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.
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."
Alfredo Kuba stands in the kitchen of his Mountain View, CA home, stirring a spatula through a potful of lentils and tofu. Mussi, his sleek tabby cat, watches expectantly from his kitty bed, eagerly flicking his tail to and fro. Kuba spoons the stew into a bowl -- and sets it on the floor. It's Mussi's dinner. "It took him a little while to get used to this, but now he loves it," says Kuba. "For a special treat, I give him a little tofurkey."
Mussi eats this way everyday, and he's not alone in his peculiar tastes. Some cats will dig through trash only for the empy tuna cans, but others will lust for spinach, steal cantaloupe -- even slurp spaghetti. Mussi is a vegan cat, part of a growing group of cats whose owners, vegans themselves, have decided to wean their cats off their "natural" food and put them on a plant-based diet. With the proper supplements, these cat-owners claim, a cat can live a healthy, normal, even happy life eating vegetables.
From the outside, it might look like taking veganism to an absurd extreme. We can choose not to eat meat for many reasons -- health, ethics, animal rights -- but a cat can't understand those things. Even if he could, nature has designed everything about a cat, from his teeth to his intestines, for a carnivorous lifestyle. What would feeding him vegetables accomplish?
A lot, according to vegan cat owners.
"You're saving animals by not feeding your cat meat," says Kuba. "It makes you feel good to feed your kitty something this good. Sometimes I even try some myself when I'm cooking." Kuba sprinkles a tablespoon of Vegecat supplements, a fine powder that looks like pepper and smells like Italian spices, into the mix and adds some garlic salt for taste. I try a spoonful; it tastes just like split pea soup.
The mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of vegan cat food. "I don't know about that stuff," says one Berkeley pet store employee when I asked about vegan cat food, "Some places have vegan dog food, but I don't know about that either. Dogs evolved from wolves and I can't imagine a wolf that would prefer a salad to a moose."
But despite conventional wisdom, some dogs do prefer the salad. As any dog owner knows, dogs love to munch down on meat, vegetables, old pizza crusts and just about anything else they might find in the trash. Most experts agree that dogs are omnivores that can thrive without meat; vegan dog foods can even be found in some mainstream grocery stores.
But cats are a different story. Unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores -- meaning that in the wild they would eat nothing but meat. Dogs can enjoy a meatless diet because they can synthesize some necessary nutrients that cats need to get from their food. Those essential nutrients -- including taurine, arachidonic acid, and vitamin A -- abound in meat. Cats go blind and deaf without taurine. Without arachidonic acid, they suffer from reproductive problems. And a vitamin A deficiency will stunt their growth and bone formation.
At the heart of the vegan philosophy for many is a desire to the reduce the pain and suffering of animals. But no matter how much progress a vegan cat-owner makes toward fighting animal exploitation, he's still forced into an uncomfortable compromise to keep his pet happy and healthy. If a cat can, in fact, live on vegetables, it would solve that problem in a flash. Many vegans see it as the only way they can stop feeling like hypocrites.
"As much as I would love to, I haven't switched my cats to vegan diets because I'm concerned that it's nutritionally inadequate for them," says Julie Ahern, a Berkeley vegan who lives with two non-vegan cats, Tiger and Memphis. "I've heard arguments that supplements can make up for inadequacies, but I just don't want to take any chances -- particularly Tiger, because he's older and has health problems."
I met Ahern as she handed out vegan ice cream sandwiches on UC Berkeley's Sproul plaza, as part of Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy's (BOAA) community outreach. Ahern said she wasn't yet vegan when she adopted Memphis six years ago, but, by the time she'd adopted Tiger the following year, she was. "I'm not happy at all about feeding them animal products but I haven't come across any other viable options," she says. "I suppose I could be labeled a hypocrite because it seems like I value their lives more than the lives of billions of farmed animals."
Ahern hasn't given up searching for a better solution. She pores over cat care books like "Natural Health for Dogs and Cats," by Dr. Richard Pitcairn, a veterinarian and founder of the Animal Natural Health Center in Eugene, Oregon.
On Pitcairn's advice, Ahern wants to reduce Tiger and Memphis's meat consumption; she feeds them Jeffrey's Fresh Meat Pet Foods from Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods in San Francisco. A store brochure describes the food as "a blend of raw, human grade, additive-free ground meats, organic vegetables and other essential nutrients."
"And as far as the animals that are killed to make the food are concerned, it really doesn't matter in the end whether they're organic or free-range, does it?" she says. "Whether factory-farmed or free-range, animals raised for food all end up at the same horrible place, the slaughterhouse."
Vegans like Ahern are still looking for an acceptable solution. Vegans like Kuba think they've already found it.
How healthy can a cat be if it's denied meat? Even healthier than it would be on meat, say some. Kuba notes that Mussi developed diabetes on his old canned food, and required up to 14 units of insulin a day. On his new plant diet, Kuba says, he only needs a fourth of that. In Seattle, Lindsay Saibara says a vegan diet helps control her cat Kumori's bowel problems just as well as the medicated diet he used to eat, and Diane Kantor credits a vegan diet for her cats' glossier coats. But that's only anecdotal evidence. No one has ever conducted any scientific studies on what it means to keep a cat on a meat-free diet, and experts don't agree about what the long-term effects a vegan diet might be.
"Cats don't need meat," says UC Davis cat nutrition specialist Quinton Rogers. "They need specific nutrients found in meat and if they can get that some other way then they can be reasonably healthy on a vegan diet. I wouldn't recommend it because you're more likely to get into trouble, but if you know what you're doing, and you get the pure elements, you can make it work."
Pitcairn, the author cited by Julie Ahern, disagrees. He writes that many vegan cats he's treated appear less healthy than their carnivorous counterparts, that cats specifically need nutrients from animal sources. Other vets are skeptical, but reluctant to advise against a vegan diet without doing further research.
Neither ethics nor science are clear-cut on the issue. "The long-term effects of feeding cats a diet without animal sources of these nutrients are still unknown," says Teri Barnato, Director of Veterinarians for Animal Rights in Davis. "There is also the issue of whether humans should manipulate a cat's normal diet to address human ethical concerns. Vegans may want to consider not having cats as companions, given their need for animal products and the typical sources of those products."
Making the Switch
In a perfect world, say many vegans, we wouldn't have this problem. We never should have domesticated cats, they say, but now we've just got to make the best of a bad situation. A vegan diet might not be ideal feline diet, but many cat owners see it as the only way that can live with peace at heart, knowing that they're consistent in their beliefs.
"People are all hung up on meat as a natural thing," says Jed Gillen, author of Obligate Carnivore, a book that details Gillen's journey to veganism and his decision to raise his own cats on a vegan diet.
I met up with Jed Gillen at the World Vegetarian Day Celebration at the Hall of Flowers in San Francisco, where he sold "Vegans Kick Ass" T-shirts, vegan cheese-flavored snacks, and vegan condoms (Made without casein, a milk protein.)
"Nothing about a cat's life is natural," says Gillen. "It's eating stuff that comes in a little bowl, it's living in your house, you're giving it vaccinations. But people cling to meat as something natural. In the wild, when does a cat eat a cow? In the wild, cats eat rodents, birds and insects. Why do we think cows are equivalent to insects?"
Even Gillen admits that vegan food is far from a perfect solution.
"For cats, I don't believe the vegan food is as good as real meat," said Gillen, leading a group discussion on vegan cats in a small side room at the World Vegetarian Day celebration. "I'm arguing that the cat's going to live a normal life span and be healthy on a vegan diet. Maybe your cat will live one year less. That's a sacrifice, but look at the huge benefit for all those other animals."
Of course, a human can understand the issues involved, but a cat doesn't know anything about factory farming or animal cruelty. Would it be right to make that choice for the cat?
Writes Gillen: "To overrule a dietary preference that is based on [a cat's] extremely limited understanding of the issues and instead select a food for them that is more in alignment with what you know to be ethical is not "forcing" anything on them anymore than parents of human children routinely "force" them to brush their teeth or to not play in traffic. To make a choice as complex as which food to buy, an issue which carries ethical concerns that they couldn't possibly begin to understand, is one of our jobs. Not only is this kind of thing not contradictory to good parenting, it is an inherent part of it!"
At the discussion, some weren't convinced that was enough. "It kills me everyday that I have to feed my cat meat," said Berkeley vegan Isobel Schneider. "I'd love to be convinced otherwise, but for the long term health of the cat it seems he should be eating meat. I love my cat so much that I've been willing to be a hypocrite."
Back in Mountain View, Mussi's eating his dinner. Kuba became a vegan almost overnight two years ago, after hearing a lecture at the Earth Day convention in Berkeley on the suffering of factory farm-raised animals. Mussi took a little longer to convert. For six months, Kuba mixed increasing doses of vegan cat food with Mussi's regular dinner until he was completely meat-free. It was a slow process, as Kuba struggled to find the right combination of vegetable tastes that would win Mussi over. He cooked different recipes from James Peden's Vegetarian Cats and Dogs, plying Mussi with exotic combinations of rice, oats and garbanzo beans. Ultimately, he discovered Mussi's favorite dish, lentils and tofu. "It was a trial and error thing," said Kuba. "Every cat is different, and they can be finicky. It's like cooking for a member of the family. It's simple to switch a cat if you do it with patience and love."
Mussi doesn't like to be disturbed while he's eating; even at the ripe old age of 16, he's every bit as protective of his food as his ancestors might have been over vanquished prey. In the backyard, four bushy-tailed squirrels scamper up to the screen door, chattering loudly. Kuba slides the screen door open and tosses a handful of peanuts into the yard, where the squirrels swarm over them. Mussi ignores their insistent chattering.
"He doesn't chase them anymore," says Kuba. "Part of it is just that he's older, but I think his new diet might also have something to do with it. And I think he just sees how I interact with the squirrels, how I treat them with respect."
But what if Mussi refused to eat tofu? What if, despite everything, Mussi simply demanded meat? "I'd probably have put him back on regular food," says Kuba, shrugging. "I don't want him to starve."
Michael Rosen-Molina is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.