The trend is toward smaller farms operated by those new to agriculture


Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 6:25 p.m.

Just off 15th Street in southeast Gainesville lies a dirt road that would be inconspicuous were it not for a colorful sign pointing toward "Siembra Farm," and the "Crazy Woman Farm."

Both are small-scale farms tucked behind a residential neighborhood that represent a growing reality of small farms on the edge of the city.

Siembra, which in Spanish means "sowing," is emblematic of another national trend with plenty of local momentum: the rise of young farmers. Owned by Cody Galligan, 34, and his partner Veronica Robleto, 33, the couple lives on the farm with their two children, Naim, 5 and Sofi, 2.

Both Galligan and Robleto grew up in South Florida suburbia — Galligan in a "green-thumb" household where he nurtured a taste for locally grown products.

"I was always interested in connecting with food sources. Anything local — mangoes and oranges — felt special to me," Galligan said.

After high school, he volunteered with community gardens, learning from migrants who had brought native plants from places such as Haiti and Guatemala.

But it wasn't until he and Robleto ventured north to Gainesville that Galligan realized farming could also be their livelihood.

At Micanopy's Sandhill Farm, Galligan got "a crash course in farming," when the owners decided to move and asked him to take over their farm.

After doing that for a while, Galligan decided to invest in his own farm and saw a "serendipitous sign" advertising land for sale in the same spot where the sign for Siembra Farm is today.

"The forces of life pushed me towards this thing," he said.

That was two years ago, and Siembra Farm, which is also a CSA, or community-supported agriculture operation, sells its goods locally and just finished its second season of farming.

‘A privileged life'

Galligan does the odd carpentry job during the summer, and Robleto has a part-time job as a program assistant at the University of Florida law school, but for the most part, they pay their bills through farming. She spearheads the farm's marketing and sales, and he's in the field.

His hours are "sunup to sundown," he said. "It's a privileged life to have in many ways. I'm never watching the clock."

Galligan is mostly self-educated about the entirely organic cultivation of his crops — he reads a lot online and networks with other farmers.

Robleto said they sell about 60 baskets per week — which are filled with enough veggies to feed a family of three or four. They say they got most of their customers by word of mouth.

"I feel like the vegetables speak for themselves," Robleto said.

"I pretty much use the veggies we grow," she added. "You can't compare them with anything you buy at the store."

In fact, she rarely has to go to the store because, as Galligan explained, "We trade chicken, meat and eggs with the Crazy Woman Farm."

Farming attracts U.S. youth

According to Mike Rogalski, head of the young farmers and ranchers committee at the Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville, farms such as Siembra Farm are on the rise in Florida.

Last weekend at the committee's annual meeting, half of the 190 participants were farmers from small operations, and that number has increased, Rogalski said.

Small farms are also budding throughout the country. "We have an incredible number of people in late teens to early 30s who want to farm, who are passionate about it," said Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "They don't want to raise thousands of acres of corn and soy, but (grow) food to feed people."

Danielle Treadwell, horticulture professor at UF, added that small farms are popular with young people because they are accessible, especially as land becomes increasingly expensive.

"People can afford to buy one to two acres at a time," she said.

Many of these farmers are not in it for the money, Rogalski said, adding that farming can still be a precarious occupation that's dependent on the whims of nature: for example, Tropical Storm Debby wiped out a number of farms in 2012.

"There are some years where they may do very well, and others where they may struggle," Rogalski said.

Kirschenmann added that most of the small farmers could be considered "hobby farmers" since most have another source of income. According to the agricultural census, between 2002 and 2007, there were 300,000 new farmers and none made over $10,000 per year.

Many of these small farmers have not grown up on farms, distinguishing themselves from the historic trend of farming being an ancestral trade passed down from one generation to the next.

"The biggest draw is they're starting to realize the world population is growing; if folks like them aren't willing to step up to the plate and help, we're going be into a huge issue," Rogalski said.

Marty Tatman, the head of the young farmers and ranchers committee for the Farm Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C., added that, "Farming is a very important and noble profession. As we see a growing population, we need more innovative farmers to help with that process."

He also said that although the niche for small, organic farming is "huge right now, we see a lot of our young farmers and ranchers going back to the farms they grew up on."

Historical reversal

That reverses the phenomenon of young peolple leaving family farms as they became harder to manage, Kirschenmann said. By 2007, 30 percent of commercial farmers were over age 65, compared to 6 percent under age 35 -- a reversal of trends in the 1930s.

"As farms got bigger, it became more and more difficult to do it. As a result, the age of farmers kept going up," Kirschenmann said.

Kirschenmann said that we could see yet another reversal, as young people enter the profession and the face of farming changes.

"You have to start to look at other issues here: commodity agriculture has been so successful because we've had relatively cheap energy and fertilizers and equipment and adequate amounts of fresh water," Kirschenmann said.

"As you look ahead over next two to three decades," he continued, "none of these resources are going to be here. (The prices of) fertilizers are going up. Fresh water resources are being drawn down. We've got more unstable climates. These large, industrial-type farms are not going to be able to operate. Who's going to grow our food?

"Urban agriculture will play an increasingly important role. You are going to have smaller, more diverse farms; family-sized farms operating on basis of less energy inputs.

"This opens the door for more young people," Kirschenmann said. "We're going to need to provide opportunities for young people to learn how to grow and prepare food," he added.

Kirschenmann's home state of North Dakota, for example, has a program at the state-owned bank that makes loans available to beginning farmers at interest rates below 2 percent.

In late April, a senator and congressman introduced the "Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013," which invests in development programs for young farmers and reduces financial and access barriers for potential farmers to enter the profession.

Learning the trade

While increasingly farmers are high school and college-educated — and bring new skills to the farms — it is often said that farming is best learned from other farmers.

And locally, a lot of young people are pairing with older farmers to learn the trade, Rogalski said.

Rebecca Tate, 26, and John Steyer, 76, have one such partnership. Steyer, originally from Ohio, started gardening at age 5, and has worked on his farm in Bradford County for several decades.

"I did a three-year stint in the Army, and the rest of the time I farmed. So is that sustainable farming?" he quipped one Saturday morning at the Alachua County Farmers Market, where he and Tate sell "pesticide-free" vegetables and herbs by a wooden sign that says "Farmer John's Little Bitt Nursery."

Steyer's spread of vegetables caught Tate's eye a couple of months ago. She had been working as a waitress, making good money, she said — "but it wasn't where my heart was."

She asked if she could help him out, and Steyer was delighted. "It's very important for a young person to get exposed to it," he said. "What better way to learn than from an older person?"

Tate, of Gainesville, is now helping him both at the market and in the fields.

"I'm learning the names of the plants, and how to take care of them," she said. "I like sweat and grime. It makes me feel real, like I'm helping out the world a bit."

Like many young people attracted to farming, Tate has a heightened consciousness about what she eats and where her food comes from.

"It's nice to be around things that are full of vitamins and minerals," Tate said.

Tate's ultimate goal is to become a massage therapist and make her own medicines with oils from plants — "be my own medicine woman," she said. "Farming is fun and really therapeutic. It's a lot of positive energy."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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