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We turned to our well-thumbed Websters New World Dictionary to get a precise definition of the word ‘greenhorn’ and Websters told us it means, “An inexperienced person; beginner; novice.”  That’s not quite an accurate description of the young farmers who came together at the Greenhorns gathering on Vashon Island Monday night to celebrate their ag status.

Most of the attendees–including our own apprentices–have put in many hours in the field and are becoming pretty well-versed in this new kind of diversified micro-agriculture. As our appentice, Greg Reed, reports, farming is in sore need of new blood and this group may represent the future, a promising counter to the more publicized trend of the aging American farmer. Here’s Greg’s report and some pictures Rebecca shot of the gathering.

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“Along with Persephone farm’s four resident interns and co-owner Rebecca Slattery, more than two hundred people gathered at the Vashon Island Grange Hall Monday night for an evening of food, music and dancing at the Washington Young Farmers Mixer and Spit Roast. The line wound through the hall and out the door for hours for a feast of homegrown, donated vegetables, cheese and pies. The dinner was cooked by volunteers and Vashon chef Meredith Molli of Vashon’s La Boucherie and included a brace of suckling pigs sizzling on a homemade spit.

Food may have been the filler but the driver for the gathering was farming. The farm apprentices mingled with start-up farmers, friends, resource providers and farm owners while The Tallboys and  Polka Dot Dot Dot played roots music for the crowd. It was a chance to socialize, share our passion for farming, and get to know regional organizations like The Greenhorns, National Young Farmers Coalition, Sustainable Connections, and others supporting both local agriculture and young farmers. When the dinner was over, there was a square dance and the hall and yard out back was packed.

 

While the USDA says America’s farmers are aging–half of all American farmland is owned by folks over 55 and half of them are likely to retire in the next decade–we are seeing a new trend in the making here in Washington. In our state, we had a 32 percent jump in the number of farmers  under 35 between 2002 and 2007.   

For the sustainable foods movement to continue to flourish and to grow, this means that young people must step forward and farm. But there are some big hurdles, including gaining access to land and the financial capital to farm it, affordable health care, and continuing education.

 It’s hard to say exactly what community events looked like more than one hundred years ago, when America’s Grange movement was in full swing and small farmers across the country gathered in grange halls to organize. But Vashon’s wood-trimmed grange was a fitting setting for young farmers of Washington gathered in pursuit of their dreams; a chance to participate in shifting our industrialized food system towards one that lives, breathes, and brings health to our land and to our people.

 

As the season winds down and Caitlin and I get ready to move on from Persephone, we take with us honed skills. Two seasons of working on small farms have taught us as much as we had hoped for. Now, we’re ready to strike out on our own.

We’ll be farming next year with a friend who is working leased land. It will be a part-time venture; we look for other work to afford it and to help pay our bills. As long as food prices remain as artificially low as they are now, farming will remain a risky and vulnerable way to carve out a living, but we want to find a way to make it work in the long-term. We are dead-set on continuing to grow food for ourselves, our families and our community. After eating from the fields instead of grocery store shelves, I don’t think I could do it any other way.

While stepping out of the nest and into the world, it is good to know that we are doing it in the company of friends and others with similar goals and needs. They say that high tide floats all boats, and the metaphor works for farming too. There is a movement afoot, an incoming tide. We, the young farmers, our proponents, mentors and families, are the ships and we’ll all rise together.

Let’s hope we are buoyant. I know we are strong.

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We’re a quarter of the way through Persephone Farm’s 2010 season and already there is a lot of catching up to do. What’s happened to Chocolate, the randy turkey? How are the new lambs doing? Which intern is wearing the tiara as the top Farmers Market seller?

We’ll start with Chocolate. When we left him, he had been introduced to the five lovelorn turkey hens, who immediately lined up to make Chocolate’s aquaintance. We’re happy to announce that Chocolate is now a proud papa-to-be. The hens are taking turns sitting on two clutches of eggs–about 80 in all–in a pair of nests in the rear corners of the turkey house.

But the bad news is that Chocolate is a lousy dad. He pushes the hens off the eggs and walks on them. He gobbles and distracts the mamas. Why? Who knows, but Louisa was running out of patience and it looked like, impending fatherhood or not, Chocolate’s days might be numbered. I suppose most of us would be a bit disconcerted at the prospect of fathering 80 kids, so we cut him some slack. Chocolate was exiled to a pen full of chickens, well away from the nesting turkeys. He’s not happy about it and spends a lot of time complaining but he’s escaped the chopping block. The chickens look at him like he’s nuts.

Chocolate in exile

And the lambs, well they seem sort of bemused by all of this. But it’s hard to tell. They watch, they graze, they move a little bit, then they graze some more. Maybe that’s how it is when you are a lamb. You never know what life will toss onto the pasture next door, so the best thing is to put your head down and munch some more grass. 

Our experiment in putting the lambs into enclosures for rotation grazing  has run into some problems too. The idea was to preserve the pasture by penning the lambs inside an electric fence within the pasture–both the keep them in one place and protect them from coyotes–then shift the whole fence to another part of the pasture after they mow down the grass. The problem is they keep busting out of the electric fence and gamboling all over the place. Of course, lambs are supposed to do that in the spring, and it certainly is more interesting than eating grass all day in one spot.

On to the tiara. Each week, Rebecca takes an intern to the Farmers Market. And when the totals are added up at the end of the market, the intern with the highest sales figure gets a cut of the take and is entitled to wear the farm’s ceremonial tiara until someone hits a higher number. Ok, it’s kind of goofy, but it keeps things moving along after a day of pulling weeds. So far, Greg and Caitlin are the tiara-holders–they worked together week two, befitting their unitary status.

Caitlin the Queen

No one remembers where the tiara came from, but it’s been around here for years and has passed through many hands. Sales at the market have been pretty good so far this year, despite the economy, so the crown will probably change hands a couple of times before things wind down. Meanwhile, the tiara rests in Greg and Caitlin’s yurt for safekeeping. Or maybe they’re afraid it will melt if they wear it in the rain.

One more item, for now.

Cleo, the lone pea hen, is still flying solo. She tried hooking up with Chocolate, and the chickens, and Rebecca’s Volkswagen van, and pretty much anything else around here that moves. Her mating methodology seems to be an odd mixture of stalking a potential target, then imitating her late mate–Ramm–by spreading her tail feathers and displaying, while issuing male peacock mating calls. Everyone finds this strategy a bit perplexing–Chocolate and the chickens included, no doubt. Going to be a long spring for Cleo.

Tune in again for the next installment: Rebecca gives a lesson in over-the-top tomato transplants.

Persephone

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