Freedom Farms was started from scratch five years ago. In the first three years business doubled, and in the last two years sales have increased by 33 percent.
Photo courtesy of Freedom Farms.
We all know the worrisome story, but here it is again: Farmers are getting older and retiring, and young and beginning farmers are struggling.
According to a recent study by the National Young Farmers' Coalition, there are serious barriers for young people starting a farming career. The top obstacles include access to capital, access to land and health insurance.
However, despite these problems, there are still young farmers making a go of it. And they're doing it in refreshingly creative ways - from adding new twists to the family farm and uncovering lucrative niches to sell their products to taking their farm story to television.
We put calls out to Northeast cooperative extensions, farming organizations and state agricultural commissions to find the next "rising stars in agriculture" and were flooded with responses. We whittled the list down to the top five rising stars, based on their enthusiasm, innovation and sheer determination to make it in farming.
Saving the family farm
Theresa Lawton grew up on a 25-acre dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass., that had been in the family for nearly 300 years. It started as a small, diversified farm in 1732, and over the generations developed into a poultry operation, and then a dairy farm in the 1980s.
Growing up in a farm family, Lawton, now 33, says she "did the 4-H thing, then went to school for production agriculture." Lawton graduated from Purdue University with a dual major in agricultural communication and animal agribusiness. After graduation, she did a service year with VISTA and then landed a job as a dairy inspector with the state of Massachusetts.
When the Lawton family's traditional wholesale dairy business was faltering, Theresa Lawton came up with a moneymaking idea: sell raw milk and start a cheese making business.
Photo courtesy of Theresa Lawton.
"I grew up drinking raw milk and didn't think there was anything special about it," she says. While working as a dairy inspector, she learned about the high consumer demand for raw milk.
Her family's traditional wholesale dairy business was, like many others, faltering. Lawton had a moneymaking idea: sell raw milk and start a cheese making business. Her parents, Ed and Nancy, agreed, and in 2006 Lawton started OKA Real Milk, LLC (http://okarealmilk.wordpress.com), and her parents started a sister company on the farm, Foxboro Cheese Co. (http://foxborocheeseco.wordpress.com).
Her parents purchased the raw milk from Lawton's herd to make cheese, and Lawton sold raw milk at the farm. The cows were grass-fed and given supplemental grain in the winter. Her cows were not given bovine somatotropin (BST) or antibiotics. A bottle facility was built on the farm. The raw milk sold for more than $1 a pound, and sales soared. Lawton says, "People were coming from two hours away - from the Cape, New Hampshire, southern Rhode Island - to buy our milk."
Lawton had six employees. "When I needed more help, I was able to pay for it, and my customers were willing to help support the farm," she says.
"Raw milk really saved my family's farm," says Lawton.
Lawton has since stepped down as farm manager and has given the reins back to her parents. "My parents aren't ready to retire," she notes. She still works at the farm one day a week and is pursuing a farm consulting business. She is also writing a book about farming with the working title "Raw: A Farming Story."
"Honestly, I really want to help other young farmers," she says. She is also hoping to work to preserve farmland. "In my life, a lot of acres have been turned into houses ... it is really sad. I'm hoping to someday be in a position to buy a lot of those acres, especially in my county and surrounding counties, before they are turned into houses."
From cows to goats
Doug Calderwood grew up on a 160-head dairy farm in Orleans County, Vt. While his parents sold the farm more than 10 years ago, his passion for agriculture continued. The 21-year-old is now a senior at Vermont Technical College and will graduate in the winter with a degree in diversified agriculture. He says he deliberately stayed away from a dairy farm management degree.
Doug Calderwood, a student at Vermont Technical College, plans to start a goat farm with his younger brother, Andrew.
Photo courtesy of Julia Lyon.
"I didn't want to go back to cows. I knew I wouldn't have fun doing it, and it would be a struggle," says Calderwood.
However, he's still interested in milking ... goats, that is.
Last summer he managed two goat farms in Vermont, one with 400 head, the other with 200. "At the first job, I learned the skills of managing a goat farm. By the second job, I was able to apply what I learned," says Calderwood, whose postgraduation plans include starting his own goat farm with his younger brother, Andrew, who is currently at Penn State majoring in agriculture business.
Why goats? "The market," says Calderwood.
Currently in Vermont, the estimate is 7,000 producing goats to meet the demand. He says, "There are cheese and butter producers in Vermont right now looking to buy goat milk ... there is a great worldwide market for goat cheese."
Calderwood has the market, and has already secured land and the facility to start raising goats. He will be renting 75 acres of land from his neighbor, plus an existing barn on the property. He's also in the process of purchasing a portable milking parlor. He will rent an additional 100 acres of tillable land. Now the brothers are looking to purchase goats. "We're looking for a genetic strain with good milk production and feed efficiency," he says.
Calderwood always knew he'd go into business for himself. "My parents pushed me a lot," he states. "As I looked deeper into the goat business, I realized it is a really great idea."
Calderwood seems poised for success in the next few years; he recently won a student business plan competition at the Vermont Small Business Development Center, and will soon be moving ahead with his plans for a large goat farm.
He says, "The goat industry is what the cow industry was 60 years ago ... the potential for growth is so great that this is what I want to spend all my time working on."
Tim Dressel, a graduate of Cornell University's agriculture school, has his own ideas about making innovations in the family orchard to keep it sustainable.
Photo courtesy of Tim Dressel.
A new niche for apples
Twenty-eight-year-old Tim Dressel is the third generation of apple farmers at Dressel Farms (www.dresselfarms.com), which has a history of innovation. At the farm, located in New Paltz, N.Y., apples used to be grown primarily for the wholesale market, but now a total of 150,000 bushels of apples per year go to both the wholesale and retail markets. Dressel's father, Rod Jr., 53, has expanded the farm to include specialty crops and an ice cream parlor, and his grandfather, Rod Sr., 78, fills the role of orchard manager.
Dressel, a graduate of Cornell University's agriculture school who returned to the family farm six years ago, has his own ideas about further innovations in the orchard to keep it sustainable.
"I've made it clear that wholesale apples are not my intended path," says Dressel. What he is interested in is hard cider, which is currently popular with foodies, and establishing a farm winery and cidery.
While he enjoys helping his father and grandfather run the farm, he says it's not something he wants to do for the rest of his life. "I want to make my own impact ... the wine industry is big in the Finger Lakes Region [of New York]," he says. "I ultimately want to grow grapes." Dressel already has 4 acres of grapes, but the more immediate entrée into the alcoholic beverage market is hard cider.
"In the past five years, there has been a 300 percent increase in sales of hard cider. It is the fastest-growing [alcoholic] beverage in the U.S.," he says.
Dressel's own business, Kettleborough Cider House (www.kettleboroughciderhouse.com) is growing slowly, with the guidance of his family. "My grandfather does a good job keeping me grounded," he says. "He suggested I ease into it."
The suggestion was a wise one, says Dressel, who is working on learning more about viticulture and also experimenting with varieties of heritage apples for different tastes. He believes hard cider is moving in the direction of a craft and artisan beverage.
Dressel's sister, Sarah, 23, who also graduated from Cornell, has a greater interest in the wholesale business. "She will be a big factor in the future of that part of the business," he states. For the future, he hopes that wholesale, retail and value-added hard cider will exist as complementary businesses, keeping the Dressel name in apples for yet another generation.
Dressel says, "We're keeping true to the family business, yet keeping it fresh. It will be fun to see how it all plays out."
Melanie and Michael Fink with their two daughters.
Photo courtesy of Melanie Fink.
Keeping the family farm diversified
The husband-and-wife team of Melanie (32) and Michael (35) Fink own Heidel Hollow Farm (www.heidelhollowfarm.com), a burgeoning vegetable farm in Germansville, Pa. They grew up together volunteering at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
The farm was started by Michael's family in 1852 as a small grain and crops farm. His grandparents also started a commercial egg and potato operation. When Michael's father, David, took over the farm, he saw a golden opportunity for hay production overseas.
The farm consists of 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, and large quantities of hay and straw for export. There are 10 full-time and 20 seasonal employees. Heidel Hollow Farm is one of few farms on the East Coast to run a hay compressing operation, which uses a hydraulic press to compress hay bales for easy transport.
The hay is shipped internationally, from Bermuda to Puerto Rico and beyond. The farm recently teamed up with Purina Mills, which sells the product under the trade name Hydration Hay. The product is primarily used for horses. Melanie says, "When traveling with horses, they usually don't like the taste of water [in other locations]. This hay absorbs all the water, and all the horses taste is the hay. They get the hydration they need, and it provides the nutrients they need."
While hay is a large part of the family business, Michael was more interested in produce, and when he graduated from high school he started growing sweet corn.
"I eventually took over the produce side of things," says Michael. He now grows 500 acres of fresh-market vegetables that are sold to markets as far away as Philadelphia and New York City. The Finks, both members of the American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers & Ranchers committee, also grow bedding, vegetable plants and hanging baskets in a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Michael Fink grows 500 acres of fresh-market vegetables that are sold to markets as far away as Philadelphia and New York City.
Photo courtesy of Melanie Fink.
Their roadside market, which the Finks use as an outlet for produce in the summer, is on the side of a major highway. "We are lucky in that we are in such close proximity to large markets ... and there is a demand for fresh produce in those markets," Michael says. Melanie, who is in charge of the farm's retail operations, adds that the roadside stand is on the way to the Poconos, a major vacation area. "We have a very good location and very loyal customer base."
Stars of agriculture and TV
Members of the King family say they are born to farm, and there are enough of them to run the successful 150-acre Freedom Farms in Butler, Pa. (www.freedomfarmspa.com). There are 10 children in the family, nine boys and one girl, ranging in age from 12 to 29.
The enthusiastic, hardworking siblings are rising young stars in the agricultural world, and they are also carving out a niche in the world of television. The family stars in their own reality television program, "Farm Kings," on the Great American Country network. The show is in its second season.
The eldest of the clan, Joseph, 29, is owner/partner of Freedom Farms with his brothers.
"We sell direct to the customer," King says. "We sell produce, eggs, meat chickens, beef, pork [and] baked goods; we do freezing [and] canning; and we have a farm-to-fork café. It is definitely a juggling act, but it's necessary. Because if we have a bad crop, we can lean on other items."
All the siblings, and occasionally their mother, who has her own flower business, work for the farm. "Everybody does their part," says King. "This is a family operation, and we wouldn't be anywhere without all of us pulling together."
Joseph, Tim, Pete and Dan King.
Photo courtesy of Freedom Farms.
King, who graduated from Penn State with a civil engineering degree, says his parents, both farmers, did not encourage him to pursue farming. "My father encouraged me to go to college; he couldn't see the farming vision as lucrative for multiple generations of families on a farm." After King graduated and landed a competitive job, he was charged with setting up a new branch of geotechnical engineering in the company. "It taught me how to start a business," he said.
Freedom Farms was started from scratch five years ago, he says. "Mom's got her own business; she grows flowers. And our dad, he has his own farming business. He's our competitor," King says with a laugh. "It doesn't get personal, but it is definitely our goal to dominate. We sell in the same county and in the same farmers' market. We're all very competitive."
King says that the family sees the value in competition. In the first three years business doubled, and in the last two years sales have increased by 33 percent. "If it was just me, that would have slowed our growth big-time," he says. "Our plan has worked because we have a lot of help, and a lot of mouths to feed."
The reality show is another component of the business. It takes five days to shoot one episode. "It slows us down for sure; it is a major time investment," says King.
King says the reason for doing the show was not for fame or fortune. "Sure, it is great for building a brand and putting us on the map, but most important is to make farming cool again," he says.
But it goes even deeper than that. King says, "We need to figure out how to inspire the next generation of farmers. We're telling them that farming is not lucrative, that it is the bottom of the barrel and a glorified desk job is best. But we're idolizing the wrong people. A lot of trades, like farming, are more lucrative and rewarding."
The show, says King, is a way for his family to encourage the next generation. "We think what we are doing is something rewarding. It is our way of making a change in this country."
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.