Back on the Farm: Cultivating the next crop of farmers

Big River Farms in Marine on the St. Croix // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Big River Farms in Marine on the St. Croix // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Jim Weninger has been an Agriculture Education instructor and Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School, located 45 miles west of Minneapolis, for 34 years. Back when he started, many FFA students were “farm kids”—children whose families derived their income from production farming. That is no longer the case.

Today, only a handful of Weninger’s 120 FFA members fit that description. Most have little to no farming background. These days, the average young person is at least two generations removed from farming.

“Kids aren’t learning from their parents. Their parents aren’t even from the farm. We have to start from ground zero,” Weninger claims.

According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of Minnesota farmers is 56 years old. In the next 10 years we will need to replace our retiring farm operators. How are we cultivating our future farmers? Moreover, should we be concerned about the future of farming?

Weninger’s students cultivate a one-and-a-half-acre garden on the school grounds. The produce goes into a CSA (community supported agriculture) that has 35+ contracts, runs for 14 weeks, and is primarily student-run. The FFA youth not only learn how to cultivate lettuce and onions, but also “real world” skills: marketing and communications, customer relations, and business planning.

Weninger says that about two-thirds of his 2017 FFA graduates will go on to study or work in agriculture. This does not, however, mean they will be production farmers.

“Only about two percent of our nation’s workforce are producers,” Weninger says. “But the field needs capable professionals in agribusiness and agriculture education.”

He’s not worried about a potential lack of farmers. Technology has come a long way to feeding our growing population, he says. Between more efficient farm implements to genetically modified crops, Weninger is confident in our society’s food system: “One farmer can feed 80 people. Thirty-four years ago, it was more like one farmer to 35 people.”

Dori Eder, a Farm Beginnings Organizer for the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), is not so confident. LSP’s Farm Beginnings program was born from the farm crisis of the 1980s, to give new farmers expertise even if they no longer had their family farm. She sees the dwindling number of family farms, due to aging farmers, farmland consolidation, and a lack of policy that supports beginning farmers, as a second crisis.

Big River Farms in Marine on the St. Croix // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Big River Farms in Marine on the St. Croix // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“People learn to farm by doing it with their families. That’s not happening anymore. So who is going to grow our food?”

What’s more, it’s tough to make a living farming. In 70 percent of farm households, less than 25 percent of household income is derived from farming. The Farm Beginnings program tackles financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing, and low-cost sustainable farming techniques.

Typically, their participants fall into three categories: young people—mostly college graduates—just starting out, mid-career professionals looking for a change, and seniors who have planned to take up farming in their retirement. Sixty percent are women. Few of them grew up on farms.

Beyond learning the business of farming, members are learning to lead a rural lifestyle, and how to connect and network in their communities. The LSP believes farmers are powerful agents of change, and will work to conserve land and water, advocate for farm policy, rebuild rural communities, support racial justice, and provide a more accessible food system in rural areas.

And, for the record, Eder is certain that Minnesota and Wisconsin have the potential to lead this charge across the nation. “There is no better place to be a beginning sustainable farmer,” she claims.

While many farmer-training programs are working with students who have no experience with farming, the Minnesota Food Association (MFA) is an outlying case. Roughly 60 percent of their participants have a background in agriculture, just not in the United States.

MFA operates Big River Farms, located outside of Marine on St. Croix. The farm provides access to production plots and equipment for its participants, mostly immigrant and minority farmers. The program provides instruction and certification for organic vegetable production as well as training in business and marketing.

Kano Banjaw and Laura Hedeen walk through a field at Big River Farms // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Kano Banjaw and Laura Hedeen walk through a field at Big River Farms // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“Often [the participants] find MFA because they are looking for ways to reconnect with the land in their new home,” says programs manager Laura Hedeen. “It’s often part of their heritage.”

Kano Banjaw has been growing with MFA for five years. He cultivates a variety of American crops, as well as a plot of hanchotte, an Ethiopian root vegetable. He sells his traditional crops through MFA’s CSA and sells his hanchotte to the local Ethiopian community.

“In my country, 85 percent of the population are farmers. We farm traditionally, without pesticides or chemicals, what you consider organic farming in America,” Banjaw says. He strongly believes that organic farming is the healthiest way to produce food, if not the most profitable. It is hard work, but he believes the work connects him to the land and sustains his health in ways most Americans don’t understand because we are disconnected from our food.

Kano Banjaw holds a tendril of a hanchotte plant (also known as anchote) plant, bearing gourds // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Kano Banjaw holds a tendril of a hanchotte plant (also known as anchote) plant, bearing gourds // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Rodrigo Cala found his way to MFA in 2005 because he couldn’t find quality Latin American produce in the Twin Cities. He and his family were growers in his native Mexico, but he saw a gap in the local market. He joined MFA’s farmer training program and subsequently bought a dilapidated dairy farm in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. Cala grows four crops: broccoli, cauliflower, heirloom tomatoes, and garlic. In fact, he is renowned for his organically grown broccoli and supplies many of the fine dining establishments in the Twin Cities.

Cala also teaches farming. He spends a day giving a tour of his farm to new farmers. He emphasizes two things: market research and quality production.

“People don’t want to talk about the money. But it’s important to do your research, figure out your market and grow a quality product,” Cala declares. “We have to make a living here.”

Each of these programs, through differing approaches, is doing the necessary work of passing farming knowledge to new Minnesotans and future generations. But ultimately, if we intend for these local farms to thrive, we as a community must take stock of our entire food system and decide what is most important to us.

Related Post: The Food Hub Dilemma (or what we mean when we say we support local farmers)

The broccoli we buy from our local supermarket, likely grown by a large farm on the West Coast, will be cheaper than that cultivated by Rodrigo Cala. But what is the environmental impact of trucking that broccoli across the country? Who is working in those fields and how are they being treated? And how is that impacting the livelihood of our local farmers? We have to consider the environmental and social implications of our food system, as well as its efficiency.

Karl Hakanson, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator, warns against self-righteousness in that regard. “Increasingly, it seems everyone is in their corners,” he says. And it isn’t as simple as GMO versus non-GMO or organic versus local. Dichotomies, Hakanson says, leave little room for “digging deeper into the issues of the day, to find solutions and move towards greater sustainability.” The simple question of what we want our food system to look like inevitably becomes more complex—as do the realities of the way things are now.

Farmers understand this all too well. They won’t produce tons of organic tomatoes if the community isn’t willing to support the cost. As our newly minted farmers get trained to be market-savvy, farms like Cala’s and Banjaw’s will proliferate at exactly the rate that our pocketbooks and priorities allow.

Dori Eder trusts us to figure it out.

“Minnesotans are proud of this beautiful place,” she reflects. “Our natural resources are important to us. And if we want to keep eating, swimming, and breathing, we will have to support our local farm economy.”