Earth's Bounty: Young Couple Gets a Hand from Experienced Farmers

The average age of the U.S. farmer is about 55 years old. And a dwindling number of farmers are entering the field. But some say thatís beginning to shift -- that thereís a growing interest in getting back to the land. The Allegheny Frontís Jennifer Szweda Jordan visits one young couple who traded city life for the countryside.

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KIM: Get up in there. Get. Get.

JORDAN: Dianne and Kim Miller push, smack and swear at about a dozen cows on their farm. Theyíre trying to coax the animals into a trailer bound for another property.

Nat. Sound: Clanging of prod on gate

JORDAN: The Millers are in their 50s, and theyíve been raising beef cattle for about 15 years. Today the Millers are showing the Johansons, a younger couple, how to roundup cattle. The nervous cowsí manure and urine splash on everyone. The Johansons take it with a grain of salt.

KRISTEN: Well, we wanted to be farmers.

JORDAN: Thirty-three-year-old Kristen Johanson and her 34-year-old husband Nate are working on the Millersí farm. They use the Millers' barns, pasture and equipment to raise chickens. Last year at this time, the Johansons were living in London where Nate was designing toys for children with special needs. But he grew dissatisfied with working indoors, and Kristen couldnít find a job as a massage therapist. They decided to make a major life change and raise chickens.

KRISTEN: When we were sure this is what we wanted to do, we didnít want to have to buy a farm because obviously we didn't have the money.

That lack of money is common among young farmers. And Penn State Cooperative Extension Agent Jon Laughner says the high risk, often weather dependent, career of farming means banks are skittish about loan ing money.

LAUGHNER: The ag business is so capital intensive -- for a young person to go in and say I need 100-thousand dollars to put up a greenhouse and get started, itís very difficult.

JORDAN: This is one of the reasons Laughner says the number of farmers younger than 35 has declined by 15 or so percent over the last few years.

However, there's evidence of a boomlet among young farmers. A recent New York Times article says some colleges have added organic farming classes because of student demand. And locally, Laughner is getting what he considers good crowds for workshops -- some 40 young people recently attended one on pastured poultry. He says relationships like the Millers have with the Johansons are essential to keep the trend going.

LAUGHNER: As older farmers, it's almost incumbent upon us to figure out a way to help someone that's interested.

JORDAN: Kim Miller is past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Miller came across an ad the Johansons put on the farming organization's internet list. They wanted access to farmland in exchange for work. He called the couple and said they should talk. The Millers were trying to get out of the chicken business, and, says Dianne Miller:

DIANNE: This was a way for us to support new farms, and Ö to also have the benefit of what chickens do to the land with bugs in combination with the beef.

JORDAN: When the Johansonsí chickens are more mature, theyíll follow behind the pastured cows, scrape through their manure and eat the bugs. The process spreads the manure, and keeps down flies and odor on the farm. The chicken manure also fertilizes the soil. Nate Johanson says itís a method made popular by Virginia farmer and writer Joel Salatin.

NATE: Joel has a way of inspiring people. He kind of gives you a motivating dissatisfaction. And I think that is really the root of why weíre farmers. let him say to end

JORDAN: The same interest in sustainable farming that drew the Johansons is the selling point that many believe could keep small farmers in business, even with an ongoing shift to big industrial farms. Farmer and filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming says there have been lots of sustainable farming movements, but they havenít stuck. That's because there was just a limited audience for what they produced. Now restaurants and consumers are seeking out pasture raised meats and organic vegetables.

FLEMING: What we do have now is a receptive, informed, consumer body who recognize the critical link between what we eat and who we are and the health of our bodies and the health of our land.

JORDAN: Fleming says that having a market for healthy foods will sustain some young farmers but overall millions more farmers are needed. Fleming is filming a documentary called Greenhorns that depicts the vibrance of young farmers in America today.

FLEMING: We have a moment where itís either a crisis of attrition or an opportunity for sustainably minded, hopeful and energetic people to step into a sector that really needs that revitalization.

JORDAN: At the Millers farm, after most of the cattle have settled into the trailer, Nate Johanson steps into a pen holding chicks that will grow into what they call broilers.

NATE: Iím going to feed them and youíll hear them go crazy. CHIRPING SOUNDS

JORDAN: The Johansons say the little chicks eat ALL THE TIME. Kristen says that she and her husband are more tired than theyíve ever been. But they feel lucky.

KRISTEN: We have spent hours in there just watching them. And it just feels really good to be doing something like this. And I just keep thinking to myself that this is something we said we were going to do and we did. And I think that's pretty amazing.

JORDAN: It's that kind of endurance -- spending 12 hours a day in a barn seven days a week -- that's partly pushed young people away from farming over the years. But a lot of people hope the growing sustainable foods movement will prove satisfying -- and lucrative enough -- to draw them back. For The Allegheny Front, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.