The Many Faces of Farming: Background
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.
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
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
"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
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
"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...."
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
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
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.
The New Farmer Narrative Project Journeys into Farming exhibit on display at the Columbia County Fair.
New Farmers at the Lebanon Valley Farmers' Market in 2011.