U.S. Agriculture Department data shows the average age of U.S. farmers has been increasing for decades and is currently 55 to 56, while the overall percentage of young farmers continues to fall. But people within the movement say the numbers can be misleading. "Are there young people who are going into farming? Yes, more and more," said Dennis Hall of the Center for Farm Transitions, a Pennsylvania Agriculture Department office providing technical assistance to new and established farmers. He said the landscape started to change about 3 1/2 years ago.
PERKASIE, Penn. -- Tom Murtha studied English in university, and Tricia Borneman majored in journalism. Both had a good idea of where they wanted their career paths to lead.
Unlike most graduates, however, that ended up being along a dirt path, where recently they were tending to kale, collard greens and broccoli on a farm in Bucks County about 40 miles (64 kilometers) away from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
"We went to college, we were on track to have some sort of professional careers, but it just didn't resonate," Murtha said. "The thing about farming is it engages you on all levels, which doesn't happen with a lot of jobs."
Murtha, 34, and Borneman, 32, are among a new crop of farmers sprouting up around the country who were not raised on farms and, in some cases, have left other careers behind.
"Agriculture has been so subsidized, corporatized and globalized," Murtha said. "There's definitely an interest and desire for younger folks to get involved in agriculture."
Huge hurdles exist, from the land costs to the threat of suburban sprawl.
U.S. Agriculture Department data shows the average age of U.S. farmers has been increasing for decades and is currently 55 to 56, while the overall percentage of young farmers continues to fall.
But people within the movement say the numbers can be misleading.
"Are there young people who are going into farming? Yes, more and more," said Dennis Hall of the Center for Farm Transitions, a Pennsylvania Agriculture Department office providing technical assistance to new and established farmers. He said the landscape started to change about 3 1/2 years ago.
Nearly one-fourth of people who currently contact the center for information do not have farming backgrounds, and range from college students to people leaving established careers, Hall said.
Murtha and Borneman have been farming together for eight years, the last two at the 70-acre (28-hectare) Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie. Parents of a 2-year-old daughter, they lived in Oregon and New Jersey before returning to Pennsylvania, where they visit farmers markets and operate a community-supported agriculture program in which locals do farm work during the growing season in exchange for produce from spring through fall.
"Beyond the family aspect, it's enjoyable because it's so all-encompassing: the office work, the selling, the planting, the mechanical aspects," Borneman said. "Even when it's hot and I'm working hard, I can still hear the birds."
Blooming Glen eschews synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and is seeking certification as organic. Its operators are among many smaller-scale farmers who say they are responding to consumers, who increasingly are demanding food that is organic, locally grown, or both.
Recent food scares _ from last year's nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to California spinach to tainted Chinese imports _ are raising public concerns about industrialized megafarms and the globalized food trade. Other issues include pollution from fuel needed to ship food long distances, genetically modified foods and bug-killing chemicals.
"It's amazing to me how, over the last four or five years, food issues have creeped into the general psyche," Murtha said.
Ben Wenk had been mulling a music education degree after high school, rather than working on his family's century-old 350-acre (142-hectares) fruit farm in Aspers, Adams County.
"But ... I realized that music was more of a hobby, and farming was what I enjoyed the most and really wanted to do," he said. "I saw an opportunity to expand the business in a new direction."
Wenk, 23, became the seventh generation to work Three Springs Fruit Farm after graduating last year with a university degree in agroecology, the science of sustainable farming. He added a half-acre (0.20-hectare) plot for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and melons that he brings to Philadelphia farmers markets, and created a MySpace page where weather conditions are posted and customers post thank-yous.
"If I wanted to make a small fortune and retire at 55, I wouldn't have gone into agriculture. But I look at these beautiful rolling hills and think, this is my office," he said.
Such enthusiasm runs counter to the notion of farming as a dying vocation of dreary, thankless work.
"People always say, 'Oh, farming is a hard life,'" said Dawn Buzby of A.T. Buzby Farm, a 55-acre (22-hectare) fruit and vegetable farm in Woodstown, New Jersey. "Sure there are hard parts _ the weather, the hours _ but doesn't every job have hard parts? Overall, it's a very satisfying, very rewarding career."
Buzby, who with her husband has been farming for 20 years, welcomes the fresh crop of people entering the farming field _ including her 25-year-old son, a recent college graduate with an engineering degree.
"The new blood entering farming is a great trend that has really energized longtime farmers," she said.
On the Net:
Blooming Glen Farm: http://bloomingglenfarm.com
A.T. Buzby Farm: http://buzbyfarm.adamsarts.com
Three Springs Fruit Farm: http://www.myspace.com/threespringsfruitfarm
Center for Farm Transitions: http://www.iplantofarm.com
Source: Associated Press