In farmer David “Mas” Masumoto’s latest book, Wisdom of the Last Farmer, he looks back on his agrarian life so far. In it, Masumoto focuses primarily on the things he has learned from his father — the things he wishes he’d paid more attention to (like welding) and the things he chose to do differently once he’d taken over his 80 acre peach, nectarine and grape farm near Fresno, California (like transitioning to organic, and making the tough decision to rip out some very old grape vines in order to preserve and nurture others). Meditating on farm legacies seems to have more meaning just now, when his 23 year old daughter, Nikiko, has decided that she too will continue farming Masumoto peaches.
Wisdom of the Last Farmer contains within it a wealth of experience, which make great lessons for young and beginning farmers. It made sense, then, that Mas and Nikiko Masumoto led a workshop together for young farmers last weekend at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, NY. The workshop gave beginners the opportunity to ask questions of the experienced farmers present, including Stone Barns’ own livestock manager Craig Haney and four-season vegetable grower Jack Algiere. It was also a chance for local apprentice farmers to get to know each other, fostering a sense of farmer community — something Stone Barns hopes to continue building upon. (For more details on Stone Barns, here is a piece I wrote about my visit there last fall, and here is an interview I did then with chef Dan Barber, whose restaurant on the property, Blue Hill, buys much of the farm’s produce.)
Nena Johnson, Public Programs Director for Stone Barns, had this to say:
“Stone Barns Center’s Growing Farmers initiative is meant to fill the gap in technical training that exists for those in our region who are new to farming. Sky-high land prices combined with an aging farmer population have made it all the more difficult for young farmers to receive the traditional knowledge and support that new agriculturalists need to be successful.”
The young farmer focus at Stone Barns really took hold last December during the Young Farmers Conference, a series of workshops and talks to inform newbies about farm skills, acquiring land, and policy issues, giving new farmers the chance to network and even swap seeds. The interest and attendance for the event was more than expected — 171 people took part, and there was even a waiting list of others who wanted to attend. (One of the attendees, Annie Myers, wrote about it for us here) This year, the event will take place again, December 3rd-4th. According to Johnson, workshops will include Beginning Poultry, Introduction to Permaculture, and Financing the Farm among others. But aside from the conference, Stone Barns hopes to continue to support young farmers through workshops like the one with the Masumotos throughout the season.
“In addition to the annual Young Farmers Conference and a robust apprenticeship program,” Johnson said, “the evolving Growing Farmers initiative will also include monthly skills-building workshops and a vibrant online community for participants to network with other young farmers. As the program continues to grow, Stone Barns Center will support and educate our region’s burgeoning population of young farmers working in sustainable agriculture.”
Indeed, the Young Farmers Movement is well underway. (Featuring leaders like Severine Von Tscharner Fleming: check out the new extended trailer for her movie about young farmers, called The Greenhorns, currently in post-production and slated for release at the end of this year). This movement is part of a growing desire in younger people to do something with their lives that has a direct impact on others — feeding people, taking care of the environment, and building community. Farmers have a lot of power to change our future, and young farmers are particularly positioned to start our food system again from scratch, and renew sustainable ways of bringing food to our tables. Groups that support young farmers do so likewise in order to revalue farming as an occupation, and to encourage young people to take on this valuable work. Just looking at the statistics reveals farming to be a dying art — the average age of US farmers is 55 years old. But the tide is changing, Masumoto said on the Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio on Monday. “People from non-farming backgrounds are gravitating towards agriculture, and I see that as renewal.” He characterized these new farmers as a part of “a whole generation interested in food, cooking and also how to grow food.”
And to all of our loyal young farmer readers out there who may or may not be able to make it out to Stone Barns for these workshops, you can still benefit from Mas Masumoto’s farm wisdom. Three young farmers who email us at contest (at) civileats.com and tell us 1) where and what you farm 2) why you became a farmer and what keeps you going, and 3) what you would like to read about in our Young Farmer’s Series (issues big and small, questions you have, resources explained) will receive a free copy of Mas Masumoto’s Wisdom of the Last Farmer, courtesy of Free Press and Civil Eats! This contest will run through next week, and we will announce the winners on Monday, August 24th.