By Michael Kransz
On average, Michigan’s farmers are 56 years old, according to the state Farm Bureau. But an interest in local and organic food might yield a younger, fresher crop of farmers.
“It has a lot to do with people being awakened to the issue that the food system is broken and there are a lot of opportunities to fix it and also make a living,” said Lindsey Scalera, the Canton-based co-chair of the Michigan Young Farmer Coalition. “It’s tough. People’s farms do fail. They might not always know how to do a contract. There’s a lot of learning.”
That learning curve was the impetus behind the coalition’s formation, Scalera said. The group is a platform for young farmers to talk with one another, share advice and go in on purchases together.
The amount of questions about establishing a farm and best practices was also the reason Jim Isleib, the Upper Peninsula’s crop production educator for Michigan State University Extension, began a webinar series for beginning farmers in 2012.
What started with three courses and nearly 35 viewers in four years turned into 20 courses and nearly 200 people signing up, Isleib said.
One trend among these potential and beginning farmers is an interest in alternative farming.
“Most of the people who have been involved in our webinar series are interested in organic and natural production,” Isleib said. “They’re thinking about small farms for local consumption.”
Over the past several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been providing more grants to beginning farmers, Scalera said. They are defined as people who haven’t operated a farm for more than 10 consecutive years.
Isleib said he’s seen the impact of these grants across the U.P. in a growing number of hoophouses, which are tunnel-like structures that trap the sun’s warmth and extend the growing season.
Kable Thurlow, a Gladwin-based MSU Extension educator and grazing and foraging livestock expert, said many beginning farmers in Gladwin County and elsewhere reach out for tips.
Thurlow said an increase of people, retirees and otherwise, are moving to the country and taking up farming.
“People want to know where their food comes from; they want to have that connection with it. People like to hear the story,” he said.
One story Thurlow recalled was a Gladwin County woman who moved back to her parents’ land to raise grass-finished beef.
Scalera said smaller-scale and organic farms benefit local communities.
“When you’re at the farmers market table and you talk to those people about the food, there’s a personal connection to the consumer that you most often don’t get in a grocery store,” she said.
With many farmers within 10 years of retirement, getting people ages 18 to 35 interested in working the land plays a role in Michigan’s agricultural future, said Alexandria Schnabelrauch, a manager with the Farm Bureau Young Farmer program.
“If we don’t have new, trained, passionate people to take the reins when these older folks are retiring, we’re going to have a problem,” Schnabelrauch said.
And young, passionate people in their 20s and 30s producing on smaller-scales is what Isleib said he’s seeing.
“It’d take a lot of them to add up to one dairy farm, but they make a big impact in communities,” he said.