By Ellis Sant’Andrea
When Matt Oricchio was 14, he wanted to raise chickens.
“My parents thought I was nuts,” said Oricchio, now a senior at the University of Connecticut where he studies plant science, ecology, natural resources and animal science.
Oricchio didn’t grow up on a farm, but his parents did have a big flower garden. He said his interest in animals and farming was “haphazard. ” He got some eggs from a nearby farm and built his own incubator, a process that taught him basic electric and carpentry skills. He also started a small garden in his back yard.
“I’m not sure they understand,” said Oricchio. “But if it makes me happy, that’s fine with them.”
Seven years later, he is now president of UConn’s EcoGarden club, a group of students who practice sustainable living by growing food in a plot of land behind the local hardware store.
They sell their produce to anyone who is interested, including one of the dining halls on campus.
From 1997 to 2002, the number of farmers under age 34 rose from 68,509 to 70,393, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years ago, however, that number fell to 50,579 and the percentage of farmers under age 25 was nearly cut in half.
Despite those numbers, there are still many environmentally savvy 20somethings like Oricchio who believe that there is a future in farming.
Thirty-one-year-old Erica Andrews, who owns Hurricane Farm with her husband Chris Andrews in Scotland, Conn, said, “our generation is becoming realistic that maybe the future of where we get things can’t always be overseas…[young people] are wising up about the environment…we see this differently than other generations.”
Greg Swartz, a director at New York’s Northeast Organic Farming Association, said last year’s 26th annual conference saw a record-breaking 1,000 attendees. Normally, the crowd is composed of senior citizens, but this time, there were an “amazing number” of youths with an interested in farming, and many who already had their own farms.
Four years ago, Benjamin Shute was living in uber-trendy Williamsburg, NY, a section of Brooklyn. He was raised on the Upper East Side and graduated from Amherst College, where he studied cultural anthropology.
After school, he worked on an Oregon vegetable farm and then moved back to New York for an office job. While in the city, he gardened in the community.
“The more I thought about it, the more I missed doing things on the farm,” said Shute. He wanted to pursue an agricultural life, but found it difficult to obtain the land he needed.
Thomas Hoagland, a professor of animal science at the University of Connecticut, said if your family doesn’t already own land that you can inherit, obtaining it is almost impossible due to expense, especially in the Northeast.
One acre in Mansfield, Conn. can sell for $80,000, while the best acre of land in Illinois could sell for $3,200 per acre, according to Hoagland.
Eventually, Shute found property he could rent in Tivoli, NY, where he now runs 25 acres known as Hearty Roots.
Schute is 31 and his partner on the farm, Miriam Latzer, is 33. In the summer, they hire a crew of roughly 10 people, all who happen to be under the age of 35.
Hearty Roots is an organic farm and is part of a Farm Share Program. Members of this program “receive a bountiful array of just-picked produce all season long,” says the Hearty Roots’ website. They currently serve about 1,000 households.
This system is based off of the Community Supported Agriculture model in which members pay a farmer to periodically supply them with fresh produce. Hundreds of small farms around the world use this system.
Schute said there has been a youth surge in agriculture because of “an awakening for the opportunity to do something fun, satisfying, productive…and you can be your own boss.”
Being a farmer in the midst of a suffering economy seems like it would be a rough life, but not for Shute.
“The good thing about farming is it is something we will always need. There is plenty of demand for produce since people want to cook at home instead of going out.”
Hoagland said you “have to have it in your blood. It’s the same enticement as when you start your own business. It’s the American way. You are in control of what’s going on around you…farms are an ideal way of doing that.”
Oricchio said keeping a one-acre field requires 120 man-hours per week to maintain a sustainable garden.
“It’s not easy living this lifestyle,” said Erica Andrews. “You need to make room for the necessities, like not having an iPod.”
“It’s a different quality of life,” said Hoagland. “No new cars, no $400,000 houses…you have to sacrifice that kind of stuff to have land and equipment.”
“You or your partner would have to have a second job to augment the income in some way,” he said, especially in an expensive area like the Northeast. “Or else you couldn’t do it.”
But Erica Andrews said there seems to be new interest in the public in farming. A film crew shooting an independent documentary about farming in Connecticut came to Hurricane Farm to feature the Andrews. The movie will be a follow up to an earlier film, “The Farmer’s Voice.”
Another documentary film in the works, “The Greenhorns,” follows the lives of several young farmers in America. Also, Erica Andrews was also a guest on the Colin McEnroe radio show on Connecticut’s Public Broadcasting Network earlier this month.
“It’s hip to be organic,” she said.
Hoagland said the reason is simple. “We are losing open space. The people who preserve it are interesting.”
According to Hoagland, the key to having a successful small farm is originality. “You have to have something unique that you can charge extra for,” he said. “Out of all the milk farms, the ones that do well have veggie stands, tours, corn mazes…it’s more profitable to [sell things to people individually] for five times as much than to do commercial production.”