Young People Going Back to the Farm

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Kaycee Wimbish discovered her love of farming when she moved to New York City.

WIMBISH: I got increasingly interested in food and where the food was coming from....loved the green markets, shopped at the farmer's markets all the time, joined a CSA for the first time.

REPORTER: As you can probably tell, Wimbish clearly doesn't live in New York City anymore. We're on her farm, Awesome Farm, in Tivoli, about 90 minutes north of the city, this side of the Hudson River. She gave up her elementary school teaching job in Harlem to move here and raise chickens, turkeys, and sheep, inspired by those New York City greenmarket farmers who showed her it was possible to be a part of a local food system.

WIMBISH: It's a lot easier for me to get a dozen eggs from a farm there than it is here, until we started raising them! (rooster crows) So I think that's part of the reason in New York. And that was the first time I met young people who were farming, was in New York City. And there is such a growing community of folks in NYC who have worked on farms, want to work on farms, are working on urban farms, are doing gardening.

REPORTER: US Department of Agriculture census figures show the number of people under 35 who are operating small and medium-sized farms increased 14 percent between 1997 and 2002, the latest year data was available. In a less scientific fashion, Greg Swartz has noticed the youth wave, too, at his group's 26th annual conference. Swartz is the executive director of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

SWARTZ: We broke a really great record in the past year with more than 1,000 attendees. and historically, the attendees were gray...gray haired. We saw an amazing number of younger folks that were interested in becoming farmers, that were beginning farmers already and that were interested in activist and advocacy roles that are needed to build a local food system.

REPORTER: It's hard to measure how many New Yorkers are interested in eating locally, and sustainably, and even harder to know how many have become farmers as a result. Here's what we DO know: New York City's farmers' markets have steadily increased, from just two sites in 1979 to 45 this year. New York's organic farms have mushroomed 82 percent in just four years, from 404 registered farms in 2003 -- the first year the state started keeping track, by the way -- to 735 in 2007. Community-supported agriculture, where urban eaters pay a local farmer a fee up front, and share the financial risk, and the harvest, is growing, too....from 28 programs in 2003 to 63 this year. Benjamin Shute's farm, Hearty Roots, supplies beans, carrots, tomatoes, and other veggies to a CSA in Williamsburg.

SHUTE: There's just tons of demand for us to keep growing, if we want to, and if we don't want to, there's just tons of demand for the movement to keep growing and for us to help other people to be starting their own small farms and help make this happen for themselves.

REPORTER: Shute was the one who encouraged KayCee Wimbish to start farming. Wimbish and her 23-year-old business partner, Owen O'Connor, learned the ropes by working at Hearty Roots for several seasons. They set up Awesome Farm right next door.

O’CONNOR: We've got a lot of inspired models of people that are making a living off farming...we're not talking about fortunes, but are making a living off farming, are feeling good about it, are not running themselves into the ground in the process

WIMBISH: I kinda feel we're in a groove now and are on top of things, and there are fewer surprises. but in the beginning it was just like...'whaaat?' Sorta like my first year of teaching!

REPORTER: Other "nontraditional" farmers are going to school to learn the trade. New York's premier agriculture school, Cornell University, started offering a sustainable ag major in 2005; 50 students are enrolled and 25 more are entering the program this fall. Maybe, someday, Amanda Triemens will be one of them. I ran into her as she was collecting her share of Hearty Roots organic carrots at her CSA's pickup site in Williamsburg.

TRIEMENS: After reading Michael Pollen's book, my husband and i thought, 'maybe we should go be farmers!' it's infectious, for sure.

REPORTER: Michael Pollen writes about the politics of food, with such books as "The Ominvore's Dilemma," and "In Defense of Food," which encourages everyone to grow their own food, even if it's a pot of basil. Amanda Triemens says she knows she's romanticizing the farming life, and that it's a lot of hard work....but still. She and her husband have looked at properties in the Hudson Valley, and have thought, "what if?" Maybe they'll be part of another trend...not of young people becoming farmers, but of older folks, who've made their money and their mark in New York City and have decided to switch gears. That ag census I mentioned before? Between 1997 and 2002, the number of people age 45 to 54 who are running farms under 50 acres has jumped by 70 percent.

This is WNYC.