Honey Atkinson

Growing Forward - Supporting our young farmers

Honey Atkinson
Growing Forward - Supporting our young farmers

Words Emmy King   Photos Honey Atkinson


 

Market gardener Emmy King didn't even consider farming as a career option until a few short years ago. The vibrant 26 year old hardly fits the stereotypical farmer profile, and she's determined to see that change.

Here Emmy tells us about her own path to farming, the barriers facing young beginner farmers all over the country, and most importantly, what we can ALL do to support young farmers and small-scale local agriculture in general.

 
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Despite the fact that my grandfather was a dairy farmer, becoming a farmer myself was never on the radar. As a child I went through phases of wanting to be a doctor, a pop star, a travel writer and a lawyer. I was encouraged to dream big and was always told I could be anything I wanted – though for some reason, ‘pop star’ wasn’t met with much enthusiasm! No one ever talked about farming being a viable career option.

When I finished school I was awarded a Cadetship at the University of Wollongong, and I completed a Bachelors of Communications and Media. I went on to travel and work for some large non-profits and government organisations in Sweden, Germany and Vanuatu where I learnt a lot, met some incredible people, and had a great time.

But something just wasn’t right. I was living out my dream of travelling and working for causes I believed in, but I somehow felt disconnected from everything. It felt wrong to go to the gym for an hour after eight hours of sitting down and I hated that I had to wear a jacket inside on 30 degree days because the air conditioning was too cold.

I never got used to the oddness of walking in to the office from sunshine and walking out to rain without seeing the change in weather. I spent a fair chunk of my time and money planning my escape holidays and weekends, especially to spend some much needed time in ‘nature’.

I don’t think farming as a career choice gets enough attention. To me, farmers seemed like old conservative men who dressed in plaid, sat on tractors and talked out of the side of their mouths.

It never occured to me to study agriculture at University, and it didn’t occur to anyone in my peer group either.

But why? Why is this profession sidelined? It's a job, after all. It's a way to make a living. Anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit might be interested; anyone who loves animals or plants or biology or chemistry; anyone who loves being outside; anyone who loves good quality food.

I found my way to agriculture through a few beautiful coincidences. Firstly, I happened to meet a young farmer that was incredibly smart, educated, urban and fun. She was heading to the Philippines to work with the deaf and hard of hearing to set up a market garden. Soon after that I moved to Vanuatu, where the resilience and knowledge of the locals captivated me, and I saw first-hand the importance of their food systems.

And finally, I was ready to be part of a community. I was sick of moving to a different place each year and wanted the grassroots feeling of making change at a tangible level.

Within days of my return from Vanuatu I was starting my Masters of Sustainable Agriculture and weeks away from an internship with Kirsti and Fraser from Old Mill Road BioFarm in Moruya. After that I waited tables to earn some cash while volunteering at Buena Vista Farm with Linda, the previous market gardener. When she was called away to care for loved ones, Fiona and Adam (the owners of Buena Vista) took a huge risk and employed me as their market gardener.

So I just want to put it out there - if you want to become a farmer, you can. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Currently the path for young beginner farmers is not an easy one, and that’s something that needs to change.

In 2016, the average age of the Australian farmer was 56. That means that within the next 20 years, more than half of all the farmers in Australia will be retired or deceased. So who will grow our food? And what can we do about it?

It’s frustrating to read about problems and feel too far away from the issue to help. But in this instance, there’s something each and every one of us can do to support young farmers and local agriculture in general.


IF YOU EAT

As Wendell Berry so eloquently put it – ‘eating is an agricultural act’. What this means is that every time you purchase an edible item you are voting on the future of our food system.

If you want to help young farmers, seek them out and find out where you can buy their produce. Most new farmers do not come from traditional large-scale agricultural backgrounds, so they are often not cultivating acres of land. This means that many are based much closer to you then you might expect.

Your local farmer’s market is a good place to start, but by doing a bit of a search on social media or on sites like Local Harvest you may also be able to find young farmers starting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or selling direct to customers.

As a young farmer who sells at markets I have an important message for customers who would like to support us. It’s not enough to come and buy from us every now and then. Yes we love the support and the few dollars you send our way, but in order for us to make a living growing good quality food, we need a consistent income (just like you!). So even when it’s wet, windy, too cold or too hot, you still need to make the effort to come and buy from us.

The other thing we greatly appreciate is feedback. If you found the lettuce too bitter, you wish you could find purple carrots somewhere, you thought the bunch size of the shallots was too small or that our produce is far too cheap for the quality, then please tell us!

Our customers are the reason we do what we do, so we want to make sure we are exceeding your expectations. Instead of just boycotting us, tell us what we can do better. And if you think we are doing a fantastic job, then spread the word to your friends and family to help our business grow (pun not intended).


IF YOU HAVE LAND OR LOTS OF MONEY

Maybe crassly put, but in my research and experience there seems to be three central barriers that prevent young people from farming. Not having access to land is one of those, and not having enough start-up capital is another.

The type of land young farmers will be seeking will vary enormously depending on what type of farming they wish to undertake, what market they wish to engage with, and what weather they want to face. Therefore, there is a good chance that if you have more than a quarter of an acre a young farmer might be interested in leasing it from you.

I’ve heard of many different land sharing agreements, from a formal lease agreement with weekly rent, land being rented for a percentage of earnings, rent being paid with a weekly box of veggies, and even young farmers paying off an older farmer for his land through their labour. In the latter arrangement the knowledge is then being shared between generations.

If you’re interested in sharing your land with a young farmer, Cultivate Farms is a great place to advertise. If you’re on social media I’ve also listed a few links at the end of this article where you can post opportunities with a large audience. You can also check if there is a local newsletter that shares information (for instance, in my area the South Coast Producers Association sends out a weekly email with land share offers).

If you’d like to donate money there are several groups who are already doing great things in the future farmer space but who need support. Links to these groups are listed below.

Otherwise, directly loaning money at a low interest rate to a young farmer would be an exceptionally beneficial way to support someone you know who is passionate. Banks make it extremely hard (even impossible) for young farmers to access loans, so a bit of start-up help would be more than welcome.


IF YOU WANT TO FARM

Are you sure? Are you really, really sure? I know I said at the start of this article that anyone can farm, but in reality farming is a far cry to the glossy curated images you see on Instagram. You work long hours, and they are physical ones. You need to be organised and good at or willing to learn about accounting, record keeping, biology, chemistry, marketing, and also be good with people. While being good with people, you also have to be comfortable with spending long days alone or with one other person.

You will become emotionally invested in every part of the farm, which means you might have to sit down and have a cry when the rabbits eat your newly planted seedlings, and you will inevitably carry stress with you most days. You will most likely be poorer than your friends, and veggies or livestock don’t really care if it’s the weekend or Christmas.

Still want to be a farmer? Ok, then I’ll tell you this …if you are the right person for the job then you will have the most rewarding career you could imagine. You will be physically fit and you’ll eat like a king. You’ll know your community and be loved and supported by them. You’ll probably not even need that much money because you will start participating in the sharing or trading economy – swapping produce for other goods and services.

You get to set your own hours and work outside every day. Each day will be different so you will never get bored, and once you start delving deeper into the science you’ll find a whole new world to explore.

For me, following my passion has lead me to meet my tribe, a whole bunch of farming nerds, and even though I don’t get to see them often, we know each other intimately as we all share a philosophy. Farming is a risky career, sure, but if you’re willing and able to make it work then you will hopefully have all this too.

I feel it’s important to note that I’ve had an extremely ‘easy’ route into my position through a mixture of hard work and determination, but also generosity and pure luck. Not every young farmer I know has had it so simple.

Here are some links to get you started:

-        The importance of eating locally 

-        Cultivate Farms 

-        Farm Folk

-        Sage internship

-        Future Feeders 

-        Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance 

-        Market Gardeners Success Group

-        Deep Winter

-        Local Harvest

-        What is a CSA

-        Farmers Market Directory 

-        If you want to, you can also research the colleges and universities that offer agricultural studies programs. A simple Google search will do the trick. A degree isn't necessary, though.

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You can follow Emmy's journey on Instagram here:

INSTAGRAM

 
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