For Young Farmers, It’s Not Just About Growing Food. It’s About Finding Community.

Some young, college-educated people are pivoting to farming, taking on social justice initiatives and environmental challenges in the process.

Jennifer Irving | Saturday, April 2, 2022


A section of Bolero carrots after the tops were chopped off. (Credit: Jennifer Irving)

At 8 a.m. sharp on a brisk November morning last fall, Haley Kerner, 24, a crop farmer at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, attended her morning meeting with fellow farmers. Shortly after, what had been deemed carrot day at the meeting began. The day would be dedicated to harvesting the farm’s many varieties of carrots, beginning with the Boleros. 

Bolero carrots are known as the ideal storage carrot. They are sweet, juicy and usually uniform in shape. Plus, the taste doesn’t seem to change even after months in a freezer. As a fall and winter harvest carrot, the end of November is the best time for these carrots to be dug up, sorted and moved into storage for the foreseeable future.

At 8:30 a.m. the Bolero harvest began. Kerner and two other crop farmers at Stone Barns had to first trim off the green, leafy tops of the carrots, the only part that’s seen above ground. Although the task doesn’t sound complicated, it’s time consuming. Each farmer used their small knife to slice the tops and toss them behind their backs, forming their own little rows of dismantled carrot tops. An hour later, the carrots were topless and waiting to be hoed.

While Kerner and her coworkers harvested the carrots, local residents milled about the trails that weave in and around the farm, some on their morning run, others quietly walking their dogs. Situated in the heart of the Hudson Valley, Stone Barns has more than 80 acres of land for crops, livestock fields, greenhouses, compost piles and hundred-year-old Dutch-style dairy barns. Part of Stone Barns’s programming also includes an education center that aims to teach both the public and new farmers about restorative agriculture and the operations of a modern-day farm.

The average age of a farmer in America is nearly 58 years-old. And for the past decade, the number of older farmers has outnumbered younger people joining the field, at an average of 4 to 1. Despite this, over the past few years there has been a resurgence in the number of young people pursuing farming, most of whom are the first in their families to turn to agriculture and oftentimes, are college-educated. Young people, it seems, are returning to their agricultural roots.

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For carrot day, there were three farmers, including Kerner, out in the fields harvesting one of the last vegetables before winter. Although most of the farmers at Stone Barns are under 40, the exact number of young farmers in the U.S. at the moment is unclear, as the Department of Agriculture only conducts a national farm census every five years. During the last of these, in 2017, the number of young producers rose by over 116,000 – or 54 % – from 2012, but that was likely because the children of farmers were newly counted as young producers. With the children of farmers excluded, the increase is estimated to be about 2%. 

Haley Kerner (left) and her co-worker sort carrots (Credit: Jennifer Irving)

Many who have joined the industry recently, however, say the next census will likely confirm the growing movement of college-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings pivoting toward farming.

Kerner started farming after she graduated from the University of Michigan in 2020 with a degree in Environmental Science and a desire to do something more hands-on than going into environmental policy. She began an apprenticeship at Stone Barns during the pandemic and was then hired on as a full-time crop farmer at the beginning of the 2021 season. 

“It’s funny hearing family members be, like, ‘You’re a farmer?’” Kerner said, laughing. Her grandparents spent time on larger, industrial farms as children, she added, but her role at Stone Barns is entirely different from their experiences and can sometimes be hard to explain.

Although Kerner and her fellow crop farmers make carrot harvesting look easy, it’s just one of hundreds of fruits and vegetables that they grow yearly on the farm. For each crop, a farmer must understand how it grows best, along with the details of the process. For first-generation farmers, this knowledge is something they must learn on their own. In the case of the Boleros, thousands of hours of expertise have led to the single day harvest.

Some of these first-generation farmers, like Becca Harley, 23, didn’t even consider a career in agriculture until she began volunteering on the campus farm for a food systems class her freshman year.

“I think there’s a really strong community around growing food,” said Harley, who manages the University of Michigan’s campus farm. “Farming is seemingly a one-trick pony, you just come in and you grow food, whatever. But I think that it ends up being a lot more. You can do this for your entire life and you’re consistently learning more.”

For Kerner and Harley, finding community is part of the reason they both fell in love with farming. “I love the opportunity to be able to provide really good food to really good people in my community. I think that’s probably my biggest reason for doing this.” Harley said. For both, reducing the distance between producer and consumer and being able to grow significant food for the people around them is a constant source of motivation. 

Harley specifically caters to the consumer through the food she grows for Maize and Blue Cupboard, the food pantry at the University of Michigan, where she surveys the students and grows what they need most. “I can provide healthy and affordable and locally-grown produce, and I can control the crops we plant so there’s culturally-relevant food to the people around me.”

But no matter how much they appreciate the act of farming, most modern day young farmers often face barriers that their predecessors did not: most notably, the crushing weight of student debt and the steep increase in the cost of crop land, which has climbed nearly 8% a year over the past decade. Many young farmers don’t have the capital upfront to buy or even rent their own land if they don’t inherit family property and may never make enough to do so. Instead, they often work on school or university farms, or on already-established local urban farms.

Over the past ten years, new incentives aimed to help younger people pursue farming have been created at the state and federal level. Programs like the “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers” loans and the New York State New Farmers Grant Fund program both offer support for those who have been farming for less than ten years. The New York state grant offers up to $50,000 to new farmers for the purchase of land and farm equipment. Financial programs like these will be important tools in retaining young farmers as the aging farmer population begins to retire.

After the carrots have lost their leafy greens, it’s time to get them out of the ground. Using the hoe, the farmers go row by row, loosening the carrots until they are almost near the top of the soil, waiting to be pulled out and sorted. The process of sorting begins with four categories: steak (the farm term for extra-large), medium, small and abnormal (broken or malformed). 

The sorting process is meticulous, as the carrots will be weighed and stored based on size, and the chefs of Blue Hill, the restaurant at Stone Barns, will formulate their dishes around how many of each size they have for the season.

Though there are a multitude of reasons young people are attracted to farming, environmental awareness is one of the primary causes. Some, like Kerner and Harley, major in environmental science or a related field in college, and after deciding not to pursue the policy side of the field, go straight to the source and begin hands-on work with the actual land. 

“I think agriculture and growing and providing food for our species is one of the biggest ways that humans impact the earth,” said Harley. 

For others, issues of food insecurity, racial justice and creating equity are also central to being a farmer. The National Young Farmers Coalition, a group that began at a conference at Stone Barns in 2009, offers resources and support for young farmers. The Coalition released their five-year strategic plan, which aims to address inequity in farming. They described their mission as this: “We envision a just future where farming is free of racial violence, accessible to communities, oriented towards environmental well-being, and concerned with health over profit.”

There are even whole farms dedicated to some of these pursuits. New Leaf Agriculture in Austin, Texas is one example. As a subsidiary of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition in Texas, New Leaf employs refugee farmers from all over the world to help them reconnect with their culture in a new community. Matt Simon, 37, the agriculture director at New Leaf, has started a program that will allow farmers to have shares of the farm just for themselves where they can grow foods that are meaningful to their own communities.

“What I connect with, especially with our farm, is just this idea of food autonomy, which isn’t necessarily confined within any sort of racial bounds,” he said. “It affects a lot of people, especially in urban areas who don’t have access to fresh produce. They have a rich cultural history of growing food and a certain culinary tradition that they don’t really have access to anymore.”

The farm also provides its farmers with English classes and professional development in farming and textiles where they can earn certifications to prepare them for jobs on other farms.

“New Leaf helps me make friends from different countries. And because we don’t speak the same language, it’s a must to speak in English, and that helps us learn more,” said Doli, a refugee farmer at New Leaf. “We talk, something which I’ve never found at other jobs. We talk, we laugh, we live good.”

In recent years, urban farms, most often run by younger farmers, have been established throughout the country. In a 2016 study done by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, over 64% of urban farms were less than five years old at the time. Urban farms provide residents of a city the opportunity to work closely with their neighbors, and to grow food that is relevant to the neighborhood’s needs. One study in Michigan even found that those who participated in urban agriculture consumed fruits and vegetables 1.4 times more frequently than those who didn’t. 

Urban farms often play a big role in trying to combat food insecurity and lack of healthy food options in major cities.

“Food insecurity, food deserts, those came because of the biased redlining practices within the community,” said Yonnette Fleming, better known as Farmer Yon, who directs the Hattie Carthan urban farm in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Hattie Carthan farm grows food and herbs, raises chickens, and maintains at least three tons of compost for community use. “Anytime you have a connection to the land, that’s a form of power. That’s an undeniable form of healing for the people,” she said. 

In a broader sense, Harley said that twenty-something’s growing disillusionment with some aspects of everyday life, including not knowing where their food comes from, is what could be driving more young people into farming. “As the cultural view of food systems shifts, I think a lot more young people will be able to see their place in farming work,” she said. “It’s really not so far removed or behind this inaccessible curtain. People should know what’s happening behind the scenes of a grocery store or farm.”

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As they sorted the carrots, Jason Grauer, the crops director, looked over and asked “Isn’t it amazing that this soil has been able to grow carrots like these for 17 years?” That is an eternity in farming, as cropland experiences erosion at about 75 times the rate of natural forest land. This is due to many factors, including frequent cultivation and time spent uncovered between plantings. Many small farms, however, are participating in environmental practices that lengthen the life of the soil and maintain its health.

At Stone Barns, when a vegetable is grown one year, it won’t be planted and harvested again for another seven years, allowing the soil to recover. Plants like carrots are very soil intensive, and the process of digging them out for harvesting can be damaging to the topsoil. In practicing crop rotation, the farmers at Stone Barns maintain the integrity of the land they use. 

Some crops are even planted less for their value as food and more for the service they provide for the soil. Kerner says that they often plant legumes because of the nitrogen they add to the soil, and because they act as good ground cover, helping stop erosion between plantings.

Then the final stages of the Bolero harvest began: weighing and storing the carrots. After packing the piles of each size into the plastic boxes lined with large sheets of parchment paper, every individual box was lifted onto the scale, weighing around 80 pounds each. Coming in at more than 600 pounds combined, the harvest was successful. The boxes were then loaded onto the farm’s electric vehicles and brought to the storage freezer, which holds the carrots for a few months at 37 degrees, the same temperature it was outside all day.

Kerner and her fellow crop farmers continued the carrot harvest with their next variety the following day, and continued harvesting other fall vegetables in preparation for winter. In the life of a farmer, no day is exactly the same, especially at Stone Barns, where there won’t be a Bolero carrot day for another seven years.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the National Young Farmers Coalition as the Young Farmers Coalition. The story has been updated.


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.