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A younger generation of farmers gets in the dirt
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When she was just in grade school, Nicole Jeanotte took a test to help identify a suitable career. Her ideal job: Agricultural science.

I didnt even know what that was, she said.

Shes certainly acquainted with it now. Nicole and her husband Jared, both 30, operate From Scratch Farm, a seven-acre pastured poultry farm in Southold, New York.

Nicole and her husbands journey to raising some 500 chickens reflects a trend among millennials and other young people who are expressing a growing interest in all sorts of agriculture-related endeavors. Given where agriculture as an industry has been headed of late, their arrival could hardly be more timely.

The number of Americans younger than 35 pursuing farming as their primary occupation increased 10 percent to roughly 55,000 between 2007 and 2012, according to a United States Department of Agriculture census. However positive that may seem, it doesnt make much of a dent in a lopsided demographic. Estimates hold that farmers over the age of 65 outnumber farmers under 35 by a six to one margin.

The apparent peak in the young farmer population approximately 70,000 reached in 2002, according to the USDA creates uncertainty in the future for farming.

Still, theres room for optimism. The young people pursuing farming today are far more pragmatic than their starry-eyed predecessors of just three or four decades ago, said John Rebar, executive director of the Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.

The younger farmers of today are not the same as the back to the land homesteaders of the 1970s, he said. Today's young farmers are aspiring to be successful businesspeople who want a relationship with their customers. They want to work toward creating something that is meaningful for them and the communities where they live. They want to make a living while having a quality of life that creates a positive place within their community.

A long transition

The appeal of a bucolic way of life is a decided lure. After Nicole graduated from college with a degree in political science, the Jeanottes bought a suburban home where they began to keep a modest number of chickens and goats in the backyard.

"We wanted to make an effort to take more responsibility for the animal protein we consumed," said Nicole. "It was through that experience that we became more and more interested in that sort of lifestyle.

Up until then, we never really thought about being professional farmers, although I knew I wanted to own a business, added Jared.

For a while, farming seemed like a far off dream. Nicole spent several years in office administration for a marketing agency and a law firm. Jared worked in commercial kitchen equipment repair. But, as Nicole noted: "Those jobs helped us to fund our savings and grow many of the skills we would need to start the farm."

From Scratch Farm came into being in part through Farms for The Future, an agricultural incubator designed to encourage farming. The Jeanottes were allowed to work a seven-acre parcel on Long Island that had gone wild on the condition they build it back up into a working farm.

Same destination, different path

At one time in their lives, Brent Ridge and his partner Josh Kilmer-Purcell might have seemed the most unlikely people around to pursue a career in agriculture. Ridge, 44, a physician and vice president of Healthy Living for Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and Kilmer-Purcell, 47, an advertising executive and author, were ensconced in New York City. Looking for a weekend getaway destination, they bought a 60-acre farm built in 1802 in Sharon Springs, New York.

Then the bottom dropped out in 2008. Within a month, both men lost their jobs: We literally had nothing left between us except a $1 million mortgage on the farm, said Ridge.

The two decided to move upstate and make a go of turning the property into a full-time working operation. For several years, they struggled to make ends meet.

Desperation is the best form of motivation, said Ridge. We knew that we had to look at this like businesspeople.

Fortunately, they had a number of factors in their favor.

They were surrounded by supportive neighbors who were happy to share their expertise and insights: We asked other local farmers how to graze goats, said Ridge. "Everyone is flattered when you ask them, Can you teach me?

They already had a variety of business skills under their belts, from identifying suitable markets to leveraging social media.

The young farmers of today are networking with others to learn all they can. Many of the newer farmers may not have gone to college for an agriculture major but most are well educated, often with a college degree, said Rebar. They are technology savvy and are effective at using social media to connect with their customers.

Thats been the case with Beekman 1802, Ridges and Kilmer Purcells farm which now employs 15. While the farms central focus may be raising goats, the operation has diversified into a variety of handmade products, organic vegetables, a cookbook and a television program (The Fabulous Beekman Boys, currently airing on the Cooking Channel.)

Sweat is the best equity

The Jeanottes have taken a more low-profile path in building From Scratch Farm. They currently sell their chickens and eggs largely by way of farmers markets, following the farmer-to-consumer model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) a system pursued by many other young farmers.

They understand that the strength of local agriculture's success is in building relationships with your customers, said Rebar.

Technology, academic programs and old-fashioned interaction with more experienced neighbors have helped fill the knowledge void at both farms. While Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell have taken extension agriculture courses at Cornell University, the Jeanottes have been equally enthusiastic students, attending a variety of conferences, watching YouTube videos and accessing other resources. Were trying to make mistakes on a small scale, Nicole said.

There is no substitute for hard work, added Rebar. Anyone interested in farming should do their homework and create a detailed business plan. Farming on faith instead of sound business and science principles is asking for failure.

Both the Jeanottes and the Beekman Boys said they and other young farmers also embrace the tangible results and sense of community in farming rewards counterbalanced with often modest financial return and long days.

Its an ideology as well as a matter of economics. But Id never want to calculate what our hourly wages come out to, said Nicole Jeanotte.

If I work hard, I want something concrete and substantial, added Ridge. Theres an authenticity to it.
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