New crop of farmers takes to the fields
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PERKASIE, Pa. -- Tom Murtha studied English at Penn. Tricia Borneman majored in journalism at Shippensburg University.
Like most college graduates, they finished school with a good idea of where they wanted their career paths to lead. But unlike most, it was a dirt path.
So on a recent summer day, instead of working in an air-conditioned office building 40 miles away in Philadelphia, the pair were tending to kale, collard greens and broccoli in Bucks County.
"It's been so dry, we're really hoping for rain soon," said Ms. Borneman, squinting in the hot afternoon sun under a straw hat, weeding impossibly straight green rows with a long-handled stirrup hoe.
Several yards away, Mr. Murtha tilled new rows for more plantings on a temperamental red tractor. And before dusk, there would be drip tape to unroll for irrigating the soil, and yellow squash to harvest in an adjacent plot.
"We went to college, we were on track to have some sort of professional careers, but it just didn't resonate," Mr. Murtha said. "The thing about farming is it engages you on all levels, which doesn't happen with a lot of jobs."
Mr. Murtha, 34, and Ms. Borneman, 32, are among a new crop of farmers sprouting up around the country who weren't raised on farms, have college degrees, and in some cases have left other careers behind.
"Agriculture has been so subsidized, corporatized and globalized," Mr. Murtha said. "There's definitely an interest and desire for younger folks to get involved in agriculture."
Mr. Murtha and Ms. Borneman have been farming together for eight years, the last two at the 70-acre Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie. Parents of a 2-year-old daughter, they did stints in Oregon and New Jersey before returning to Pennsylvania, where they do farmers markets and operate a community-supported agriculture program in which local families do four hours of farm work during the growing season and receive regular shares of produce from spring through fall.
"Beyond the family aspect, it's enjoyable because it so all-encompassing: the office work, the selling, the planting, the mechanical aspects," Ms. Borneman said. "Even when it's hot and I'm working hard, I can still hear the birds."
A walk through Blooming Glen also reveals plots of fragrant basil, feathery dill astride neat rows of beets peeking above the dirt, pumpkins and summer squash lying nearby. Bees work pollinating tomato plants in small greenhouses across from lettuce planted in alternating lines of red and green.
The farm eschews synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and is seeking certification as organic. They are among many smaller-scale farmers who say they're responding to consumers, who increasingly are demanding food that's organic, locally grown, or both.
Recent food scares -- from last year's nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to California spinach to tainted Chinese imports -- are raising public concerns about industrialized megafarms and the globalized food trade. Other issues include pollution from fuel needed to ship food long distances, genetically modified foods and bug-killing chemicals.
"It's amazing to me how, over the last four or five years, food issues have creeped into the general psyche," Mr. Murtha said. "There's kind of been a food awareness that's risen up, and that rise of consciousness is the tide we're riding."
Ben Wenk didn't work on his family's century-old 350-acre fruit farm in Aspers, Adams County, during high school, and mulled a music education degree.
"But when I stopped to think about it, I realized that music was more of a hobby, and farming was what I enjoyed the most and really wanted to do," he said. "I saw an opportunity to expand the business in a new direction."
Mr. Wenk, 23, became the seventh generation to work Three Springs Fruit Farm after graduating from Penn State last fall with a degree in agroecology, or the science of sustainable farming. He added a half-acre plot for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and melons that he brings to Philadelphia farmers markets.
He created a MySpace page for the farm, where weather conditions are posted and customers post thank-yous. He said the work requires business savvy and creative thinking to control costs and optimize sales, and Mr. Wenk is thinking about ways to expand.
"If I wanted to make a small fortune and retire at 55, I wouldn't have gone into agriculture. But I look at these beautiful rolling hills and think, this is my office," he said.
Such enthusiasm runs counter to the notion of farming as a dying vocation of dreary, thankless work.
"People always say, 'Oh, farming is a hard life,'" said Dawn Buzby of A.T. Buzby Farm, a 55-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Woodstown, N.J. "Sure there are hard parts -- the weather, the hours -- but doesn't every job have hard parts? Overall, it's a very satisfying, very rewarding career."
Ms. Buzby, who with her husband has been farming for 20 years, welcomes the fresh crop of people entering the farming field -- including her 25-year-old son, a college graduate with an engineering degree who returned to farm full time.
"The new blood entering farming is a great trend that has really energized longtime farmers," she said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm out there."
Still, huge hurdles exist, from the cost of land to the threat of suburban sprawl.
U.S. Agriculture Department data paint a grim picture, showing that the average age of U.S. farmers has been increasing for decades and is currently 55 to 56, while the overall percentage of young farmers continues to fall.
People within the movement, however, say the numbers can be misleading.
"Are there young people who are going into farming? Yes, more and more," said Dennis Hall of the Center for Farm Transitions, a Pennsylvania Agriculture Department office providing technical assistance to new and established farmers. He said the landscape started to change about 3 1/2 years ago.
Nearly one-fourth of people who currently contact the center for information don't have farming backgrounds, Hall said. They range from college students to people leaving established careers, he said.
"What I will say about a lot of the young folks is that they're more entrepreneurial, more agile and more intuitive," he said.
John Baker, president of the National Farm Transition Network, said the trend is happening around the country including his home state of Iowa. The group connects aspiring farmers with retiring farmers who don't have family members to pass along the business.
"There's a confluence of a lot of things that's driving this," said Mr. Baker, who also serves as administrator of the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State University. "People are aware of things like carbon footprints and energy use, they're being re-educated about food, about local farms, about health issues."
First Published August 24, 2007 11:20 pm