Get the best of out local farm markets by following a few guidelines. (Maureen Wallenfang/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin) Wochit
A handful of young, first-generation farmers are doing something unusual in central and eastern Wisconsin.
They're plowing their way into a field that's statistically old-timers' turf.
The average age of the American farmer has risen over the last 30 years to 58 years old, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In Wisconsin, it’s close to that at 56 ½.
This cluster of young, first-time farmers includes those in their 20s and 30s.
In short, they're in it because they fell in love with the earth.
It’s the outdoor lifestyle, the joy of growing and a call to do something fundamentally meaningful — putting food on people’s tables — that keeps them going.
“It made sense to me,” said Kendall Vosters, 26, owner of Fox Cities Farm in the town of Vandenbroek. “It’s something I believe in and care about. It fits my skills and things that come naturally to me. I love being outside. I’m not a computer guy or an office guy.”
Other young farmers in the Custer/Amherst area, roughly between Stevens Point and Waupaca, own and operate Nami Moon Farms, Black Rabbit Farm and Field Notes Farm.
All four farms in this story show up weekly at the Appleton Downtown Farm Market, as well as other farm markets in the state. Some have CSAs, which are “community sponsored agriculture” programs, in which they sell a share directly to consumers in advance of the season, then in exchange, give consumers baskets of produce each week through the summer.
They grow vegetables and raise poultry and a few hogs, for the most part.
What's interesting is that while some of them had connections along the way, none were born into farming families.
Field Notes Farm is well known in Appleton because its two owners, both Lawrence University grads, are Oren Jakobson, 29, formerly of Riverview Gardens, and Polly Dalton, 25, a former Appleton alderperson.
Tommy Enright, 32, now running the Black Rabbit Farm, was a Seattle deejay when he and his wife Sam, originally from Waupaca, decided to move back to Wisconsin. They wanted to have their own farm, not work nights and start a family.
“A lot of us new farmers are first generation farmers. So there’s certainly a learning curve to what we’re doing,” Enright said.
While young farmers know why they chose this profession, they also know why others would never consider it.
“Yeah, I’d say it’s an unusual choice,” said Chris Holman, 39, owner with Maria Davis, 30, of Nami Moon Farms, now in its eighth growing season in Custer. They both grew up in cities.
“These days, if you’re not buying into the family farm, your point of entry is small. The cost of entry into cash crops or dairy is prohibitive for a beginner. It’s $1 to $2 million to start a small dairy farm.”
While every farm and situation is different, in general farmers say starting small vegetable and poultry farms costs far less.
Jakobson, the co-owner of Field Notes Farm, said even with a smaller startup loan of $60,000, he feels the pressure.
He now has two employees and reinvests most of the farm’s income. He and co-owner Dalton take just enough to cover basic living expenses. They have winter jobs substitute teaching.
He knows that not everyone would want to do that.
“The idea of taking out another loan before you’ve paid off your student loan is not too attractive. There is an interest in doing farming among our generation, but the nuts and bolts keep people from it. The economic question is the biggest question,” he said.
“We live in a time of pretty intense economic anxiety, especially if you’re young. How are you going to pay for retirement? How are you going to support yourself? How are you going to pay off ridiculous student loans?" he said. "There is a lot of fear of doing something different and going out on your own. Farming is inherently that.”
He was lucky, he said, because after college, Riverview Gardens in Appleton hired him.
“I got a salary, so the economic side of farming didn’t apply. Riverview sealed the deal for me. I was immersed in it and decided it was something I wanted to do,” said the mathematics major. He split off to start his own operation three seasons ago.
Holman of Nami Moon Farms rents acreage to Field Notes Farm and has encouraged other young farmers just starting out.
Many young farmers talk to each other in an informal network and share information.
“We want to see more farmers,” Holman said. “We go out of our way to pool our resources for purchasing, like an informal cooperative. If we can, we keep people from reinventing the wheel and encountering obstacles.”
“The network we’ve created supports the further development of young farmers,” said Jakobson. “The forces we’re up against are the consolidation of agriculture. Can a bunch of small farms start up fast enough? Who knows? We’ll see.”
Holman, meanwhile, is up front about his numbers from his 40-acre farm to show, realistically, how it works.
“Gross sales are $100,000 to $115,000. Net profit hovers around 20 percent. We’re clearing $12,000 to $25,000 a year. If I paid myself, it would go down closer to 5 percent,” he said.
For Holman and most other small farm operators, having a spouse with an off-farm job for steady income and insurance has been crucial.
Also vitally important at some farms are family help with the cost of land and supportive consumers who sign up for CSAs or buy their produce at farm markets.
Maureen Wallenfang: 920-993-7116, or email@example.com; on Twitter @wallenfang