Farming still attracts many despite challenges
By Eric Mortenson
PORTLAND — If a torch is going to be passed to the next generation of farmers, it might as well be the flame weeder that Sara Cogan is demonstrating to three interns at Zenger Farm, a nonprofit training center at the city’s southeast edge.
The interns — Leigh Brown, Lauren Conheim and Justin Moran — were chosen from among 50 applicants for their expressed desire to grow food, nurture the land and connect with community. They want to be farmers, in other words, and right now that means learning how to burn weed heads using the propane tank backpack and wand wielded by Cogan, the farm manager. Conheim, her hands and arms still throbbing from a lesson in running the tiller, is the first to try.
Conheim, 26 and holder of a degree in psychology, hadn’t even grown a vegetable garden until last year. “I couldn’t believe how much joy it brought me every day,” she says.
For those not born to the farm, this is the entry point: Internships, small leased plots on the edge of a city or on abandoned land, used or jury-rigged equipment, niche markets. They’ll happily work long hours, sometimes for free, because they believe. They want to be farmers.
Many of them will be out of business in three to five years. Love and sweat don’t open markets or guarantee crops. Idealism doesn’t pay for land, equipment and inputs.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture showed a sharp drop in the three smallest categories of farms: one to nine acres, 10 to 49 acres and 50 to 179 acres. More than 66,000 U.S. farms of those sizes fell by the wayside compared to the 2007 Census, which had shown an increase.
The number of farms with $50,000 or less in sales, the lowest Census category, dropped by more than 132,000 from 2007 to 2012. Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California generally followed the national pattern.
Why? Certainly the poor economy during that time hammered the hope out of some would-be farmers.
“I’m not sure they tried it and didn’t like it — it probably had something to do with the recession,” said Larry Lev, an applied economics professor at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
More detailed Census data, due in May, might provide a clearer answer, Lev said. But for now, the numbers demonstrate the importance of new farmers understanding their objective.
“Often there is some economic goal in mind, but not necessarily to be economically sustainable on its own,” he said. “The recognition for this other group is that they’re going to have to have a foot in multiple economic worlds. Sorting that out is important right at the start, then you can start thinking about what you can produce and how you’re going to sell it.”
The USDA announced April 11 that $19 million in grant money is available this year to help train the next generation of farmers. Money for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program was included in 2014 Farm Bill, and will fund programs that help people who want to start farming or ranching or have been at it for 10 years or less.
Beginning farmers need all the help they can get, said Maud Powell, head of OSU’s Small Farms Extension program in southern Oregon’s Jackson County.
“I would say access to capital is a huge barrier,” Powell said. “Although we have the Small Farms program and the Farm Bill is allocating more money to beginning farmer education, we need more because there is a vacuum.”
Many of the young people eager to begin farming are from urban areas and have no farm experience, Powell said. They quickly learn that farmers must be horticulturists, soil scientists, equipment operators, mechanics, bookkeepers, laborers and marketers rolled into one.
“We need more education and mentorships,” Powell said. “They start a farm for a couple years and they are not able to make it as profitable as it needs to be. We see an attrition that happens in the three- to five-year range.”
Part of the small farm decline may stem from too many people doing the same thing, Powell said. In southern Oregon, the direct market is getting saturated, especially for produce sold at farmers’ markets, she said. Some Community Supported Agriculture operations, in which customers subscribe to buy fruit and vegetables from growers, are not filling up, she said.
New farmers might be better off seeking narrower niches, Powell said. These include organic seed production, for example, or growing unusual hot peppers, or agri-tourism. In addition, farmers can use field hoop houses to “bump” the growing season earlier and later — giving themselves more time to meet market demand.
Small farms are important in part for food security reasons, Powell said. Relying solely on the “industrial model” of agriculture, with monocropping, heavy chemical use and risk of crop failure, is an iffy proposition, she said.
“We need more eyes on the field,” Powell said. “We need more people who understand horticulture, how to grow things, how to care for animals. Training the next generation of farmers is so important.”
Classes from OSU helped Melissa Joubert and Mark Wooten get started farming outside Portland, where they rent one-and-a-third acre for $600 a year and work the ground with an Italian walk-behind tractor that has tiller and flail attachments. Wooten is a chef and Joubert has worked in restaurants as well, and like many in Portland’s foodie culture felt drawn to growing food.
“I don’t think I’d even set foot on a farm,” said Joubert, who is from the Los Angeles area. They grow specialty greens and herbs for a handful of restaurants, and are branching out to include corn that they will grind to make polenta, fava beans, specialty potatoes and black garbanzos, among many other things. To diversify the revenue stream, they’ll host three or four farm dinners this summer, feeding 24 to 30 people at each for $75 to $85 a head. “We’ll pick that day and feed it to them,” Wooten said.
Last year, their first, they didn’t break even. This year, “I think we can,” Wooten said.
They work the farm in shifts, but don’t plan to leave restaurant work yet.
“That’s a tricky part of working on a small scale,” Joubert said. “It might be a few years before one of us could quit our other job.”
A teaching farm
At Zenger Farm, a former dairy on the opposite side of Portland, the interns are being steeped in the farm life. The land is owned by the City of Portland and operated as an urban organic farm, education and training center by the non-profit Friends of Zenger Farm. Interns work seven months, 32 hours a week, for a $600 monthly stipend. They also receive a share of the food produced on the farm’s six acres.
It’s a hands-on experience. On a recent afternoon, the interns strung trellises for newly planted peas, drove metal fence posts, learned to operate the tiller, burned weeds and mixed soil amendments. The farm grows a mix of vegetables for CSA members and for a farmers’ market in a low-income section of southeast Portland. There’s a small flock of chickens to tend, and the farm raises turkeys for Thanksgiving.
“We select folks who are serious about farming as a career,” said Cogan, the farm manager.
Of 12 previous interns in the past four years, three have started farms. Most of the others found work in related agriculture, education or outreach capacities, said Bryan Allan, the farm’s assistant manager.
This year’s crop of interns — Leigh Brown, Lauren Conheim and Justin Moran — have been on the job only two weeks and are figuring out where to put down roots.
Brown, 36, is unusual among interns because she already has land. She and her husband, Ron Smith, a physician’s assistant and National Guard member, own five acres near Sherwood, southwest of Portland. They’re working on an idea called the Bedlam Farm Project, which would include a CSA for military families and respite for veterans. Brown says she and her husband want more land than they have and plan to grow vegetables, hops and apples for hard cider.
Brown acknowledges it’s an ambitious plan, and says she has to be realistic. She took a Small Farms business class from OSU, however, and the internship is providing practical field experience.
“I quit all my work to do this,” she said.
Conheim loves growing plants, and could see herself with a farm of her own or with a job such as Cogan and Allan, the Zenger managers.
“I like the teaching aspect of it,” she said.
Moran, 31, is taken by that as well. He arrived from the United Kingdom in December — his wife is from Portland — in search of a “land-based livelihood.” Personal farm ownership, he said, may not be as important as community education and outreach that reconnects people to the land that supports them.
“We need farms to grow food, of course,” he said, “but we need farms to grow people, as well.”