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Young, idealistic farmers face same strains as elders

Young, idealistic farmers face same strains as elders

With many U.S. farmers nearing retirement age, young farmers are viewed as the future of agriculture
Young, idealistic farmers face same strains as elders
Mike O&rsquo;Brien raises chickens, sells eggs and produces vegetables on his small farm located on Pearse Road in Niskayuna.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Missy Streicher’s farm is a work in progress.

When she and her husband purchased their Moreau-based farm three years ago, it was in foreclosure, and “not a livable house.”

But today the property is home to a vegetable farm, more than 100 laying hens and a beef cow. The couple plans to build a greenhouse, and the number of families who belong to their CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is steadily increasing. CSA is model where a group of people purchase a share of a farm’s harvest prior to the growing season and receive weekly allotments of produce.

Streicher grows 32 kinds of vegetables, which range from more obscure, heirloom varieties to common crops such as carrots and potatoes.

“We like to grow the things that will be on everybody’s table,” said Streicher, 30. She believes there is an appetite for locally produced, organic produce and meat, and that appetite will sustain her farm, dubbed Fortsville Creek, and make it thrive.

With many U.S. farmers nearing retirement age, young farmers like Streicher and her husband are viewed as the future of agriculture. But they face two big challenges: land and startup capital, according to a 2011 survey of young and beginning farmers conducted by the Tivoli-based National Young Farmers’ Coalition.

“Land is huge,” Streicher said. “But opportunities are out there. Don’t give up.”

The National Young Farmers’ Coalition, based in Tivoli in Dutchess County, was formed three years ago and now has 10,000 farmers through the country in its database, said Sophie Ackoff, the organization’s membership development coordinator. The group is open to farmers under the age of 35 as well as people who have been farming for less than 10 years.

“America needs more farmers,” Ackoff said. “We’re not going to be too picky.”

Ackoff said beginning farmers are often independent and idealistic. “They’re looking for a job with the possibility of creating a more sustainable future.”

She said the National Young Farmers’ Coalition targets organic and sustainable growers — people who will be “good stewards of the land.”

At 23, Ackoff is a young farmer herself. She began farming while a student at Wesleyan University, which has a farm on its Connecticut campus, and moved to the Hudson Valley after graduation to work on a farm.

According to 2007 Census data, the average American farmer is 57.

Stephen Hadcock is the beginning farmer and market development educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Capital Area Agricultural and Horticultural Program, a position created about three years ago.

“We’ve seen steady interest from people to begin farming,” Hadcock said. “Farming seems to be a cool thing to do again.”

Hadcock said beginning farmers run the gamut — from people in their 20s to people in their 50s or 60s.

The younger farmers are less likely to have grown up on a farm, Hadcock said. Rather “they got to explore farming by visiting or working on a farm.” The older farmers tend to view it as a second career, or something they can do as a hobby, while holding down a full-time job, he said.

Hadcock tries to help beginning farmers visualize and clarify what their “dreams and passions for the farming enterprise are going to be. I tell them that we’re going on a journey together, and I’m walking with them.”

Goals include determining the farming needs of the region and encouraging new farmers to grow or raise regional specialities — food that showcases the area’s rich agricultural heritage.

“We want to improve people’s understanding of what it means to be a farmer.” Hadcock estimates he advises between 50 and 100 beginning farmers each year. “There’s a pretty steady stream right now.”

One beginning farmer who has received assistance from Hadcock’s office is Mike O’Brien of Niskayuna. A retired Niskayuna police officer, O’Brien described his farm, on Pearse Road, as a hobby farm. He and his wife grow vegetables, raise chickens and sell the produce and eggs at a small stand during the summer. They purchased the six-acre property about four years ago.

“The goal is to expand it,” said O’Brien, 44, who now provides school security in Schenectady. “The demand is definitely there. There are a lot of loyal customers. The eggs are very popular.” He said the biggest challenges have been financing the cost of equipment and learning how to farm, as he and his wife did not grow up on farms and, aside from a small garden, had little experience growing produce.

“We’ve been battling the deer and the bugs,” O’Brien said.

Glenville resident Don Bickowicz, 58, began farming three years ago. He is reviving a berry farm that sat empty for five years when the owner passed away, and opened a vegetable stand in 2011.

“I grew up on a vegetable farm,” Bickowicz said. “There’s always been something really enjoyable about putting a seed into the soil and seeing what you can get out of it.”

He said people seem to appreciate the fact that the old berry farm, which he purchased for $385,000 and has rechristened Glenville Farm, “wasn’t turned into a housing development.”

Bickowicz grows vegetables and fruit; last winter, he put up a greenhouse for the first time. “Every year, everything gets a little bigger.”

The farm is still a part-time project for Bickowicz, who has a full-time job at Apollo Heating. He receives help from members of his family, including his brother, and local students on summer break. The biggest challenge, he said, has been “putting the farm back together because it was neglected for so many years. Now the barn is painted red. There’s a new roof. We’re redoing the house. I’ve put a lot of time into it.”

He said it can be hard to balance farming with his full-time job. “I go to work at 3:30 in the morning.”

The New York Farm Bureau has identified helping young farmers as a priority and is particularly concerned about helping farms transition to the next generation, according to Steve Ammerman, the organization’s public affairs manager. One of the Farm Bureau’s goals is raising the state’s estate tax from a $1 million threshold to $5 million for farmers.

“Farming is a stressful job,” he said. “There are so many high production costs. There’s a real concern that we could lose a number of family farms.”

Patti Dugan heads the Farm Bureau’s young farmers program, which is geared toward farmers between the ages of 18 and 35. Some of those farmers come from farming families, while others have gone to college to learn about agriculture or have worked on a farm. They are people whose “livelihood depends on agriculture,” she said.

Thirty-two-year-old Erika Tebbens has started what she and her husband, Mike, describe as a “micro-farm.”

Called Little Sparrow Farm, the organic farm is in Ballston Spa, on 11 acres that belong to a friend. The couple has been growing vegetables and raising bees on the property, and plan to bring vegetables to market this spring. They also run Houndstooth Meats, which sells small-batch, cured meats and teaches bacon-making workshops.

Tebbens said her goals include supplying local restaurants with produce, running a small CSA and acquiring her own piece of land.

“We’re sort of on a 10-year plan,” she said.

Tebbens is from Phoenix and her husband is from rural Indiana. The couple moved to the Capital Region from Seattle in 2008 so Mike could wrap up his Navy service, and began shopping at local farmers’ markets.

“We enjoyed getting fresh, local produce,” Tebbens said. “We like cooking. We started touring farms.” Having grown up in a big, Southwestern city, farm culture “was all very foreign to me.”

Much to her surprise, she discovered that she enjoyed living in a more rural area. “I never would have guessed in a million years that I wanted to farm and live out in the country,” she said. “But I really appreciated the nature and beauty and wide-open spaces. It’s nice to be able to go out and work in the garden and go outside and get fresh air. There’s always something new to learn.”

Her previous job, in Seattle, was at Calvin Klein. “Selling designer clothing wasn’t very fulfilling,” she said. “It wasn’t horrible, but there’s something much more satisfying about providing people with food to eat and enjoy and nourish them.”

Like many young farmers, Tebbens has gained valuable experience working on a farm: Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville. And she’s observed that many of the farm’s customers have made the transition from shopping at the grocery store to farmer’s markets, which makes her believe that the market for fresh-grown, local produce is only going to grow.

How the food she consumed was produced “was not something I used to think about,” Tebbens said. “But now I can’t imagine life without seasonal eating and local produce. It seems normal to me.”

Luke Deikis, 33, and his wife, Cara Fraver, 32, have run Quincy Farm in the Washington County town of Easton for the past three years. Prior to that, they spent several years working on farms in the Hudson Valley.

The farm, across from Saratoga National Historic Park on the Hudson River, produces a variety of vegetables to sell at area farmers’ markets, such as the Schenectady Greenmarket, and through its own CSA. The property was once the home of the Wright family farm, but was sitting idle when Deikis and Fraver found it.

“It had 40 tillable acres and a barn and a house,” Deikis recalled. “It was a dream come true.”

Deikis, a native of Michigan, and Fraver, from Pennsylvania, met in New York City. At the time, Deikis was working as a freelancer in the television industry and Fraver was working for Just Food, a nonprofit organization that coordinates CSAs in New York City. But the couple wasn’t interested in living in New York long-term and began considering a career in farming.

“Farming seemed like the right path for our strengths and desires,” Deikis said. He added, “People tell you to find a way to do what you love. I love brewing beer, riding motorcycles and growing vegetables. Somehow farming seemed like the smart and practical choice.”

The most challenging part of starting their own farm was finding the land on which to do it, Deikis said.

“We came to realize that we might not be able to afford a mortgage,” he said. So the couple took another route.

They partnered with two nonprofits, the Open Space Institute and the Agricultural Stewardship Association, to create a conservation easement on the farmland they eventually purchased. The easement ensured that the property would be preserved as farmland forever, rather than turned into, say, a subdivision, and effectively lowered the open market price from $290,000 to less than $200,000, which made the property affordable.

Deikis said it’s difficult to make a living farming.

During the past three years, he’s done part-time electrical work to bring in extra money, and he’s in the process of figuring out whether he’ll have to do that this year. The couple would like to expand Quincy Farm, “but I don’t think we’ll expand unless we’re both here full time,” he said. Another problem is that expansion requires “better infrastructure,” which requires money. The amount of time and energy needed to be a good farmer is also a challenge.

“One reason we wanted to leave New York is to have children, and it’s hard to imagine having children when we’re working these kinds of hours,” he said. “We’re here all the time, but we’re working all the time.”

Streicher comes from a farming family — her uncle and cousin run a dairy farm next door to Fortsville Creek. But she said she wanted to strike out on her own as an organic farmer. In addition to farming, Streicher runs a small soap-making business and her husband works full time at a paper mill. The goal, Streicher said, is to farm full time.

“I see a better way of farming,” she said. “I am an environmentalist. I want to build the soil and make a better place for my family and kids.” She said her goal is to grow great-tasting food that regular families can purchase without breaking the bank. “With the economy, people are struggling to eat organic,” she said. “I want families like mine to be able to afford my food.”

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