ACCORDING TO CENSUS DATA, the average age of farmers in the US is above 50 and continues to rise. At the same time, the percentage of farmers under 35 has been on the decline. The ageing of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution.
Fortunately, an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s are interested in farming as a career. Many of these young farmers are attracted to small-scale, less-mechanized, organic methods of farming and tend to gravitate to the farm-to-fork culture popular in the Pacific Northwest.
Cesily Stewart, the sixth of eight children is in her late 20s and is the force behind Silverleaf Farm of Naselle, Washington. This year, she is selling her farm products for the first time at the River People Farmers Market in Astoria. She vends produce and flowers that she grows as well as value added products of her own creation such as herbal teas and sweet treats. She often shares a booth with Fred Johnson of Fred’s Homegrown, also of Naselle.
Silverleaf Farm encompasses 14 acres of bottomland enclosed within a horseshoe bend of the Naselle River. The Stewart family, who has lived onsite off and on since 1984, owns the farm. Roughly half of the acreage is open field, the remainder is ancient overgrown apple orchard and forest with some old growth spruce remaining near the river. The main house and outbuildings dot the edge of the field. A pet horse roams freely except for the fenced-in garden areas. It’s a pretty spot if one edits out the new clearcut across the road to the south of the farm.
For Cesily Stewart, the journey to becoming a farmer was inevitable. “For a long period of my life, I felt disconnected from the culture I was trying to participate in” she said. “After a series of soul-sucking jobs, I came to the point where living sustainably by farming seemed like the only thing to do.” She had been traveling for a time and had contemplated finding land for a farm. Near the start of the current recession, she was about to start a farm internship on the island of Maui when she made what she thought would be a quick detour home for a family visit.
During that visit she learned that her parents felt they might lose their property. Because of this, Cesily decided to remain in Naselle. Over several months of discussion, Stewart, her parents, and her sister and brother-in law hammered out a plan that would allow them all to live on the family land and contribute to the mortgage together, with five of them sharing the payments instead of just two.
Cesily’s part of the project was to start up and run a small-scale commercial farm on the property. “ I just felt like that was my opportunity, she said. “I don’t really have all the skills I was hoping I could amass before starting such a project, but I felt that if I didn’t act then, the land that I love might no longer be available to me.”
Stewart now grows greens, squash, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables along with medicinal herbs and flowers for bouquets on a ½ acre plot which is about the most as she can currently handle. There is plenty of room for expansion in the future, and she plans to start a CSA, but feels that she doesn’t yet have the experience needed for such a project.
During Stewart’s childhood, her family always had a big garden. In making the leap to production-scale farming she has experienced a huge learning curve, while having to invest more money and effort than she had initially estimated. Last year when the production garden was first tilled and planted; she had to learn how much acreage she could realistically take on. “My big lesson this year has been trying to learn soil nutrition,” she says.
One of the obstacles for new farmers who wish to avoid petroleum-based agricultural methods is a lack of knowledge. Young farmers used to learn from their elders, but the shift to large-scale factory farms in the 20th Century has left a knowledge gap of a generation or more. It is difficult for new farmers like Stewart to find mentors in an area like the Naselle Valley where, other than remnants of cow/calf production, agriculture has fallen out of fashion. She is able to consult with Fred Johnson to some extent as he has been farming in the area since 2003 and is a few years farther along the often-daunting learning process.
Stewart realizes that at some point she is probably going to have to “bite the bullet” and attend a farm school. She is interested in Greenbank Farm on Whidby Island, Washington, which offers a 7-month sustainable agriculture program that teaches the technical and business skills needed to run a farm. She is also interested in studying herbal medicine, permaculture, and sustainable building, and acquiring primitive skills such as bow hunting.
Ultimately, the Stewart family plans to operate Silverleaf Farm as a collective farm and sustainable living and learning center, offering workshops and hands-on experience in raising food and low-impact construction.
Young farmers like Cesily Stewart are important. Big Ag as we know it is heading for inevitable changes away from the current heavy dependence on petroleum. We need a corps of innovative young farmers who will help transition the face of agriculture into a post-petroleum future. Kudos to Stewart for all of the hard work she has done and will continue to do!