New farmers find their footing
By Mark Bittman
The New York Times
When Brenna Chase was farming in Connecticut a few years back, new farmers weren’t always welcome by oldsters. The pie, she says, just wasn’t big enough. “But now,” she said to me here, where she now farms, “the feeling is that the pie is getting bigger and that the more people that get into this the better it will be for everyone.”
By “this,” she means sustainable farming (here I use the term interchangeably with “organic” because many ethical farmers can’t afford organic certification), and the poised 33-year-old, who began farming in high school, is representative of young people I’ve met all over the country. These are people whose concern for the environment led to a desire to grow — and eat — better food. And although chefs still get more attention, the new farmers deserve recognition for their bold and often creative directions.
Rural Maine, it would seem to almost all of us from “away” as they say down east, is as unlikely a place to find new farmers as exists in the lower 48: it boasts harsh, dark winters; a short, cool growing season; acidic soil; and a transportation “system” that makes shipping both in and out of state a challenge. (Even people have trouble getting out, as I discovered Monday. And Tuesday.)
There’s only a quarter as much land in farming in Maine as there was 100 years ago, but that’s changing. There are more farms today (up around 50 percent since 1992), more acres in farms and more money generated by farming than there were 20 years ago. This is, at least in part, thanks to people like Ms. Chase, who follow in the footsteps (foodsteps?) of one of the granddaddies of can-do, intensive organic farming, Eliot Coleman.
Mr. Coleman runs Four Season Farm in Harborside with his wife, the gardening writer Barbara Damrosch, and has squarely faced nearly every challenge a new farmer can since he started in 1968. Now, the 1.5 acres he cultivates, mostly in vegetables, are not only almost unimaginably lush (Ms. Damrosch’s gorgeous flowers don’t hurt), but they’re so productive that, in his cheerful, wise way, Mr. Coleman almost gloats: “You couldn’t be in a less likely spot than here to do what we’re doing,” he says, “and yet we’ve transformed a poor, wooded area into a place where there’s nothing we can’t grow.” I marvel at his artichokes; he responds: “I grow them just to make the Californians nervous.”
Now 71, Mr. Coleman maintains his long-range view. (He delights in telling the story about unloading a truckload of free clamshells when a county agent came by. “The agent,” says Mr. Coleman, “was incredulous: ‘Those aren’t going to break down for 100 years!’ But I was thinking, ‘I have 100 years of free fertilizer here!’ ”) And he clearly loves the work. (“If work is what you do when you’re not doing what you want,” he quips, “I haven’t worked a day in my life.”)
He sells his output locally for about $125,000 a year; most of that pays for labor. If he scaled up, he reckons, the net income would be greater. This, of course, is the concern of many new farmers: How do you afford to buy land, hire labor and still make a living?
For Mr. Coleman, this isn’t so much of an issue. In some circles he’s a hero for his innovative approaches to fertilizing, greenhouses, tool-making, teaching and more. He’s probably inspired as many farmers as anyone in the Northeast, and his books, especially “The Winter Harvest Handbook,” have taught the art of season-extension to thousands of gardeners, including me. (His place isn’t called Four Season Farm for nothing, and, remember, this isn’t San Diego.) So book sales, speaking engagements and other money-generators for both him and Ms. Damrosch help out with the income. (This isn’t unusual. Most conventional farmers, even those of commodity crops, do nonfarm work to help pay the bills. That’s the current state of farming in America.)
For newcomers, though, this is precisely the issue because, as Ms. Chase says, “If you could make a good living farming, people would go into it and stay in it.”
The simple answer, of course, is to charge more for food. But can an increasing number of sustainable farms find markets for higher-quality, higher-priced produce?
Here, the answers become complicated: “If the cost of food reflected the cost of production,” says Ms. Chase, “that would change everything.” And this is undoubtedly true. But though sustainably produced food is too expensive for some, conventional food doesn’t reflect either the subsidies required to grow it or the huge environmental or health care costs it incurs. Once it does, sustainable food would appear far more competitive.
Then we’d see more farmers growing it, not only in Maine but everywhere else. Which would, indeed, be better for everyone.