Whether we live in Manhattan or Peoria, we depend on a healthy countryside to supply the food we eat. So it’s welcome news that across the nation, a hearty crop is taking root. Smart, young people are changing the world by returning to the roots of American agriculture – roots steeped in a tradition and culture of diversity, quality and respect for the Earth. A new book, Youth Renewing the Countryside, captures their remarkable stories.
Produced in partnership with young writers and photographers, Youth Renewing the Countryside profiles the next generation of rural caretakers through individual stories from every state. Some of these young leaders are building on their history and culture. Others are creating uniquely 21st-century opportunities like renewable-energy businesses or Internet-based companies. Some are fighting for environmental or social justice. Many have found a foothold in building a stronger, healthier and more healthful food system.
These young people are not just renewing the American countryside, they are changing the world. Here are excerpts from some of their stories.
The name Chubby Bunny Farm conjures up a hearty laugh, but it’s serious business for master farming couple Dan and Tracy Hayhurst.
With their young daughter, Beatrice, the Hayhursts dwell in a sheltered valley in northwestern Connecticut, bordering on verdant wilderness preserves and removed from the hustle and bustle of nearby metropolises. This is where they grew up. Despite their rural location, Tracy and Dan know the big city well: About half of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) clients live in New York City. The other half is from their local community and includes former teachers, principals and friends from high school.
Chubby Bunny regularly hosts farm apprentices. The apprentices appreciate Dan’s eagerness not just to work hard, but also to impart his intimate knowledge of farming gleaned from internships, farm jobs and countless hours in the fields.
Chubby Bunny’s customers appreciate Dan and Tracy’s “Farmer’s Pledge.” They promise to follow strict organic standards without becoming certified organic. Dan swears off all artificial chemicals. Growing more than 60 different crops, however, and engaging in an ingenious milieu of cover cropping, crop rotation, grazing, weeding, harvesting and marketing, Dan can’t find time for the paperwork required for organic certification. The Hayhursts know their customers, and their customers trust them. While organic certification can create better prices for farmers who sell crops wholesale, for now, Dan and Tracy create the same healthy organic produce for their share owners without the need for certification.
In diversity lies strength and stability. Along with growing 60 different types of vegetables – ranging from tomatoes to kohlrabi – the Hayhursts keep animals. Several dozen laying hens inhabit an old trailer that is towed to a new spot every couple of days, allowing the chickens to forage on fresh grass. The Hayhursts also raise sheep for meat, and two big, happy hogs dominate a large grass pasture.
The Hayhurst family grows more vegetables than they need for their CSA members, so they participate in a local farmers’ market in Sheffield. They also have a little farm store in the barn where locals and CSA members come to pick up their weekly produce.
When customers visit the dark, cool barn – built ages earlier by competent Swedish hands – they can purchase a variety of local products: homemade yogurt, organic salad dressing, pasture-raised beef. The Hayhursts love to carry other local products, as do their neighbors – marketing each other’s goods at their respective farm stores.
— By Dave Holman
Like the Sweet Grass Hills towering to the north of his flat farmland in north-central Montana, Roy Benjamin stands out from his surroundings. He’s an astute 21-year-old who started farming three years ago with his wife, Kaylee. Their land lies 17 miles from where he grew up, and this is where Roy is pioneering a new concept on old terrain.
Just outside tiny Shelby, Montana, the Benjamins’ home sits alone, surrounded only by miles of golden wheat stubble. Soon, all of their 2,200 acres will be certified organic – 800 acres already are. Bordered by conventionally farmed land, Roy’s crops are a diverse blend of dryland peas, hull-less purple barley, hard red spring wheat and hard white spring wheat.
Beyond their organic farming practices, the Benjamins’ age makes them an exception in their community. The average age of farmers in rural Montana is climbing, and the fate of miles upon miles of farmland is uncertain. So, too, is the economic viability of places like Shelby.
“Soon,” Roy says, “there will be hundreds of thousands of acres for just a handful of people interested in farming them.”
What he fears is big corporations acquiring large swaths of land and transferring profit from local economies to out-of-state pockets. Roy maintains hope, though, that niche markets like organic foods will help sustain small communities. He decided to certify organic primarily for economic reasons. As a new farmer in an unforgiving system, adding value to his product was a necessity.
As he discusses the benefits of organic agriculture, deep-seated values become apparent. “When I’m wondering if this organic thing is really worth all the trouble, I keep reminding myself that it’s my responsibility as a steward of the Earth,” Roy says.
Roy has found advantages to organic farming beyond his bottom line and the health of his land. “Haul your grain to Shelby and drop it off, you never see it again. … It’s just stuff to them. It’s not food until it gets to Japan,” he says.
But when Roy took his first delivery of wheat to Montana Flour & Grains, a local organic buyer, they took a sample right off the truck. His wheat was baking in the oven to test the new variety before he pulled away. “So, it’s food, right?” he says. “You know where it’s going. That’s pretty neat.”
The question remains: How do you foster this same enthusiasm for agriculture in young people when careers in farming may not offer a paycheck each week or the assurance that bills will be paid?
“The size of this community certainly doesn’t appeal to everybody,” Roy says. “But they get out there in the world, they go to college, they get a job, and they realize, ‘You know, that was a really great place to be. There, people care about each other.'”
— By Kiki Hubbard
Down a winding country road in Garnett, Kansas, stands the Bauman farm, where agriculture is truly a family affair. Along with their parents, six Bauman children, ages 9 to 22, take active roles in farming.
John and Yvonne Bauman bought their farm in 2001 to raise pastured poultry and livestock. Today, they market chickens, ducks, eggs, lamb and beef to restaurants and grocery stores within 100 miles of their home. The Baumans sell about 7,000 broiler chickens each year and an average of 350 dozen eggs a week.
Over the years, the Baumans have implemented practices that make their operation more sustainable and an asset to their community. Every step of the way, they have involved their children. “I just wanted to have a place where the kids could learn and find their own interests. Once they find their interest area, they can then build on that for their future,” John Bauman says.
Early on, the family developed a “multi-species pasture stacking” system for poultry that now takes place on 40 acres of pasture. Through the system, the family increased their broiler chickens’ weight by 50 percent.
This project, supported by a grant through USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, helped encouraged the Bauman children to explore sustainability in farming.
Marvin Bauman, the oldest of the siblings, has perfected his crop rotation capabilities and established his own 40 acres of certified organic cropland. Newly married, Marvin and his wife, Audrey, live only a few miles from the family farm.
Kevin, 16, raises a flock of grass-fed sheep on organic pastures, and Steven, 15, is responsible for the pumpkins and ducks. Both have marketing responsibilities. This past year, Steven also applied and received a Kansas SARE Youth Grant to study the effectiveness of using trap crops to keep squash bugs off organic pumpkins. The two acres of pumpkins that he grew were sold to grocery stores and at the fall events on the farm.
In 2007, the Baumans opened a Kansas-certified chicken processing plant on their farm, becoming the first farmers in the state to process their own birds. Now, many local producers bring their chickens to the plant for processing, and the Baumans estimate they will process 15,000 birds per year.
The Baumans are aiming to make the plant the most sustainable chicken processing facility in the state – and perhaps the nation – by composting 100 percent of all waste and offal. Most importantly, they slowly have made progress convincing the inspectors to allow them to use less toxic chemicals in the processing.
Rosanna Bauman, 20, has a passion for agritourism and educating others about sustainable farming. She first found interest in sharing her farm at an agritourism workshop sponsored by the State of Kansas. She then attended the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association’s annual meeting in Texas and came home energized to make her family’s farm an agritourism destination.
“Our greatest sharing times come when we give farm tours to families, retirees and school groups,” Rosanna says. “They experience a real working family farm that practices sustainable farming methods.”
— By Margaret Pendleton
In the rural South, farming and land conservation are in trouble. Rural poverty is at a 20-year peak, and black farm ownership has plummeted from 15 million acres at the turn of the 20th century to less than 2.5 million acres today, and from more than 1 million farmers to less than 18,000.
But all is not bleak. “I think things are changing,” says Amadou Diop, his lilting voice optimistic.
Based in Atlanta, Amadou works for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit that helps black and underserved farmers stay on their land by offering production and marketing support, workforce training and youth programs. Amadou, who has a master’s degree in agricultural and resource economics from Tuskegee University, directs the Black Belt Legacy Forestry Program.
“Much of southern land, now that no one’s left to work it, is planted fencepost-to-fencepost with cheap, short-rotation loblolly pines that get clear-cut every 20 or 35 years,” he says. “A lot of farmers are unaware of their rights, the value of their land, or other things they might do with it.”
Farmers with small acreages can’t find people willing to cut their trees for a fair price. Brainstorming other roles for forested land has begun to look like a better and better idea. Amadou visits landowners who have called the federation requesting a consultant, and he works with them to develop ways to add value to their forests.
One example that shows promise in Georgia is silvo-pasture, or combining forestry and grazing on the same acreage – providing landowners with both short- and long-term income opportunities. For example, goats thrive on the variety of undergrowth in forests, and their manure fertilizes the trees. In many parts of the South, an increasing demand for goat meat, especially in ethnic markets, has made this a legitimate and profitable addition to silvopasture.
“The aim is to be equally sustainable in terms of the people, the environment and economics,” Amadou says. “Don’t just export your wood, keep the profit in the community. Create a local industry like floor or furniture making. Get a portable sawmill.”
Amadou also participates in running the youth devel-opment program, bringing 10 to 15 local teenagers together each summer to learn about soil, growing food and selling at the farmers’ market. The program also teaches young people valuable skills: the art of running a business, marketing and sales techniques, among others.
“The first weekend at the farmers’ market, they sold nothing,” Amadou says. “They were very upset. I said, ‘Develop your social skills! Market your produce!’ We talked about it. Eventually, they sold out.”
Even though the American South is miles away – both geographically and culturally – from Amadou’s family home in Senegal, he loves the forests, the people and the federation as if he had been born and raised here.
“Rural communities still have the values that have vanished from most cities,” Amadou says. “They remind me of home a little bit.”
— By Nathalie Jordi