Organics: the natural way to keep ’em down on the farm

The face of farming is getting younger.

With the traditional, family-owned farm continuing on a steady decline as farmers age and find it increasingly difficult to convince younger generations to take over, observers have noticed a surprising trend: Twentysomethings are jumping eagerly into the field.

As young people learn about the chemicals used to grow produce for mass consumption, more of them are starting organic farms, says Beth McMahon, executive director of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network, or ACORN, and has been tracking the shift.

She said that at the ACORN organics conference in March, approximately 40 per cent of participants were under 30 years of age. A few years ago, there were just a handful of eager individuals, she said.

Mike Hadfield was one of those early few. When he and his two buddies – Luke McLean and Katherine McCord – decided to start an organic farm in 2006, they were all between 21 and 22 years old. As they grew their quarter-acre plot of land in Bayfield into the sustainable farming operation it is today, Hadfield said they’ve also noted more organic farms popping up around the province.

According to the 2006 census, New Brunswick lost 257 farms in the space of five years. In the same period, the number of certified organic farms increased by 68 per cent.

“Farmers have said to their kids, ‘Don’t go into farming! Run! Get a real job!’,” McMahon said.

But these new entrepreneurial enthusiasts, many with little background in farming, mean an influx of fresh perspectives and approaches to the field, she said. They are exploring new strategies such as agricultural tourism and social media as a marketing tool.

“The face of agriculture is changing,” Hadfield said.

For a province in which the average farmer is almost 60 years old and often “stuck in their ways,” organic farmer Jesse Vergen said, “it’s really a renaissance.”

Vergen, 32, runs a successful, 14-acre organic vegetable farm in Quispamsis with his wife. He supplies a variety of Saint John restaurants, including the Saint John Ale House (where he is executive chef) and the Smoking Pig Real BBQ, which he owns. He is proof there is a market for the produce grown by young organic farmers. But he cautions that it is in no way a “get rich quick” business.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said.

Claude Berthélémé is an organic development specialist at the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries. She said she thinks the influx of young people will be a positive renewal for New Brunswick.

“It’s not a fad, it’s not for hippies, it’s something real,” McMahon said, and it’s not only spreading in the province, but also across Canada and the world.

Still, notable growth aside, organic farms make up only approximately 1.5 per cent of New Brunswick’s agricultural land, McMahon said. The ratio of organic to non-organic farms is similarly polarized.

“It’s a tiny drop in the bucket … but it’s growing,” she said.

According to Berthélémé, there are about 45 certified organic producing farms in New Brunswick and another 12 processors.

Previously published June 17, 2011; Telegraph-Journal