Growing Farmers Young Professionals Go Back to the Land

Corie Pierce used to be solidly in the ranks of the young, urban professionals. A charismatic 31-year-old with blonde hair and warm blue eyes, Pierce spent most of the last decade as an educational entrepreneur, working at several start-up companies that specialized in after-school care and student coaching. At the height of her career she was managing more than 100 people and earning, with bonuses, close to $90,000 a year. Constant emails, conference calls and power meetings were part of her routine.

Corie Pierce left her successful entrepreneurial career to become an apprentice on an organic farm. “The change feels so good,” she says. © Pierce Family

Then she decided she had had enough. Last summer Pierce spent her days harvesting broccoli, mowing orchards and hoeing 300-foot-long salad mix beds under a hot sun. Pierce’s season as a farm worker was part of an apprenticeship in organic farming sponsored by the University of California-Santa Cruz. In exchange for $3,200 in tuition, Pierce got the privilege of living in a tent for six months, sharing a modest kitchen and dining room with 50 people, and performing stoop labor five days a week.

“The change feels so good,” says Pierce, who graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College before joining the corporate world. “It’s easy to get caught up in salaries and 401ks and stock options. It’s easy to be seduced by that, even if you’re fighting it. And if you give it up, people look at you like you’re crazy. This feels like what my mind and body and soul have wanted for so long.”

Pierce is not alone. It appears that a growing number of smart, ambitious people are rejecting the lure of lucrative careers for the promise of a simpler agrarian lifestyle. Many of those in the new crop of young farmers boast the kinds of diplomas—Columbia University, Stanford, Berkeley, Georgetown—typically found in Silicon Valley cubicles, Wall Street suites or Hollywood editing rooms. But instead of pursuing careers in the fast-paced worlds of high tech, finance or media, these members of the so-called “best and the brightest” class are choosing to spend their days weeding carrots and building compost.

The fresh interest in organic agriculture can be seen in the farming-for-credit programs that are sprouting up at universities nationwide. There are more than 40 on-campus farms in the U.S. that offer thousands of students experience in growing and marketing food crops. Most of the programs—including gardens at Cornell, Vassar, Rutgers and Michigan State—have blossomed in just the last 10 years, according to the Rodale Institute.

Lindsey Ketchel, director of agriculture programs at Vermont’s Intervale Center—which provides startup capital and professional training to aspiring farmers—says that she is witnessing an inspiring increase in the number of young people who want to make a career out of organic farming. “I am probably the most optimistic that I have ever been, and a big part of that is working with these young entrepreneurs and hearing their passions,” she says. “A lot of these kids grew up in upper middle-class homes, and they have come to realize that there is more to life than a paycheck and a big home and a nice car.”

Bill Duesing, president of the Connecticut-based Northeast Organic Farming Association, is impressed by the growing number of campus gardens. “I”m definitely encouraged. Students at Yale, Wesleyan and the University of Connecticut have started gardens and farms. Because that’s what they want to do—to learn how to grow food.”

There is, of course, a long tradition of affluent sons and daughters fleeing to the country, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Thoreau, a Harvard-trained intellectual. The birth of the environmental movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s also had a voluntary simplicity component as hippies sought to make themselves into homesteaders. The effort largely failed, as most of the educated young people who went “back to the land” eventually returned to middle-class life. But this isn’t your Baby Boomer’s back-to-the-land movement. Instead of dropping out, today’s agrarian spirits are digging in, pioneering new ways of combining modern technologies and ancient practices in an effort to root the organic ethic firmly in the mainstream.

Ben Holmes, the 47-year-old founder and director of the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, says that he sees a real difference between the agrarian spirits of 25 years ago and the aspiring farmers of today. “The people who are coming to us are looking at this as both a life and a business choice—they want to be able to make a living doing this,” says Holmes, whose 180-acre farm trains 12 people every year in the basics of organic farming and marketing. “Most of the people who we’ve had have been successful in other fields—we’ve had a reporter, a chef, a librarian, a lot of people out of high tech.”

If the first organic pioneers were seeking to escape from industrial society, today’s hopeful farmers want to engage with it. Certainly, the growth of the organic food market makes this much more viable. Though still a fraction of the overall food industry, organics are surging in popularity, and sales of organic products are expected to reach $30 billion by 2007, according to the Organic Trade Association.

But that doesn’t mean organic farming is easy. As it always has, farming means hard days, long hours, and meager pay; most farmers struggle to stay above the poverty line, and the average age of the American farmer continues to climb as more people leave the fields. So why would someone with a wealth of opportunities choose such a path?

For Adam Wilson, a 25-year-old who has worked on farms in Washington, California and New Jersey since graduating from Dartmouth, the answer lies in his commitment to progressive social change. “I was really involved in the anti-war movement, and I got really burned out,” says Wilson, who has the relentless energy of a born overachiever. “I felt like actively creating the positive alternative instead of highlighting the negative. Instantly, farming felt more constructive.”

Another young farmer, Aaron Blythe, who most recently worked at Harmony Valley Farm in Wisconsin, feels similarly. “So much activism is about tearing down or fighting against. Industrial farming is not working. Instead of fighting that and trying to change policies—even though that’s important—organic farming is about saying: “We’re going to create our own system and show you it’s a better system.” It’s revolutionary.”

Some more experienced farmers, however, caution that idealism goes only so far. After graduating from Brown University, Jason McKenney, now 35, started Purisima Greens, a four-acre organic farm on California’s Central Coast. Though moderately successful—Purisima sells to the Ritz-Carlton as well as to shoppers at the tony Palo Alto farmer’s market—McKenney is facing the prospect of going out of business because he can’t afford California’s outrageous land prices. “It’s a cruel aspect of our culture that the most rewarding work is often the worst paid,” McKenney says. “It takes incredible passion and commitment. It takes a whole different system of valuation.”

Pierce, for one, says she has that commitment. “This isn’t some “experience” I’m having,” Pierce says of her commitment to farming. “This is my life.”