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Like your organic food? Pennsylvania’s young farmers are growing it

Young farmers are clinging onto their stake in U.S. agriculture — already largely dominated by older, more experienced agronomists.

Mary Benton, along with her 10-month-old daughter Isabelle, restring an electric fence at the "Snouts and Sprouts" Farm Wednesday, June 27, 2018 in Pottstown, Pa.
Mary Benton, along with her 10-month-old daughter Isabelle, restring an electric fence at the "Snouts and Sprouts" Farm Wednesday, June 27, 2018 in Pottstown, Pa.Read moreBradley C Bower / Staff Photographer

While he was studying political science at West Chester University six years ago, Frank Kurylo pondered some career options. He first considered becoming an environmental law attorney. Later, he briefly worked on a few  Pennsylvania political campaigns.

Then Kurylo, now 28, changed course entirely. He became a farmer.

"We've got 100 million acres of U.S. farmland expected to change hands in the next five years. We don't have enough people to catch that, to take over that land and continue to steward it in a sustainable way," said Kurylo, who with his business partner owns Kimberton CSA, a 10-acre certified organic produce farm near Phoenixville.

Kurylo, who worked on other community farms during college, is part of a growing national agricultural movement. More young people — many of whom eschew conventional farming practices — are seeking land to grow crops and raise livestock on sustainable-agriculture farms centered around organic or more environmentally sustainable practices.

The rise of these farms has fallen in step with a growing number of consumers who are more conscious of where their food is coming from.

But there are barriers for these young farmers to enter the industry. Land and farming are costly, and U.S. agriculture is dominated by an older population, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, which noted that farmers over the age of 65 outnumber those under 35 by 6-1. The older farmers are established, leaving the newcomers to scramble for land that long-time farmers are reluctant to give up to outsiders, often opting to keep it in the family or sell it to a developer.

The average age of a Pennsylvania farm's "principal operator" — a broad term that includes thousands of people who consider themselves farmers — was 56, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In neighboring New Jersey, the average age was 57.

In Pennsylvania, there were 16,725 principal operators 65 and older in 2012, the most recent year made available by the Farmland Information Center. There were 4,909 principal operators 34 and younger.

"There's definitely been an increase in the number of young people getting into farming, but the [national] average age of a farmer is still 58 years old," said Kurylo, who started a Pennsylvania chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

The growing popularity of organic and more environmentally sustainable farming has opened up a corner of the agricultural industry for younger farmers to occupy, said Kevin Hicks, former president of the nonprofit Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture.

"That food costs more to raise, but there are people willing to pay a lot more for it, because they think it has a benefit," Hicks, a former scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said of organically raised produce and livestock. "That has allowed a lot of young farmers to get into the business, buy a small amount of land, raise organic produce, organic animals, that they can sell for a lot more. It helps them get into the market. They would never be able to compete with commodity prices, but for these high-value materials — they can make some money doing that."

In response to consumer curiosity about whether those strawberries hailed from 60 miles away or a produce farm in California, these young farmers — loosely defined as people under 40 — are trying to ride the wave of a burgeoning food trend.

People not only want to eat well, but they want to know where the ingredients for their meals originated, said Luke Alderfer, 38, a fourth-generation farmer who operates Creek View Farm in Schwenksville with his longtime partner, Anne Walerwicz, 37.

Alderfer, who takes out his excess produce to Weaverland Auction in Lancaster County, says local produce is bought instantly. The need for fresh local produce has increased over the years, he says.

Even with demand for local food, farmers — newcomers and old-timers alike — are all quick to say farming isn't easy.

Agriculture is a tough industry to break into, and it's particularly difficult if a farmer doesn't already own land or have money.

Turning a profit isn't guaranteed, and neither is health coverage or a retirement plan. The cost of real estate, farm machinery, livestock, construction, and general operating expenses can run into six figures.

And farmers aren't known for leading easy lives. They don't get weekends off or work 9 to 5.

Mary Benton, who owns an 83-acre property in Pottstown, is familiar with the grind of farm life.

A former nurse who quit the medical field because of bureaucratic "red tape," Benton now co-owns with her husband the Snouts & Sprouts farm, which raises and sells organic livestock and produce.

Like so many farmers, Mary, 31, and her husband, Field, 34, have no time off. She spends her days working outside with her 10-month-old daughter slung to her back and two other daughters, ages 2 and 4, never too far away. Money is tighter than it used to be, she said, and she is sleeping on a queen bed in an RV with her husband and three daughters as they repair the crumbling farmhouse on their property. She hopes it can be ready to move into in the next few months.

Benton says this is what she wants to do. She is able to provide fresh food for her family and be with her children all day.

"It's peaceful," said Kevin McGinnis, 32, a farmer at Quarry Hill Farm in Harleysville, a place he says uses no pesticides or herbicides and lets its livestock roam freely on its pastures. "I don't have bosses breathing down my neck going, 'You didn't get this done in time.' You kind of set your pace and get done what you can get done."

For Alderfer, farming is what he's used to. He's been exposed to it his entire life and says, "I've always wanted to do it."

"Probably one of the dumbest things I've ever done," said Alderfer, a former cabinetmaker. "It's almost hard to explain. It's a struggle every day to keep going, but it's in me to keep going. My great-grandfather was a farmer, my grandfather was a farmer, my dad was a farmer, and I'm the only one in the family carrying on the tradition."

So what's in it for these younger farmers?

"I love doing it," said Alderfer. "I've done everything on my own and that drives me, working in one of the hardest businesses in the world. So I'm trying to turn a profit and run a family off of it. It's kind of what keeps me going."