It's easy to romanticize small-scale farmers. The odds stacked against them by an unfairly consolidated industrial food system, they've taken the high - but difficult - road, determined to make a living in a profession that has been on the decline in the US for the last 150 years. They've dedicated their lives to stewarding the land, in spite of major stresses, financial risk and tireless effort. But to genuinely support their heroism, we need to listen to them. Breaking Ground: Advice from Beginning Farmers, the final panel of the recent (sold out) Just Food Conference here in New York, asked four farmers some simple, clear questions, gave them time to answer - and offered us all some rich insights.
The moderator was Jorge Cubas of Just Food, who introduced the panel of young farmers: sturdy, muddy-shoed Ben Shute of Hearty Roots Community Farm; sparkling Cara Fraver of Quincy Farms, who would not look out of place in a Brooklyn indie coffee spot; wiry Farm School NYC grad Rafael Aponte, wearing neat corn-rows under his pageboy hat, and a beaming Gudelio Garcia, owner of El Poblano Farm, in a bright red tee advertising his farm. All four practice sustainable agriculture, and all four market their wares through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.
Jorge's easygoing introduction set the relaxed tone that visibly lessened any stage fright the farmers might have felt, miked to address the 1,000-seat auditorium.
After the brief intro, Jorge dove in to ask about the big challenges they face.
Ben along with his wife, Lindsey Lusher Shute are pretty well known in sustainable food communities as co-founders of the National Young Farmers' Coalition. The Shutes operate Hearty Roots Community Farm in New York's fertile Hudson River Valley, where they produce vegetables and eggs for 550 CSA members. After mentioning the challenges of finding land and community, Ben emphasized that one thing he'd anticipated as a big hurdle - transitioning from working for others to farming on their own - was much lower than he'd expected.
Cara Fraver and her husband Luke Deikis are on their third season running their 50 acre farm after three years of working for other CSA farmers. Cara listed their biggest hurdle as finding land. She found herself quite surprised that realty web sites helped in the search; ultimately she feels indebted to local land conservancies, as their farm is protected by an agricultural easement held by the Agricultural Stewardship Association. "We have a good unit, until we're done - permanently," she explained, to a puzzled look from the moderator. "Permanently?" he asked. "Yep, till we're done. Dead." Nervous laughter in the auditorium.
Coming from the South Bronx, Rafael Aponte started his journey with over seven years of experience working as a community activist and advocate. And a flower pot. "That was my access to land!" The lack of access inspired his commitment to food justice, education and sovereignty. Rafael now farms in Ithaca, with ten acres of land in Tompkins County.
Working through a translator, Gudelio Garcia described his greatest challenge as finding land... "and now that I have land, the challenge is finding a tractor!" Last season, Gudelio participated in five farmers' markets and - grateful for volunteer support, is looking forward to launching his first CSA this summer.
Jorge's second inquiry was about social challenges.
Ben Shute expressed feeling shy about approaching older farmers "as an outsider, a hippie... as someone 'opposed' to conventional farming." But, he emphatically stated, the community welcomed him warmly. "I wish I'd better tried to earlier tap into the knowledge, the ecology of the land in my area. I've been very enriched by their knowledge - and welcomed."
Cara Fraver described moving upstate from Brooklyn. "We left our social network and started something that takes 80-100 hours a week. It can be really, really lonely." She joked, "Thank god I don't have any friends, because I wouldn't have any time to hang out." As the audience chuckled with her, she added earnestly, "It's a little sadder than not having any friends at all..."
Rafael Aponte was surprised that his biggest social challenge came from his Bronx friends and family, and their perception that farming was something people historically fled. "As a farmer of color, with the big history of trauma and exploitation, friends say 'Hey, are you sharecropping?! Going back to the land?' It was something we came from."
Gudelio Garcia paused before speaking. "I'm going to try not to cry... but it's being separated from my family. I've been in this country for 12 years and have not been able to go back. The other challenge is that my land is in Pennsylvania, a bit far [from Staten Island]; it's three hours both ways." He went on to address the relentless demands: "Once you start in the spring, ALL your time is invested. You start at 5am and stop at 9:15pm."
But Gudelio wanted to make it clear that he willingly accepts these obstacles. "I like it; it's very healthy - the nature, the plants. I don't have any complaints about that. Every difficult thing has its reward."
The discussion turned to tools for support.
Ben Shute praised "great programs, such as Farm School NYC." He described "a lot of different paths to success," but warned "I hear 'Step One is finding some land.' Step One is working for other farmers, so you're not making tons of mistakes."
Cara Fraver described the importance of writing a clear business plan that includes long and short term goals, as well as having a life plan. She urges beginning famers to investigate "what niche can you fill" and to be innovative.
Rafael Aponte added "Give yourself time to learn; learn the craft. Make sure the mistakes are small - start small."
And Gudelio Garcia philosophized, "My first piece of advice is you have to like nature. I hear from people who are traumatized because they worked the land with their parents. So far, I still love the land; I love farming. I was not traumatized. Try to see if you like [working] the land."
Then Jorge asked the farmers to give the audience some advice on how to be better farm advocates.
The farmers enthusiastically offered suggestions, starting with Ben Shute, "Be a CSA supporter. [Thanks to CSA funding] every year we didn't go into debt; we used the money to buy tools." He also urged support of Just Food and other local food hubs. "Other sources are National Young Farmers' Coalition, that my wife, myself and a couple of other farmers founded." Shute mused that "farmers need to make the time to better advocate, too," but immediately turned back to the audience again. "We really, really need allies, so the decks aren't stacked against us." He mentioned the good work of Northeast Organic Farming Association, and Hearty Roots, which grows fresh vegetables for five pantries in Brooklyn through Just Food's Local Produce Link program.
Cara Fraver also praised Community Supported Agriculture. "CSA allows a cash flow. It's really allowed a change in NYC," she said, but worried that if asked, many members can't name their farmer. Cara stressed that consumers need to be really committed to knowing their CSA.
Rafael Aponte added, "Share your food; share your love."
Gudelio Garcia reflected on what he feels he needs to better engage his customers. "Myself, I don't have much experience with vegetables; back in my country, I grew only corn and squash." But he said that he is learning to grow vegetables popular with consumers, and thanked the New Farmer Development farm business training course, La Nueva Siembra.
To wrap up the conversation, Jorge asked the farmers to tell us what they find most rewarding.
Ben Shute laughed at the question. "So many things go wrong every day... still, I'm always glad to be an entrepreneur, to be creative, supporting my community with food." And he described the lessons from nature and what he learns from his chickens. "All they have to look forward to is pecking at bugs in the dirt; and they are so happy each morning; they remind me of what matters..."
Cara Fraver spoke of duty, companionship and the joy of working the land: "This plot needs me to do a good job; I work with my husband [which is good because] I really like him! Part of spending your life on a family farm is choosing to spend your life with the people you choose." She grinned, "I mean... we make sweet potatoes - from dirt!"
Rafael Aponte offered a favorite slogan. "FARMERS PRODUCE!" he exclaimed. "We are some of the hardest working people on earth. I haven't had this many calluses since the monkey bars in school."
Strong, mustachioed Gudelio Garcia spoke with the heart of a poet about zucchini flowers. "To wake up in the morning on the farm and to cut the zucchini flowers and to see them and deliver them every day... and also to take them home; every day the zucchini flowers are growing..." He paused as he fought back sudden tears. So did many in the audience.
As the panel ended, the crowd stood and the cheering overwhelmed them. It's not romantic to say that these beginning farmers are heroes, who, though courage and vision, are cultivating a promising future for us all.