Thirty-one-year-old Elizabeth Green could be a mighty force in politics, as an organizer or working in a campaign. But these days, she prefers collecting peppers to collecting petition signatures.
The Beverly, MA, native tried politics for a few years after college, taking her dreams of changing the world from Wheaton College in Illinois to Washington, D.C., where she worked with faith-based political advocacy group Sojourners.
Green began attending meetings with political operatives working on what would become the 2008 Farm Bill, and it was, for her, like going down a rabbit hole into a world of food policies she never imagine existed.
“I got interested from the policy side: How decisions were being made about who’s getting subsidies, how nutrition, conservation, and farm support are all in the same piece of legislation—which is crazy—and just learning more about our food system and how our health as people is connected to the food we eat,” she tells TakePart. “But also how the way we farm is really environmentally destructive, harmful to the air, the water.”
She wondered: Are there farmers out there who are farming the right way—sustainably? And “is that something I’d like to do?”
A few years later, in 2006, Green was back in Boston working for another faith-based justice organization and volunteering with an advocacy group on the side. But she had an itch, the seeds of which were planted back in D.C., to get out of the office and into the fields. So Green began applying for farm apprenticeships north of Boston. She says this process made her painfully aware of how little her traditional, suburban upbringing prepared her for farm life.
“I had zero experience,” she says. “I didn’t know what a lot of the plants looked like in the field. I just knew what they looked like in the grocery store.”
She got that first apprenticeship—on a Belmont, MA, farm, working with its community-supported agriculture program—which led to a second apprenticeship in Dover. After that, Green managed a farm in Essex, a position she held through Dec. 2012. The following month, she started as the assistant manager of 10 to 15 acres of farmland in Beverly, her hometown. The learning curve she had to overcome, she says, “was crazy,” but she credits nurturing bosses and a supportive Eastern Massachusetts farming community—not to mention on-the-job training—with getting her through.
“In farming, you get a chance to practice the stuff you’re learning everyday, throughout the season,” she says. “So even though you’re learning all the time—different plants are coming up all the time and there are different tasks around the farm—you’re still always getting to practice what you know. That’s really incredible for learning.”
Someday, Green hopes to run her own farm. She and some friends have been eyeing some land on the North Shore for a possible community farm, but it “may be a few years down the road” because of the associated costs.
Access to money and land are can be major obstacles for millennials interested in farming, according to data from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition. In 2011, the coalition, which “represents, mobilizes and engages” more than 10,000 young or beginning farmers across the nation, surveyed 1,000 beginning farmers. It found that 78 percent ranked “lack of capital” as their top challenge, with another 40 percent citing “access to credit." Sixty-eight percent ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.
For years, the number of beginning farmers declined precipitously, according to U.S. census data. But while the last year for which we have data, 2007, showed drops in both the number of new farmers and the total revenue share new farmers bring in, NYFC director Lindsey Lusher Shute believes the census numbers don’t tell the whole story, and that the new farms have actually surged in the last several years alone.
“The agricultural census does not capture all young people working on farms, as apprenticeships or as harvest workers,” says Shute, who says the coalition’s supporter base grew by 30 percent in the last four months. “There’s no question that we need new and young farmers in the United States, and we’re hopeful the surge that we’re seeing on the ground will result in a new, upward trend in the next census.”
She adds that initiatives like the USDA’s new microloan program for beginning farmers, which was announced last week, should help give more young farmers a shot at growing their dream.
Like Green, who is perfectly content working and learning the intricacies of the farm in her current position in the meantime. And at the end of the day, she sleeps soundly knowing that she’s doing her part to change the food system—and having a great time doing it.
“Most people I know don’t feel that way about their work,” she says. “To me, it’s a very special gift to have that experience in my day-to-day job, of being thrilled with what I do.”
Do you know any millennials who wants to get into farming?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter