For Young Farmers: Our Next Best Step

It’s coming to the end of the summer harvest in Texas.  The time of year when you only have okra and cayenne peppers to eat. It’s earlier than normal this year because of the drought.  As far as the plants are concerned, it’s August, not July, 15th.  At Round Table Farm, Travis and I have collected our hoses, taken down our greenhouse, and stopped producing for the year.  For farmers who continue to produce through the hottest part of the summer, I think this final stretch is the hardest.  Everything, from body temperatures to electricity bills to tempers, flares up now, and fatigue sets in as you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The first autumn cold front is so close, yet so far away.

This month, Travis and I will both be looking for new, non-farming jobs.  It’s an awkward space we’re trying to fill–pursuing farming while deliberately not farming.  But we’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the next best step for us.  Once the lease is up on our apartment at the end of the year, we’re hoping to find a new home with a space for a large garden, so we can continue our gradual ascent (or descent, if it’s August) into farming.  Having jobs that won’t drain us physically will give us the chance to put some energy into our own farming projects.

As I help Travis tailor his resume to submit to jobs like the one he had in Boston–administration and management–I have to smile as we downplay his farm experience.  There’s some irony here.  Working on farms doesn’t necessarily provide a path to becoming a farmer.  Why not? With all the talk about creating new farmers, the best path to get there should be part of the conversation.

The farmers Travis and I have known fit into one of two categories: they had land in their families or they switched careers later in life.  Travis and I were hoping that we would find some sort of replicable path for those who wanted to farm but fit into neither of those categories.Working on farms seemed like the most logical path to take, and it has certainly provided us with lessons about running a business.  So maybe this isthe most replicable path for now–work or intern on farms to gain skills and perspective (viewing a farm’s business model as an outsider is one of the most invaluable experiences you will have), then hunt for space to start something small on your own.  While it’s unconventional, vague, and pretty dependent on chance, that’s what we have right now.

Sometimes I get criticism that my perspective on starting to farm is negative.  That if I want to farm, why don’t I just go do it?  There is nothing in my way but me.  My response in the moment is usually, “Okay, thank you for the advice,” but I can respond more thoughtfully here:

If Travis and I were to find a perfect piece of land tomorrow, and the owner offered to finance it and everything worked out perfectly, my attitude would not bloom into something like, starting to farm is easy, all you have to do is try.  Instead, I would say what I’ve always said: that a career path in farming is insecure and unclear, and the fact that I found a way does not diminish that.  New farmers have few resources or instruction at their disposal, and the personal sacrifices one must make are high–low pay, seasonal work, few legal protections, to name a few.  I won’t forget that Travis and I were essentially homeless for one year in order to pursue farming.  The fact that we had the means, the drive, and the familial support to make that kind of sacrifice does not make me feel proud, it makes me feel lucky.  And luck, when it comes to our food supply, is probably not what we should rely on.

The best recommendations I have for really making farming a viable option for young people are formalized incubator programs and more public or private land specifically allocated for new farmers.  Revisiting farm labor regulations will also encourage more young, talented people to go into and stay in farming.  Obstacles for young farmers exist.  Are they insurmountable?  No.  But they are large and looming enough that they ought to be a part of a national conversation.  Anything less, and our calls for a healthier, localized food system remain incomplete. 

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