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New Farmers Confront Realities of Local Food Movement

For the first time in memory, farming in America is "cool."

A nationwide movement, fueled by disdain for industrial-scale agriculture, is inspiring many young people with no farming experience to get into agriculture - especially the small-scale, local, organic kind.

But the question for this budding movement is whether it can survive the harsh realities of the business world.

Duke University’s new campus farm in Durham, North Carolina celebrated its first-ever harvest festival recently. The farm's manager, Emily Sloss, graduated from Duke last year with a degree in public policy - not agriculture. She expected to go to graduate school to study urban planning.

“Now I’m a farmer," she said. "Yeah. Believe it or not.”

This accidental farmer turned a senior-year class project exploring the idea of a campus farm into a reality. In just its first year, the farm has provided the campus dining halls with more than two tonnes of fresh produce.

“It’s phenomenal," said Duke dining halls mangaer Nate Peterson with food service company Cafe Bon Appetit. "The produce that is coming out of the Duke Farm and coming into our cafes is excellent quality.”

We had to do something

Sloss credits that senior-year class in food and energy policy for inspiring her to make a career change from budding urban planner to full-time farmer.

“It just became really apparent that we had to do something - or I had to do something - about the way I ate," said Sloss. "And then this project came into my life and kind of demanded my attention.”

“A lot of people that are becoming farmers now are not the people you would traditionally think of as farmers," said Maureen Moody, farm director at the not-for-profit Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture outside Washington, DC. "Me and a lot of the people I know, we didn’t grow up on farms. We didn’t go to ag school, even.”

Accurate data are hard to come by, but a recent survey by organic farm networks found 78 percent of new farmers were not raised on farms.

Moody knows the story well. She left her doctoral program in cultural anthropology studying what motivates young farmers to become a farmer herself.

Popular movies and widely read books criticizing large-scale American food production for its damaging health and environmental impacts are helping spur young people into agriculture.

Business growing, but tough going

Demand for locally raised food is growing as well, into a business that is now worth at least $5 billion, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

It's still a drop in the bucket in the U.S. food supply. And many who venture into farming find the business realities are tougher than they thought. Maureen Moody says many burn out after a couple years and look for jobs with health benefits and retirement plans.

“It’s really hard to stick with," she said. "Some do, and they figure out a way to make it work. But it’s really hard to make any money and to make a living.”

The Arcadia Center is a non-profit, so it doesn’t face quite the same pressures. And the Duke Campus Farm has advantages that most small enterprises do not: Students who will work for free, and a university that supports it.

The first wave

But Emily Sloss says the farmers here wants to prove they can make it as a business. “Because we really believe if Duke University, a farm that has land that’s rent-free, that has a huge pool of free labor, if we can’t be financially sustainable, then the local food movement isn’t a reality," she said.

Making that movement a reality will not be easy. But Maureen Moody says they have just begun.

“I think it takes people who are willing to be the first wave, if you will," she said. "Like any social movement, it takes people who are willing to go through the growing pains of figuring out how to make it work.”

The Duke Campus Farm is celebrating its first season in business. Many of its growing pains lie ahead. The same can be said for the movement it represents. These are exciting but difficult times for young farmers getting their first taste of farming life.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.