DIGHTON — They came bearing babies in backpacks and tattoos on their shoulders and ankles, bearded and shod in Teva sandals, accompanied by a dog or two. They might have been headed for Burning Man or a hipster cafe in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In fact, this was a gathering of young professionals. They are farmers, 2013 models. Like their predecessors, they’re passionate about growing things, about working with their hands and their heads, about food. But unlike previous generations of farmers, many were not raised on farms and have no access to family-owned land. They struggle to succeed in a field that has high barriers to entry, long hours, and low pay.
The farmers had come together on this evening to support each other and share a potluck supper at Buckle Farm in Dighton. The occasion was a Young Farmer Night, organized under the auspices of the Young Farmer Network. Both network and nights are the brainchildren of Margiana Petersen-Rockney, 23, herself a young farmer. Petersen-Rockney is passionate about supporting beginning farmers. “All my organizing work is around getting new farmers to thrive,” she says.
The Young Farmer Nights — which take place every couple of weeks or so, each time on a different farm in southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island — are just one of Petersen-Rockney’s efforts. Her other major initiative is a project called Pasture to Plate, launched this summer. The project was conceived as a way to help farmers connect with the public, support farmers’ efforts to create value-added products from the foods they grow and raise, and enable farms that lack licensed kitchens to offer farm-to-table dinners.
“Pasture to Plate was born out of my experience as a beginning farmer and doing organizing work with other beginning farmers,” says Petersen-Rockney. “There was this real need for farmers, especially new ones, to bring customers onto the farm to meet the farmers, see the food, and make that visceral connection.” Petersen-Rockney, a 2011 Brown University graduate who grew up on a farm in Rehoboth and until recently ran a 5-acre Community Supported Agriculture unit on land leased from her mother, won a grant in 2012 to develop Pasture to Plate.
It was an ambitious vision that entailed the creation of a mobile licensed kitchen in a food truck, but buying and outfitting the truck proved to be overly complicated and prohibitively expensive. Petersen-Rockney had to be nimble and adapt by reenvisioning the project as a series of simple, hands-on, child-friendly workshops that farms can host. She and two interns have spent the past couple of months creating curricula and gathering materials and resources. With Pasture to Plate’s support, farms can present workshops, open to the public, on topics such as pickling, breadmaking, butchering, and fermenting. Says Petersen-Rockney, “The first draft is ready to go. We’re going to do the workshops with the farmers, and then go back and revise — to see if, say, for a pickling workshop we need 30 jars, not 20.”
All this is in addition to Petersen-Rockney’s day job: coordinating the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts, part of Tufts University’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. In this role, she also supports the efforts of new farmers in the state and provides technical assistance to immigrant and refugee farmers in the Lowell area.
At the networking night in Dighton, the young farmers tour the fields before settling in to their potluck. The meal is simple and the conversation lively, with talk of compost and chickens and community garden plots. Sianna Plavin says, “I’ve been to all but two Young Farmer Night events. The people who show up become friends.” That’s helpful from both a social and a practical standpoint, she says. If there’s a piece of equipment she needs to borrow, “being friends makes it a lot more comfortable.”
Of course, that kind of cooperation among farmers is nothing new — think of barn-raising. But efforts such as the Young Farmers Network and Pasture to Plate, aided by social media, have a greater reach and are arguably more crucial at a time when new farmers face unprecedented challenges.
As storm clouds gather over the fields and dinner winds down, the indefatigable Petersen-Rockney is asked if she finds time to sleep.
“Probably not enough,” she says, adding with a shrug, “That’s true for every farmer.”
PASTURE TO PLATE www.pasturetoplatekitchen.com
YOUNG FARMER NETWORK www.youngfarmernight.comJane Dornbusch can be reached at jdorn