Nurture and Nature


Emily Oakley grew up in a sprawling suburban neighborhood in Tulsa, The second biggest city in Oklahoma. Her mother was a high school English teacher and her father was a computer programmer. As a kid, she talked about becoming a doctor.

Mike Appel grew up on Long Island, New York. His parents wanted him to be a teacher.

Today, Oakley, 26, and Appel, 27, own their own two-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm just outside Tulsa city limits.

"Organic farming is something that brings environment and social issues together because everyone needs to eat," says Oakley, on the phone from Three Springs farm in Oklahoma. It's the middle of their first-ever growing season, so she and Appel are working in the fields every day. "I don't think my parents really understand why I do this, but they can understand living a lifestyle and having a business you believe in."

Traditionally, there are two ways to get into agriculture: You can inherit a farm or you can marry a farmer. But today, many fledgling farmers like Oakley and Appel aren't coming in through the family. In fact, many are relative city slickers, growing up in urban areas with little or no exposure to farm life, driven by a desire to grow clean organic produce and get back to the land.

Many city-dwellers dream of escaping the crowds and noise and pollution of the city to start anew in the country, but it takes a special commitment to make that dream a reality. Running a farm isn't just an idyllic walk in the country. Oakley and Appel wake up before dawn each day. Then usually hit the fields immediately, harvesting for a few hours. On Tuesdays and Fridays, they harvest all day, picking fresh tomatoes, peppers, and melons for Tulsa's weekly farmers' markets.

Some crops need to be picked everyday: Zucchini grows gigantic if left on the vine and cherry tomatoes get overripe. After harvesting, they do field work – weeding, tilling, planting, and irrigating. They usually return home by 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. to do an hour or two of office work, recording temperatures and pest sightings and planning future plantings.

After harvesting their crops, Appel and Oakley still need to get them to their final destinations. They sell wholesale groceries to restaurants and food co-ops, and run a small 10-member CSA. (In a CSA, or community supported agriculture, members pay an up-front fee to have a weekly basket of fresh produce delivered to their doors.) But they make most of their sales at farmers' markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Even before they started planting, they had to learn the mechanics of the business; they scoured the library for information on marketing strategy and attended business-planning workshops held by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. Even before they'd set foot back in Tulsa, though, the path to starting a farm was a long and winding one.

"It's definitely not for the faint of heart," said Oakley.

The Crisis of Family Farming

Across the country, the average age of farmers is on the rise. In California, the number farmers under the age of 35 fell 51% between 1987 and 1997, according to California FarmLink.

"Farmers are getting older and older," said Marian Beethe, manager of the Nebraska Beginning Farmer Program. "Part is due to the economic situation, since fewer younger people are getting into farming. Part of it is that older farmers can keep farming longer with better technology." Meanwhile, corporate agribusiness can undersell the small family farmer, making the small farm economically unviable.

At the same time that older farmers can keep farming longer, there are more barriers than ever for young farmers to surmount – land and equipment are expensive, and returns are uncertain. Appel and Oakley were lucky; another farmer lent them the equipment they needed to get started.

"Without their help, we wouldn't have been able to do this," said Appel. "Farming is a very capital-intensive business."

As a result, some farmers' children don't see the appeal in taking over the family plot.

"Some people who grew up on farms are being discouraged by parents or economics," said Steve Schwartz of California Farmlink. "It's difficult work without any guarantee of large compensation."

Schwartz founded California Farmlink about five years ago, after attending an Ecological Farming Conference in Monterey. About 100 beginning farmers attended – many having grown up in cities – all excited about getting in to organic agriculture but having trouble getting started.

Organizations like California FarmLink exist to help start-up farms across the state. California FarmLink acts as a go-between, setting up old farmers ready to retire with young farmers looking for land to buy or lease. The group also offers financial help to budding entrepreneurs who've already taken the first steps toward owning their own farms. FarmLink helps all sorts of farmers, but most farmers in the program are organic and sustainable agriculture growers. Other states have similar programs, like Arkansas Farm Link and Nebraska Beginning Farm Program.

"We're hearing from a lot of people who've been through school and working for a few years and now want to get into farming," said Marian Beethe in Nebraska. Nebraska Beginning Farmer Program offers tax credits to people who lease land or equipment to fledgling farmers. "They're calling to ask what we can do for them. Yesterday a veterinarian called up to ask about starting his own farm. People feel they've got this tie to the land and even if they've been successful in doing something else, they're interested in coming back to it."

Even after a farm gets off the ground, there's no guarantee of success. Small farms can't compete with their larger neighbors in terms of quantity, said Katie Kelly of Impossible Acres Farm in Davis, California, so they need to find a good niche – either growing unusual crops or giving customers a new experience. Some small farms give CSA subscribers a little taste of farm life by having them visit the farm to pick the vegetables themselves. Visitors to Impossible Acres pick their own blackberries, raspberries, and cherries.

Some successful small farms, with good niches and fewer overhead expenses, can make $10,000 per acre annually.

Getting Started

Oakley and Appel started out as apprentices on Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California, before striking out on their own.

"We're growing farmers as well as crops," said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm. Since Full Belly Farm started in 1985, many Full Belly apprentices have gone on to start their own farms all over the country from California to Missouri. Before that can happen, though, apprentices spend a grueling year on the farm, immersed in all aspects of farm life – picking and packing vegetables, working in the greenhouse, cooking meals, and some even doing sales in the front office.

In accepting apprentices, Redmond looks for people interested in going into a career in agriculture.

"Some want to be farmers," said Redmond. "Some want to be cooks, some want to be journalists specializing in agriculture or environmental activists. People come from a lot of different backgrounds – some are interested in growing a crop, some want to live a lifestyle, some just want to experience the outdoors."

Oakley learned a lot at Full Belly, but farming in California couldn't completely prepare her for the Oklahoma environment.

"I had a lot of book knowledge but really doing it on your own with no one else to rely on is a totally different scenario," said Oakley. "Alone, we're ultimately and totally responsible. It's a learning curve but working on other farms, especially Full Belly, gave us the first hand experience we need. You can't really successfully start a small farm without some experience."

Oakley started becoming active in environmental and social issues in high school and interested in organic and sustainable agriculture before that. Like many young people getting into farming, Oakley wanted to make a difference with her choice.

"Selling people food produced in an environmentally, economically, socially just way is a good way to put these ideas into practice," she said. "The tomatoes you find in a grocery store are often picked by people making very low wages under difficult conditions and often exposed to pesticides. Eating local is part of living a non-exploitative life-style."

"This is really an important job," agreed Appel. "It's important that more young people get into this, especially as our current farmers age."

The Lure of the Simple Life

"There are several things that attract young people to organic farming," said Ethan Schaffer, 23. Schaffer works at Fungi Perfecti, an organic mushroom farm in Olympia, Washington, on mushroom production and using fungi to heal damaged habitats. But in his spare time, he, his brother Grayson Schaffer, 25, and his girlfriend Sarita Role, 23, run "Organic Volunteers," a website that connects organic farmers and potential apprentices. In three years, the site has attracted 8000 members and 650 hosts.

"There're so many questions about conventional farming – about things like labor and pesticides," said Schaffer. "It's quite confusing how to target each problem specifically. With organic, you determine what's a safe practice first and go from there. Some people see organic agriculture as a positive solution to all those questions. And some are looking for a sustainable life-style. They're sick of the city living with all its toxins and there's a general calling back to nature."

Allison Stone, 26, lives on her girlfriend Laura Trent's organic farm in Vacaville, California. Stone begins law school at the University of San Francisco in the fall; over the summer she sublets a Berkeley apartment while she interns for Bay Area Legal Aid. But on weekends she's back on the farm to take care of the farm's chickens.

Tip Top Farm unfolds over 20 acres of French plum orchards and vegetable crops like okra, onions, basil, and fifteen varieties of tomatoes. The farm also grows strangely shaped specialty cucumbers – round ball-shaped "limes" and long, thin ridged ones.

"Nothing you'll see in Safeway," said Stone.

On the farm, insects, rodents and sometimes even raccoons get into the house, scuttling through the pet doors intended for the farm's six "semi-feral" cats. There's no television and no air conditioning and the only heating comes from the house's wood-burning stove.

"But the good thing is you get what you get when you go away on vacation," said Stone, who grew up in New York City. "I've always grown up in a non-rural suburban and urban areas. It's a different society here. You get to live where you work. Plants always growing so there's a lot of work to do."

In New York, Stone was accustomed to the eternal hustle and bustle of the city. The countryside, with its silent, cricket-filled nights, was unsettling at first.

"It seems like a trip," said Stone. "If you've never lived outside, it's a little strange getting used to the quiet."

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm

In Tulsa, Appel is worried about diseases in the tomato crop. He's noticed some early signs of blight and he's trying to decide whether he needs to spread some copper to catch it early or just to let it run its course. It's a learning experience for the two farmers and making a wrong choice can cost them valuable plants. Earlier this year, an unusually heavy rain killed some of their tomato plants when the drainage system was overwhelmed.

"That's why it's good to be so diversified," said Appel. "Oklahoma has erratic weather. We lost a lot of broccoli this year, but we've got other crops to make up for it. My parents wanted me to go into something with more secure, but this is what I'm passionate about. I never get bored, there's always a lot to learn. This was the first thing in my life that I really took to. It's an honest way to make a living."

It's hard and unpredictable, but they knew what they were getting into when they started. Oklahoma is different than California, but, for Oakley, it's only difficult when the weather gets bad.

"That's when I ask, why am I slaving away for this?" she said. "Those are the low moments. The high ones are when someone comes up to you at the farmer's market and tells you that you grew the best tomato they've ever tasted. Then I remember why I do it."

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