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Cultivating a Community of Young Farmers
On Monday afternoons at my farm, we scramble to harvest the final fruits and roots for our CSA, and to label and fill bags of herbs for Tuesday restaurant deliveries. We are sunburned, wet-socked, and ready—when we slam the door of the finally full coolbot—to take our boots off and find dinner. I am not always eager to get in the car and drive anywhere besides home.
But every other week, once the harvest is packed, we get in the car and go to some site of agricultural production in southeastern New England, where a farmer stopped work an hour early to wash her face and set up a picnic table in anticipation of a cohort of beginning and aspiring farmers, neighbors, chefs, and whoever else caught wind of the Young Farmer Night (YFN) schedule. People show up still in work clothes, with their interns or colleagues, and dinner to share. We always run a few minutes late, but soon we are walking between row crops or fencing, exploring hoop houses when it rains, and pasture when it's nice out.
The Young Farmer Network was created in 2011 to create time and space for young agrarians to build relationships with one another that serve both personal and professional functions. Farming can be isolated, lonely work, especially in rural places, where many new farmers are transplants. Young Farmer Nights are focused on farmer to farmer knowledge transfer, a setting in which pests, marketing, and best practices are discussed in context, among the cucurbits, or in the wash station.
YFNs also have the long term objective of building relationships between local people differently involved and invested in our food system—as producers, cooks, advocates, and consumers—that can be leveraged towards future collaboration. At every YFN we talk informally about the challenges we face at our respective farms. We share designs for inexpensive hoop houses and talk about the best deals on irrigation. We have come together to write letters during the comment period of the Food Safety Modernization Act and to learn about organizations working on regional and national advocacy efforts.
Establishing friendships between neighbor-farmers has opened channels of communication that are important to agricultural communities. At my farm, we borrow our friends' rototiller, and buy extra lacinato kale from them to fill a restaurant order when a groundhog decimates our crop. Building relationships with local growers—young and old—has been crucial to the growth of my farm. Scaling up presents many difficulties, and it is important to have human resources, and a wealth of experiences to consult when we are making decisions about what equipment to buy, what infrastructure to build, which mechanic to trust, and which marketing strategies are successful.
The annual YFN schedule encompasses visits to farms within about an hour radius of Providence, RI. We tour dramatically different landscapes, focusing on a breadth of growing practices. The full YFN season gives a sense of the diversity of New England agriculture: urban and rural farms; diversified vegetable operations and livestock; schools, non-profits, and businesses; coastal and inland. This year, we had our first YFN on an oyster farm at Walrus and Carpenter on Ninigret Pond. Last year, we visited a fishery and compared notes with beginning and seasoned fishermen, finding that some of the environmental, political, regulatory, and access issues that terrestrial farmers face have striking resemblance to fisheries issues. As we build knowledge, affinities, and friendships across the borders of the food industry, we reinforce our ability to organize and draw connections between our needs as beginning farmers, and citizens of the world moving into the future.
The Young Farmer Network Mission is to support farmers developing socially, ecologically and economically sustainable farm businesses and happy lives by cultivating personal and professional relationships between people of all ages and backgrounds across state borders. The farmer-driven, regional network is accessible and open to all. YFN fosters community and cooperation, building strong local food systems and economies, and enduring farm businesses. Inspired by the agrarian tradition of neighborly collaboration, YFN addresses the unmet needs of beginning farmers by creating opportunities for social interaction and knowledge sharing. Please visit our website at youngfarmernetwork.org to learn more and sign up for our emails!
Tess Brown-Lavoie is a first-generation farmer at Sidewalk Ends Farm in Providence, RI and Seekonk, MA. She is a farmer organizer, coordinating the Young Farmer Network, using Sidewalk Ends as a case study for the challenges faced by young and beginning farmers in finding land and capital, connecting products with markets, and accessing existing resources for farmers. She also serves on the New England Farmers Union Board of Directors, the National Young Farmers Coalition Advisory Committee, and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, and is the Young Farmer liaison to the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership.
This post originally appeared on the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts Blog.