A comeback for small farms

Many professionals are giving up keyboards for a 'dirt-in-the fingernail' life and possible profit.

As a young girl, Judy Lessler would market her dad's garden tomatoes around town. The special: all-you-can-carry for a set price.

What seemed to be a straightforward business idea became a messy dilemma, Ms. Lessler recalls. People who took too many would end up with tomato splattered on their shoes.

That memory and a lifetime of pondering land use and moral obligations, led Lessler, a spry biostatistician by trade, to become a full-time farmer.

In a country where nine of the 20 Founding Fathers were farmers, today the field is a tough row to hoe. In 2005, CareerBuilder.com ranked "farming" as the least promising profession.

Despite that, many people nationwide are choosing a life of straw hats and manure-stained shovels. Being so close to nature is personally satisfying and can also be profitable for them, as consumer demand rises for locally grown and organic produce, experts say.

"The trend of conventional agriculture is going the other way: The kids don't want to farm, and the parents are looking to sell off the farm for real estate development," says Dan Sullivan, editor at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. "But then you have this significant counter-movement of people giving up their keyboards to farm, professionals going back to the land, and younger people getting into organic farming."

Locally grown, organic foods help make it possible for today's smaller, highly diversified operations to gross up to $25,000 an acre, whereas in the past, a farmer was happy to make $2,000 in profit per acre.

The Department of Agriculture says small farms are increasing at a rate of 2 percent a year. That figure is based on a 1974 definition, which established a farm as an operation that earns or has the potential to generate at least $1,000 a year. Today, many hobby farmers and suburban horse farmers meet this minimum requirement and use the distinction to get tax breaks on the land.

A better indicator of growth, experts say, stems from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, where local residents buy stock in a nearby farm, taking on both the opportunities and risks. The number of CSA farms nationwide jumped from about 1,000 in 1999 to more than 2,000 in 2004, according to the Rodale Institute.

"There's a trend toward smaller farms growing very high-value crops and being highly diversified," says Steve Evans, who is King County, Wash.'s "farmbudsman," helping local agriculture entrepreneurs.

Other farming businesses and groups have also benefited. Seattle doubled the number of farmer's markets to 23 in the past 10 years, and increased how many are open year-round from one to four. A new farmer-to-chef conference there also filled up within days. Recently, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group had a record 900 attendees at their annual event in Kentucky.

Across the country, many people have taken to the farm. In Snoqualmie Valley, Wash., a former programmer from San Francisco is now a potato farmer. In upstate New York, Steve Gilman turned his weekend garden into a profitable organic lettuce farm. "What's happening is a response to industrial agriculture," says Mr. Gilman. "It's so heavily subsidized and centered around commodity crops that it's opened up new niches, which are growing considerably."

In Chatham County, N.C., architects, doctors, and graduate students are putting old tobacco and cotton fields to new use, bringing bunches of radishes and okra to the Pittsboro Farmers' Market.

"In most of these areas, demand outstrips supply," says Debbie Roos, an agriculture extension agent in Chatham County.

Several sources are helping to meet demand. Universities such as North Carolina State, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Iowa State have started farming programs for beginners. In a mostly white industry, movements in New York and Chicago have recently been trying to draw in minorities through farmer's markets, including one on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Some experts see a glaring reality: "This growth in very small farms and very large farms means that the middle-sized yeoman farmer is disappearing," especially in the Midwest, says farm economist Mike Duffy in Ames, Iowa. Many small farms are "lifestyle farms where people are not trying to be a commercial farmer," he says.

And small farmers say they are lured in by a dirt-under-your-fingernails antidote to the sterile, sedentary life found in the office workplace. "Farming is deeply satisfying on another whole level," Gilman says.

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