Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Birth of a new American farmer

(Last year, I wrote this story at the end of my six months of Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship program during which I worked at the Sun Sentinel newspaper in South Florida. The piece remains unpublished, but I thought it makes a good blog post. For, a year on, that trend is fast catching up with a lot of urban Americans, who are re-discovering their roots in the soil)
Grow nothing that you can’t eat.
Andre and Sharon Fletcher last year learned their first basic lesson in farming, when their ornamental fish business tanked with economy. “We switched to edible fish,” said the Jamaican-born couple in rural Homestead area of South Florida. “It worked.”
The couple, who took to fish farming barely three years ago without any background or knowledge, discovered Tilapias had a big market right in their neighborhoods. Soon the revenues picked up. There was no looking back.
Self-learning though was fraught with problems and losses.
Once, they over-medicated fish in the tank and saw it die one by one. “It was not a good sight,” said Andre, tall, well-built former U.S. Navy employee.
Until three years ago, Andre, 51, and Sharon, 46, were typical urban Americans. They knew only one thing about fish. “It tasted great.”
Then, as the economy nosedived his small construction business hit rock bottom. And she got laid off last year after working 21 years with a cruise line company.
The two-acre farm that also houses their home helped them overcome recession worries and pay off debts.
Today, Andre and Sharon can pretty much educate aspiring fish farmers. On their small fish farm – their primary occupation today – they are scripting a success story.
The Fletchers are South Florida’s emerging neo-farmers, part of a U.S.-wide movement that shows urban Americans – cutting across all ages, professions and strata – are falling back on the world’s oldest vocation: farming.
More than 300 new small farms started operation in Homestead between 2002 and 2007 agriculture census, said David Paynes, county extension director with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences (UF-IFAS). “They come from diverse professional background, and are the first-time farmers,” he said.
More than 60 per cent of the 300-plus respondents in the first ever survey of small farms in Florida were first-generation farmers, said Bob Hochmuth, small farms coordinator with IFAS and someone who’s followed the sector for six years.
Take for instance, Hani Khouri, a 55-year-old Lebanese American. An MBA in international business with a rich professional experience, he switched to goat farming five years ago and is member of an organic farmers’ group.
Every weekend, Khouri could be seen at the Homestead farmers market selling goat-cheese. “I am,” he said, “also a certified organic cook.”
Take another, Darrin and Jodi Swank, a couple in its early forties, who took to farming six years ago and run a successful commercial operation in South Florida. “I never saw myself doing this,” said Jodi, who gave up her career as a travel consultant to join her husband’s dream of farming hydroponically – in a shade-net shade, without soil.
Tens of thousands of young and middle-aged urban Americans want to farm and spend rest of their lives in typical rural setting.
“We,” said Andre, “wanted to reconnect with our roots.”
A vast majority of people are going back to farms as a hobby or lifestyle, Hochmuth said. “But at least a third of them are in with a serious commitment.”
One of their major problems is training. With farm extension services in peril like that in India and university research being taken over by food corporate, the new farmers are finding it hard to self-train themselves in the vocation that demands some skills.
So in some states, like Iowa in mid-west, a new trend is unfolding: it’s called farm matchmaking. A young enthusiast is tied up with ageing traditional farmer in a way that the former helps the latter in farming in return for hands-on training.
This is farm matchmaking, a down payment on the future of rural America.
The idea is being tried as farmers are getting older and working longer: The average age rose to 57 (from 55) and the ranks of the 75-and-up set increased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2007; the number of farmers, younger than 25, dropped by a third.
With problems at both ends, the matchmaking program pairs the two generations. Aspiring young farmers then don’t have to go into deep debt to launch their farm careers and can hook up with a farmer in his 50s, 60s, or 70s.
Lawyers, factory workers, insurance adjusters, even accountants and dentists have applied to a special Iowa program that tries to link aspiring farmers with seasoned landowners looking to retire. The young aspirants, mostly in their 20s and 30s, all have their reasons: a love of the outdoors, a yearning for independence or fond memories of riding a tractor with a grandfather long ago. Recession too is playing a part.
Contrast this with Indian scenario: The past two decades have seen a massive exodus of farmers from agriculture as rural economy suffered a neglect. A biting agrarian crisis has pushed thousands of farmers to the brink of penury and even suicide.
Rural and agriculture employment rate in India, studies show, is decelerating. More than 50 per cent farmers, a National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) survey in 2006-07 showed, wanted to give up farming if they had an option.
The new small American farmer stands a wealthy paradox to India’s distraught small and marginal farmers. However, within the context of American farming, the policies are heavily against the small farm operations.
“Stiff regulatory climate drive us out of the game,” said Margie Pikarsky, who heads a loose cooperative of organic farmers in Homestead. “We want the government to change some of the regulatory climate.” Consumers too want that.
India is following American model – high-cost, high-energy intensive and mechanized farming. Here, things are beginning to reverse for a low-cost sustainable model.
“It’s happening one person at a time,” according to John Ikerd, author of ‘Sustainable Capitalism’ and Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri.
“Our industrial and corporate agriculture is energy-intensive, heavily subsidized and highly unsustainable,” said Ikerd, a leading expert. “This model is not to be emulated”.
Monopoly of seed, farms and food markets is fundamentally flawed, he said. “It will have to change.” The pace of change will be slow. “But new farmers, many of whom are women, will bring about this change over the next three to four decades,” Ikerd said.
America has a little over 2.2 million farms – a fraction of India’s farms and dependent population. About 125,000 farms in big acreages control 80 percent of sales value, while the remaining small and mid-size operations together account for 20 percent sales.
The 2007 Agriculture census found a 4 per cent rise in the number of farms in America, first time since the World War II. That’s because the definition of farms includes of any venture that sells produce worth $1000. The census shows a rise in the small backyard farm operations and concentration of large and corporate farms. Actually, more than 45,000 mid-sized family farms (an average 400 acres) perished between 2002 and 2007.
Yet new very, very small farms were born in the same period – in significant numbers. A good one third of them are women operators or owners.
The face of a new farmer – better educated, net-savvy, enterprising and innovative – is beginning to surface all over the United States to the extent that there is a general acknowledgement of this trend even at the federal level.
“Small farms are bouncing back,” said an emphatic Florida agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson at the inaugural Florida small farms and enterprises conference in August. “Small operations are going to importance once again.”
The new farms are building alliances – among themselves, directly with consumers or restaurants and hotels. They are demanding changes in regulatory climate.
“The current game is heavily lopsided in favour of big corporations – subsidies, market, seeds, inputs, government support, and processing rules, everything,” said Gabrielle Marewski, owner of a five-acre certified organic farm in South Florida. “Together we can seek some changes at local, state and federal level,” she said.
Policies, said Ikerd, will have to change eventually in favour of sustainable farming. “It has a bearing on the health of people,” he said. “We have to change.”
Ikerd said these new farms will “re-invigorate our local food system”. “In 2050, today’s time will seem like a historic period that witnessed historic processes.”
“You will see more of such farms popping up,” said Andre, who’s adding lobsters and a couple of other fish varieties to his product range. “People in his country now want to eat fresh food and not something that is transported from miles away.”
His customers drive miles to pick their weekly quota of fresh fish. Every month, Andre cleans his fish tanks to keep the fish happy, and growing.
The fish farm is really a chain of small and big circular tanks, with fresh water being pumped through the pipes round the clock. He’s switching to solar power to operate his farm to save on the energy costs. The U.S. government has recently introduced a program that supports small farms to make transition to renewable energy.
“All I do is to keep the fish alive and then they keep us alive,” said Andre, cleaning a fish tank he just emptied.” It’s a lot of work, he said, but also a lot of fun.


Satish Nandgaonkar said...

very interesting, Jaideep.

Mister Muggins said...

Nice piece. Why didn't the paper publish it when you were there?

Unknown said...

This was meant for my home newspaper. Sun Sentinel did publish a larger project, called the farmers among us. We published a story here on the trend of farmers' markets. This somehow remained unpublished!