Local food shift draws young farmers

Kari Kuhn washes eggs at Prairie Crossing’s organic farm in Grayslake, Ill. Prairie Crossing has various micro farmers that grow vegetables and raise goats, chickens and pigs. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Nick Batchelder and his wife moved to Chicago hoping their experience in ecology and construction would land them jobs.

After months of scouring the Internet and looking for leads, they found steady employment only after responding to an online ad for farmhands on an organic vegetable farm.

“All the other stuff we knew how to do weren’t really hiring,” Batchelder said. “We were like (we) might as well. It wasn’t any spinning moment of clarity.”

Batchelder and wife Becky Stark, both 32, now are hoping the demand for local food will help them expand their own organic farming business.

For decades, the average age of farm operators has been ris- ing, but experts say growth of the local food movement is giving a new generation of farmers a foothold.

Nonprofits have offered programs to support new farmers and give people opportunities to buy locally grown food.

“There is growing consumer interest in local foods. People are willing to pay a premium on that,” said Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs. “Young people are learning how to do develop ... those new markets.”

Behind the aging farm industry, an even larger force is at work: the consolidation of U.S. farmland, experts say. With new technology, farm operators were able to grow more crops on larger amounts of land with fewer people. Farms had to grow in size to remain competitive.

“We hear from people every day who want to get into farming or ranching,” said Virginia Meyer of the center. “I don’t think the industry is lacking interest from young people, I think it comes from the lack of opportunity to get into the industry.”

But farming leaders see hope in the burgeoning local food movement. The capital necessary to run a vegetable or fruit farm is significantly less than it costs to grow commodities such as soybean and corn. And the market for locally grown produce has room to grow, say experts.

“If we want local food, if we want natural foods, then we’re going to have to have young farmers,” said Hassebrook.