Back to the Farm

Photograph by McNair Evans

As he pulls on rubber boots inside his Northern California farmhouse, Kevin Watt recalls the moment when he decided to dump his academic career in political science to raise chickens and pigs. “My master’s thesis adviser at UC San Diego had an orchard, and we were out pruning fruit trees,” says Watt. “He told me he’d worked his whole life just to get that orchard so he could do what he enjoyed. A happier version of himself came out farming.”

Eight months later, instead of beginning his doctoral research, Watt started an unpaid internship for sustainable agriculture at Polyface farm in Virginia. He had become part of a nationwide resurgence in microscale farming that supplies farmer’s markets and top chefs, and includes high-profile boutique growers – a.k.a. “Star-mers” – who produce all those grassfed rib-eyes and heirloom tomatoes. The U.S. farm population as a whole is aging: According to the most recent agricultural census, completed in 2007, the average American farmer is now 57 years old. But for the first time since World War II, the total number of American farms – especially small farms – is on the rise. In a few undeveloped tracts near cities that have chefs extolling fresh, local ingredients – like the San Francisco Bay Area and the Hudson Valley in New York – twenty- and thirtysomething college graduates are going back to the land, drawn to the physical nature of the work, the outdoor lifestyle, and the intellectual challenge of life on the farm. These farmers are still the minority – roughly 11 percent of all farms in the U.S. are smaller than 10 acres – but they’re chasing what Hawthorne Valley Farm’s Steffen Schneider calls “Agriculture 3.0,” a sustainably minded farm model focused on upgrading ancient practices lost in an era of genetically modified, pesticide-heavy industrial farming.

Watt sounds borderline giddy as he talks about his apprenticeship at Polyface and its third-generation farmer, Joel Salatin, who taught Watt to raise multiple species of food-animals in a complex symbiosis that can actually build soil fertility without chemicals or animal-waste accumulation. Three years later, in the coastal farming town of Pescadero, an hour south of San Francisco, Watt and his wife, Shae Lynn, have put all those lessons to work at Early Bird Ranch, the pig-and-poultry operation they started in the middle of a preexisting cattle ranch called Leftcoast Grassfed.

This morning, Shae Lynn nurses their baby and works on the Early Bird website while Watt steps outside. Every time Leftcoast cowboys move cattle off a pasture, Watt climbs into his Ford F-150, hitches it to his ramshackle mobile chicken coops, and hauls the birds over. Watt’s chickens scratch around in the cow patties, eating fly larvae, spreading manure, and adding their own nitrogen-rich droppings. The landlords love this system because it allows them to regraze faster, with fewer flies and less disease. For Watt, it’s the shared-land system that’s the biggest benefit. Good farmland, after all, does not come cheap, especially when it’s close to the urban areas where there’s ample clientele looking for premium organic, local vegetables, eggs, meat, and milk.

“In our generation, the family farm can’t really happen because people don’t have the capital or the inherited land,” says Teresa Kurtak of Fifth Crow Farm, occupying 20 acres only a few miles from Early Bird. Kurtak and her two partners, Mike Irving and John Vars, got around that problem by pooling their savings and leasing land from a couple who’d made an early computer fortune and traded their Silicon Valley home for 1,100 coastal acres. The Fifth Crow partners lived in yurts for the first three years and encouraged friends to lease some of the land or work on the adjacent Fat Cabbage Farm. Now, those landlords show up every Friday with home-baked cakes and hot tea, so everybody on both Fifth Crow and Fat Cabbage can take a break and socialize. Irving, a tousle-haired 34-year-old from suburban Massachusetts, says he graduated pre-med from UMass Amherst but didn’t want to go right back to school. “I didn’t grow up with my dad fixing cars in the driveway,” he says, “and I feel like there’s power in that stuff. So I got into farming.”

Small-scale agriculture is extremely labor-intensive and with few big machines and little government support, the farmers have had to come up with a new labor model. Interns help, and Fifth Crow lures a steady supply of them. Elsewhere in the U.S., so-called WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteer to work the land, and “Crop Mobs” have sprung up to fill the same need – communal work parties brought together by social media postings, with big crews of farmers pitching in to plant each other’s land. (Even the obvious subactivity, hooking up, has been formalized through so-called “Weed Dating” get-togethers.) Still other social media sites now connect farmers for every other imaginable form of information exchange, many of them courtesy of Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the 31-year-old founder of the social-support and networking group the Greenhorns. She works on a farm in upstate New York, publishes the ‘New Farmer’s Almanac’, produces a radio show, and holds community screenings of the era-defining documentary ‘The Greenhorns,’ which she filmed while driving a 1979 veggie-powered Mercedes wagon all over America.

Another challenge facing new farmers is the equipment. Put simply, farm-machinery manufacturers scale their products toward massive operations, making gear that’s too big, too expensive, and too hard to modify for small organic farms. As a result, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group with a network of 5,000 (Fleming is a co-founder), has created a series of pop-up research and development labs called Farm Hacks. Over a long weekend last year, the NYFC helped bring together MIT engineers and young farmers, cooking up cheap, innovative solutions to common technical problems, and then posting open-source blueprints of these money-saving DIY projects on the Web. “My feeling on ag, in general, is that we’re not resource-limited,” says Dorn Cox, a member of NYFC and director of the New Hampshire agricultural nonprofit GreenStart. “We’re knowledge-limited.” Cox contributed a mobile biodiesel-conversion plant, and subsequent Farm Hacks around the country produced innovations like a bicycle-powered cultivator and moisture-and-temperature sensors that stream data from crop rows to cellphones.

Another hack was developed just for Cox: a low-cost version of the high-resolution aerial photography used by industrial farms to analyze pest and nutrient patterns. Cox called up the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a nonprofit, “do-it-yourself” think tank, and techies soon descended on his farm with weather balloons, cargo kites, tools, and various lenses and cameras. They built what Cox described as a “near-infrared system that basically hacked the Canon Sure Shot.” They uploaded all the data into a free, online 3D-rendering engine and produced images vastly more high-resolution than those far pricier commercial rigs offer. There are free blueprints of the rig on the Public Laboratory website, and you can buy a kit for a balloon-based version with all the necessary parts (Sure Shot not included) for – get this – $95.

Farming’s biggest challenge, of course, is also the oldest: making it pay. A recent study by the Department of Agriculture reports that the local food market has been drastically underestimated and generates about $4.8 billion a year. Watt insists that Early Bird turns a fine profit, but Kurtak at Fifth Crow says that she and her partners make some $25,000 in profit a year. Indeed, more than 1.8 million of the nation’s 2.2 million farms make under $100,000 annually. Fleming confirms this: “A lot of people who come from other businesses are shocked by how hard it is to make money in agriculture,” she says. “And I’m coming from a generation with a trillion dollars of educational debt.” Fleming calls it a terrible paradox: “If you start farming out of high school, you’re competing with Mexicans on the wage front. And if you come in from another career, you’ll have the money, but you won’t have the experience” – and you’ll still have those college loans.

Schneider, of Hawthorne Valley Farm, has an even broader concern: persuading young, new farmers to scale up, pushing their practices onto farms big enough to feed the world. “Many of the young people want to run manageable places, 100 acres or less,” he says. “In the next 10 to 20 years, huge amounts of land will become available” – as all those older farmers retire – “and I don’t see us preparing for this. We need to change the narrative so people look at farming like being a lawyer, a doctor, or anything else.”

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