makes for a better understanding of what I'm doing."

"We're doing everything together.  We went from politics and restaurant business and crazy lives to now being with our babies.  We bring our kids everywhere.  We do everything together.  It's wonderful to be with the people that you love."

"It's so rewarding to go to a farmers' market and receive compliments about produce, and how it looks, and how the stand looks.  That keep me going.  That's very motivating for me, and I want them to be pleased.  I want them to keep coming back, and to see different things, and to be excited about trying new things or sharing recipes."

"I just love what I do.  I still, to this day, am fascinated by the idea of putting a very small tomato seed in the ground and then getting pounds and pounds of fruit from that.  It just is amazing to me.  To be in touch with that, viscerally, on a day-to-day basis, it's just the most amazing feeling.  And to be able to do it successfully, in a healthy way, and to have all that kind of vibrancy around you, it's just a really great feeling.  It's a great life.  It puts things in good perspective...."

6/21/2012 Column
The Many Faces of Farming

by Anna Duhon

What does the word “farmer” mean to you?  To some of my elder relations, farmers are taciturn, simple folks.  To the readership of the 2010 J. Crew catalog who witnessed a spread of fashionably styled Hudson Valley farmers, they are the forward edge of trendiness.  To the military serviceman who recently sat next to a Columbia County farmer on a plane, they are hard-working homeland heroes.  To the people looking for fresh, local food, they are the “superheroes” at the heart of it all. 

We are living in an exciting time in which ‘farmer’ holds many meanings and refers to an incredibly rich and diverse range of people engaged in widely varying acts of agriculture. 

It also refers to a vocation that is increasingly being explored and embraced by a new generation.  For the first time since World War II, we are in a period in which the number of farms in the area recorded by the Census of Agriculture is increasing.  It’s this expanding, diverse group of people newly becoming ‘farmers’, and the many stories therein, which recently inspired our exploration of new farmers and their journey into farming.

The 17-panel New Farmer Narrative Project exhibit, now on a summer tour of area libraries and venues, is one outcome of this exploration.  Based on interviews with 20 new farmers and a wider set of surveys, the exhibit delves into individual stories of how people became farmers and the larger story of new farmers in our area. 

This larger context of new farmers is perhaps a good starting place, as it may disrupt some old notions.  Half of the new farmers we surveyed in the area are women.  A little over half grew up in rural areas, while a quarter grew up in the suburbs, and the rest in an urban environment.  They range in age from their early 20s to 50s – some have come to farming after other careers, and the vast majority have a college or graduate degree.  But perhaps most interesting are their journeys into farming.

No two stories are alike.  A few new farmers grew up on or around working farms and fell in love early with farming.  As one farmer explained, “I met a farmer when I was 5 years old, and saw my first calf born when I was 6 years old.  I knew I wanted to be a farmer from that time on.” 

This is the exception.  Far more common were people who perhaps grew up loving the family garden or being outside or their family’s food traditions, but never conceived of the possibility of being a farmer.  In our interviews, these folks invariably concluded their descriptions of childhood with some version of the same phrase: “I never thought I’d be a farmer.” 

I find this especially interesting, as it points to the fact that in previous decades, when these folks were growing up, farming was not a profession that people imagined themselves in.  Perhaps it wasn’t sufficiently prominent and esteemed in common culture, or perhaps it was just so far removed from people’s lives and recent past – indeed, most families are multiple generations removed from agriculture. 

Yet also interesting is the fact that these new farmers have emerged into a time in which it is more and more possible to connect with agriculture.  Several new farmers stumbled on their vocation through summer jobs in high school that they viewed as simply a way to get some extra spending money while getting to be outside.  Other people followed the pathways of their food back to the farm and connected directly with those farmers, who then became role models and mentors.

A key part of the journey into farming is learning how to farm.  New farmers are doing this in all different ways – many apprentice or learn from more experienced farmers or participate in training programs.  A lot of new farmers actively learn from each other, through networks of peer learning and support that they are establishing.  There is a lot of trial and error. 

But as new farmers are increasing, so are supportive resources and programs in the community – both new ones, and those that are returning.  A couple of years ago I had the chance to interview a local farmer in his 90s, who said he learned to farm at the local high school in Hillsdale, and bemoaned the loss of that opportunity for today’s students.  These days Taconic Hills has a new agricultural program, and students again have the opportunity to gain agricultural skills and exposure through school.  One of them may one day be a farmer in her 90s looking back on that pivotal experience.

People’s journey into farming is by no means easy.  Learning to farm and figuring out how to be viable in ever-changing conditions is a monumental, ongoing task.  Securing the capital, land and tools needed is deeply challenging.  The struggle to sustain oneself and one’s farm on income from agriculture is daunting.  The amazing reality is that there are many people choosing this path, and committing their sweat, energy and hope to the task of producing food and materials from the land.

While there are many faces to farming, one of the most notable things about the farming vocation is what farmers seem to have in common – they passionately love what they do.  It would be too hard otherwise.  As one new farmer, who has been running her own farm since she was 19 expressed about her choice to be a farmer, “Oh, how could I be anything else? I get to be outside every day, working with living things and the land, and I get to do something as meaningful as feeding people…”

These days if you ask children what they think of ‘farmers’, I would guess that some might think of the “cool” 25-year-old at the farmers’ market or that wise older couple down the road, and perhaps even aspire to follow in their footsteps.

NFNP Display

The New Farmer Narrative Project Journeys into Farming exhibit on display at the Columbia County Fair. 

New Farmers in New Lebanon
New Farmers at the Lebanon Valley Farmers' Market in 2011.