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New kind of young farmers taking root

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

A few generations ago, people got into farming because they grew up on a farm, and there wasn't much of a choice about who would keep the farm going. But as farmers sold off their land to developers and Americans moved away from rural areas, young people went into more lucrative careers and left the farming to someone else.

But now, as we've started paying more attention to where our food comes from and the environmental and health impact of conventionally grown produce and factory farmed animals, people of all ages — from recent college graduates to empty nesters who've already had one or two careers — with no farm or ranch background are getting into the field, literally.

Agriculture programs at the college level can teach certain aspects of farming, but because established farmers always need an extra hand, many aspiring farmers cut their teeth as farm interns or laborers. But working eight hours a day on a farm for a few seasons doesn't present a realistic picture of what it takes just to break even, says Skip Connett, who along with his wife started Green Gate Farms near U.S. 183 east of Austin in 2006 after many years of reporting on agriculture for the Rodale Institute.

"It's very different to do it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You think, 'OK, this is easy, I can do this,' but then you get hit with a drought, a flood, pests, markets. You have to learn how to be resilient," he says. "Many people get into farming because they want to escape the woes of the business world, but instead of leaving it behind, you just take all those burdens on your own shoulders."

Minimizing risk

To give beginning farmers a taste of what it's really like, Skip Connett and Erin Flynn are starting the New Farm Institute to formalize the mentoring that they are already doing with their own workers and the one-day adult and kid farm camps that they host once a month.

Part of the program is an incubator farm, a small parcel on Connett's property that he and Flynn let aspiring farmers take over for a season or two. The first farmer "students" were Neysa King and Travis Czerw, both 27, who had interned on farms in New York and Austin and were looking to buy their own land.

"We decided what species to grow, when to plant, how much to water, when to do the weeding," King says. They were able to come up with their own business model — they sold produce directly to Barley Swine and Royal Fig Catering instead of working the farmers markets — and made relationships with potential customers and business partners. "We were able to run a business without the financial risk of buying the land."

Once the heat of this past summer settled in, King and Czerw took other jobs, but they are continuing to look for property so that they can start their own farm. Another aspiring farmer is taking over the plot on Green Gate's land for this fall and winter.

Looking for land

Buying fertile land with access to water is often the biggest hurdle new farmers face, but the federal and state governments do offer some help. Eddie Trevino, the state's farm loan chief for the Farm Service Agency, says that of the more than 1,250 loans the agency gave out last year, 555 of them, worth about $48.9 million, were to beginning farmers, and another 82 guaranteed loans were made by commercial lenders and guaranteed by FSA worth $24.4 million.

In order to qualify for the FSA loan, farmers have to have at least three years experience managing a farm, and interning or being a hired hand doesn't count. It's a sticking point that, to some in the farming community, seems like a Catch-22: You can't get the money to buy land until you have operated a farm, but how do you have a farm to operate if you don't have the money to buy the land?

Trevino says the agency just wants to make sure it isn't giving out money to people who don't know what they are getting into. Farmers can lease the land, but it's hard to invest in greenhouses, barns and other infrastructure if you don't know how long you'll be on that property.

Collaborations like the one on Montesino Farm near Wimberley are one solution to the land problem. Melody McClary, 28, and boyfriend David Burk, 34, are in charge of a farm on land owned by architect Scott Mitchell and his wife, Brenda.

"I don't know anyone else in our position," says McClary, who took on the farm in 2008 when she was working in the flower department of Whole Foods. "Scott and Brenda really allow us to run the farm. They are the landowners, but they don't tell us how to plant the carrots."

McClary and Burk, like other new farmers in the area, didn't grow up on farms, so they are having to teach themselves not just how to grow food but also how to make a successful business out of selling it.

The Montesino farmers sell their produce at farmers' markets and restaurants in Austin and Wimberley. In the past, they offered a community-supported agriculture program, with customers paying for a box of produce each week. However, McClary says they've discontinued that in favor of working with local delivery company Farmhouse Delivery so they can focus on growing fewer types of crops, but more of each. McClary and Burk also have become event planners for the barn dances and pickin' parties they host, and innkeepers for a new agritourism venture: A guest house they rent out that overlooks the fields they farm.

Retiring on the farm

More than an hour north of Montesino Farm, 47-year-old Margaret Christine Perkins and her husband, Tom Ganchuk, are getting ready to start their fourth year of farming on an acre near Inks Lake. They aren't exactly "greenhorns," but they represent a growing number of people who are getting into farming as a second or third career. "People used to retire at our age or start considering retiring," she says. "We're starting fresh and having a whole other second half."

The former elementary school teacher was working as a "foodie" at Central Market when she realized that she could fulfill her desire to go into business for herself and grow enough organic produce and eggs for her, Tom and her mom, who suffers from Parkinson's disease. She had experience growing tomatoes but not much else. They bought the land and within a year were producing more food than they could eat, so she started making jams, jellies and pickles to sell. "We don't have as much land or as many animals, but we expand in a new way," she says. Next year, they plan to start selling produce and canned goods at a farmers' market in Austin, where Tom works full time.

Facebook farmers

The cards aren't all stacked against this new generation of farmers. Optimism and youth can give them energy and enthusiasm that are but a distant memory to farmers who have been at it for a while, and many new farmers have a technological edge.

Through her blog, Dissertation to Dirt, Neysa King has gained hundreds of readers across the country who are following her adventures in becoming a farmer. Perkins says she has been able to use her website, From Maggie's Farm, to connect with people who are interested in what it's like to start farming as a middle-aged mother of two grown children. She knows that people are buying the story when they buy a pint of pickles, and because she can blog, tweet and Facebook every time she plants or harvests a new crop or cans a batch of jam, she can connect with her customers instantly. "You can be part of the business world rather than just out here growing your things. It's a lot easier to be part of the society that you're selling to."

McClary, a Texas native, wants kids and occasionally gets the bug to explore, but doing that would mean starting over . "I'm so happy with the work that I do, it can't be wrong. But I do sometimes wonder if I'm doing the right thing for my future."

In this hyperconnected world, farmers are relying on one another for support, guidance and inspiration both online and offline. Last weekend, Lorig Hawkins, the 27-year-old farm manager at Tecolote Farm east of Austin, and Solana Foo, who works at Tierra Madre Farms with boyfriend John Chandler, hosted a screening of "The Greenhorns," a documentary about young farmers. "We got honest but encouraging feedback" from the more than 40 beginning and experienced farmers who showed up, some from as far away as West Texas, Hawkins says.

Chandler says it was nice to meet other farmers in his position. "After this tough summer, it was rejuvenating to talk with other farmers who are dealing with similar difficulties," he says.

30 years old, 30 acres

But even if you have the skills, the determination and the land, farming still holds few guarantees. Chandler, 30, grew up in a middle-class family in central Houston, but after a few years of business school, he switched gears and got a horticulture degree. "I wanted to do more than just accumulate wealth for myself," he says. "I've always been passionate about growing plants and I also love food, so farming came naturally. I also felt like I had been given so much in this world that I wanted to give something back."

The Texas A&M graduate saved money while he worked at a greenhouse growing tomatoes and, with help from his family, put a down payment on 30 acres in Rosanky, south of Bastrop, and created Tierra Madre Farms. He'd cleared the big hurdle, but for the first time, he was the boss.

Farming "was really easy to do when someone was paying you a salary to do it," he says. "But when you have to figure out how to pay for it all, it becomes a lot trickier. You become more risk-averse. What seemed like a no-brainer in my 20s, in my 30s isn't so clear."

Tierra Madre Farms sells cut flowers and eggs at the Sustainable Food Center Farmers' Market at Sunset Valley on Saturdays, and though Chandler knows plenty about growing vegetables, he says it's hard to compete with the established vegetable farmers in the area. "You're always trying to do something different than everybody else."

"After 10 years of thinking nothing but farming and the finances to put together my farm, the economy and the drought have laid two serious punches," he says. He has invested an additional $30,000 into his property but needs another $300,000 to dig a well, hire workers and build a larger greenhouse and a processing barn with cold storage."

Sales at area farmers markets are growing, but as more farmers get started, they'll need customers . Chandler says: "Consumers need to realize that they have to power to save small, family farms by buying directly from the farmers. I understand that this economy has put nearly everyone on a tight budget, so seeing so many Austinites religiously buying our eggs and flowers week after week is what makes all the sweat worth it."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504