New ‘Virtual Grange’ Connects Young Farmers in a Digital World
November 14, 2013 | Marianne Peters
Though you might find some millennials paying their dues in entry-level office jobs, increasing numbers of “agri-preneurs” in their twenties and thirties are opting for a more independent, agrarian lifestyle by establishing small, sustainably managed farms.
In many cases, these new farmers are the first in their families to choose farming as an occupation. Starting a farm is no guarantee that it will prosper, and many enterprises fail. Without a strong family background in farming or a community to rely on, young farmers’ chances of success are diminished.
The Growing Farmers Initiative wants to ensure that young farmers not only succeed, but that they find their place in a growing community of farmers who care about environmental sustainability.
Mel Weiss, Growing Farmers Initiative coordinator, sees a definite advantage to equipping beginning farmers with management skills for all aspects of their operation—from animal husbandry and organic fertilizer to bookkeeping and consumer marketing.
“Our goal is to help farmers gain the knowledge and hands-on experience to balance ecology and economics in their farm-business enterprises,” Weiss says. “Among the many things we have learned while working with beginning farmers is that those farmers who pursue business management training and technical training will be more likely to succeed in the future.”
To teach sustainable practices and grow the community of farmers, Weiss says, the Growing Farmers Initiative has developed tools to give farmers exposure to mentors and peers as well as practical, hands-on experience. These tools include an intensive apprenticeship program, on-site workshops, a technical consultancy program, and the Virtual Grange, a new web-based community resource.
The organization launched the Virtual Grange as a way to connect a generation of farmers who are just as familiar with smart phones as they are with soil composition. The site includes forums for discussion about every aspect of agriculture, video tutorials, news about farming from around the country and a page of resources listed by region. Weiss believes the online tool has added a valuable new dimension to the organization’s outreach to farmers.
“We are thrilled that Virtual Grange is connecting farmers,” she says. Weiss notes there are conversations happening about creating food hubs, whether to till or graze, and information about job and workshop opportunities on the site.
The Growing Farmers Initiative also holds an annual National Young Farmers Conference where young farmers from all over the country can gather, interact and learn. This year’s conference is being held Dec. 4-6, 2013 at Growing Farmers Initiative’s headquarters at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Workshops will cover topics like vegetable cultivation, animal husbandry, land access, business, conservation, technical skills, community building and public policy. The keynote speaker this year will be writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, who will be joined by his daughter Mary Berry, Executive Director of the Berry Center.
“The winter season is a great time for farmers to slow down, connect with other farmers, learn new skills, and discover resources for the season ahead,” Weiss says. “We look forward to fostering more conversations between farmers and expanding the initiative’s resources in 2014.”