A teenager plows new ground
At 18, Andrew Orr is one of the youngest farmers in the country. While his friends sit in Macroeconomics 101, he grows corn.
WESTPORT, MASS. — On a brilliant, almost balmy November morning, in an empty vegetable field, Andrew Orr is huddled near a bright orange tractor, piling stones in the tractor basket before clearing them away. Dressed in sturdy coveralls, work boots, and a camouflage cap, Mr. Orr could easily be mistaken for the hired help called in for the final stretch of work before the cold sets in.
But the land belongs to the 18-year-old, who, almost a year ago, decided what he would be when he grew up: a farmer. Now, as many of his peers are ending their first semester of college, Orr is faced with the task of preparing his 13-acre parcel for next year.
"I need another tractor," he says, offhandedly. He wants one that's narrower and equipped with a cultivator for stirring the soil, a type more commonly made in the '40s or '50s. Never mind that he's still paying off the orange one he already has, having financed it in the way that many of his peers have financed their college education. That his interests are unconventional, at least for his age, seems not to faze him.
Besides, there's work to be done. Like clear the stones and plow the field, and if time allows, cut back the scraggly brush from the field's periphery. Then, order fertilizer and seeds for the corn, beans, sunflowers, and other crops he'll grow and sell at his farm stand next year. "It was kind of hectic this year, so I'm ordering stuff early," he says. "That way when I want to plant, I can."
In April, Orr, still in high school, bought the 107-year-old farm on which he had worked the previous three summers. The purchase made him Westport's youngest farmer – indeed, one of the nation's youngest farmers – and helped revive a long but dwindling tradition in this town of 14,000. It also made him something of a celebrity, with news crews flocking to his farm all summer. The "Today" show spent an entire day with Orr and his mother and grandmother, who also work at the farm stand. The attention was fun, but distracting. So when a TV crew from Tennessee asked if it could camp out for four days, Orr said it wouldn't work out. "I was too busy at the time."
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I grew up three-quarters of a mile from Orr's Farm and remember the parcel as indistinguishable amid the cornfield-dotted landscape. The former owner and Orr's former boss, Jim Wood, had his farm stand up the road; my parents and I would stop by for peaches to take to the beach or for sweet corn that we would peel on the deck and eat with nearly every weekend meal.
Orr moved the stand when he bought the farm; in the small, shuttered building, a sign that once read "Wood's Farm" has been painted over with the new name.
Orr grows many of the same crops Wood did, and as he shows me around the field and points out where he'll grow the eggplant, the white corn, and the green tomatoes that sold so well this fall, I marvel at his self-assuredness. I had never known anyone who aspired to be a farmer. Among my high school peers, farming seemed a throwback to the past, conjuring images of tractor pulls and petting zoos at the annual town fair. The very smell of manure seemed somehow archaic, or at least, repugnant. Fifteen years later, farming seems an even less likely career choice.
"My friends thought I was crazy," Orr recalls. "They were like, 'Get out of here.' "
For Orr, though, farming was in the blood. As a child, he helped out at his grandfather's horse and poultry farm in nearby Tiverton, R.I. "He was a generous guy," Orr says of his grandfather, who died shortly after advising Orr to buy Wood's farm. "Each Thanksgiving, he gave away a bunch of turkeys. That was his thing."
While Orr's peers were playing sports or video games, he began raising chickens in his yard. As a freshman at Westport High School, he told his vice principal, Bob Wood, he was interested in farming. Wood passed word on to his cousin, Jim.
"Andy was always interested in farming," says Jim Wood, who became Orr's mentor. "He'd always ask questions about why we did or didn't do something a certain way. He asked questions about the chemicals we used, and he asked for the results of soil tests. The other guys that worked for me just wanted to know when they could go home."
When Wood decided to retire, he suggested Orr buy his plot. The teen demurred. "I didn't have anything," he says. "None of the implements, nothing." Nor did he have the $32,000 that The Trustees of Reservations, a state conservation body that first purchased the land from Wood, was selling it for. But an idea had been planted. With the help of his parents – Joanne, a folk artist, and Mike, a carpenter – Orr bought the parcel. Wood gave his protégé most of his equipment, allowing him to repay him after his first summer.
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Westport, like other farming communities nationwide, has seen its farmlands drastically diminish. Out of 11 dairy farms working here just five years ago, only four survive. "At one time, there were more cows per acre than people," says Wood.
Indeed, some 25 years ago, my mother and I would occasionally get stuck in our car behind a cowherd that had broken loose. In the 15 years since I left Westport, some farms have disappeared, while land that once lay unused has given way to housing developments.
Residents have stepped up efforts to preserve the town's farming character. When word of Wood's retirement spread, The Trustees of Reservations, with the help of town residents, raised $1 million to buy the land, saving it from development. To recoup some of the money and ensure the land stayed agricultural, the trustees sold an agricultural preservation restriction to the town and state. The trustees then solicited proposals for use of the parcel, which would be sold at its agricultural value, a significantly discounted rate. After hearing half a dozen proposals, the trustees settled on Orr's.
"We were looking for a proposal which would increase the agricultural viability of the town," says Anthony Cucchi, a Trustees land protection specialist. Given Orr's age and experience working the farm, "his [proposal] was head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of benefit for the community. It's rare to find young folks interested in farming, and we wanted to use this opportunity to get [the land] in the hands of a young farmer."
Interesting young people in farming has been a formidable challenge nationwide. While total acreage of farmland in the US has not changed much in the past few decades – 1 billion in 1974, compared with 940 million in 2002, according to the US Department of Agriculture – the farmers are older. Of roughly 1.2 million farms in 2002, more than 950,000 were run by farmers aged 45 or older. Almost half of these were 65 or older.
"This is a clear demonstration of how old the farming population is getting," says Kent Politsch of the USDA's Farm Service Agency. To reverse the trend, the 2002 Farm Bill included incentives such as low-interest loans for young farmers. The news of Orr's purchase heartens people like Mr. Politsch.
"I'm thrilled and excited to know that an 18-year-old out there is interested in farming," he says. "He's doing it the right way, starting out small. It's our task to make sure he survives."
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Orr quickly learned that his vocation is expensive. Fertilizer costs $450 per ton; sweet corn seeds cost him roughly $800. That's in addition to the tractor he's paying off. Wood says Orr will thrive as long as he continues to "keep up the good name" on his produce. Expanding his offerings to include fall crops like pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash will also help, Wood adds.
In the meantime, Orr does not want for support. In my few hours at the farm, I heard people honking horns as they drove past. People in California, Arkansas, and Minnesota have sent him money, some of which he used to put a sign out front thanking his patrons.
"Everyone that comes here, I shake their hands and say, 'Thank you,' " he says. "But sometimes I feel like it's not enough. I want them to know that I appreciate it."