Farming as a calling: New wave of young entrepreneurs takes up the profession
Nov./Dec. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee, Matt Salvo and Paolo Vescia
Young farmers are making local impacts with their ventures.
Childhood friends Andrew Meyers and Logan Egan didn’t grow up in agriculture but are now operating a 10-acre organic vegetable farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
They were plotting to save the world.
That's how Andrew Meyers and Logan Egan first came to the idea of a career in farming. They were college freshmen at the time, pondering their future and ways to further humanity.
Because they've always been interested in community and the environment, they said working the land and growing food to feed the world seemed like a good way to link the two. Even though their discussion was purely philosophical and their plan strictly theoretical, Meyers said the idea also made sense—and it stuck.
"I felt it was a calling to give back to our community, to make a difference where we live," he said. "I didn't really give myself any other options once I figured that out early on."
Today, the two childhood friends are business partners in a 10-acre organic vegetable farm in Nevada County that they started about three years ago. The farm makes its income mainly from its community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program, in which their 96 members subscribe to shares of the farm by pre-paying for 20 weeks of produce. The duo also sells their goods at six farmers markets and to a local food co-op.
Meyers and Egan represent a segment of young farmers who didn't necessarily grow up farming but are choosing to do it now—and forging their own way.
For years, the agricultural community has struggled with the aging population of its farmers and the growing number of its sons and daughters leaving the family farm for other jobs. Now, a new wave of entrepreneurial college graduates is taking up the profession—and finding it rewarding and meaningful.
Unlike many farmers who grew up with their hands in the dirt, primed to take over the family farm, Meyers and Egan didn't exactly take a clear-cut path to farming. Meyers studied Spanish literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, while Egan got his degree in earth systems at Stanford University. They not only lacked the background and experience in farming; they also had zero capital to start their venture.
But they say getting into farming is not an impossible dream, even though with high land values and the financial investment needed, the prospect often seems out of reach for many young people.
"We're leasing this, and the lease is very expensive," said Egan, referring to the Penn Valley property they are farming, which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. "In general, farmers don't make enough money to buy land. They either inherit it or marry into it. Or lease it. We'd rather own land."
Finding the right land, however, is not always feasible, he said, especially in the foothills, where there aren't too many farms and what's available may not be suitable for growing crops.
Being new to farming, Meyers and Egan said they wanted to stay within the community where they grew up because they know they can get local support for what they're doing. There is also a demand for local produce because of the lack of farms in the area.
Glenn County rancher Shannon Douglass delivers a package of beef to one of her customers, Bonnie Willis of Orland.
Shannon and Kelly Douglass didn't inherit an already-established family farm either, but they run a small-scale cattle operation in Glenn County. They say they would love to someday own a ranch that is large enough to run all their cattle together. For now, they lease seven separate properties in the Orland area, most of them on short-term leases with different landowners.
Trying to manage their cattle in all those different locations can be tough, especially because they both also hold full-time, off-farm jobs. Kelly works for a local cattle company, while Shannon coordinates a pest control advisors' outreach program.
"I guess we're more of a night-and-weekend farmer," said Kelly Douglass.
Unlike Meyers and Egan, Kelly actually grew up on a dairy that is no longer in business. Shannon didn't come from a farming background at all but grew to love agriculture through 4-H and FFA.
Kelly Douglass describes himself and his wife Shannon as “night-and-weekend” farmers who are trying to balance their ranching business with their full-time, off-farm jobs.
They met in college—at California State University, Chico. At that time, Kelly had already started raising and selling Holstein heifers.
"I started with five (heifers) at a time," he said. "It was all I could afford. And it just kept going."
By the time they were married, the Douglasses had made enough money selling dairy heifers, and eventually feeder cattle, to buy their own beef cows to start their business.
"That's really how we've been able to do it without any financing," Shannon said. "You have to start small and build, because it's not easy to find a bank that will take a risk on you."
Dominic and Megan Judge with their daughter Autumn on their ranch in San Luis Obispo County. To help support the farm, the couple grows hay on a part of their property, as well as boards horses.
For Megan and Dominic Judge, who own about 80 acres of farmland in San Luis Obispo County, having land to farm is a good start, but making it a self-sustaining working farm is not so easy.
They both grew up in the city—Megan in the greater Los Angeles area and Dominic in the San Francisco Bay Area—and ended up at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where Megan studied agribusiness and Dominic majored in construction management. Despite their urban beginnings, they were drawn to the rural lifestyle and wanted to raise a family on a ranch.
The two were able to purchase their current property because Megan's grandfather had left her some money after he died, so they used that money toward a down payment on the farm and financed the rest.
"There we were, two 29-year-olds at the time, needing to borrow $600,000," Megan said. "The value of the land was there, but (the bank) had to put faith in us that we knew what we were doing."
With the 80 acres, they decided it was just practical to farm it so that the land could help pay for itself.
"I guess that's how I fell into farming," Dominic said.
Like the Douglasses, Megan and Dominic both work full-time jobs to support the farm. He owns a construction company and Megan works for a seed company.
They farm only a portion of their land—about 25 acres of organic forage hay using dryland-farming methods, which rely solely on rainfall for irrigation. They lease another 10 acres to a farmer who grows produce for a CSA program. Megan, who coaches Cal Poly's polo team, also boards 40 to 45 horses on the property. All these activities help pay for the farm, they say.
Shannon and Kelly Douglass say their goal is to become full-time ranchers.
The Judges say they would like to farm more acres, maybe put in a vineyard, an orchard or a seed crop, but the property currently lacks the water to support further expansion.
"If I had the money, I could make it happen next week," said Dominic. "I could dig a bunch of wells and get the water. I could put the property up and get a big credit line, but I don't want to get to that point where if a crop goes bad, we lose the place."
Like many beginning farmers who have small-scale operations, the Douglasses said they knew they needed to develop a niche market to grow their business. After considering several avenues—attending farmers markets, going organic and raising grass-fed beef—they decided to market their grain-fed beef directly to customers.
Andrew Meyers and Logan Egan are farming full-time and say they want to inspire other young people to go into agriculture.
Nearly three years into their venture (www.douglassranch.com), they now sell to customers from Chico to Sacramento to the Bay Area. And because they make all the deliveries themselves, it allows their customers to meet them and know where their food comes from.
"I feel it's a great area where I can add some value, because I like talking to people and I like visiting people and telling them what we're doing," Shannon said.
Megan Judge says her daughter Autumn is "already a farm girl" who enjoys being outdoors and feeding the horses.
Meyers and Egan, who are farming full-time, say they would like to expand their business to become more productive and profitable, but not necessarily increase the size of their farm too much.
"Obviously because of our economic systems, it's difficult to make a living on small acreage," Meyers said. "However,
I feel direct marketing gives you the best shot at it."
Meyers said he and Egan would also like to inspire other young people to consider farming as a career and "take up the torch with us." They're avid bloggers and have been using their website (www.fourfrogfarm.com), as well as social media, to write about their farm and share their views about farming.
"There's a lot of room for a lot of farmers in the marketplace," said Meyers. "I feel like we have to make farming cool and glamorous and enjoyable. It's a great job, and if we can effectively communicate that, those are all bonuses."
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.