I was prompted to ask this question after meeting some start-up farmers in Massachusetts. They are interesting and unexpected entrants into a profession we are often told has a gloomy future: from a rock promoter to a Harvard educated bio-physicist.
Like other developed countries and the rest of the US, Massachusetts has a large number of farmers over the age of 65 with no identified inheritors. For 30 years, the number of entrants into farming was on the slide. However, over the last decade that has begun to change. It seems, farming is becoming cool again.
Shopping in Boston Public Market last week, I stumbled into an open-access workshop to help people start agricultural businesses. Those present included immigrants from Poland and Ghana with farming experience elsewhere, an army vet who wanted to start a farming-as-therapy project, and a woman with a plant-based beauty business who brought along her dentist fiance. Good call - apparently non-farm income is essential.
The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is one reason for a flow of non-traditional individuals into agriculture in Massachusetts. It offers a Farm Business Planning Course, then the option of a plot on an incubator farm for three years and after that a land-matching service, matchmaking between would-be farmers and private landowners, as well as public bodies and charities who are sitting on unused plots.
Interested, I attended an open day at the incubator farms in Dracut at the Ogonowski Memorial Fields, named for one of the founders of the project, John Ogonowski, a pilot who was killed on 9/11. On a beautiful evening, sustained by freshly-picked tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, I met some brilliant people trying their hands at growing things.
Muthu Arumugam came to Boston from India, as a technology whizzkid. But now he starts work on his two technology start ups at 3am and finishes at 9am, so that he can get to the field. Memories of a rural childhood with farming in the background surfaced when he became a father. “I was sitting around saying to my friend, remember all the great things we ate as children, wouldn’t it be good to give our kids access to that?”
The thought became a reality very fast - and when his partner gave up after just a few days, Muthu and his family who were “super-excited’ carried on, bringing in 80 traditional seeds from India, driving miles to deliver the harvest. There have been many challenges along the way - most seeds did not survive the move to New England. Labour is expensive. And now, after his three years has elapsed, Mutthu has to graduate from the farm programme but has not found a suitable plot to move to.
After scaling up his business in the second year, last year Muthu “almost scaled down; I wanted to concentrate more on the farming.” He has valued the technical support and advice he gets on the incubator farm.
The 30 families he now supplies with traditional Indian vegetables, herbs and spices will be disappointed if he can’t continue next year. “In India food is medicine.You get used to that. People say ‘if you are not feeling well, eat this.’ ‘ Among other things, Muthu grows several different chile peppers, gourds, and gongura, which he says is very good for diabetics.
On a nearby plot, rock promoter Dan Berube looks proudly at his rows of zucchini, butternut squash, tomatoes. He has a lighting rack in his basement and grows all his plants from seed himself over the winter and spring.
He works very hard at farming over the summer “If you get a day off a month you are doing well", and does more concerts over the winter. In autumn, he does both. “September is going to be crazy.”
Next year, he is moving to a couple of bits of land a few miles apart and has careful calculations to do about making that work, buying equipment, moving from place to place.
The project encourages record keeping so that a farmer knows immediately when the price he or she is offered for a crop dips below what it costs to produce. And there are so many imponderables. “Zuchini can’t get too big or you can’t sell them; tomatoes can spoil in a few hours if it rains.”
Between the seed tray and the farmers market lie many lurking catastrophes. “It takes a lot of time to understand how crops grow, what's going to work. People who are coming back to farming don’t have any institutional knowledge.
“Even if I do this for the next 30 years that will mean I have planted squash 30 times. That’s not that many. If you think how many repetitions you normally get in your work life, generally if something doesn't’ work you think, ‘well I will do that differently tomorrow’. But with the squash, if I get it wrong and lose the crop I have to wait until next year.”
Dan’s main customer is World PEAS, New Entry’s food hub. A local farmer, wearing a T shirt that proclaims him as “Farmer Dave” who is supporting the project, providing transport in a hay wagon and fruit snacks, says that Massachusetts is lucky in having many consumers who are interested in buying better quality, more nutrient-dense fruit and vegetables than they can get in the supermarket. The farmers’ markets also accept low income food vouchers and the food banks are obliged to spend a certain amount of their funding with local farms. “The food banks get prices from local farmers every day. They tend to go with the lowest.”
Down the hill are more plots. There we are introduced to flower grower Mallory Cole,, standing amid a profusion of black-eyed Susans and a green-eyed variant of which she is particularly fond. Cole loves growing flowers. “They make me happy and they make other people happy too.”
“I don’t have a lot of experience. I read some great books. Flowers are easy to grow, if you think about what it takes to get a seed into a tomato and all the things that go wrong, in comparison flowers are easy, they grow themselves.”
But although people pay a lot of money for a bouquet, they can balk at paying $10 for a massive bunch of blooms at a farmer’s market. Cole tries to use good design wherever she sells and, planning her own wedding this year, she is doing more and more “farm-to-table” weddings, offering brides beautiful arrangements of simple, seasonal flowers. “I don't make a living at this yet, I'm a landscape gardener and I go from year to year hoping I can spend more time here.”
Next door, bio-physicist Martyn Botfield is one half of the team that runs “Dancing Plover.” He and his colleague are graduating early next year, to a 12 acre plot. Having taken early retirement from his first career, Botfield has also been in a position to invest in his new business “which is still costing more than it should.”
Martyn has embraced new ways of doing things, importing cornstarch matting from Italy to keep the weeds down, because it can be ploughed into the soil later, explaining the biology of carrots. He is doing good business with a pointy cabbage he has introduced. “It's perfect for the boxes, it's a great size and it’s pretty.”
The project seems to have become a pipeline, which fires brilliant people into agriculture, somewhere they may not otherwise have ended up. Farmland Matching Service Coordinator Noelle Fogg says that their research shows that two thirds of graduates from the Farm Business course are still in farming five years later. “These people are very committed and passionate about farming. The really hard part is making the business viable long term. So many farmers have to have jobs outside of farming. It is extremely challenging and they can burn out. We want to make sure that they are well prepared and that they have the skills to grow their business in sustainable ways.”
Breaking down some of the barriers that exist for non-traditional entrants into agriculture is an approach that seems to be working here in Massachusetts. Thinking differently and more creatively about how, why and who is producing our food may lead to more innovative business models in agriculture.
Perhaps one day, the people who grow good food out of the land will be get the attention and interest that society now reserves for celebrities like the Kardashians