Each December the Stone Barns Center up in Westchester hosts a two-day, sold-out “Young Farmers Conference” that draws hundreds of new-to-farming folks and gives them a chance to hear inspiring speakers, learn hands-on methods, exchange ideas, make new friends, envision policy changes, break bread together and generally suck the marrow out of their 48 hours at the Center. The conference was held last week, and Henry Sweets, a 29-year-old gardener and freelance writer from the Ohio River Valley, attended. He spent the past summer as a field vegetable apprentice at Stone Barns, and is currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio while he plots (pun intended) his return to New York. While we’d like to note that unlike Henry we love vegetables just as much as bacon, we present Henry’s report from the literal fields.
At this year’s conference an enormous amount of knowledge and inspiration is changing hands, and a few elder luminaries are here to affirm the young farmers’ choice to be good food producers. Attendees are relishing the meaning and purpose that the farming lifestyle lends them as much as they are tasting its fruits (the conference is catered by Blue Hill). One of the most important things young farmers get out of the conference is a clear view of the support systems that will help them stick with agriculture until they become old farmers so they don’t have to revert to back-up plans in other career paths.
In the couple days I spent at Stone Barns I’ve gathered some serious knowledge to apply for next year’s growing season, but the connections I’ve made with presenters (whose work supports young farmers) have probably been the most inspiring. I met a lawyer who helps young farmers find land, a landscape architect who designs young farmers into hundred-year landscape plans, and an anthropologist who studies the young farmer culture as its developing in the United States, to name a few.
I’m still figuring out if I’m going to stay a farmer into my old age, or become a part of the food economy that supports farmers. I have a feeling once I digest everything I’ve learned in the last couple days, I’ll have a better view of my next step.
For example, as a vegetable apprentice at Stone Barns this summer I instigated a friendly rivalry between the garden and livestock apprentices. We told them they smelled like manure and diesel, while we smelled like ourselves and the earth. Also, our wards didn’t squeal or get hungry or sneak out of the garden in the middle of the night. But despite my love for the veggie lifestyle, and all joking aside, I have been seriously thinking that I need to add animals to my agricultural repertoire.
At the Young Farmer’s Conference at Stone Barns, Michael Grady Robertson gave a talk entitled “A Bachelor Farmer’s First Year,” in which he discussed the pros and cons of the different agricultural products he produced in his first year owning Robertson’s Farms.
Robertson’s farm is a couple hours drive north of New York, on the Hudson. He said that even with a potential consumer base of over 18 million people, he felt the market for vegetables in the greater New York area, as far as he can access it, may be saturated. He said it required too much time and risk to forge the type of business relationships he would need to make his vegetable operation profitable.
He said he wants to stick with what he knows he can sell, which is meat. Next year he will reduce his veggie operation to support only his roadside farm stand. He will also increase the number of pigs and chickens he raises, and add sheep.
I am definitely still interested in growing veggies, especially hard-to-find crops like parsnips. But since I’d rather eat bacon than any vegetable, and I’m pretty sure I can make more money from it, it’s probably time I learn how to make it too.