Conference Cultivates Next Generation of Farmers

12/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Alex Wenger Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

POCATINO HILLS, N.Y. — Farmers have to wear many hats to be successful in agriculture, and for an aspiring farmer who hasn’t grown up on a farm, finding a way to learn those skills can be daunting.

Fortunately for that would-be farmer, “educating the next generation of farmers” is one of the missions of the Stone Barns Center, the host earlier this month of the sixth national Young Farmers Conference.

Founded in 2003, the center is a nonprofit organization in Pocatino Hills, about 30 miles north of New York City, dedicated to “improving the way that America eats and farms.”

The center conducts on-site tours and classes to educate schoolchildren about where food comes from and to raise awareness among consumers about agricultural issues.

It has also forged a farm-to-table relationship with one of the world’s best restaurants, experiments with sustainable farming practices and collaborates with university scientists.

The Stone Barns Center was packed Dec. 5-6 with more than 250 “young,” aspiring farmers from 32 states and Canada who share several common features.

Nearly everyone was younger than 57, the average age of U.S. farmers. And, despite their varying ages, they all had been farming for less than 10 years, many of them organically.

Ryan Miller and Nicole Barker, a young couple from Vermont, attended the conference with their 6-month-old daughter.

“We’re pretty new to doing our own thing,” Miller said. “We wanted to hear, I think, more from the business perspective, about how to make it really work financially.”

Last year, the couple sold produce through several nearby farmers markets and to restaurants in their area. Both have off-farm jobs, but one of their goals is to live off their “growing efforts,” Barker said.

From vegetable growers to artisan meat producers to farm educators who combine farm tours and cooking classes, this community of “people who are young to farming” brought a diversity of experiences, and challenges, to the conference’s tables.

“We’ve got to accept the difficulty of everything that they’re trying to do,” said Wendell Berry, the conference’s keynote speaker.

Berry is an influential agricultural writer, as well as a farmer himself.

“This is not, at present, a society that encourages young people to farm,” he said. “That’s the context in which to understand this meeting. This meeting is trying to help people whose ambition is to live to a considerable extent outdoors doing physical work.”

There were many other qualified and knowledgeable presenters to help those people embark on their farming journeys, from Chellie Pingree, a farmer and congresswoman from Maine, to celebrity chef Dan Barber and scientists from Cornell University.

More than 60 classes were available, ranging from starting an on-farm sugaring operation with maple and walnut trees to the basics of MIG welding and carpentry.

For instance, after a panel discussion about the future of small-scale, regional seed production in the Northeast, there was a workshop that taught on-farm seed production and a plant breeding class in the Stone Barns’ greenhouses.

Richard Wiswall is an organic produce grower from East Montpelier, Vt., who presented at the conference. For 32 years, he and his wife have managed Cate Farm, a 22-acre, diverse, certified organic produce farm where they also raise cut flowers, medicinal herbs and nursery seedlings.

“At one point in my life, I realized that I needed to be able to make more money and work less, or I’m not going to be able to keep this up,” Wiswall said.

This led him to develop a management strategy that’s been so effective, he’s now sharing it with the next generation of farmers.

Many young farmers start farming because they love agriculture, not because they want to learn business management, Wiswall said.

“But you have to be able to make a profit in farming in order to be viable economically,” he said. “And if you’re not economically viable, it doesn’t matter how good of a marketer, innovator or brewer you are. It’s a moot point because you’ll be out of business.”

Commenting on the success of the Young Farmers Conference, organizer Mel Weiss said last year’s event sold out within 36 hours, prompting the organizers to select attendees through a lottery system this year.

“I think that beginning farmers are really hungry for access to technical and farm business management training, and there are not a lot of gatherings like this where a bunch of beginning farmers have the opportunity to gather together and exchange information,” Weiss said.

In addition to the conference, Stone Barns trains 12 to 15 apprentices each year. In a year, the center attracts more than 100,000 visitors for its education programs.

Craig Haney, livestock manager at Stone Barns, said the goal is to help people to understand “that eating is an agricultural act” and their choices affect farmers and the agricultural landscape.

Practical knowledge is the foundation for everything that takes place at Stone Barns, said Jack Algiere, the farm director.

Algiere was charged with the task of transforming the former cattle ranch into a diversified farming operation that now includes a half acre of greenhouses, more than six acres of organically grown vegetables, a livestock program with 23 acres of pasture and 40 acres of woodlands.

Produce and livestock are sold on-site, at local farmers markets and to Stone Barns’ most famous customer and collaborator, New York City-based Blue Hill Restaurant, which has been rated one of the world’s best restaurants.

Stone Barns, the restaurant and plant-breeders from Cornell University have been working together to breed vegetables in new shapes, sizes, colors and flavors.

“We’re always trying to do things that are a little bit experimental, which keeps it interesting,” said Tyler Dennis, who recently graduated from the apprenticeship program after two years at Stone Barns.

“While I’ve been here, I’ve interacted a lot with the restaurant,” Dennis said. “I’ve worked both front-of-house and in the kitchen, and that turned out to be a really relevant experience for me because I’m trying to start a farm business that caters mostly to restaurants.”

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