AMESBURY — Ally Scholtz loves farming so much she can't imagine doing anything else. She imagines the dream farm she will run one day: "It will be very community oriented, donating food to soup kitchens and food pantries. I'm going to sell to local restaurants and get kids to intern on the farm."
It may be a while, though, before Scholtz realizes those dreams. The Cider Hill Farm intern has to get through high school. She is 14.
Scholtz is one of a generation of young people, in their teens and 20s, who are looking to agriculture as a career, and already know what they want. Kickstarting their choices are farm internships, academic training, and networks that help young farmers connect with each other.
As interest in locally and sustainably grown food spreads, so too does the status of farming as a profession. "Students are finding that food production can be a rewarding career," says John Gerber, a professor of sustainable food and farming at University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture. "It's not just about growing cabbage. It's a profession that involves community engagement and social principles."
Young farmers agree that the job is one that engages them on many levels. "Farming challenges me in every way I want to be challenged — physically, creatively, emotionally, mentally," says Suzy Konecky, 25, creamery manager at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown. Konecky grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and went to Cornell University to study human development. But she got involved in a student farm there and soon switched to international agriculture and development. After several internships at small farms around the Northeast, she landed at Cricket Creek, where she now runs an internship program for aspiring dairy farmers. The internship is rigorous, lengthy, and not for rank beginners. Cricket Creek seeks interns with some farming experience and asks them to make a one-year commitment.
Margiana Petersen-Rockney, 22, is another young farmer working to educate others. She grew up on a dairy goat farm in Rehoboth, and while an undergraduate at Brown, she began to lease 5 acres of land from her mother to start her own CSA. Today, her Rosasharn Farm CSA serves 50 families and hires three interns each summer. Petersen-Rockney has created a network of young farmers, with biweekly Young Farmer Night events — touring each other's farms, holding potlucks — that regularly draw 30 or 40 attendees.
Like Cricket Creek, the Rosasharn internship is demanding. In addition to their farm chores, interns have a syllabus and weekly classes, with readings on sustainable agriculture, business, soil science, and more. Petersen-Rockney is also careful to disabuse would-be farmers of any romantic notions they might have, especially after one intern quit on day two. "We were building raised beds and composting; that's physically hard work," she recalls. "The next morning, she packed up and left."
That might be an unusual scenario, but, says Petersen-Rockney, "Lots of people who haven't experienced living and working on a farm don't know that it's such a hard life."
Konecky admits that she still romanticizes the farming life "all the time," but says, "Coming to manage [the creamery at Cricket Creek] was an immense reality check." Not because the work was hard, but because much of it was not what she thought of as farming. "It was startling to me how much I had to be a businesswoman. When I was working at the student farm, I just wanted to pull carrots out of the ground and connect with customers at the farmers' market. I didn't expect to be sitting at a desk behind a computer."
Alas, many young farmers don't — or don't yet — look at the work as a business. Wanting to be outdoors is a common reason for going into farming. It's one of the things that led Scholtz to pursue an internship at Cider Hill, where she worked through the spring and summer. "I used to help my grandmother in her garden when I was little, and I fell in love with it," she says. "I realized that being in the garden was more fun than staying inside and watching TV." She recently earned a scholarship to study farming and sustainability at a private school in New Hampshire.
On a recent late-summer morning, Scholtz shuttled between farm chores at Cider Hill, weeding, picking apples, and packing up produce for the farm's CSA. She's learned so much here, she says, "How to pick, how to plant, how to eat right, and how to be a nicer person."
For Kim Buddington, 17, an aspiring dairy farmer from Springfield, goats are the reason for her passion. The 4-H member leased her first dairy goat when she was 12. Now, she's got a herd of about 10 that she keeps on rented farmland in nearby Wilbraham, spending about an hour and a half each morning and evening milking and tending the animals.
Buddington doesn't have the facilities to process the milk for drinking, so for now, it goes into soap she sells at farmers' markets. It's all harder than she imagined, she says, but nonetheless she dreams of having her own farm one day.
Nothing about working a small farm is easy. Land is expensive, particularly in New England, as are fuel, grain, equipment, and other necessities. That doesn't stop these young farmers, or even concern them particularly.
"You don't do it for the money," says Petersen-Rockney. "You don't do it for the prestige. You do it for the lifestyle. You get to work outside, and you're constantly challenged. Never is there a dull day."