After ten years as an electrical engineer in Indiana, Randy Butts knew he wanted to be his own boss. Traditional farming tempted him, but he knew that launching a corn or soybean operation from scratch would be a struggle.
Friends of his were growing tomatoes using hydroponic farming, a process that intrigued him. Plants grown hydroponically use a small fraction of the water, land, and nutrients that conventionally-grown agriculture requires, and they produce abundantly in a shorter amount of time than conventionally grown vegetables. They can also be grown year-round.
Running a farm off the coast of Maine presents unique challenges: the growing season is short, labor expensive, and pests are a big problem. But Sara Hodges and John Wright, managers of Sparkplug Farms on Vinalhaven Island, are already turning a small profit and looking to expand in their second year.
If they do expand, they will need to hire additional help, but seasonal labor in lobster country can get expensive. Raccoons and deer took about 50 chickens this year. Supplies have to come in by ferry, which increases the cost about 10 percent. And then there’s the fog, which can cause mildew damage to crops.
Just Food, a Canadian organization dedicated to supporting a sustainable agriculture system in the Ottawa region, is offering a sandbox of sorts for those interested in organic farming. The program gives would-be farmers an opportunity to try out their business models without assuming all the risk of heavy start-up costs.
Through their work with farmers through CSAs and training programs over the years, Just Food staff noticed a shift in the types of people interested in breaking into organic farming. This new type of farmer, typically someone new to the area or someone wanting to turn farming from a hobby into a career, often has aspiration and some relevant skills, but little access to the large-scale infrastructure of farming such as land and equipment.
Access to land is one of the most formidable obstacles facing young people who want to start a farm, according to a 2012 study by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition. The study notes that the price of farmland doubled between 2000 and 2010 in the United States.
A nonprofit organization in Bellaire, Michigan, the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art & Natural Design, or ISLAND, is working to address this problem with a new farmer residency program that will launch in spring 2014. The program operates in partnership with the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy, a local land trust that owns the 11-acre property the residents will farm.
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.
Success has come fast for Beverly and Dave McConnell of Utterback Farms in Middletown, Missouri. Almost overnight, the couple has established an aquaponic farm and are just months away from making a profit.
The McConnells inherited the farm, which was established at the turn of the last century, from Beverly McConnell’s parents. It was Beverly’s avid gardening hobby, inherited from her Depression-era grandmother, which led the couple to enter the world of commercial growing in their retirement.
Brought together by a shared love of sustainable agriculture, Lars Prillaman and Leslie Randall launched 8.5-acre Green Gate Farms in the small, historic town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Prillaman and Randall see agriculture not as an efficiency and profit-maximizing endeavor, but as an intricate process guided by natural cycles, ethical responsibility, and community enrichment, and work hard to maintain a farm that realizes their vision of what agriculture should be.
That being said, these young, new farm owners have been tremendously successful for a first-year start-up.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about making money doing it,” says Prillaman, “If I didn’t make money doing it I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Thus far, the pair runs a thriving CSA which currently has a wait-list for next season, sells to a popular local restaurant, has tables at two farmer’s markets, and has received accolades from established farmers who are impressed and astonished with their first year success.
Bluebonnet Hydroponic Farms has been in business since 2000, when Emile Olivier and his wife moved to the U.S. from Canada. Emile wanted to capitalize on his family’s small-scale backyard gardening hobby, so the couple started the farm with cash infusions from previous endeavors and with a small inheritance.
Soon, the project became a family affair when Catherine Anderson, Emile’s daughter, and David Anderson, Catherine’s husband, began to work on the farm.
The family decided to utilize hydroponics as the technology would allow them to obtain higher yields on a smaller spatial footprint than conventional agriculture. David’s father-in-law also perceived that there was a demand and niche market for hydroponic produce.