Growing Young Farmers

New farmers connect with their community By Erin Adams

Early Girl tomatoes. New potatoes. Baby lettuce. There's a plethora of terms for crops currently making their field debuts, but what do you call the young people taking on the farming scene in the Middle Tennessee area'

Forget the clichéd 'spring chickens.' If anything, these newcomers share an eagerness to break out from the 9 to 5 office routine. They are resourceful and inventive while facing the many challenges of life on the farm, while also building a strong local food community.

According to the 2007 US Census of Agriculture, the average age of U.S. farm operators is 57. However, the desires and commitments of several local young farmers are bucking the aging trend. Take 24-year old Stephanie Roberts and Bret Morris, 25. They knew when they met in 2003 that they might just end up on a farm. And they did.

These new farmers at Bramble Hill Farm near Goodlettsville moved to Nashville in 2007, armed with Roberts' degree in environmental planning and Morris' biology background. Roberts glows when she describes her and Morris' initiation into farming, interning at Hill and Hollow Farm in Edmonton, Ky. in the spring of 2007.

'I was only there for two weeks, but I learned so much - how to prepare the beds, the right way to compost, and how to seed plants,' explains Roberts. 'Just seeing people so happy, to be as self-sustaining as possible, was amazing to myself and Bret. Neither of us wanted to work in offices all day. We want to be working with our hands outdoors. It just made sense with the ideals we share.'

Andre Barbour, 31, knows that same feeling. A fourth-generation farmer just across the Northern Tennessee border in Canmer, Ky., Barbour manages the 150-acre family farm, which includes three acres of vegetables, grazing room for pigs, 80 head of beef and dairy cattle, and tobacco, corn and hay fields.

'My brothers and sisters aren't interested in farming, so I figured if no one else was going to, I would,' says Barbour. 'I'm not really the clock in/clock out type and I like being my own boss. There's a lot of freedom in farming.'

The desire to connect to the land also inspired Matthew and Allison Neal of Arugula's Star of Neal Family Farms, L.P. The couple's shared enthusiasm for sustainable practices was a uniting factor in their relationship - they were married on an organic farm in Italy in April 2007.

Formerly gardeners growing for their own kitchen, the Neals groomed their 155-acres, located nine miles south of Leipers Fork, to sell at market in 2007. Now they sell at farmers markets and restaurants throughout the region. Their crops include a wide variety of certified organic vegetables, melons, specialty greens, flowers, and herbs.

An ardent advocate for healthy and innovative food, 28-year old Allison Neal grew up on a farm in East Tennessee. She worked as a chef under Restaurant Zola's Deb Paquette and prepared organic meals as a personal cook to entrepreneur R.S. Lipman before she decided to take her passion in a more hands-on direction.

'There's so much out there to taste and enjoy!,' Neal exclaims. 'It's very important to eat really great food that's appropriate for your health and has less of a negative impact on the environment. When I started out, I wanted to do something better for the community and the world.'

Despite their abundance of enthusiasm and idealism, these farmers have realized it's taken more than just a positive attitude to turn a hobby into a business.

After joining the Nashville Urban Harvest (NUH) community garden, Roberts and Morris wanted to start a farm but couldn't secure affordable land. When fellow NUH members Nancy and Tony VanWinkle mentioned they would be leaving their Bramble Hill farm in northern Davidson County, Roberts and Morris seized the opportunity and leased five acres from the VanWinkles in July 2008.

Today, Bramble Hill Farm is cultivating a seed list that includes over 90 vegetables, herbs and flowers. Roberts and Morris faced several challenges during their first year, including an infestation of squash bugs to the much larger obstacle of earning far less on a farm than they might in an office job.

'Brett works full-time as a biology teacher and I'm part-time at a preschool, and we'd ideally like to farm full-time, but we can't,' says Roberts. 'It isn't possible for us to survive on $20,000 a year.'

Barbour agrees to the financial challenges. 'It's been the hardest thing to adjust too,' he says with concern. 'Don't think you're gonna get rich off of farming. Fuel prices have gone up and corn feed is more expensive, while my prices have stayed the same.'

Often selling at the Nashville and Hart County, Ky. farmers markets, Barbour relies on relatives, friends and colleagues to help out with planting and harvesting. He also attends workshops when he can on anything from greenhouse production and soil preparation to proper food safety and sanitation procedures through his local University extension office.

'I've learned from others that to sell at the markets you have to be a people-person and be fairly aggressive and know your products,' says Barbour. As a farmer, he explains, 'You've also got to keep up to date on your technology and do as much research as possible.' Similarly, the young Arugula's Star farmers know farming is not 'an easy job.'

Says Allison Neal, 'Every day another thing comes along that's difficult. Farming becomes your life. You don't have the time and energy for anything else. You have to love it to want to do it.'

Neal admits that the current economic downturn placed pressure on her to reconsider future goals for her farm. 'My mom thought we shouldn't continue our CSA program this year because of the state of things, but I wasn't worried about it. You get more for your money with a CSA, and everyone has to eat, right''

These new (young) farmers hope their success encourages others to become farmers, as well as to increase consumer interest in learning where the food on their plate grows. Neal considers a core of local experienced farmers invaluable to young farmers like her. She cites Eaton's Creek Organics' owner Tana Comer, a mentor since 2005, as an example.

'She's someone I look up to, a farmer who has great pride in what she does,' says Neal. 'I have a great rapport with Tana. I can always ask her questions.'

Likewise, Roberts and
Morris appreciate the good
fortune of living near neigh-
boring Hungry Gnome
Farm, operated by Alicia
Batson and Bert Hartman.
'Alicia gives great advice,
and there's a huge amount of
resources in the Nashville Urban Harvest, where we talk to other farmers a couple times a week,' says Roberts. 'It's a community that we just sort of jumped into, and what else is there if there's no community''

As the trend of strengthening farmer-consumer relationships grows, more young farmers are looking at Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs as an alternative to selling at markets or to stores and restaurants.

In May, the young farmers at Bramble Hill Farm will also offer a CSA, with in-town deliveries each Wednesday at The Green Wagon in West Nashville and Saturday pickups at their farm.

The Neals of Arugula's Star sold 40 CSA shares last season while also selling to Whole Foods, The Turnip Truck Market and the Franklin Farmer's Market. This year, they are dropping both their retail and farmers market sales and selling exclusively through a partnership with Sean Siple's Farm to Chef program and their CSA program.

Last year the Neals offered a peck size( 1/2 of a 1/2 bushel) and a 1/2 bushel plan, while this year, they are only offering 1/2 bushel and bushel plans. With 23 members signed up as of mid-March this year, the Neals aim to sell 60 CSA shares.

'People have a longing to know us as farmers and they agree with our practices,' says Neal. 'Families can show their children where food comes from. It's another form of advocacy.'

For Barbour, connecting with vendors and consumers is an essential requirement for continued success.

'I'm doing all I can to e-mail my vendors and stay in contact, because now is the time when people are really paying attention to local produce, not the stuff in the grocery stores. I want to establish personal relationships with my vendors and the people who buy my food.'

Erin Adams is a Nashville-based writer. Contact her at

Left: Stephanie Roberts and
Bret Morris at Bramble Hill
Farm near Goodlettesville, TN.
Right: Matthew and Allison Neal
of Arugula's Star of Neal Family
Farms, bundle kale at their
Lieper's Fork farm.