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Beginning farmers from all backgrounds help meet a growing need for food

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.

Agroecology studies at CALS – and a Farm Service Agency loan for women farmers – helped Rebecca Claypool get her start. Photo by Lukas Keapproth/Red Wave Pictures

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.

Since the farm crisis of the 1980s—when a perfect storm of falling prices and rising debt destroyed or disabled many growers—farmers have faced consolidation, increasing environmental pressures, rising input prices and intense market volatility. Many farm kids watch their family operations struggle and may hesitate to shoulder the yoke.

But people are coming. Short course enrollment has been at or near maximum for the last few years. Most short course students are rural and have worked on their family operation or for a neighbor. They are heading into production agriculture—either back to the family operation or to a salaried job with a larger concern. “The business has changed so much, and the economies have changed so much. It’s a complicated business, and post-secondary education is critical,” says Ted Halbach, director of the Farm and Industry Short Course program.

The expertise needed to produce food at historic rates of production—today’s farmer produces food and fiber for 155 people, compared to one farmer producing for 19 people in 1940—underlies a point that should be obvious but somehow often isn’t. “Farming is a profession, and a profession we should be proud of. This is something you do because you’ve chosen it,” says Halbach, who notes a marked spirit of entrepreneurship among participants.

CALS’ Dick Cates (far right) discusses the finer points of managed grazing with prospective farmers out at the Cates Family Farm near Spring Green, where he produces grass-fed beef and raises dairy heifers. Photo by Gerhard Fischer

At the same time, more women and second-career students are enrolling in short courses than ever before, and a growing number have no farm background. CALS’ Dick Cates Ph.D.’83 is adamant that it doesn’t matter. He’s just happy to see new blood. “We need to imagine a different way,” he says. “We simply don’t have the human capital coming from farms to fully support a next generation on the land.”

His own story illustrates the changing landscape. “When I started farming, I thought you had to be from a farm to farm. That’s the story we tell ourselves,” says Cates, who was introduced to farming as a teenager when his father, a noted trial attorney raised on a farm in Maine, purchased an underperforming hill farm south of Spring Green to teach his five kids about hard work. His dad “instilled in me a love of the land, a land ethic—but he was a lousy farmer, as he liked to say himself, and he certainly was not my farming mentor,” recalls Cates with a laugh. Cates became fixed on farming, anyway. Friends and classmates thought he was nuts.

After graduate school and a three-year stint setting up a dairy farm in Saudi Arabia that would become the largest in the world, Cates returned to the family farm. He needed to reimagine the business and found the critical spark in managed grazing, building up a substantial operation producing grass-fed beef and raising dairy heifers.

Defining, finding—even inventing—a niche is precisely the challenge for the new generation of bright would-be farmers he’s training. Since 1995 Cates has run the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, a hands-on seminar series conducted as a joint program of the Farm and Industry Short Course and CIAS. By focusing on business planning and pasture-based management, the school provides an accessible and sound financial approach for the beginning farmer.

Farm and Industry Short Course students learn from dairy scientist Jerry Guenther at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann BS’75 MS’79

One key for new farmers, says Cates, is managed grazing. In a typical confinement feed operation you have to plant, cultivate, harvest, dry and store the feed. Then you have to take it out of storage, feed the cows, and remove and distribute the manure. It takes a lot of labor, equipment and fuel.

Grazing advocates like to joke they hire the cows to do all that. By providing a lower capital approach, grazing allows for a farm that can reasonably be owned by a family just starting out. “Your business is turning sunshine into grass into milk or meat,” says Cates. “You can make it as complicated as you want, but those are the essentials.”

An example of new blood brought into the fold through grazing is Bob Van De Boom, who spent 30 years driving trucks before “retiring” to open V D B Organic Farms in Delavan. There he produces organic grass-fed beef, running 50 head on 40 of his own acres and renting another 60.

Though his parents both grew up on farms, they left as fast as they could. His dad even threatened to disown him if he ever farmed. But two decades ago, Van De Boom and his wife Beth got interested in organics. And in the back of Van De Boom’s mind an idea emerged. As retirement came closer, he put in four 10-hour days, and on the fifth day he worked with a pasture-based organic dairy farmer. It confirmed how much he loved working with livestock, but also that he didn’t want the daily hassle of milking.

Eventually Van De Boom enrolled in short course and Cates’ class, graduating in 1999. After a few more years of working with his mentor, gradually assuming more and more responsibility, he finally reached launch point. In 2003, V D B Farms was born.

The timing was perfect—interest in organic local meat was already high and grass-fed products are increasingly in demand. His production sells out every year. But Van De Boom’s not planning to expand. “I like it as a one-person operation. I want to be able to keep it small enough and functional enough where I can handle it myself,” he says. “To me it’s relaxing to go out there and move the cattle.”

Van De Boom was fortunate to find a mentor who helped him learn the trade and ease his way to farm ownership. “If you want to be a teacher or a doctor, there is a path you follow. A, B, C, D, you network, and there you are,” explains Joe Tomandl, who milks about 320 cows on 550 acres near Medford in central Wisconsin. But in the absence of growing up on a farm, there’s been no structured path for training.

Their dreams came true: Trucker Bob Van De Boom and his wife Beth found a second career in raising grass-fed beef. Here they move cattle to a fresh paddock using portable fencing. Photo by Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Tomandl is working to change that as part of GrassWorks, a 20-year-old nonprofit promoter of managed grazing. Dick Cates and the School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers have worked closely with GrassWorks—a number of current and former board members and advisors are graduates of CALS’ degree or short course programs.

In fact, Cates’ curriculum is part of a formal apprenticeship—the first of its kind in the nation—being developed by Tomandl to train beginning farmers in managed grazing. With support from the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture—specifically, their beginning farmer and rancher development program—four students are now testing a two-year program that features on-farm learning, classroom instruction and compensation. A fifth pilot student, Nate Weisenfeld, a short course alum, already is managing his own herd and building a grass-based dairy near Merrill.

The challenge, Tomandl says, is to transfer the complex knowledge of a working farm. It can’t be taught with classrooms and books alone. “There is a bit of an art to it,” Tomandl says. “It’s a biodynamic, moving, living system. You need to experience it to do a good job at it.”

The apprenticeship fills an important educational need and could play an even larger role in finding younger farmers. “A whole generation is looking to transfer, and they probably don’t have a son or daughter to transfer to,” says Tomandl. Many would like to see their farms remain as intact working farms, but often their only option is to sell to a larger farmer. “Not only do we lose the land,” frets Tomandl. “The bigger tragedy is we lose 30 years of grazing knowledge.”

Generational transfer can be a challenge even when a farmer’s kids are willing. Terry Quam BS’78, for example, took over his family’s operation during the farm crisis. “I was able to survive, but we’ve paid the price for 30 years,” says Quam, 56. Today’s farm economy is more stable but also more closed, Quam notes. “Economics have told us we have to be bigger,” says Quam. “We do not have as many farmers because scale is forcing us, you might say, to cannibalize each other. There is only so much land.”

Now his children feel the squeeze. One son graduated from a short course in 2002 and his daughter is finishing a CALS degree in life sciences communication. They and their brother want to join Marda Angus, the 900-acre beef and crop farm Quam runs with his wife and his mother. But it’s been difficult to bring them home in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize all parties. “There is not a shortage of young willing bodies,”Quam says. “There is a shortage of opportunities.”

Much day-to-day work of the Wisconsin Farm Center at DATCP focuses on assisting with generational transfer. And more people are contacting the Farm Center for help getting started, says Frank Friar, who runs its Beginning and Transitioning Farmer Program. But Friar has a hard time connecting landlords and beginning farmers. “We need more landlords to rent or sell property to beginning farmers,” he says. “The transition process can be challenging, and the key to being successful is to start early, evaluate each financial situation, and discuss the future goals of both generations.”

Growing Power’s Will Allen, far right, is working with soil science professor Stephen Ventura, far left, to identify an expand local innovations in urban food production. George Reistad and X’Zayvion McCoy (center), who came to UW-Madison through the PEOPLE program, are student assistants on the project. Here they learn about worm composting at Growing Power’s headquarters in Milwaukee. Photo by Michael Kienitz

The rise of the organic and local food movements have made clear that there is enormous, sustained interest in finding new ways to grow food and feed people. Also rising is the determination to address food insecurity. The United States is the richest agricultural nation in the world, yet 48.8 million Americans—including 16.2 million children—live under threat of hunger.

First Lady Michelle Obama has spotlighted the problem of food deserts—the phenomenon whereby 8.4 percent of the U.S. population lives in low-income neighborhoods more than a mile from a supermarket, the main source of fresh produce for most Americans. Among her partners is one of the nation’s leading pioneers in urban agriculture, Will Allen, a pro basketball player turned farmer turned MacArthur genius. As founder and CEO of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Growing Power, Allen has captured the imagination of thousands of new farmers who are turning vacant lots, rooftops and other unlikely spaces into gardens and farms—growers of all ages, backgrounds and colors uniting in what Allen calls “the good food revolution.”

CALS soil science professor Stephen Ventura is working with Allen and other collaborators to tackle these issues with a $5 million grant from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. The challenge: to analyze urban food systems to identify local innovations in food production and distribution—and then expand local production. In its first year the program is looking at Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, and will grow to include Boston, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids and Madison. Ventura is excited to apply university expertise to urban areas that have been underserved by the land grant system.

Putting on urban and regional lenses allows us to examine the food system from new angles, Ventura says. Traditional questions about agricultural techniques could well morph into questions about access to capital and the weaknesses of market-based food distribution systems. Among the technologies being developed are geographic information system (GIS) tools for assessing vacant land suitable for urban farming and crowdsourcing tools that can identify and help design food networks.

Aquaponics in action: Water courses through tiers of watercress and other edible greens before landing in a long tank below in which fish are raised. Water from the fish tank is then pumped back up to the plants to flow back down again It’s a low-energy system in which water is filtered by the plants, and plants receive nutrients from fish waste. Photo by Michael Kienitz

“What are the innovations, why are they working and can they be expanded and transferred?” Ventura asks. “If we can produce fresh, healthy, nutritious food, how can we make it available, accessible and affordable?”

And it’s not just the number of farmers, adds Will Allen: “We need farmers with a different skill set.” Farmers who are willing to explore high-value production techniques in urban settings, such as vertical growing systems incorporating aquaponics. Farmers who know how to build soil through worm composting as well as how to use renewable energy. “We don’t have enough farmers in the type of agriculture we’re going to do in the future,” says Allen, whose organization provides such training all around the country.

Filling those blank spaces in the food map also presents an opportunity for new Americans. The ag industry is already heavily dependent on immigrant labor, including about 40 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy labor force. But immigrants and refugees also are starting their own farms. Ag census numbers show that the number of Hmong farmers in Wisconsin has roughly doubled in the last few years—and they’re probably still undercounted, says Kathy Schmitt, who does minority outreach at the Wisconsin Farm Center. She works with UW Extension throughout the state, holding workshops in Hmong that teach sustainable production methods, food safety and marketing. She also recently worked with the CALS/UW Extension Environmental Resources Center to convert a series of fresh market growing guides into “plain language” for people whose native tongue is not English.

These farmers from different ethnic backgrounds are helped along by some 50 farm incubators nationwide. In Verona, Wisconsin, the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability runs a 43-acre organic farm incubator where Latino, Hmong, African American and European American farmers produce food for market. They’ve formed two CSAs that sold more than 35 shares in their first year. The center operates a matchmaking service pairing farmland owners with potential renters. Translators facilitate this process and also help in accessing other market and business development opportunities that are more readily accessible to native English speakers.

CALS and UW Extension faculty and alumni sit on the incubator’s advisory committee, and the project already has landed three different grants. Growing new farmers is “utterly essential,” says Janet Parker, who secured Farley’s incubator funding. The solution, says Parker—a UW–Madison Nelson Institute alumna who did her master’s degree project with CIAS—is more farmers, more diverse farming and more farming for local consumption. “What more meaningful work could there be than growing food for others?” she asks.

Back on the Yellow Barn Farm, Rebecca Claypool reflects on her journey so far. Her choices haven’t always been easy. “In some circles you’re a rock star and in other circles people don’t really know what to talk to you about,” she says.

Gathering flowers at the Farley Center, home of an incubator in which farmers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds grow various crops for market. Photo courtesy of the Farley Center

She’s thankful for the backing that got her started—a Farm Service Agency loan for socially disadvantaged farmers, for which she, as a woman, qualified—and is hoping to slowly grow the farm. Moving a greenhouse onto more fertile ground would allow her to add a spring and winter share for her CSA. Flowers and turkeys, too, are on the wish list. And she just needs to get her healing hands into the earth. “The soil needs a lot of help. It needs to be built, it needs to be loved,” she says. “I like that nurturing part of the job. There is something I really like about feeding myself and feeding others.”

Committed as Claypool is to her own path, she’s not taking sides in ongoing debates about “conventional versus alternative” agriculture. She has too much respect for anyone who does the hard work. “People do what works for them. I get it. I can’t tell you what’s right for you,” says Claypool.

Terry Quam shares that view. “Consumers are going to want to pick and choose—they’ll settle it in the end,” he says.

One thing is certain—food presents Wisconsin with a real economic opportunity. “We could go to 9 billion people on this planet by 2040, and we have resource depletion in many parts of the world,” notes Dick Cates. “If you look at the globe, we have one of the green spots, literally one of the few fertile parts of the world. If we can’t continue to capitalize on that, then we’re really missing out.”

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