Preparing The Next Generation Of New England Farmers

Over 85 percent of young farmers continue in some farming related field and that almost 100 percent of them will stay engaged in agriculture in some form, even if it is not their full-time occupation.

At Fort Hill Farms, in Thompson, Connecticut, 24-year-old Kies Orr and her boyfriend are preparing to take over her family farm, a 500-head dairy operation with perennial flower and herb fields, blueberry fields, a corn maze and a creamery.

“We run the farm in two shifts: a midnight shift and a noon shift,” said Orr, who recently graduated from the State University of New York-Cobleskill with a degree in agricultural business. “I’ve been up since midnight today. I’ll sleep a couple hours tonight and be back up at midnight. This schedule is year-round.”

Being a young farmer has special challenges, and Orr credits the Connecticut Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer & Rancher Program (YFR) with offering useful information and camaraderie that have helped her and other young farmers get through the tough times. After five years of membership, Orr became chair of Connecticut’s YFR in 2016.

Throughout New England, state farm bureaus offer programs for youth and young farmers that vary from state to state. In Vermont, an “Ag-Tivity” book filled with coloring pages, puzzles and fun facts about Vermont agriculture “edutains” young children. Approximately 30,000 such books have been distributed. Vermont Farm Bureau also offers a scholarship to a member student who completes their first semester at the University of Vermont or Vermont Technical College while enrolled in an agricultural program. This scholarship and others are offered through the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.

In Maine, the YFR provides farmers ages 18 to 35 the chance to actively participate in leadership development, legislative awareness, educational conferences, networking with farmers and competitive events. In an effort to build Maine’s YFR into a bigger, more dynamic program and strengthen the success of such programs, Maine Farm Bureau Chairperson Nick Smith posted a call to action online seeking young farmers from around the state of Maine that would like to participate on the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.

“I took the reins in February and have talked with former committee chairs, members and parents of past members to get a feel of what this committee has been in the past and what we will be in the upcoming years,” he said. “An active committee will not happen overnight. Those that are interested in becoming a member of the YF&R Committee can have the membership fee waived if you are a first-time member under the age of 35 years old.”

Orr said the biggest challenge of running Connecticut’s YFR is keeping everybody committed. Of the 40 members, only about 15 actively participate.

“I understand life gets in the way. I serve dinner (and) try to make it as fun as a meeting can be,” she said. “The new farm bureau office is in Wethersfield (about 90 minutes to 2 hours each way for many members). I’ve moved [the meeting] to UConn (University of Connecticut) to make it easier for some people to travel. I’ve asked people what I can do to keep them committed and interested.”

Beyond camaraderie and support, YFRs help young farmers understand that their voice matters and that, as the next generation of farmers, they can influence public policy and the perception of production agriculture.

The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation’s YFR committee provides personal growth to its members by helping them

  • acquire cutting-edge information through participation in educational conferences;
  • build a network with fellow farmers, ranchers and agricultural enthusiasts;
  • earn recognition for achievements in business and leadership; and
  • continue their professional development.

A tentative social calendar online shows events occurring at least once per month from June through December. Events include farm tours, a field trip to the Montreal legislature, a tour of a meat processing plant, a camping trip, meetings and the New England Fruit and Vegetable Conference. All are welcome to attend meetings and take part in discussion or planning. However, each county designates two representatives to vote on issues.

In Rhode Island, the YFR program hosts meets and debates on topics viable to ag and farming. RI-YFR members have attended the American Farm Bureau National Conference in January where the winners of the meets compete for prizes ranging from farm equipment to full-size trucks and scholarships. Rhode Island Farm Bureau President Henry Wright III said, “Here in Rhode Island, we have a farm bureau scholarship for our active members who have college students enrolled in ag-related studies. At present we are working on an ‘Ag In The Classroom’ program, which we hope to have up and running in the next year.”

At press time, Wright and the Rhode Island Farm Bureau were planning to hire a new executive director whose duties would include running “Ag In The Classroom” (AITC), a program for younger children. “In the past, we have had members read the AFB Books of the Year at schools around the state. Unfortunately, though we desire to reach out to those age groups, we are at a standstill until our current situation changes,” said Wright. “Once we hire the executive director we would follow the excellent curriculum provided by the National AITC.

“A lot of programs are based on the push around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” said Wright. “However, there are really great things like Journey 2050 interactive games. The Journey 2050 is quite creative, and the kids really like it.” (Download the interactive games)

Rhode Island’s previous youth program ran about five years. Because its AITC wasn’t funded, teachers didn’t have the resources to teach it. “Hopefully with the push on local foods and sustainability, these types of programs will once again find their way back into the classrooms of many of our schools,” he said.

Kies Orr pushing a wheel barrow

In Connecticut, Orr is concerned about cuts to ag education that have been proposed in the state’s budget. In early 2017, CT-YFR held a “Do Ag or No Ag” rally at the state capitol. Subsequently, the state Governor Dannel Malloy said he would not cut the department.

“Cuts to ag schools will hurt the next generation. In 2025, they’ll be going through colleges and starting to pick careers. We need them in agriculture to survive,” Orr said.

Orr attended one of Connecticut’s Agricultural Science and Education (ASTE) programs before attending college. Located at a comprehensive high school, each ASTE program prepares students for college and careers in animal science, agribusiness, agricultural mechanics, aquaculture, biotechnology, food science, marine technology, natural resources or plant science. The ASTE programs incorporate a hands-on, active curriculum that integrates subject area skills and knowledge, applied skills in the core subjects of mathematics, science and English/language arts while incorporating leadership skills and work-based learning experiences through the National FFA Organization and supervised agriculture experiences.

Orr said, “It got me ready for college. I felt more prepared for my career, to go into my degree.”

Like many of her peers, Orr has a passion for farming that extends beyond her property and into advocacy. In New Hampshire, the winner of the Young Farmer Achievement Award is also the host of the following year’s Young Farmer Legislative Breakfast. Attendees include members of the New Hampshire House Environment and Agriculture Committee and staffers from their Congressional Delegation. During the event, Young Farmers explain to the lawmakers what they do and the challenges they face. It allows legislators the opportunity to associate a face with the agricultural community in the state.

“We really want the Young Farmers in our program to leave with a passion for advocating for agriculture along with the knowledge, maturity and leadership to do so,” said Josh Marshall, communications director and Young Farmers Committee coordinator for NH Farm Bureau. “Whether it be as president of their own County Farm Bureau, as a state representative, or whatever they choose after aging out, our program aims to help guide them along that path.”

New Hampshire YFC is open to agricultural enthusiasts between the ages of 16 and 35. The group holds a monthly business meeting to plan projects, activities and trips. Many of the events they plan throughout the year take a lot of work and commitment from the Young Farmer volunteers and staff. “Our biggest fundraising event is a local food booth at the NH Pumpkin Festival each year,” said Marshall. “Young Farmers solicit donations from local farmers to make and sell homemade macaroni and cheese, shepherd’s pie and more. We also host a silent auction during the Fall Growers’ Dinner at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire.”

Money raised from Pumpkin Fest and the Growers’ Dinner helps fund other YFC events, trips and training. One such influential program is called Harvest for All, which is a partnership between farm bureaus and Feeding America that provides food to food banks and soup kitchens. “Here in New Hampshire, our Young Farmers coordinate with other local farmers to pick up and deliver fresh farm produce to our area food banks. Last year alone the NH Young Farmers organized the collection and donation of over 8,000 pounds of locally raised food. Included in that 8,000 pounds was 300 pounds of fresh ground beef raised on the farm of our committee chair Amy Matarozzo and her husband, Brian,” said Marshall.

New Hampshire’s YFC has also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby, attended leadership conventions and engaged in other community service initiatives like bringing farm animals to area nursing homes. In 2016, the group launched a “Young Farmer Facebook Takeover” campaign to allow Young Farmers from NH to “take over” the state Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Facebook page for one week and showcase the great work they are doing on their farms and in their communities.

“This has provided a great opportunity for our members to engage with the public on what they are actually doing on their farms and how hard they work to provide the public with a safe and nutritious food supply,” said Marshall.

Joan Nichols, director of member relations and community outreach, Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, said involvement in YFRs teaches young farmers how to tell the story of agriculture, bringing a personal and fresh perspective to their story.

Nichols estimated that over 85 percent of young farmers continue in some farming related field and that almost 100 percent of them will stay engaged in agriculture in some form, even if it is not their full-time occupation. Many have grown up on family farms or will become active partners in the family farm. Some are pursuing higher education to become agri-science teachers. Many started out involved in 4H and then moved on to FFA when they were in high school. Their interest in agriculture developed at a young age, and they are pursuing this interest by attending undergraduate colleges in agriculture related fields of study.

“The biggest benefit to the Connecticut farming community of having this program is it instills a sense of confidence and leadership in our next generation of farmers,” said Nichols. “It empowers them to make a difference in their communities and to recognize that their voice is powerful and critically important to the future of agriculture not only in Connecticut but across the nation.”