Michigan Represents Young Farmers at the Young Farmer Conference
By Alexis Bogdanova-Hanna, Michigan Young Farmer CoalitionThis past August it had become clear to me: there were far too many young, trained farmers in Michigan without work. And those of us with work, for the most part, found ourselves making well below a living wage. We had responded to the resounding call for new farmers by putting ourselves through university training programs, formal apprenticeships, and rigorous WWOOFing circuits. We emerged from our training skilled, strong, and calloused and called back, “Here we are, ready to raise beautiful food for our communities, so let’s go!” Silence. Well, there were some whispers. Here and there some of us found work. Some were lucky enough to become part of established community and urban farming organizations. Others ventured out of state. But most of us intrepid young bloods were left to navigate the complex of barriers that typically confront beginning farmers: lack of capital, limited or no access to land, a skeletal post-training support structure, student debt, a handful of assets, and only a few seasons of experience. Compound this with the very real insolvency of the state of Michigan, and you begin to get a sense of what we young farmers of the Mitten are up against. It was August when a few of us realized that something needed to be done in order for us to actualize an abundant future for ourselves, our communities, and our state through the revitalization of agriculture led by a plucky lot of twenty-somethings. That was the birth of the Michigan Young Farmer Coalition (MYFC). By October, we were communicating through a Google Group and gearing up for our first ever working retreat in December. It was at Bioneers Detroit that month when Megan Kohn, a fellow ’08 alum of Michigan State’s Organic Farming Certificate Program and young Michigan farmer, told me about the national Young Farmer Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Within in weeks Michigan Food and Farming Alliance (MOFFA) had given Megan and I scholarships for our registrations and Mike Hamm, the CS Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU, had pledged to fund our travel. Tickets in hand, we were ready to bring the stories of young Michigan farmers to New England’s table and return with new contacts and tools to manage the MYFC … maybe even start a national coalition.
The Stone Barns Center is the foothold of the Hudson River Valley’s vibrant agricultural corridor. Just a half-hour north of the City in the quaint village of Pocantico Hills, the landscape ecology of the area resonates beautifully with that of much of Michigan. The Center itself is a wonder to behold: gorgeous architecture that houses a top-rated restaurant, gathering spaces, and an upscale store; over a half-acre of greenhouses in full production in addition to passive solar installations; the vegetable fields and orchards of Blue Hill Farm; a substantial compost operation; and several barns of livestock (although the pigs were happily foraging on rotation among the oaks). And on December 3rd and 4th, 250 young farmers and their supporters were thrown into the mix.
It was electric. The reception area was humming with the voices of young dirt-under-their-nails farmers: “Where did you work this season?,” “You were Eliot Coleman’s intern!?,” “I’m so excited for the Agroforestry workshop!” Sustained by a gorgeous spread of local food prepared by Blue Hill Restaurant, we were off to our respective workshops. Nena Johnson and company of Stone Barns had scheduled a stellar line-up of workshops, not to mention a knock-out keynote and some hardy social time.
My first workshop was “Access to Farmland,” led by Bob Bernstein of Land for Good. Land for Good is a non-profit based in New Hampshire that facilitates the acquisition of land for beginning farmers. There weren’t enough seats for all the young farmers who listened intently as Bob waxed poetically about long-term, iron-clad lease agreements and community land arrangements. The popularity of the workshop was a confirmation: young farmers everywhere are ready to invest blood, sweat, and tears in their own small square of earth, if we just knew how to get our hands into some.
Immediately following, I attended “Overcoming Obstacles to Starting Your Own Farm” led by New York farmers Hector Tejada of Conuco Farm and his neighbor Ben Shute, 31, of Hearty Roots Community Farm. Both of these young farmers grew their farms in financially sustainable ways, and they took us through the processes of doing so. The session was inspiring and instructive: two young, successful farmers sharing their secrets with their own generation, empowering us through their experiences.
“Introduction to Treecrops and Agroforestry” with Connor Steadman of Gaia University was up next. The focus was on the perennial and the coming return of the importance of nut crops. Conner told incredible tales of 30-foot wild paw paw trees and spiritedly spoke of the merits of the valiant white oak. Check out his slides here.
The following day, I attended permaculturalist Ethan Roland’s “Ecosystem Investing” and scored some Booya Cacao. Ethan, also of Gaia University, is sharp and driven, and every young farmer should aspire to develop his keen sense of financial planning and investing. His financial insights give shape and viability to the permaculture movement.
The final and absolutely most exciting session was titled “Building the Young Farmers Movement: How We Can Coordinate and Grow!” led by Severine von Tscharer Fleming, Greenhorns, and Ben Shute. This is what Megan and I had been waiting for. When Wendell Berry told America that we would need 50 million more farmers, he was talking about every single young person in the session, which was standing-room only. About half of us were young, hopeful farmers and the rest were supporters and advocates, representing national organizations. We began by listing the challenges of the movement, then began working on solutions. I was able to share my experience of organizing the MYFC, just two months young at the time. The discussion was spirited and by the close of our two hours together, we were ready to declare: here we are, the National Young Farmer Coalition! Stay tuned for more on the NYFC …
For more on the speakers, check out Megan’s re-cap:
Wes Jackson of The Land Institute gave the keynote address. Jackson painted a vivid picture of the ills of our current agricultural system and its inherent destructiveness. Agriculture that focuses heavily on annual grasses that deplete soil health while relying on fossil fuels to grow, process, store and ship will inevitably fail. Jackson calls for a new agriculture, one that relies not on heavy inputs and hydrocarbons, but one of perennial wheat and other grasses in addition to small diverse vegetable and fruit production. He ended by encouraging all young farmers to make sure their elected representatives know who they are and what their vision for agriculture is. With a unified political voice, young, organic farmers will be able to shift the direction of the next food bill for the next 50 years.
Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barnes, spoke to the importance of flavor in our foods during a Q&A session during lunch. Not only are restaurants that purchase local carrots supporting local growers and a growing economy, but they also have higher sugar content, allowing for more intense flavor. Barber spoke to the challenges of being a chef running a competitive and difficult business while working to serve the highest quality produce he can find.
Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture closed the conference by reiterating our need to participate in changing the global food system