Cultivating a Community of Young Farmers

Tess Brown-Lavoie
Young Farmer Network

On Monday afternoons at my farm, we scramble to harvest the final fruits and roots for our CSA, and to label and fill bags of herbs for Tuesday restaurant deliveries. We are sunburned, wet-socked, and ready—when we slam the door of the finally full coolbot—to take our boots off and find dinner. I am not always eager to get in the car and drive anywhere besides home.

But every other week, once the harvest is packed, we get in the car and go to some site of agricultural production in southeastern New England, where a farmer stopped work an hour early to wash her face and set up a picnic table in anticipation of a cohort of beginning and aspiring farmers, neighbors, chefs, and whoever else caught wind of the Young Farmer Night (YFN) schedule. People show up still in work clothes, with their interns or colleagues, and dinner to share. We always run a few minutes late, but soon we are walking between row crops or fencing, exploring hoop houses when it rains, and pasture when it's nice out.

Attendees gather at the first YFN of the 2015 season. Stone Hill College Farm is located at the Jesuit College in Easton, MA, and donates all of the food it produces to local organizations which serve low-income and food insecure populations.

The Young Farmer Network was created in 2011 to create time and space for young agrarians to build relationships with one another that serve both personal and professional functions. Farming can be isolated, lonely work, especially in rural places, where many new farmers are transplants. Young Farmer Nights are focused on farmer to farmer knowledge transfer, a setting in which pests, marketing, and best practices are discussed in context, among the cucurbits, or in the wash station.

YFNs also have the long term objective of building relationships between local people differently involved and invested in our food system—as producers, cooks, advocates, and consumers—that can be leveraged towards future collaboration. At every YFN we talk informally about the challenges we face at our respective farms. We share designs for inexpensive hoop houses and talk about the best deals on irrigation. We have come together to write letters during the comment period of the Food Safety Modernization Act and to learn about organizations working on regional and national advocacy efforts.

White Barn Farm runs a CSA and a farmstand. At this rainy YFN, we learned about their propagation systems, while staying dry in their hoophouses.

Establishing friendships between neighbor-farmers has opened channels of communication that are important to agricultural communities. At my farm, we borrow our friends' rototiller, and buy extra lacinato kale from them to fill a restaurant order when a groundhog decimates our crop. Building relationships with local growers—young and old—has been crucial to the growth of my farm. Scaling up presents many difficulties, and it is important to have human resources, and a wealth of experiences to consult when we are making decisions about what equipment to buy, what infrastructure to build, which mechanic to trust, and which marketing strategies are successful.

The annual YFN schedule encompasses visits to farms within about an hour radius of Providence, RI. We tour dramatically different landscapes, focusing on a breadth of growing practices. The full YFN season gives a sense of the diversity of New England agriculture: urban and rural farms; diversified vegetable operations and livestock; schools, non-profits, and businesses; coastal and inland. This year, we had our first YFN on an oyster farm at Walrus and Carpenter on Ninigret Pond. Last year, we visited a fishery and compared notes with beginning and seasoned fishermen, finding that some of the environmental, political, regulatory, and access issues that terrestrial farmers face have striking resemblance to fisheries issues. As we build knowledge, affinities, and friendships across the borders of the food industry, we reinforce our ability to organize and draw connections between our needs as beginning farmers, and citizens of the world moving into the future.

YFN's visit to a non-terrestrial farm. Jules and his crew at Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Farm took us out on Ninigret Pond in their boats. Farmer potlucks are always top notch, but this one was extra special.

We received feedback from our network that many new farmers do not have extensive formal agricultural education. In the past two off-seasons, we have extended our season with more formal educational opportunities to fill in some of the knowledge gaps in our community. Full-day workshops on small engine repair and business planning, and longer courses on soil science and engine maintenance were all responses to perceived gaps in services available to young farmers in the area. It is important to us to coordinate with other organizations serving similar groups so that we are not duplicating efforts, but rather determining specific blank spots in the landscape of available resources. We are eager to collaborate with our regional counterparts in order to renew the safety net for fledgling farm businesses trying to get off the ground in New England.

YFNs are designed to be nights spent enjoying our farms and each other. We work our minds and bodies hard in our fields and offices, and it is important to appreciate the fruits of our labors—the landscapes we cultivate, the food we grow, and the people around us who share our values, if not our growing practices or life experiences. During the busy season, even at the end of a long day, we examine somebody else's trellis, and taste their first ever new potatoes. Farmers throw the best potlucks; the table display is increasingly green through May and June, and even more colorful towards the peak of the farming season, when every type of farmers market leftover, seasonal surplus or B-grade vegetable is turned into salad or stew. Even among beginners there is valuable knowledge to share.

A visit to the pig pen at the July YFN at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, the latest YFN.

The Young Farmer Network Mission is to support farmers developing socially, ecologically and economically sustainable farm businesses and happy lives by cultivating personal and professional relationships between people of all ages and backgrounds across state borders. The farmer-driven, regional network is accessible and open to all. YFN fosters community and cooperation, building strong local food systems and economies, and enduring farm businesses. Inspired by the agrarian tradition of neighborly collaboration, YFN addresses the unmet needs of beginning farmers by creating opportunities for social interaction and knowledge sharing. Please visit our website at to learn more and sign up for our emails!