A fresh crop of local entrepreneurial farmers

Though affordable land has become a significant barrier to entry, the Tilian Farm Development Center is helping a new generation of farmers work local fields. They're savvy about social media, understand the strengths of niche marketing, and are, increasingly, women.
Close your eyes and picture a farmer. You're picturing an older guy in overalls, right? There's a good reason for the stereotype. According to the USDA more than a third of all farmers are over 65, which is nearly three times the number of workers in that age bracket in other industries. And just 14 percent of principal farm operators in the U.S. are women.

Though that may be the national norm, there are new faces appearing behind the farmer's market tables and in the field. Here in the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area, a fresh crop of young, entrepreneurial—and  often female—farmers are redefining the classic definition of the farmer, and of farming itself. They have Facebook pages, business plans, diversified offerings and are working together to grow a new community of first generation farmers from the ground up.

Stefanie Stauffer, Nightshade Farm Industries 

If your idea of a farmer is someone who focuses on his 100 acres of corn, corn and more corn, Stefanie Stauffer's five-year-old farming business Nightshade Farm Industries might just blow your mind. Between her half-acre of land and space in a hoop house, Stauffer, 35, grows heirloom tomatoes, which she uses in her farm-to-jar salsa and hot sauce operation, as well as serving a small number of farm-share customers. She also sells produce at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market and grows peppers for the Simply Spanish food truck among other ventures. That's in addition to being the program manager for local farm incubator the Tilian Farm Development Center.
"We are a farm first," Stauffer says, "and all the other products that we make are something that just kind of happens with the fact that we specialize in heirloom tomatoes and peppers." 

Stauffer undoubtedly has a lot of tomatoes in the air, but, she explains, having diversified offerings is how young, entrepreneurial farmers make their operations successful.

"The more value added stuff you do, the more special contracts you get," she says. "If I had to predict where farm-to-table is going, it is these smaller scale, farm-to-jar or farm-to-food-truck operations."

Hannah Rose Weber, The Land Loom 

Farming is an entrepreneurial venture, especially for young, first-generation farmers. Without generations of family farmers behind them to set precedents, there's not much difference between a new farmer and any other startup.  

That's what Hannah Rose Weber, 28, is learning in her first year of her farm business, The Land Loom. Like any good entrepreneur, she identified a unique niche, marketed her mixed greens as a salad CSA, as well as grew vegetables for The Brinery. That strategy has allowed her to experiment with growing different varieties and quantities of greens to maximize the use of her half-acre and hoop house space at Tilian. Because the greens are quick growing and need to be seeded often, she's had the benefit of testing different growing and irrigation methods. 

"I've had to educate myself," Weber says. "Because [multi-generation farmers] have so much land generally, they're going this every expansive way of growing. Younger, or new farmers who have had to buy land, have had less land access. They've had to do things differently, using the space more intensively and also just looking at a different markets." 

Ryan Padgett, Radicle Roots Community Farm 

The availability of affordable land at Tilian is critical to the launch of new farming businesses in the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area.

"The biggest issue for us young farmers is land access," says Ryan Padgett, 29, of Radicle Roots Community Farm. Especially in Washtenaw County, where land is expensive, and a lot of that land is going to development. A lot of the young farmers are looking into how to secure some and how to fund that."

In the meantime, Padgett is focusing on the heirloom produce he's growing on a quarter acre and two hoop house spaces at Tilian. He sells his harvest through a CSA, as well as farmers markets and Argus Farm Stop. Rather than spending years saving up to buy or rent expensive acreage, he can focus on developing the business—and the unique heirloom products he offers. 

"I have a summer squash, the yellow crooked neck, that was here before the pilgrims came over. I have cucumber seeds from the 1800s," Padgett says. "It's cool that it has this history. I want to preserver the old."

Dynelle Mackey, Sweet D Farm 

A primary way farmers used to get their education was by working their family farms from a young age, and learning from their parents and grandparents who had farmed there for years. Today, many new farmers have backgrounds in entirely different industries, many unrelated to agriculture. Take Dynelle Mackey of Sweet D Farm, for instance, who spent her early career as an operations manger in corporate America. 

"I knew, after working in the biotech industry, and supporting pharmaceutical research that I didn't want to do that forever," says Mackey. "I didn't want to support the industry because they develop drugs for symptoms rather than curing people's ailments. I'm a believer in living a healthy lifestyle through exercise and eating healthy."

So Mackey, 37, traded pills for seeds, first working at an organic vegetable business and then training to become a farmer herself. Now she grows baby lettuce greens and a variety of other vegetables and herbs at Tilian. And while her work in the fields is certainly different from the board room, her experience surprisingly translates to her work today. 

"You need to understand finance and production and marketing, and all of these things, you need for a farm business as well," says Mackey.  

Many new farmers have arrived to the fields with non-agriculture backgrounds and are finding ways to apply their skills to the farming biz. And while the farm industry may still have an out-sized number of older, more traditional farmers, these young, entrepreneurial farmers are growing in numbers. Last year, Tilian had three farms. This year, the ag incubator is up to 11 new farmers—and Stauffer says at least four more farms plan to join next year.

"We're definitely gathering steam pretty rapidly," she says. "I would encourage people to support beginning farmers, and realize they're trying to, not just grow health food, but make their part of the world a little better."

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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