Starving Artist, Meet Starving Farmer

Unlike the stereotypical millennial, Allie Comet, 27, knows what she wants to be when she grows up: a farmer. Raised in Brooklyn, she’s spent her post-college years far from the city, hustling a series of farm apprenticeships and assistant farm manager jobs, making little and saving less. Then, this fall, she hurt her back — a rude wakeup call.

Late December found her at the environmental organization Hazon’s annual food conference, wondering how long she wants to work 75 hours a week while still worrying about money and health insurance.

Jewish kids just out of college have long labored lovingly as writers, musicians and filmmakers. Now they’ve added farmer to the list of sporadic, romantic jobs to which expensively educated folks in their 20s are attracted. Starving artist, meet starving farmer.

“I know that it’s work that I love,” said Comet, who got turned onto farming as a student at Pomona College in California, when she realized how much she enjoyed taking tender care of plants.

“I have to figure out how to make it work for the rest of my life,” she said.

The question of whether the farming life is viable came up often at the conference, which drew about 150 assorted foodies — farmers, butchers, beekeepers, chefs, activists, and ecologically-minded rabbis and teachers — to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in western Connecticut, part of Hazon since the organizations merged in 2013.

There, over four chilly days — the center nestled amid the northern Berkshire mountains was designed to be a summer camp — they observed demonstrations, from the making of beeswax salve to the ritual slaughter of a chicken; watched films; engaged in panel discussions and, at the New Year’s Eve party, divided themselves up for dancing into plants and pollinators.

But the next morning, the assembled returned to reality when they trooped to the Red Yurt for a session entitled “Growing Up To Be Farmers,” inspired by a New York Times op-ed published in August entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers” that revealed the “dirty secret” of the food movement: “The much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.”

Janna Siller, Hazon’s field manager and a teacher in Adamah, its farm and fellowship program, moderated the session because she’s gone through it, and figured out how to make farming work for her.

“Sure, there’s a lot of risks, but there’s risks to living a suburban life, too,” said Siller, 32, who was raised in suburban Maryland.

“Your soul might not be where you want it to be.”

She felt the article was a bit pessimistic, but also told some important truths about the perils of the farming path.

“For me, being upper middle class is not a goal and it’s never been,” she said. “But I’ve spoken to parents of friends who are upset when their kids are interested in this because it’s not a path to being upper middle class. It’s just not.”

Siller’s own parents, she said, never imagined this life for her, but support her in it. Comet’s parents do, too. “They want me to be happy and they trust me,” Comet said. “They do worry that it will be hard.”

Her parents are not alone in their concern. It’s not just Jews who think farmer is the new DJ.

The National Young Farmers Coalition, founded in 2010 to help small farmers support each other and advocate for themselves, has 1,000 dues-paying members and a mailing list of 50,000, said Lindsey Shute, a farmer who co-founded the group in 2010 with her husband. Since then, twenty-four local chapters of 50 to 200 members have sprouted around the country.

“Young people are looking to start a farm in the way they might have looked at the nonprofit sector 10, 15 years ago,” said Shute. “They can make a difference every day.”

That’s what attracts Angie Murdukhayeva to farming, which she sees as a way to “use her skills and talents to help create a world that I want to live in.”

Born in Russia, she grew up in Queens, attended NYU and was working at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., when she decided to quit to do Adamah’s fall fellowship. Now she’s interviewing for farming jobs.

“I was living out what I imagined being 25 years old should look like, but I had a lot bigger questions than answers and bigger dreams than having a salary and a place to live,” she said.

Adamah is a leadership program that draws its inspiration and metaphors from the soil, the seasons and Jewish texts about same, not a crash course for farmers.

Yet at the end of every three-month fellowship, at least a few of the 15-member cohort, have gone on to pursue farming professionally despite the challenges, said Shamu Sadeh, who co-founded Adamah in 2003, back before the farm-to-table craze made farming a desirable career for middle-class city kids.

For folks who aren’t to the farm born, land and the capital to work it have always been hard to come by, said Leon Vehaba, 36, who attended the Hazon conference and manages the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, a nonprofit that operates a member-supported farm and works to improve access to local food. On the East Coast, land prices are especially high because farmers are competing with housing developers.

And once the individual farmer has a lease, or some land, he or she still has a tough row to hoe finding the consumer who’s willing to pay a premium for organic food and getting the food to that person.

“Even though so much has changed in the last 20 years in the food movement, with more people buying locally and organically, there’s only a certain amount that people are going to pay for food,” said Comet, who is contemplating agriculture-related graduate programs but worries they would be “selling out.”

So far, small farmers have managed distribution mainly by selling at urban greenmarkets or by creating community-supported agriculture mechanisms through which they sell shares of their harvest in advance.

And now another grassroots way of organic farmers grow and meet demand has evolved: the food hub. The Hazon conference featured one of those, too; Pound Ridge Organics is the creation of Donna Simons, who started out buying from local farms for a few friends in Westchester and now does so for about 400 members, mostly families, but also several commercial accounts. She doesn’t lose money, she said, but she doesn’t make any, either.

Early each week she sends out a list of what her farms have available; by Tuesday everyone has their orders in; Wednesday or Thursday she picks up the goods and either distributes them from a central location or delivers to the commercial clients.

“Everything happened organically,” Simons said. “This took on a life of its own. Each time I see a problem I seek a solution; each time I see a shortage, I seek a supply. I didn’t know it would go this far, and I’m determined to keep it going.”

Simons swears there’s no lack of demand, and believes more and more people will come to understand the true value of safe, local food and pay the higher prices set by small organic farms for their products.

Murdukhayeva is just starting out, but she knows farming might not be easy, so she’s trying to stay flexible about her goals.

“For every year to come, I want to grow my own food,” she said, “whether that means a community garden of my own, or to manage a farm, or to work as a crew member, or own my own farm. I want produce from my own hands.”

About Helen Chernikoff

I'm news editor and reporter.

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