Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part article.
We have been reading for years about the average age of farmers creeping older. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average age of farmers then was 57.5 years.
Farming is hard essential work. Farmers directly influence the life of every person in the nation every day. People don’t go into farming because of a love of money, but for a love of farming. Our nation desperately needs a new generation of farmers to nurture the land and produce wholesome food. The strength of our nation depends upon it.
In Wisconsin near Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay there are many small farms producing food for local and regional consumers. A large variety of produce is available in season. A growing selection of local value-added products, meats, preserves, fermented food, beverages and cheese are also available year-round. Much of the activity is due to young people in the area who are engaged in small-business enterprises on the land. Many came from outside the area to find opportunity. Some are now fully engaged in agriculture, some are producing primarily for their immediate family and some are working on the farms of others.
Todd Rothe, with his wife, Kelsey Rothe, and their children, own and run River Road Farm near Marengo, Wisconsin. River Road Farm produces fresh produce for local and regional customers.
“I grew up as the neighborhood farmhand,” Todd Rothe said. “My parents didn’t have a farm but we were surrounded by dairy farms. At the age of 12 I chased down one of the farmers on my bicycle and asked if I could work for him. He laughed, threw my bike into the back of his pickup, took me back to his farm and had me start throwing hay bales. I worked on that farm and two others until I graduated high school.
“I ended up going to college for natural resources. There was a farmer there who talked about vegetable farming with a community-supported-agriculture model. And that lit the lightbulb for me. The (community-supported-agriculture) model, where you can have a relationship with the consumer and have control over your product, struck me.”
Friends suggested Rothe explore Ashland and Northland College.
“I didn’t come here to go to college,” he said. “I came to homestead. I went back to college to finish my degree in business management at Northland after I tried market farming and failed. I am really good at working hard, but I avoided paperwork. After I got a business plan and really understood what it takes to build a farm enterprise I started this farm. Kelsey and I took a class, “Farm Beginnings,” in Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a one-year intensive farm business-planning course. At the end we wrote a business plan we could take to banks for financing. We found a piece of property that the owner wanted turned back into a farm after sitting empty for a couple of decades. We negotiated the purchase at his kitchen table and were then able to go to a conventional lender for a loan.”
That first business plan was based on the idea of using high-tunnel structures to, as Rothe says, “Cheat the seasons.” The high tunnel, a sort of greenhouse, creates microclimates that extend the growing season in spring and fall. Using cold hearty greens in spring and fall as well as premium slicing tomatoes in summer as crops, the enterprise succeeded. In recent years the operation has focused on premium salad-green mixes sold at outlets under the River Road Farm brand.
Rothe has advice for prospective farmers.
“A business plan on paper really helped us maintain our focus on goals; what we wanted to achieve in three to five years,” he said. “We could check ourselves each year and each season. Had we succeeded? Failed? What could be adjusted? Being able to track and see where money was made and lost was essential. Don’t be afraid of numbers and paperwork. In the end it is fun because you can see how everything plays out.”
Many small farmers start farms in Ashland and Bayfield counties in Wisconsin.
“I think (it’s because) we have a healthy food culture and appreciation for agriculture in general here,” Rothe said. “The small liberal-arts college in Ashland (Northland College) purchases food from local farmers. There are farmers markets and roadside stands. That coupled with the sheer diversity of farms, dairy, fruit orchards, and berry farms (invigorates the markets). There has been resurgence in demand for wholesome food and now a local-foods movement that drove demand for vegetable products. The community-supported-agriculture model took off here. The cost of living is fairly low. It is not as expensive to get started in vegetable production. So we are seeing more young people move here to start small farms.”
Rothe also cited the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It provided cost-sharing for high-tunnel construction to help finance the first high tunnel at River Road Farms.
“Access to land and access to financing are the two biggest hurdles facing prospective farmers,” he said. “Angel investors or some creative structure to provide financing would be hugely helpful in getting young farmers started in the business. I believe in local and regional food systems with a diversity of food products that allow us to create our own economy. That way if food distribution chains shut down, we can still feed ourselves.
“Just before the pandemic a group of us was meeting because interest in local food was on the wane. (Community-supported-agriculture) customers were disappearing. Farmers markets had struggled. We were strategizing ways to market local foods. Then the pandemic hit and things changed overnight. Now local producers can’t keep up with demand. It’s wonderful but give it five years. It seems nationally complacency sets in, our food culture changes and people just go to big stores and buy what is cheap and easy instead of taking the extra step to go to the farmers market or local food co-op and see what is available from local farmers.”
To be continued …