The next generation, inherited or lifestyle chosen
by Remy Tumin
They live by the sun, thankful for every last drop of prolonged light. There are permanent dirt stains on their knees and underneath their fingernails. They delight in that feeling of exhaustion as though you can’t move again until you get to wake up and do it all over again.
It’s a farmer’s life, and over the past few years agriculture has seen a new injection of energy from a group of people who are passionate, smart and dedicated to the land they serve: young farmers.
“Young people in particular…needed to be more actively engaged and involved in making a change in their food system, and growing the food themselves was for them the most logical way to do that,” says Nena Johnson, Growing Farmers Initiative Director at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The New York-based organization has had an active role in the young farming movement, and hosts an annual conference to help beginning farmers get their feet on the ground.
The term young farmer has a loose definition, one that is constantly changing.
“We really approach it as young farmer is a new farmer. It could be someone who’s between the ages of 20 and 40 getting into farming, but it’s also likely to be someone who’s in transition to a second career later in their life,” Nena says. “We definitely don’t cut it off at a particular age. There are younger people getting into agriculture nationally and transition is a trend you’re going to see as well.”
There’s more to farming than the meat and potatoes. A survey released in November by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition found affordable housing, access to land, and health care as the biggest obstacles facing new and beginning farmers today, and the Vineyard is no exception.
Land opportunities are limited and frequently expensive on the Vineyard. Any young person or family looking for housing knows the Vineyard shuffle between seasonal housing can take its toll.
Each region has its own road blocks. In the Northeast the perceived value of land is making it impossible for new and young farmers to get on land, Nena says, whereas in the Midwest competition with Big-Ag makes it equally as difficult.
Slowly but surely help is on the way. With more public land trust programs offering affordable land to Vineyard farmers, such as the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, more and more farmers are able to access the rich soils on the Island. The eastern Massachusetts branch of Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer
Training (CRAFT) is a peer-based education group who set up mentorships between beginning farmers and seasoned farmers.
For those considering getting into farming, Nena recommends apprentice programs to learn a little about a lot of things.
“Do your homework, visit farms,” she says.
But you have to be cautious.
“Remember if you’re going to be serious about it, you have to approach it as a business,” says Nena. might have good intentions and good feelings around the food system issues, in order for there to be longevity you have to devote your life to starting an entrepreneurial endeavor. Take some business classes; learn more about bookkeeping or business plans or how to ask for money. You have to get all your ducks in a row.”
Young Vineyard farmers are taking that advice to heart. They’re serious about the opportunities given to them because often those opportunities are few and far between.
Some may cast it off as a national trend that could fade, but this group of young farmers, especially on the Vineyard, has seized the moment to give the culture of farming new meaning. They are not defined by age but by intentions. It goes beyond a connection to the land, a connection to something bigger than themselves—feeding your friends, family and community.
Andrew Valenti can still remember his first day as a field crew member at Morning Glory Farm—the first field he picked in, the sugar snap peas popping off the vine, and the group of college kids who took him under their wing.
“I remember it so vividly,” Andrew recalls one morning this spring, only a few weeks before he’s set to report back to the farm. “It was early morning, everything was all dewy. I remember filling that first bushel and thinking—this makes so much sense. I was overwhelmed by this feeling of what I was doing was right.”
That was nine years ago, and at 24 years old Andrew continues to be inspired by his fellow crew members, the produce he grows, and the Island he helps feed.
Andrew started working at Morning Glory when he was 16 and has come of age at the Edgartown farm. He’s taken an interesting ride over the years as a witness to the changing farming landscape, both as an Island kid and a quiet part of the farming movement on the Vineyard.
These days he’s in charge of Morning Glory’s lettuce. In the inner circles of Morning Glory he’s known as the Lettuce Ninja. And he has a tattoo of his favorite type of lettuce, Nancy Butterhead, to prove it on his upper arm.
He’s learned a thing or two about lettuce in his nine years at the farm—which varieties will do better at market versus the stand, women tend to like red varieties of lettuce where as men tend to reach for the iceberg varieties—but he’s also learned life lessons.
“There were some years I didn’t want to go back to the farm because I felt like I should be doing something else with my life and making better money than a farmer would, especially living on the Island, but I tried two different landscaping companies and made it a week with one and three days with another,” Andrew says.
“All I could think about was picking lettuce. I was standing behind a mower and thinking, “Man, I’m not dirty—I’m just dusty.”
“It’s really nice to harvest the whole head and really see a full field and clean it out, bare ground, and know that you fed an Island with all the lettuce.”
Growing up on the farm he learned from mentors that tending to something as simple as lettuce made a difference, and he’s had the support from his family and his employers, the Athearn family. Andrew graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2006 and decided not to pursue college, but he says in the end it didn’t matter—he learned more from father and son Jim and Simon Athearn, and the land than he could have ever learned
Farming has become a part of pop culture, he says, but that’s a good thing. Andrew describes the young farmer movement as “fun and funny” as he watched more and more college kids compete for spots on the field crew with more and more classroom knowledge and less time in the fields. Now it’s time for them to get a little dirt under their fingernails.
From the farmers’ markets to the fields, Andrew says he’s been pleasantly surprised about the positive attitude towards young farmers on the Island.
“The farming community right now is just unbelievable,” he says. “I see such a future with the Island because there are so many young people who are interested and passionate and dedicated to producing
food for the Island.”
At the end of the day, it’s his own small farm plot in his family’s backyard that grounds him. This summer he’ll have an all purple vegetable garden.
“I farm all day and work in my garden until it’s dark. I love being in a tractor all day doing big jobs and big fields and really producing a lot of vegetables. But the thing that I really hold dear to my heart is going
home and raising a few heads of lettuce,” he says. “Growing vegetables at home gives me the small farm feel, which I’m in love with, and providing my own family with vegetables from our backyard is such a good feeling.”
Andrew doesn’t imagine being the Lettuce Ninja forever. He has aspirations of owning his own farm some day.
“I definitely imagine myself being a landowner,” he says without hesitation.
“I just imagine having land that I can do whatever I want with. And of course there will be vegetables on it, trees, fruit trees, and everything and anything I can grow.”
When Taz Armstrong recalls how he first got into farming, he lists a barrage of chores farmer friends had on the bottom of their list. They volunteered him to plant spring onions and leeks at the Farm Institute, bottle-feed baby lambs, build fences, process chickens, and pick green beans at Morning Glory Farm for eight hours straight.
“Basically a lot of this was forced on me,” he says with a smile, which is how he approaches most farming activities.
Taz, 25, is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to Vineyard farming. He moved to the Island a few years ago with his girlfriend and no knowledge of farming. As a result he’s created his own farm apprenticeship of sorts, feeling out different areas of agriculture where he had no experience.
Working with two of the biggest farms on the Island and being a traveling farmer of sorts, Taz has seen his fair share of Island politics and differing opinions. He’s learned how to delicately balance teaching people what Morning Glory and the Farm Institute do, and likewise relaying concerns of the smaller growers on the Island.
But one thing is clear: the movement to connect to something bigger than the generic grocery brand is growing.
“It’s one of those things where being part of it it’s hard to imagine not being part of it. It seems like people are becoming more aware and more understanding what local or organic or humane food is. It’s gaining more,” he says. “But I’m also mostly just exposed to people who are learning that. It’s a little bit hard in the sense that you’re always preaching to the choir, but at the same time the choir is getting bigger.”
“It’s a mixed bag,” he says of the eating- local movement. “I feel like it’s almost in its teenage years. There’s a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings, and it’s going through changes and hopefully it wont be too traumatic and angsty. There’s so much knowledge that should go along with it that people are unaware of or unwilling to learn about.”
And Taz is willing and able to learn just about anything. One task he grew particularly fond of was processing chickens, and this summer he’ll hold the title of Chicken King as head of Island Grown Initiative’s mobile processing unit.
“I seemed to be enjoying it, and it was something I was good at,” he says. “Growing up in Mendocino, I was raised mostly vegetarian. Meat was definitely never forbidden but it wasn’t something that was often cooked. I’ve gained more of an appreciation of meat and what you can do with it.”
He wanted to keep learning. One fall Taz and a friend butchered a couple of goats, and it was then he found a home with the knife and cutting board.
“I decided I liked that a lot. It was fun, and as weird as it may sound, it was enjoyable,” he says. “In the sense of gardening, I enjoy tedious, monotonous. I like picking beans for eight hours straight. But there’s something about breaking down animals, while it’s not tedious or monotonous, it’s very detail oriented, and there’s a very clear line of where you work—this is where you make the separation between the leg and the haunch. It all made sense to me.”
He realizes slaughtering animals isn’t for everyone, but he likes the idea of gaining a skill that is having a resurgence in kitchens and farms across the country.
“It appeals to the martyr in me, doing something that others might not want to do,” he says. “I also like going to the backyard growers, partly because, like working with kids, there’s so much excitement and they’re so into what they’re doing. You get to talk them through the process and the problems they might encounter. The teaching experience speaks a lot to me.”
After taking an internship in New York City with butchering teams at Chelsea Market and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats,
Taz is eager to begin work on a Vineyard slaughterhouse, even if it means only helping to lay the foundation. His favorite cut of meat is lamb shoulder. “One, its lamb, and that’s a hard one to beat. You can bone
it out and stuff it and roll it or roast it on the bone. It’s very versatile,” he says. But flank steaks from all different animals are really good for tacos, he adds.
It’s not all as breezy as homemade tacos.
Affordable housing is “far and away the biggest challenge” Taz faces every year and his decision on whether or not to stay another season. One perk this winter was when his landlord allowed him to raise rabbits outside his garage apartment.
He loves farming and the people he gets to meet along the way. The community has been embracing of him and his trade, he says, and are eager to share their knowledge.
“No matter where I go…people are exited about what I’m doing and excited that I’m fairly young and it’s both my girlfriend and I that are doing it. People like to see a young couple farming and young people in general. They’re excited that this could be something that carries on longer and something that will pass on.”
Artisan cheese making
Goat’s milk is in Jackee Foster’s blood. She was raised on the luscious sweet milk, so it’s no wonder that when it comes to cheese, the goat variety is her favorite.
“I’m pretty much into anything goat,” she says. “Goat milk ice cream, gelato, caramels—anything sweet with goat milk is good. But cheese is amazing. There’s a
huge market for it.”
“The dream all along is to do goats and goats milk cheeses. It’s my favorite of any of the milks and really favorite of any animals. For me it’s always going to be a small-scale artisanal and producing in traditional ways, trying to get as close to that as possible, continuing to do research to be more consistent and have a better understanding.”
Jackee, 28, began her cheese work on the Vineyard with cow’s milk at Mermaid Farm and Dairy in Chilmark in 2010. There she created a fresh feta wedge, now synonymous on Island tables. Paired with a few olives and fresh vegetables and you could have sworn you’re under the shaded olive trees of Greece.
Food has always been a part of her life in one way or another, and while Jackee always loved cheese, it was never something she imagined making a living from.
Jackee worked in restaurants since she was 14. After graduating from culinary school at Johnson and Wales University, she moved to Ireland for five years, working as a sous chef and then an executive chef in several restaurants. But the hours were grueling, and Jackee felt herself slowly losing touch with why she got into the business in the first place.
“I was working 70 to 90 hour weeks and putting everything I had into it,” she says, a slight twang of an Irish accent still lingering. “I had a great time, but doing those kinds of hours for five years I started to get disillusioned and thought, what am I doing? I’m not feeling connected to the food at all.”
She returned home to the Boston area, and at the height of her frustration with the restaurant industry she met a cheesemaker.
“I would stick my hands in it and taste little pieces of it and smell it and talk about the process, until she felt that I understood,” she recalls of her first cheesemaking experience at Fiore di Nonno in Boston, where fresh Italian style cheeses are made to order with no instruments but the feel of the cooks’ hands.
Jackee began taking workshops at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheese, fascinated by the science behind the fermentation.
“I was blown away by the stuff I was learning. For the first time I was interested in science or biochem, and I got really interested in the study of lactobacteriolgy,” she says of the fine science of cheese
An opportunity to bring commercial cheese to the Island was too hard to resist. Jackee has been visiting the Island since she was 12 years old, and when she planned to spend a summer here in 2010, she had every intention of leaving in the fall. After three days, she was hooked.
“I didn’t realize how big an agriculture community there was here and how focused people were on getting that to work—I just wanted to be part of it,” she says. “It was the first time I felt this is a community I can be a part of as an adult. I hadn’t really had that.”
Access to land and housing are a given challenge when it comes to trying to make it work as a young farmer on the Vineyard, as well as providing a consistent income.
“I see a lot of young, talented and enthusiastic people in the summer time, but retaining them year-round and giving back to our community and economy year round is close to impossible because we
don’t have anything to offer,” Jackee says.
One idea she hopes will catch on is the idea of land stewardship, where people who have large properties on the Vineyard
would lease their land.
“How many people live here a quarter of the year and have plenty of acreage and might be interested in a stewardship opportunity?
Someone could be farming on their property and they can have that experience when they’re here.”
But the Vineyard is a community that cares about their farmers. “If you show them an issue, they will get on board,” she says.
The momma pig at The Grey Barn in Chilmark kept knocking down the wall separating her from two newborn calves.
Herdswoman and dairy farm manager Becky Brown eased the pig back into her stall, but an hour later she broke through it once again. The pig nestled herself in the cow’s hay and later gave birth to a new litter of spotted pigs.
“You’re doing chores, but all of these guys can teach you,” she says walking into the barn about a week after the piglets were born.
“Between seven and nine days is when they reach maximum cuteness. Becky said peering into the pig pen with sow and piglets.
“When they’re born they look like elephants with their big ears.” Becky would be castrating them later in the day.
At the age of 33, Becky is quickly emerging from the shadow of her father Dicky Brown’s famed stetson hat and managing the largest dairy farm on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s worked on farms as far away as New Zealand and Hawaii, providing her with varied experiences from livestock and horses to soil testing and dairy.
Becky can talk circles around any big agriculture farmer, and much of that has to do with how she has managed to meld a spiritual path with business smarts. Sometimes stepping away from standard or traditional
practices leads to embracing the practical.
“Farming is the only industry where the majority of the people enter it expecting it to lose money, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” she says. “It just takes a little common sense and doing things differently.”
Younger farmers can come into the trade with a fairly idealistic viewpoint, Becky says, and there are some realities like finances you have to overcome to succeed.
Understanding the whole food system, everything from the business to the nutritional side, is key.
“You have to look at it’s interconnectedness,” she says. “For farming it’s a little bit political, a little bit nutritional—okay it’s a lot political—and just that concept that the most potent vote I will ever cast is when I go to the farmers market and buy food. That will do way more than any ballot, any day.”
And people are catching on to that notion at younger ages, fueling part of the young farmer movement. “I think it’s a fascination with systems rather than being in a cubicle and entering linear data,” she says in a robot voice. “It’s hands on. You’re doing it, it’s really reactive, and things change all the time.”
For Becky it was a long and unexpected journey that began with examining two bookshelves—spiritual and self-improvement guides and farming—and figuring out how to meld the two.
She’s studied the effects of grazing and weight gain in lambs at Union College, consulted Amish farmers in Pennsylvania on soil management, and helped choose the best animals to represent her family’s farm at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. Whatever the task, Becky has always had a connection to the outdoors.
“When it was Fair time it was game face. My dad and my mom had me pick what sheep went into the Fair,” she says.
“It seemed like I was always pushed to do things that were beyond my years, like carrying huge buckets of grain above my head.”
Becky was the first employee at the Farm Institute.
“That was really neat because I liked sharing with people my passion for farming. It was very potent,” she says. “At the time it was fun to share with kids and excitement about it all. It’s funny that all the faux-pas come up in farming—poop and sex and babies and death—and it’s okay to talk about it on the farm setting.”
With a few draft horses and her father by her side, the pair harvested 60 acres of hay at the farm that first season.
In Virginia she worked at Mt. Vernon Farm and earned the livestock farm Grazer of the Year award because of a financial analysis she conducted, which led to them to stop feeding their animals hay.
“I really enjoyed doing the financial analysis,” she says. “It’s hard on the farm, but it’s super fascinating because the end result is sometimes counter-instinctual and goes against your paradigms and personal preferences. But at the end of the day it’s a business. It’s neat to learn about those decisions”
Becky then left for New Zealand, off to the other side of the world, a sheep girl and came back as a dairy girl. She stayed with close to 50 different families to learn the ins and outs of dairy farming and the science behind it. There she learned, “If you bake a really good cake, then you don’t have to frost it with all the fancy stuff,” she says. She began to strip down to basics.
After a stop in the Midwest, Becky returned home to manage the Grey Barn. Several months after Becky started at Grey Barn, she realized how those two bookshelves really could merge back home on the Vineyard.
“It dawned on me: holy smokes, I had to leave to get the dairy farming experience in order to come back,” she says. “The two book shelves really do merge in ways you don’t realize.”
As much as farming is a lifestyle choice, it’s also a business, she says, and when it comes down to it, if a cow isn’t milking as efficiently as possible, choices need to be made. She appreciates the “common sense system” Eric and Molly Glasgow have established at the Grey Barn.
But many farmers don’t make financials a priority.
“Farmers are so busy and it’s the lifestyle they’re going after…because of the independent mind and you want to work for yourself and you just don’t get the training in business management really,” she says.
“It’s some cooky cultural thing that takes second chair to the lifestyle.”