Wanted: Young Farmers to Grow America's Food
SWOOPE, Va.- - The United States needs to recruit new farmers, fast. The average age of the farmer is rising and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of farmers is projected to continue to drop in the coming years.
One answer: the Agriculture Act of 2014 which will pump an extra $20 million a year into USDA beginner farmer and rancher programs.
Another answer may be found at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. This pasture-based organic farm, which only sells locally, has gained an international reputation for setting the standard in innovative farming techniques.
A Prized Internship
Third-generation farmer Joel Salatin emphasizes following the cycles of nature and rejecting any pesticides, fertilizers or hormones. Polyface offers apprentice and internship programs that have become a sought-after opportunity for young farmers.
The day CBN News visited, we found the parking lot filled with interns' cars from all over the country. Every year, hundreds apply for a few coveted spots.
"I think the pendulum is beginning to swing around now to where young people are beginning to realize that sitting in a Dilbert cubicle, working for 'the man' in a Fortune 500 company, doesn't do it for me," Salatin said. "I want to touch what I've made."
Salatin turns away hundreds of internship seekers every year. Many have read at least one of his many books on alternative farming, respect his sustainable methods, and envy his thriving farm operation.
Tim Rohrer fled his California desk job to intern for Salatin, whom he calls the "Steve Jobs" of agriculture.
"Being here, there have not been many days we've worked so far that have not been less than 12 hours a day," Rohrer told CBN News. "And yet I'm up and ready to go the next day and it's just 'cause there's a passion for doing it. I believe in it."
Part of that passion is driven by a desire to help fix our country's unhealthy eating problem. At Polyface, interns and apprentices learn the latest in regenerative farming techniques.
"I really am very concerned about health and nutrition and the way we grow foods and the way that affects us," intern Shalena Campfield said.
For many of the interns, their walk with Christ is also a motivation.
"Faith plays a big role for me," intern Erick Schlener said. "I see farming as my mission field."
The 'American Royalty'
Former Polyface intern Ben Beichler runs a dairy farm a few hours away. He credits his internship with jump-starting his farming career.
"So much of what we do here on the farm is experiences like knowing what you're looking for, like knowing what to do if you get into a tight situation," he told CBN News. "And Polyface gave me real-life experiences [like] where cows get out and things break down."
Since his internship, Beichler has faced the same challenges that deter many of today's young farmers: land and capital.
"I like to joke, farming is the American royalty: you're either born into it or you marry it," he said. "Or you have a really long struggle."
For Beichler and many of his peers, it's been a struggle. Beichler is getting by right now managing a small herd for Old Church Creamery, his in-laws' business.
A Viable Market
For others, like Jordan Green, working land that others have written off gives them a start. Green, owner and founder of J&L Green Farm, leases several properties in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Green oversees everything from chickens to what's called "forested pork," pigs that mainly feast on grass, berries, and nuts.
"I like doing something different every day and enjoying working outdoors, working with animals," he said.
The real question: just where is the market for local food heading? Most industry watchers doubt it will become mainstream but see it continuing to grow as a niche market.
"I see sustainable farming becoming more and more plausible and viable," Green said.
The Farmer's Life
What will also help is the energy and dedication these young farmers bring to their work and ultimately to Americans' tables.
"I know it's what I'm supposed to do so at the end of the day, it's going to happen," Schlener said.
"I'm in farming for life," Beichler said. "There's no question about that."