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Reality Check For Young Farmers: It's An Expensive 'Habit'

You know the scene: It's Saturday morning, and as you stroll to your farmers market, you sample a crisp apple or scoop up a pile of end-of-the-season tomatoes.

As you chat and pay cash for your bag of bounty everything feels right.

You're not alone. More young people are trying their hand at farming, and consumers are buying more local produce.

But take a step behind that cheerful scene at the farmers market, and you'll discover that life isn't always easy.

"We put on that smile when we show up at the farmers market, but [you should] know that we got up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. We're short on sleep," says Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Thistlethwaite is a former farmer, an author, and a policy consultant at The Cornucopia Institute.

And then there's the financial side of the business. "Sadly, I've seen too many people get interested in farming because it seems like a trendy thing, but they don't have the [tenacity] to see it through the long haul," she says.

We sat down with Thistlethwaite for a conversation about what it takes to make it. And it turns out, passion and grit are just a few of the prerequisites. Some of the biggest stumbling blocks are access to land and access to capital: Tractors don't come cheap. And some of the steepest learning curves come when young farmers learn they also need to become competent bookkeepers and marketers.

In her new book, Farms With A Future: Creating and Growing A Sustainable Farm Business, Thistlethwaite paints a picture of what success can look like.

For example, we're introduced to the husband-and wife team behind Shady Grove Ranch in Jefferson, Tex. They are selling pasture-raised meat and eggs.

They've used their engineering know-how (they both have engineering degrees), to cut costs and optimize the systems on their farm. Thistlethwaite describes how they've built a lot by hand, such as a mobile pig watering system they constructed from old pipe and scraps of wood so they can rotate their animals to different parts of the their farm.

"They invest their money wisely like buying high-quality breeding stock rather than shiny, new equipment," Thistlethwaite writes.

We also meet Jamie Collins of Serendipity Organic Farm in Carmel by the Sea, Calif., who originally started farming on the patio of her Los Angeles apartment. And she's found a work-around the high cost of land along the California coast. "She has rented land from wealthy people who have extra land, churches, schools, land trusts, and even California State Parks in order to piece together the acreage she needs" to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables Thistlethwaite tells us.

Those two examples show what it takes: marketing savvy, a think-outside-the-box mentality, accounting skills and attention to detail — as well as the ability to get by on little sleep.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.

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