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Josh Schweizer, 28, manages a half-acre, year-round urban farm in Manchester for the nonprofit Tricycle Gardens. Photo by Chris Smith.
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Dominic Barrett (left), 27, and Steve Miles, 35, are the only two employees of Shalom Farms in Goochland County. Founded by the United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond, the farm provides fresh food to high-poverty areas. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Millions of earthworms crawl in decomposing vegetable scraps contained in stacks of plywood boxes, at the Tricycle Gardens urban farm in Manchester, turning the waste into rich organic soil.
Farm manager Josh Schweizer lifts the top of one box and grabs a handful of the dense soil that is used to create an organic fertilizer for the farm. "Black gold, that's what that is," the 28-year-old says proudly.
Not Your Typical Farmer
The South Side farmer is part of a growing social movement of young people returning to the land, feeding the local foods market. The young farmers draw their inspiration from their ideals of environmental sustainability, social justice and the sense of community that comes from keeping things local.
After spending about 40 hours per week maintaining the half-acre plot at Ninth and Bainbridge streets, Schweizer usually has to work side jobs on the weekends to cover his expenses, but he says he is exactly where he wants to be.
In many ways, Schweizer, one of four Tricycle Gardens employees, defies the profile of the typical farmer. The average age of a Virginian farmer is 58.2 years old, more than a year older than the average American farmer. More than 30 percent of American farmers are 65 and older.
In the next 20 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects that one-quarter of all farmers — an occupation that comprises less than 1 percent of the current population — will retire. There aren't many farmers now, so there will be even fewer then.
With the approaching possibility of a nationwide farmer shortage, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently put out an appeal for hundreds of thousands of new farmers within the next few years.
But those who heed the call face immense challenges. Dirt isn't cheap; in fact the average price for farmland has more than doubled in the past decade, from $1,090 an acre in 2000 to $2,140 an acre in 2010. In Virginia, the average market value for an acre of farmland is $4,213.
Finding money for land and equipment are the two toughest barriers facing young farmers, with lack of health insurance following closely behind, says Emily Oakley of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Even if they successfully start a farm, 73 percent of young farmers must work an off-farm job to support themselves according to a recent survey by the coalition, and only 22 percent of beginning farmers turn a profit in their first year, according to the USDA.
Despite its challenges, the young farmers movement is gaining popularity.
From 2002 to 2007, the number of U.S. farms increased 4 percent, and the new farmers are younger, with an average age of 48, according to the most recent USDA agriculture census in 2007.
Why are so many young people choosing lives of hard labor with uncertain economic stability?
"They do it because it's a way that people get to live their belief system," Oakley says. "It's a chance to have both a profession and a lifestyle that reflect your core values."
Food Desert Farmer
Schweizer arrived in Richmond on a freight train in 2004. He'd spent a year crisscrossing the country on boxcars, occasionally hopping off to help on farms, doing everything from migrant work picking strawberries to working on variety of smaller farms in places such as Portland, Ore.; Omaha, Neb.; and El Paso, Texas.
The Long Island, N.Y., native discovered farming at age 13 when he moved to Elk Garden, W.Va., a small town in the mountaintops, where he lived at his grandparents' homesteading farm for a little more than a year.
"That's where everything kind of changed," Schweizer says in a Long Island accent. "They had me picking green beans and hauling back bushels to the house, where my great-grandmother was canning them to store in the root cellar. It ultimately paved the way to where I am now."
Schweizer started working for the environmental nonprofit in Richmond in February 2010 after maintaining a rented plot of land at the Tricycle Gardens community garden in Church Hill. The grassroots organization focuses on bringing agriculture, nutrition education and access to healthy food to urban neighborhoods throughout Richmond. The goal is to transform abandoned, overgrown city lots into sources of food and opportunities for economic development in low-income areas.
At the urban farm in Manchester, not far from a McDonald's and a metal-smelting plant, dew collects on the miniature hoop houses made from sturdy dirt-streaked plastic sheeting and held down with crumbling cement blocks. Schweizer lifts the plastic covering to reveal green lettuce growing underneath, a striking contrast to the gray and brown industrial district that surrounds it.
Schweizer lives about seven blocks away from the farm in Manchester with his fiancée, Sayaka Suzuki, an adjunct glass-casting professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Before working at the farm, he waited tables at the now-closed Café Gutenberg and drove a delivery truck for Diversity Thrift.
The young farmer makes about $20,000 per year. To make ends meet, he mows lawns and paints houses in his spare time. But despite living off a meager income and going without health insurance, Schweizer says he loves what he does.
"I see the connectedness," Schweizer says of his motivation for farming. "I love this work and I love this organization. I'm here because of that."
Smoke billows from the chimney of a small wooden cabin at Tuckahoe Plantation, the 640-acre childhood home of Thomas Jefferson near Manakin. A flock of sheep grazes on hay in the backyard and a little black dog pokes his wet nose through a crack at the base of the black-painted, wood-slab front door.
Daniel Thompson and Emily Lenschow, owners of Tuckahoe Lamb and Cattle Co., are staying at the cabin temporarily while they transition to their own farm, a 116-acre plot of land in Cumberland County about an hour outside of Richmond that Thompson purchased with money left for him by his great aunt, Jessie Ball DuPont.
"I feel very lucky to have access to the resources that I do," Thompson says. "I don't know that I would be farming without them."
The couple raises grass-fed beef and dairy cattle, grass-fed lamb, pastured pork, rabbits, chickens and holiday turkeys for meat, and a flock of about 350 laying hens for eggs that they sell at farmers markets and through community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
"I don't like to sit still," Lenschow says with a laugh. "I find ways to fill up my time."
The 27-year-old grew up on a 12-acre farm in Shabbona, Ill. She got her first six sheep when she was 12 years old, and by the time she went to college, she had 20. She sold the wool she had sheared from her sheep at Richmond farmers markets while she attended law school at the University of Richmond.
Thompson grew up on Tuckahoe Plantation. When he left his boyhood home to attend Princeton University, he didn't plan on returning.
"I always kind of thought I'd go somewhere," the 28-year-old says.
After graduating with a psychology degree, Thompson moved to Boulder, Colo., and then to Bozeman, Mont., working as a short-order cook at a truck stop in the winter and doing construction in the summer. In 2007, he came back to Richmond to help his mother with the plantation's garden. "I moved home thinking it would be for two weeks, and I've pretty much been home since," he says.
Thompson started selling flowers from his mother's garden at local farmers markets, but he soon transitioned to raising and selling animals from the plantation's farm.
"I love the physicality of it," Thompson says. "That really was what attracted me to it at first, but once I ate the meat that I had raised, that was really what got me hooked."
The couple met in 2009 when Lenschow was visiting the plantation for a farmer's meeting with Fall Line Farms, an online natural-foods co-op. After dating for about a year, they decided to combine their businesses.
They don't expect to make a profit on the farm for the first two years, because all of the revenue they make will go back into the farm for things like fencing, more animals and watering systems.
Thompson does most of the day-to-day labor while Lenschow works full time. She recently founded her own practice, Lenschow Law Firm.
"She's the brains, I'm the back," Thompson says jokingly, adding that Lenschow taught him most of what he knows about farming, right down to butchering the livestock before taking them to market.
Farming for Social Justice
After an early morning spent accompanying a rape victim through a sexual-assault medical examination at the VCU Medical Center, Dominic Barrett is driving his car with the windows down to Shalom Farms in Goochland County.
In his spare time, the 27-year-old farm director volunteers for the regional hospital accompaniment response team (R-HART) through the YWCA of Richmond doing first-response hospital accompaniment for victims of sexual or domestic violence.
"Don't include in the article that I'm chewing sunflower seeds to stay awake," he jokes, laughing with one hand on the wheel.
The United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond founded Shalom Farms in 2008 with a mission of providing fresh, healthy food to high-poverty urban "food deserts" — areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. The nonprofit teaches residents of those areas about the benefits of fresh produce as well as how to farm and how to cook with it.
"The majority of people who come out here have never gardened," says Steve Miles, farm manager and volunteer coordinator. "Hopefully, when we educate people, we can teach them that this is something we could all do in our backyards."
Barrett and Miles, 35, are the only two full-time employees at the farm, but about 1,200 volunteers and 85 church, community, business and civic groups, and a handful of interns visit the farm throughout the year to help and to learn about farming.
Miles, who lives a few miles away with his wife and two young boys, says he always had a love for growing things. He didn't get interested in organic farming, however, until he was a student at the divinity school at Vanderbilt University.
"I started doing a lot of thinking about faith and the environment," Miles says.
After graduating with a master's degree in theological studies, he interned at an organic farm for a summer.
"I just had to get out of churches and start getting my hands in the dirt," Miles says. "You have such a better understanding of the earth when you're dealing with the elements. You're always experiencing some part of creation in all of its forms."
Barrett spends most of his time handling the administrative side of the organization. His social-justice background, working for nonprofits in Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C., brought him to farming.
"Food is this key intersection of so many things," Barrett says. "Access to healthy food ought to be a right, but we also ought to be able to do it in a way that allows farmers to make a sustainable living."
He hopes the work he does through Shalom Farms does a small part in achieving those two goals.
Through his work, Barrett says, he sees a lot of people who are desperate for access to healthy foods.
"When we're able to provide that tangible access to that produce, it's pretty remarkable," he says. "Some of the feedback we get is overwhelming about how excited people get over a bag of okra. The biggest hugs I've gotten in the last two years have been around a bag of okra or a ripe tomato."
The Market Manager
Trevor Buckley grabs his compost bin, a recycled yellow and light blue Tidy Cats litter bucket, and heads out the back door of his red-trimmed Oregon Hill apartment on the corner of South Laurel and Albemarle streets.
As he ambles around the ginseng planted in freshly laid mulch in his backyard on his way to the garden he maintains on Cherry Street, the 25-year-old recounts the path that led him to farming.
A Chesterfield County native, Buckley attended Maggie L. Walker Governor's School and then studied geology at the College of William and Mary. During college, he'd find solace volunteering at one of his professor's farms on the weekends. "I wanted to do something with my hands," Buckley recalls, adding that he disliked spending long hours in front of a computer as a student. "I needed some outlet. … It just sort of budded from there."
After graduating in 2009, Buckley interned for a summer on a family farm near Charleston, S.C. "I went off to do this summer internship, just to check out a new place and do something fun the summer and now I'm still involved in this movement," he says.
In the past two years, Buckley has interned at Dayspring Farm in Cologne, Va., and worked at Amy's Garden in Charles City. When he isn't working on farms, he's managing the Ashland Farmers Market or working seasonally at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
"I've been really adamant about trying to make enough money to support myself," Buckley says of his patchwork employment. "I have student loans, I pay for my own health insurance, and I pay my car insurance and then rent and gas, [but] it's not what one would expect to be making with a college degree and marketable skills." After paying his monthly expenses, Buckley rarely has money left over to put toward savings.
At the garden, Buckley identifies splintered muscadine grape vines along the fence and brittle garlic sprouting from the hard January soil. He hops over to a sprout of green and plucks a small leaf from the ground. "My sorrel is still putting out," he says proudly, taking a bite.
His interest in farming grew as he discovered all that he didn't know about plants. "I didn't know where food came from," Buckley says. "I wouldn't even know how to go out and grow it, and that really disturbed me."
Back in the kitchen of his apartment, empty bottles of Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap dry upside down on a rack by the sink and Buckley blows on a steaming mug of herbal tea at the wooden kitchen table. When asked what his parents think about his farming pursuits, the young man pauses and looks down at his hands. "It's caused some strife," he says. "Mostly, I think they're just concerned. They'd like for me to have a secure job."
But despite having to work multiple jobs every day of the week to make ends meet, Buckley says he is happy with his decision.
"Realizing our dependency and connection to the land, ultimately, is really important to me," he says, propping his elbows on the table and resting his cheek on his fist. "And I think my parents have noticed that I'm happier."
South Africa to the North Side
Before moving to Richmond, Victory Farms owner Alistar Harris spent a year helping small-scale farmers in South Africa adapt their farming practices to climate change related weather conditions through the nonprofit Project Ninety by 2030.
Harris, who grew up in South African wine country, says his only farm-related memory from childhood is of sneaking into nearby orchards to steal fruit off trees.
But after graduating from a yearlong business-management program at the University of Cape Town, Harris got involved in climate-change education. He specifically remembers working with a group of farmers who, for generations, could rely on a weeklong rain every March that signaled it was time to start planting crops so that they would be ready to sell in the summer.
"That's not happening anymore," the 35-year-old says.
Working with the farming families who could no longer grow crops on their land motivated Harris to go into farming full time. "It was on a very raw, emotional level of, nothing that happened was their fault, and yet they were suffering because of what other people did," Harris says. "I was questioning my own values of how I can be most effective. The thing that stood out for me was that growing healthy food, maintaining healthy soil, was the one thing that I wanted to do in the long-term basis."
Shortly after moving to Richmond to be with his fiancée, Rebecca Ponder, Harris met Victory Farms founders Charlie and Gina Collins at a farm-related film screening at the Byrd Theatre. After taking Harris on a tour of the farm, the Collinses asked him to work for them as a farm manager. In October 2011, he took over as owner, combining his business background with his passion for farming.
The 6-acre Hanover farm offers one of Richmond's bigger CSA programs, with more than 400 members last year. About 30 percent of the CSA members pay $500 per share and about 70 percent pay $350, totaling the CSA income at about $160,000 to $170,000. The entirely compost-fed and pesticide-free farm also sells produce to Ellwood Thompson's Local Market and a few local restaurants, as well as selling at the Byrd House and South of the James farmers markets. On a good year, Harris says the previous Victory Farms owners made a 15 percent to 20 percent gross profit margin.
"The notion that farming is unprofitable and can't be sustained in the long-term future financially is skewed," Harris says. He thinks young farmers need to approach farming as a business in order to succeed.
"An attitude shift needs to happen toward farming," Harris says. "There's this romanticized view of being on a farm and of what farming is supposed to be like. I think that also has to change with the young farmer population."