Coming back to the farm

For this project, I researched and reported on a growing trend of millennials coming back to family farms or starting their own.

John Eberly gets up 6:30 a.m. every day to work on his family’s farm. He is out in the fields until about 7 p.m. every night. He is out there all night, too, during harvest season.

He is 21. He is into soil science. He is a third-generation farmer and a part of a growing trend of millennials coming back to the farm.

“Tradition I think has a lot to do with (why I got into farming),” Eberly said. “For one, it’s something that my father and my grandpa did, so I grew up (farming) so I definitely enjoy the work. You know, it’s not always a good living but it’s a good lifestyle.”

Millennials, or Generation Y, are typically categorized as those born between the 1980s and 2000s. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 3 million farmers in the country. There were about 110,000 farmers between the age of 25 and 34 in 2012. The average age, according to 2012 census data, is 56.3.

Eberley said he is looking to bring a new perspective to the farming industry.

“I want to keep an open mind,” Eberly said. “I respect my dad, obviously, who has been in this business for his whole life and he’s in his 60s now and I’m 21 — so as far as experience and being around to see things, I haven’t done a lot of that. But having the ability to go to college and learn from other scientists and current methods and consult with other peers that were from the agricultural community, … hopefully I’ll bring methods to the farm that are more efficient.”

Eberly works at Eberly Farms LTD in Wooster, Ohio. His family farm has a little over 600 acres and grows corn and soybeans as well as raises and milks dairy cows.

He is the first in his family to go to college as well. He attended Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute and studied crop science. He said his education was more affordable due to local business offering scholarships in his rural community.

“My grandpa did not complete high school,” Eberly said. “He left in the eighth grade to go home and help on the farm. My dad, … he graduated high school but he did not go on. He went straight to the farm. So it was kind of neat that I got to go to college and see what kind of advancements have come out since (my grandpa and dad have) always done it their way.”

Ben Miller is another millennial who is studying agriculture in college. He is a senior studying animal science at Ohio State University and is passionate about dairy cattle. He said he would be interested in working for a feed company as a consultant.

“I’ve grown up around agriculture a lot,” Miller said. “I didn’t actually grow up on a farm but I’ve been around them. I live in a fairly rural area and my dad actually runs Ohio State’s research farm in Wooster.”

Miller splits his time between his studies and working on a farm in Perrysville, halfway between Columbus and Akron. At the dairy farm, he has started using computer programs to track feed intake and the processes in how it is prepared.

“I think millennials are a lot more open to new technology and new ideas than say some of the older generations of farmers are because that’s just how farmers are sometimes,” Miller said. “They’re notoriously stubborn.”

After the millennial generation is Generation Z. Working with kids who toe the line between generations is Sabrina Stadler. Stadler is a science and agriculture teacher at Athens High School in Athens, Ohio, and the leader of that school’s FFA program.

Known historically as ‘Future Farmers of America,’ is now called only by the acronym as its program extend beyond preparing teens to work in production agriculture, according to organizations website. FFA also offers scholarship, grants and events that connects chapters on a national level.

Stadler grew up on a hobby farm and went to Athens High School, which didn’t have an FFA chapter during her high school years. As a teacher, she started the program in 2004.

“We are a different kind of school district for (agriculture) students, just because we have a lot of urban students or students who don’t come from farms,” Stadler said. There are about 90 students that participate in the program.

Stadler said most of her students don’t know what FFA is going into the program but they leave with an understanding of where their food comes from. Few of the FFA members come from farm families and many non-farm students aspire to enter the field in some way.

“They’re first-generation farmers,” Stadler said. “They weren’t raised on the farm and so what’s kind of neat about that is it’s not, ‘This is the way it has been done.’”

Athens is filled with niche farms and business. The Athens Farmers Market lists about 80 vendors as part of their weekly markets.

“(The students) a lot more open to ideas,” Stadler said. What’s really cool about our area is there are so many niche farmers which is so different than a lot of other places.”

The FFA’s chapter historian, 15-year Emmy Beck-Aden, lives in the city of Athens and has been in 4-H since she was 8 and shows dogs.

“It’s sort of an interesting experience to learn about farming even when you don’t live on a farm,” Beck-Aden, who lives in the city of Athens, said. “So it’s cool to have that perspective.”

Paisley Russell, 16, is a more traditional FFA member. Her family owns Sweat Hollow Holsteins, a dairy farm, and she shows pigs, beef cattle, and dairy cattle at local fairs. She is not looking to continue farming, however, and is considering becoming a veterinarian.

“See, I don’t think I want to go into anything agricultural just because I’ve grown up on a farm my whole life so I’m just kind of over it,” Russell said.

Eric Walker also isn’t interested in the farm life. He’s a sophomore studying journalism at Ohio University — a long way from his family’s market farm, Eatwell Farm, in Davis, California. They sell boxes of produce and eggs directly to customers in the Davis area and also have a stand at San Francisco’s acclaimed Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The family participates at the farmer’s market in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

1
Eric Walker, right, and his brother, Andrew, harvest lavender at an event hosted on his family’s farm in Dixon, California. They harvest about 8,500 bunches in about 12 hours. (Provided by Eric Walker)
2
Eric Walker, right, and his brother sell eggs at the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. (Provided by Eric Walker)

Walker decided to study journalism in college, and he said the work reminds him of talking to customers and farmers at home. Eventually, he knows that he is going to be inheriting his family’s farm. Even then, however, he doesn’t picture himself in a typical farming position.

“Me and my brother will be in charge but someone else will actually be the farmer,” Walker said.

Walker added that his knowledge and experience working on the farm would help him in the future with the farm.

Even if someone wanted to start a farm, there’s an extremely high cost to enter the market. According to LandWatch, simply buying a farm in Athens, Ohio, can cost anywhere from $4,000 to more than $300,000 depending on size and land type. According to a study from the University of Illinois, it cost $68 to fertilize one acre of land in 2012.

Although it might be a hard business to get started, Walkers said even the millennials who appreciate the fruits of farmer’s labor are becoming more interested in the business.

“There’s a lot of costs upfront that it’s hard to start,” Walker said. “I think a large portion of the millennial generation does care about where their food comes from … and if they are given the choice, they will choose (products from farmers that care).”

Eberly, of Eberly Farms LTD, is optimistic about the upcoming farming generation.

“I think this generation is going to make a huge difference,” Eberly said. “I think we’re going to bring forward a lot of advances because of all of the modern technology and everything that’s going on right now and the greater efficiency of food production and I guess the ability to learn more and study our past. I definitely think we’re going to make a large impact. (We’ll) definitely have better quality food, make it more affordable for the world and hopefully we can feed the world when everything is said and done.”

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