Growing Farmers: One Meeting at a Time
By Summer Miller
Photography by Alison Bickel
People line each side of the long, narrow brewery. Some stand, some sit, but all lean in close, engaging in a cacophony of conversations about beer, farming, food and hops. William Powers waves at me and begins to weave himself through the torrent of attendees at the Nebraska Hop Growers Association meeting. It’s one of many events he travels to in any given week as part of his efforts to help strengthen the fabric of the local food community.
William is the executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting local food and agriculture systems. The title really means he serves as the event planner, farmer recruiter and communications coordinator for the organization, but perhaps his most important role is working with young or beginning farmers to ensure a viable future for sustainable and organic food production in our state.
Generous with his time and commitment, William works in my interview between a series of back-to-back meetings; this also happens to be one week before the Healthy Farms Conference, one of NSAS’s biggest events of the year. Farmers, consumers, chefs and advocates from across the state come together for a weekend to discuss marketing goods, animal husbandry and sustainable farming. Attendees may even take in a yoga class or two.
For many, such a hectic schedule would seem like a lot, especially with a toddler and an infant at home, but for William, being present and involved is not only part of his job, but also part of his overall philosophy on life. As a young farmer himself and president of the board of directors for the National Young Farmers Coalition, he stresses the importance of building the NSAS in such a way that it includes families at every stage of life.
“Community is a key component of local food and agriculture,” William says as he sets his craft beer to the side and leans forward onto his forearms. “You build a relationship with each craftsperson. If I hand you a business card, I’m networking. If I sit down and have a beer with you, I’m building a relationship. Local is about taking an active role within what is happening. You cannot effect change without being a part of it.”
In the mid-’70s, David Vetter, president of Grain Place Foods, Bob Steffen, who was hired by Father Flanagan in 1943 to oversee the gardens at Boys Town, researcher Dr. Warren Sahs and many other farmers came together for a series of workshops at Boys Town. A group of several organic farmers convened after those workshops, and those meetings led to the eventual founding of the NSAS, where David Vetter along with five additional farmers formed the first board. They founded NSAS to increase communication among farmers and to develop some kind of identity for organic agriculture in the state, according to David. In the decades leading up to the first Healthy Farm Conference in 1977, the agricultural climate in the United States had shifted from small family farms to big industrial farming, initially in post-WWII America and later under the leadership of then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. Earl resigned from his position in 1976, but his lasting legacy was the cultural shift in farming, which lead to a surplus of corn. According to William, an estimated 400 people attended the first Healthy Farms Conference and it remains one of the organization’s most pivotal events.
“The primary function of the NSAS is to serve as a community platform for dialogue around sustainable agriculture. It is for farmers to share skills and knowledge across generations and to build a support system across our state while bridging the gap between producer, chef and consumer. Basically, its greatest function is to create a space for dialogue,” says Ali Clark, NSAS urban agricultural intern.
For William, creating that communal space is especially important for young or beginning farmers like Ali, who, in addition to her role with the NSAS, is entering her third season as a farmer. In 2012 the National Coalition of Young Farmers released a report that identified access to capital and access to land as two key barriers to entry.
According to the preliminary findings in the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of principal farm operators is 58.3 years, an increase from the 2007 report, which continues a 30-year trend of increased farmer age. Today, as the population of farmers continues to age, the NSAS works to close the knowledge gap for new farmers, who in many cases didn’t grow up farming. Out of the 2.1 million principal farm operators in 2012, 6% were under the age of 35.
William estimates that nearly a third of the NSAS’s dues-paying members are considered young or beginning farmers. Continuous outreach through social events such as Young Farmer Nights or discounted rates to the annual Healthy Farms Conference helps increase membership among that group.
“The young farmer gatherings…they turned the year around for me,” says William Boal of 26th Street Farm in Hastings, Nebraska. He and his partner, Hannah Keen, received the Young Farmer of the Year award in February at the NSAS Healthy Farms Conference. “There is nothing better than sharing your experiences over good food, and that’s what those events were all about. Just getting together and bonding with other farmers who are dealing with similar circumstances,” says Boal.
By all accounts, the 26th Street Farm is a young farmer success story. Running a successful growing operation is a notable accomplishment for two people who weren’t raised in farm families. For Boal, his entry into agriculture started with a passion for food, which eventually led him to work on organic farms on both coasts. He met Hannah while working on a farm in Oregon. Eventually, they decided to try it for themselves and started their own operation on part of an acreage owned by Hannah’s parents in Hastings, Nebraska. This year marks the beginning of their third season, and both have generated enough income to forgo the off-season jobs many established farmers can’t survive without. They grew their business from selling 20 community-supported agriculture shares the first year to offering 80 shares, selling to local restaurants and supplying produce to a regional grocery store for the 2014 season.
Boal admits the 26th Street Farm doesn’t face many of the challenges often assigned to beginning farmers such as access to affordable land, health insurance and high start-up costs. He contributes some of that fortune to circumstance and some to learning from past transgressions. In their first year they struggled to keep up with pigs, chickens and vegetables, so they narrowed the scope of the farm to focus primarily on vegetables and eggs. Hannah is covered under her parents’ health insurance policy, and the land they farm is part of her family’s acreage. Boal will soon receive health insurance through the Affordable Care Act to the tune of $80 per month. Hannah and Boal also enjoy a less competitive atmosphere. Farmers who consider Omaha and Lincoln their primary markets have to compete not only with other farmers but also with major grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.Even with this success, Boal says he and Hannah aren’t certain they will remain farmers after their personal trial run of three to five years concludes. There are a lot of ways to make better money without staying up until midnight every Friday night during the growing season, harvesting, washing and packaging vegetables just to wake up at 5am and take them to market.
“Hannah’s only 23. I’m only 26. We both feel happy with what we are doing and satisfied, but it’s a hard career choice. I think one of the things that’s difficult about farming is that in comparison to other careers you don’t make that much money and it can be isolating. I think we could both be really happy as farmers, but the job security of working somewhere else is, well, really nice. I’m not saying I want a corporate job. It’s just that this is a difficult job,” Boal says with a contemplative pause. “Yeah, it’s a difficult job.”
According to the 2012 preliminary findings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, the number of beginning farmers—on their operation less than 10 years—was down 20% from 2007.
William knows the job is stressful and burnout is high, which is why he moves between people, meetings and events like a bee moves from flowers to its apiary. He bustles about, collecting essential information and connecting one person to another. He then returns to the hive using what he’s gathered to make meaningful contributions to the agriculture community as a whole.