Growing Future Farmers

A booming population means more mouths to feed—and more farmers needed to feed them. A number of CALS programs focus on bringing new farmers into the field.

REBECCA CLAYPOOL MS’09 is not color-blind. She knows her house is orange and that the steel shed is blue. Her hands planted the fulsome rows of lettuce and kale and chard—now lush, late-season waves in eight shades of green. She marvels at the funky purple berries in her hedgerow.

But that red barn? “I always wanted a yellow barn,” she explains. But painting is low on the chore list at the Yellow Barn Farm, established in 2010. Claypool’s just finished her second growing season and her mind is already on next year—how much to plant, procuring more compost, relocating a greenhouse. “Some day I will paint it yellow,” she vows.

Born and raised East Coast and urban—in West Philly, to be precise—Claypool is two generations removed from farming. The daughter of a school nurse and an architect, she attended Quaker school and a small liberal arts college in Maine. But on a high school exchange program she caught the farming bug. “I harvested my first potatoes, milked my first cows, gathered my first eggs,” she remembers. “I was looking for something, and it just clicked.”

After college Claypool learned cheese-making and worked on established organic vegetable farms in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. She remembers driving through the Midwestern farmscape for the first time and the revelation of that rich, dark soil unfolding to the horizon. Eventually she wound up studying agroecology at CALS, where she still works as a researcher on the Veggie Compass, a tool that helps farmers determine production costs. A year after finishing her master’s degree she took on 10 acres in Avoca, west of Spring Green.

Claypool’s young operation is pocket change in Wisconsin’s $60 billion ag economy, but it poses a pressing question: Who are our future farmers? Only about 2 percent of Americans now live on farms, and only half of them actually farm. Rural populations continue to age and decline. Farm kids used to be the logical next generation, but that’s now a very small pool of potential applicants to cultivate the farm belt. And agriculture has become so capital intensive that if a farm kid wants to farm, generational transfer is tricky.

Politicians always tout the hiring of more police officers or teachers, but during Farm Bill hearings in 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack abandoned his prepared remarks to extemporize on how the country needs 100,000 new farmers. “I think it’s important that we focus an aggressive effort on helping beginning farmers begin,” he argued.

On the state level, Paul Dietmann concurs. “We need people to work the land,” says Dietmann, until recently the director of the Wisconsin Farm Center at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “The average age of a farmer in Wisconsin is 55 and keeps getting older and older. At some point we’re not going to have enough people to take over that working land.”

Farm kids are still important players in the future of agriculture, but there’s also a new breed of grower heading for the land. The USDA reports that about one-fifth of all U.S. farms are operated by a beginning farmer, defined as someone who’s been in the business less than 10 years. Demographically speaking, these new farmers—when compared to established agriculturalists—are more likely to be female, non-white or Hispanic. And while they generally are younger, in 2007 nearly a third were 55 or older.

What can be done to support and encourage those who see the opportunity and accept the myriad challenges of farming? People and programs across CALS are trying to answer the call.

In January of 1886, 20 young men gathered on the wintry Madison campus for an innovative 12-week indoctrination in agricultural arts at CALS. They sat through 60 lectures on everything from road building to manure; more than a third of them focused on veterinary concerns. One hundred and twenty-six years and several agricultural revolutions later, the Farm and Industry Short Course is now the longest-running agricultural curriculum in the state.

Its intensive certificate program remains a crash course in essential farm skills, with more than 50 courses ranging from dairy cattle reproduction and business management to pest control and welding. Coursework runs for 15 weeks outside the growing season and helps beginning farmers launch into a challenging, changing business environment. But that’s not the only farmer training on campus. In 1989 CALS opened the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) as a research center for sustainable agriculture. It offers an array of workshops, most of them two or three days, for beginning dairy and market farmers.