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Madison County farms see younger people take the helm

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in 2012 was 57. Forty percent of all farmers right now are over the age of 55. But in an era of increasing age among the men and women who grow our food, there are some younger people bucking the trend. Some of these new farmers are sending down roots in Madison County.

The cadre of 20 and 30-somethings running Greyrock Farm in Cazenovia are as likely to have a smartphone in their pocket as a pitchfork in their hands.

"We almost all have iPhones, we take pictures and we upload them to Facebook," said Matthew Volz, adding social media does the rest.

Credit Ellen Abbott/WRVO
Matthew Volz works the land in Madison County.

Volz, 29, started working at Greyrock Farm in Cazenovia three years ago with one dairy cow. Now it offers vegetables, dairy and meat to local restaurants and sells to central New Yorkers at farmers markets through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

"We can do things as easily as posting we're out of milk today, so customers don't have to drive all the way out to get milk. We'd never sold pigs outside the CSA and we had two more pigs that we needed. I posted it on Facebook, and we sold two pigs within an hour. The ability to take two minutes and reach a thousand people is huge for us."

Volz, who has a degree in philosophy from Middlebury College and who kicked around as a farm hand in several states before making a decision about what to do with his life, is one of the eight young farmers who works this piece of land that overlooks rolling hills and Oneida Lake in Cazenovia. He's also a prime example of a new breed of younger farmer.  

"We all had opportunities, and came from relatively comfortable families, and chose this. It is an active decision on everybody's part to be doing this work, and I think it's a big part of why it's working. One, people like to see people who are passionate about what they are doing, but also, this wasn't something that was handed to us, or something we had to do because we had pressure from our parents. If anything it was probably the opposite."

The story is a little different across the county for Elizabeth and Ian Blackburn, of Erieville. Ian is keeping his day job at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, but Elizabeth is ditching her bookkeeping career.

"Originally we weren't going to do a farm, and I was going to an off the farm job. But I got pregnant, and I kinda wanted to stay home with her. We started looking at alternative things to do and I decided to use the land that we have, because we have 102 acres," she said.

Credit Ellen Abbott/WRVO

Like many other younger farmers, they are using organic methods of farming.

"Going into an organic operation is not an easy thing to do, and I certainly have a deeper appreciation for the cost associated with organic vegetables at market and meats." Ian said.  

"You have a night with a bucket and soap and water getting the Japanese beetles off your crop," Elizabeth added.
This season has been a little disappointing, after rains drowned some of this season's vegetable and flower crops. But the thing that shocks both of them, is that people are buying them out.

For these young farmers the challenge is the same as it's always been for those who live off the land; hard physical labor, long hours, unpredictable weather, with not much financial reward. But their age, and the fact that they aren't from a farming background, brings a different perspective to the job, says Volz.

"Being younger, you've got some energy. It's a good thing because all of us look around and say 'I wouldn't do this my whole life, but I can do this for a couple of more years, and hopefully we'll get smarter and get more experience.' And coming from non-farm backgrounds, we are open to different ideas, and that's awesome, because sometimes you get stuck in a rut and can't think outside the box."

But to be successful, Blackburn said, getting support from Madison County's active farm community is key.

"We this year, for example, were having a terrible time with flea beetles and I thought it was us only, and the world was striking us down, and went to a farm meeting at Greyrock, and it was like everyone was just having problems and complaining. And I felt like it wasn't just me," Elizabeth said.

Both these young farmers are optimistic they'll be at it long term, and make a go of it.

"Physically it's tough, and that's something that's different than someone working at a desk. Like physically I might not be capable of doing this in five or ten years. But already I'm seeing progress and I'm optimistic that we'll be here for five, ten 25 years if we wanna be," Volz said. "Even if it all falls apart and everyone decides this is not what they want to do because it's not manageable, or personally sustainable, or not fun anymore, I won't be bitter at all or disappointed at deciding to spend my time this way. Because I've met a lot of great people, I've got to do something I'm passionate about for the past two years, and I gave it a shot. It's been a big adventure."

These and other farms will be on display at Madison County's Annual Open Farm Day Saturday from ten am to four pm.  for more information go to http://madisoncountyagriculture.com/openfarmday/

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.