New farmers cultivate a greener future

While fewer Americans are farming, newbies are more likely to be minorities and women

Warren and Chris Ford in their soybean field.
Rosha Nix

Warren Ford wakes up at 4 a.m. Not long after, he arrives at the fields filled with peas, members of his family in tow. They pick and weed until 2 p.m. When everyone else heads home, Ford gets on his tractor and works on his soybean fields until the sun sets.

He’s 26 years old and it’s his farm, his land, his dream.

“I don’t know why I love it, but I do. I just love it,” says Ford as he heads back home from the Clanton, Alabama, field at about 8 p.m on a recent weekday.

“I plan to do row cropping for the rest of my life. I’m going to retire here.”

Ford, who started the 200-acre farm (aptly named Ford Farms) in 2013, is part of a group of new farmers in the United States.

According to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census, there are 2.1 million farmers in the country, and about 25 percent — 522,056 — are new farmers, people who have been on their land less than 10 years. About half of those newbies started within the past five years. 

The Ag Census is taken every five years, and asks farmers about their crops, their income, Internet use and their use of alternative power, like solar panels.

Although fewer Americans are farming nowadays, more newbies are likely to be women or minorities than in previous years. The increase was particularly high among Hispanics (21 percent).

It’s hard to get started, but once you get started, you don’t give up.

Warren Ford

Some of the new farmers came to agriculture through family land. Others say they started farming out of love for being outside and tilling the soil. Others were laid off during the recession and turned to farming out of a belief that it would be a more stable source of income, only to learn that, in fact, farming can be a very risky business.

Ford, who is African-American, always wanted to be a farmer. His uncle was a farmer, and he remembers working alongside his cousin’s on the uncle’s farm. But no one else in his family worked on a farm, and when his uncle died, so did the practice.

“Really, I had to start from ground zero,” says Ford. “I just went around and talked to people about leasing land and telling them what I was planning on doing.”

Ford and his fiance, Rosha Nix, started with a microloan of $35,000 through the Department of Agriculture. Then they worked with a program at Tuskegee University that helps new farmers find ways to sell their crops, peas, soybeans and collard greens. This year they produced their first crop, and they’ve already sold 1,000 bushels of peas to Wal-Mart.

“It’s hard to get started, but once you get started, you don’t give up,” says Ford.

Pakou Hang, executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, says she has seen a lot of people go into farming, starting in 2008, shortly after the recession hit.

She points to the example of one man in his early 50s who worked in a factory. When he was laid off, he tried other jobs but was told he was too slow. So he started farming a couple years ago and now sells carrots to the Minneapolis Public School system.

“They came [to the U.S.] 20 years ago, and then they lost their jobs and fell back on farming,” says Hang. “Farming is what they had back in Laos, and they wanted to stay here for their children and they see farming as a stable industry.”

Qiana Thornton

Not all new farmers are thinking big. Some just want to feed themselves and their families. Qiana Thornton is an African-American woman who works on a one-acre plot in Pembroke, a rural, impoverished area south of Chicago. She was an aerospace-engineering major at Tuskegee University, but dropped out and returned home. She worked a series of administrative jobs, but none of them really satisfied. Then she heard about an apprentice farmer program and signed up. 

Thornton bought the Pembroke land in August 2013, and started farming full-time this winter.

“There’s actually a lot in common with aerospace engineering,” Thornton says. “There’s a lot of problem solving with both, and there’s a lot of science in farming.  

“You think it’s just growing the food, but you have to be mechanically inclined, and aerospace has a lot of mechanical engineering involved."

2012 was our first year, and that was the year of the drought. We thought, ‘Well, we started off as hard as we can,’ and in 2013 we had to try again. So now we’re in our third year and we’re really going gung ho.

Amy Randazzo

When she started the apprentice program, Thornton says, she had a romantic view of life on a farm. The outdoors. The slower pace. The rural environment. Then she hit the reality of having to support herself on just the land. Thornton, a vegetarian, says she is dedicated to planting food that is not genetically modified, and it’s been a steep learning curve.

Her goal for In the Cut, the name of her farm, is to feed not only herself but her parents and brothers and, ultimately, others as well.

“I’m learning on the job,” she says. “I’m still determined to do it and I’m happy to do it, but the reality will be in the numbers.”

One of the points in the Ag Census is that most new farmers (63 percent) don’t consider agriculture their primary occupation.

Four years ago, Amy Randazzo, 44, couldn’t tell a drip irrigation system from a hoop house when she and her husband purchased her grandparents’ horse farm, Grani’s Acres, in Fairbury, Illinois. She had a master’s in accounting and had spent most of her adulthood working in a cubicle.

When they bought the land, they had no intention of farming it. Then she lost her job.

“My husband and I were talking about jobs I could do, and I have the right personality and makeup to be my own boss, and I liked that I could get out of a cube and be in charge of my own destiny,” says Randazzo, who is white.

She talked to a local farmer who’d helped develop a farm consortium, working with eight small farms to purchase supplies and market their collective output. Randazzo hoped to do the same, but then she discovered her destiny was actually in Mother Nature’s control.

“2012 was our first year, and that was the year of the drought. We thought, ‘Well, we started off as hard as we can,’ and in 2013 we had to try again,” she says. “So now we’re in our third year and we’re really going gung ho.”

This year, they only planted 2.5 acres, and most of the land went to potatoes — 2,000 pounds of potatoes. Other farmers said she was crazy. But potatoes sell, she says, and they are low maintenance. Randazzo and her husband tried chickens, but lost almost all of them when a neighbor’s dogs attacked. They’re going to try again in August.

Randazzo’s brother lives on the farm, which is chemical free, and does much of the work during the week. She lives about 40 minutes away from the land, and has found part-time work at an accounting firm and her husband is a full-time computer programmer. She heads up to the farm every weekend, works at the farmer’s market nearby and weeds, plants and does whatever is needed.

“Our eldest son really got hooked on farming, and he’s actually working on an internship on a very large farm right now through Thanksgiving,” she says. “So he’ll be the company expert and he’ll be more of the brains and I’ll be more of the brawn.”

Randazzo hopes to move to the farm full-time in six years, when her youngest graduates from high school.

What advice would she give to other would-be “green” farmers?

“Honestly, I’d say just do it. Don’t try to plan it; just go with your gut,” she says. 

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