A CSA hidden behind your local Walmart . . . A rice paddy under construction in rural Kentucky . . . A quest for the best local ingredients for granola . . .
What do these three things have in common? They are just some of the unique and innovative facets of the young farming movement here in Kentucky. All over the United States, young people—many of whom were not brought up agriculturally—are starting farms, and Kentucky is no exception.
Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of visiting with a few young farmers. These aren’t financially established retirees who thought it would be fun to try out organic farming in their spare time. These aren’t traditional farms, with millions of dollars in lands and assets, wanting to make the transition to more natural methods. These are idealistic young people, pioneering the latest wave of folks wanting to go back to the land. They are making tough sacrifices, working second jobs, testing out new theories . . . just to make things work.
Meeting each of these unique couples has solidified why I do what I do—to help promote and connect folks who are doing good. And these kids (if I, being a kid myself, can call them that) are all doing good, too. I plan on profiling each of the farms individually soon, but I wanted to mention first why young farmers today are a universe away from the farmers of yore.
1.) Land access. Gone are the days of the family farm, passed down for generations. There is no homeplace to go back to. All of the farms I’ve visited recently shared similar frustrations—lack of good land, lack of ways to pay for it. I love the creative ways they’re making do. (And the good news is that Kentucky still has some great and affordable land left where many places do not!)
2.) Education. Farmers are sometimes viewed as people who can’t do anything else career-wise. This simply isn’t the case. All of the couples I spoke to were well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled. Their choice to farm didn’t mean there was nothing else out there for them, it means that there is nothing else that will satisfy the deep longing in the soul to get back to the land . . . except getting back to the land.
3.) Knowledge. There’s a certain level of expertise that comes with growing up on a farm. Farm kids seem to have an innate sense of the rhythms of nature, how to interact with neighbors across the fence, when a cow might give birth to her calf . . . but where does someone who didn’t grow up on a farm get this knowledge? My friends Hannah and Jesse at Rough Draft Farmstead got it through interning at the Kentucky farm, Bugtussle (imagining leaving the city life in New York or Chicago to go off grid in a place called Gamaliel, Kentucky?). Jacob and Carolyn at Sweetgrass Granola started out WWOOFING before embarking on a long-term internship (you can read more about that crazy word when I write about them). While there may have been a time when young adults dreamed of escaping the farm to experience the big-city life, here something else is happening. These amazing farmers are choosing to immerse themselves in a way of life that will not only sustain their own families, but the families of those around them.
4.) Business plan. The farmers that I have spoken with have no desire to follow the great agribusiness model so long touted by the U.S. government. They don’t want to see how many acres of land they can accumulate, how high-tech they can get with their tractors, or how much money they can earn in subsidies. They want to find a new business model, one that allows them to keep an operation sustainable with their own labor. Whether it be a CSA, creating a value-added product like granola, or doing something really outside the box—like the poverty simulation currently under construction at Good Life Ranch in Casey County—nothing seems too far fetched to keep the farm running without resorting to monoculture.
5.) End goals. Geoff and Lindsey at Good Life Ranch are constructing their poverty simulation specifically to help educate kids around the country about how our food choices affect those in other parts of the world. They hope the take away from a weekend at the Ranch (which will also be a fully working sustainable farm—with gardens, chickens, ducks, cows, pigs, goats, etc.) will be that we can make small changes to make a difference. What’s interesting is that they aren’t alone in their goals. Everyone that I have talked to is passionate about educating their customers and their communities about sustainability and also the delicious difference of local, naturally-raised food.
6.) Bookshelves. While once upon a time farmers might have relied on their handy almanac and nothing else, today’s new farmers have full bookshelves and understand the philosophy of local food. If you meet one of these guys whose eyes don’t get a little misty when you bring up Wendell Berry, well . . . I’d be shocked. (If there is one topic that is held with mutual admiration and love, it’s Wendell and his prolific and life-changing writings.)
Keep an eye out for my complete posts on each of the young farming couples I’ve recently met! (Hopefully, I’ll be able to add more to the list as time progresses, too.) In the meantime, you can connect with and support each of these amazing farms on Facebook: