A Call to Grow

By Allison Migun, Spring 2015

We are at an exciting time right now: by seeking out local food at markets or buying food directly from farmers, more people are choosing to provide themselves and their families the freshest foods available. Nationally, the total sales of farm goods direct to consumers increased 8.1% between 2007 and 2012.*  Regionally, the demand for local food and access to these products are also on the rise. In Chattanooga, both producers and consumers have myriad options for selling and buying fresh, locally grown food: a farmers market nearly every day of the week, the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, and the new Harvested Here Food Hub. However, unless more people take up the challenge to grow the food, the demand is eventually going to outrun the supply.

The 2012 USDA Agricultural Census found that the number of young, beginning principal farmers who reported that farming was their primary occupation increased by 11.3% between 2007-2012. While impressive, that same report found that, In 2012, the number of beginning farmers on their current operation less than 10 years was down 20 percent from 2007. Nearly 172,000 farmers were on their current operation less than 5 years. This suggests that while more people take the step into a life in agriculture, many, for whatever reason, may not be able to keep with it. The challenges ahead can cause many beginning farmers to feel overwhelmed and intimidated but, there are those who, with support from their community and access to resources like land, education, and technical assistance, find success in their new career path.

Bert and Initia Vandermerwe gave up life in Atlanta, Georgia to buy 12 acres of land in Decatur, Tennessee now called Big Sycamore Farm. It did not take long to realize, that among numerous other challenges, starting a farm would require many hours of hard labor. They cut pine trees, dug rocks, worked clay soil, and managed poor drainage all while battling adverse conditions like heat, drought, wind, and rain before finally planting their first small garden.

Four years and many lessons later, Bert and Initia are now growing two acres of non-GMO vegetables and raising chickens and ducks for meat and eggs. They sustain their farm by selling at the Ooltewah and Brainerd Farmers Markets as well as to the Harvested Here Food Hub. Bert and Initia both agree that, though every day brings new challenges, starting a farm is an adventure they do not regret.

For individuals interested in pursuing a life in agriculture, resources exist at every level. Organizations like the Land Trust for Tennessee and the Northeast Georgia Farm / Farmer Match Program can help connect landowners with individuals looking for land on which to get started. The Center for Rural Affairs is another invaluable resource which, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, offers a treasure trove of information on transferring ownership of land, in terms of finding the right opportunity, financing advice, and successful strategies.

Beyond the acquisition of land, learning more about the trade is vital to the success of the beginning farmer. A number of organizations national, regional, and local such as the Chattanooga Sustainable Farmers, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG), the National Young Farmers Coalition, and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) provide networking opportunities for farmers to learn from other farmers with more experience. From attending a workshop to working on someone elses farm, these resources offer wonderful low cost, sometimes even free opportunities for new farmers to learn from folks who have spent time and sweat equity learning how to master the industry.

For technical assistance, beginning farmers can also turn to State Agricultural Agents.  A free resource to all members of the agricultural community, Agricultural Extension provides informational brochures, reports, classes, and on-farm consultations. They answer farmers questions and conduct research that can be used by farmers to improve their growing practices, increase profits, learn about new methods to control food safety, and adopt sustainable growing practices. Patrick Sweatt, Bradley Countys Extension Agent, says he is asked questions that range from, What is this new sunny spot on my corn? to What can I do with this new plot of land I just purchased that has never been farmed on before?

The internet also allows many beginning farmers to search for up-to-date marketing information, find solutions or guidance for common problems they might face, and to network, connect, and learn from other farmers. Forums, blogs, and agricultural websites continue to provide, with their usual caveats, valuable information whenever a problem may arise. 

Is farming for everyone? Certainly not. Even the most enthusiastic dreamers can become quickly disenchanted. Farming is a difficult profession that most people cannot fully understand until they experience tilling what seems like the hundredth row of rocky soil, but there are those few people who, once they give it a shot, cannot let it go. As our community continues to embrace local food, the more opportunity people with a passion for growing that food have to pursue their dream. So, if the idea of being part of the farming community is appealing, the resources are there for you to go out and do it.  The locavore community will be behind you every step of the way.