Fresh on the Farm
A new generation of young farmers is changing our agricultural landscape.
Photography by Jesse Burke
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Farmer”? An image of an older guy in overalls tilling rows of corn? If so, you might want to adjust your mental picture. Modern-day farmers, whose names now grace your local bistro menu and pop up at your nearby farmers market, are more likely to be fresh-faced twenty-somethings tapping away on their iPhones, updating their farm’s Twitter feeds. Along with that new image comes a completely overhauled landscape, one where acres have been replaced with tiny plots bordered, in some cases, by residential properties.
There’s been a renaissance in our agricultural landscape, one that’s put a new generation of farmers on our land and an influx of fresh, locally raised produce, animals and seafood onto our tables. Between 2002 and 2007, Rhode Island’s number of farms grew from 858 to 1,219: a whopping 42 percent increase (many expect that the USDA’s next census in 2012 will show even more growth). The reasons are many and varied: concerns over our global food supply, a rise in oil prices, a community-wide effort to eat locally; and yes, even the advent of Twitter. It’s a new age in which people who have no particular experience or farming skills are entering the industry with hopes of feeding their community, stewarding the land, or simply searching for a better way of life.
But these new farmers are facing an extensive set of challenges, some of which are redefining what it means to be a farmer altogether.
“Besides cost and availability of land,” says Ken Ayars, chief of the Division of Agriculture of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), “there’s the loss of farming infrastructure. You have to have processing capability, transportation, universities that are engaged in the people who are farming.” All of these components used to exist when the family farm dominated New England’s landscape. But World War II, followed by the industrialization of the food industry, turned the region’s agriculture business into a wholesale market — one that didn’t allow many small-scale farmers to make a living. Ayars says the resurgence in small farms, which has come about in the last fifteen or twenty years, is due to the creation of the direct retail market. Through farmers markets, roadside stands, direct sales to restaurants and subscription services, farmers can connect directly to customers instead of relying on wholesale business. Because of that, state agriculture departments across New England, along with university extension schools and private groups, are trying to put key infrastructural elements back into place. In Rhode Island, that means creating grants to help fund new farming projects and reestablishing relationships between groups like local cattle farmers and the state’s lone slaughter facility.