The New Farmers

Meet the new farmers of American agriculture.

| Spring 2015

  • Petting one of the goats at Blue Ledge Farm in Vermont.
    Photo by Flickr/T. Carrigan

Spring is the time of year when Deena Miller, owner and operator of Sweet Roots Farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, thinks of quitting. Her body hurts, money is tight, and just enough of her organic, love-sown seeds have sprouted from the ground that she can see her failures: wimpy leaves, frost-stunted sprouts, roots chewed through by beetles. It’s the fourth season that 30-year-old Miller and her partner, Robbie Martin, have farmed three and a half acres on a slight slope in the fertile Grass Valley, north of Sacramento, California. And yet despite the challenges, each year has proven better than the last as they learn the particulars of the region’s microclimates and their farm’s soil—what grows best where, just how long to wait to plant the heat-loving tomatoes and cucumbers.

“This time of year is always really tough, but it gets easier,” Miller says, adjusting her cap. She sports a tool belt and well-padded iPhone, allowing her to simultaneously work the fields, answer email, and receive business calls. “I’ve been weeding carrots for the last hour, so I’m a little grumpy,” she says with a smile. She snaps off a lingering asparagus stalk—its brethren were harvested last week and sold to the local co-op—and hands it to me. We chomp our snack, and I admire the farm. To my untrained eye, it looks handsome and bountiful with its rows of green cascading down the hill, not a disappointment in sight.

Growing up a few hours away in Lake Tahoe, Miller wanted to work in the environmental movement but never expected to be a farmer. She was 19 before she even met one. “I wanted to work outside, and I wanted to better the environment, but I just didn’t know how to engage,” she says. “There aren’t many jobs out there, and a lot of the messaging felt kind of negative: ‘Don’t do this, and don’t do that.’” While studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she enrolled in agriculture classes with the thought of becoming a school garden teacher. “But the more I learned about agriculture, the more I saw it as a tool for change,” she explains. “I realized that, to me, the difference between the environmental movement and growing food is that growing food is really positive. You’re saying yes, instead of asking people to stop something.” She met Martin at a farm education program in Santa Cruz, and the two relocated to this plot of family land to try their hand at cultivating organic vegetables, fruits, and flowers.

Miller and Martin are part of a growing demographic of young, beginning farmers—farmers by choice, not by heritage—who have committed themselves to small-scale agriculture. Often with strong educational backgrounds and urban or suburban upbringings, these young people have chosen their vocation over many other options available to them, and, like Miller, they’ve done it largely out of a deep environmental ethic.

Miller looks out onto her farm. The diminishing daylight suffuses everything with a saffron glow: young apple trees not yet bearing fruit, her partner running the tractor, a shaggy llama, like a gangly guardian, standing attention at the fence. “Here I’m building something,” she says. “And I like that. I like that we’re stewards of this land, that we’re building the soil and taking care of the pollinators, the bees, the birds—it’s just so positive.”

She thinks for a moment. “What’s hard is when you’re so tired, and your body hurts so much, and you’re so poor. We finally figured out we make less than $5 an hour. How much do you sacrifice for this vision?

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