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Young farmers encounter lack of money, available land

Madyson Versteeg and Jorge Cano chased their dream to a rented, 6-acre plot off the Palouse Highway.

With altruistic aims and about $15,000 in savings, they planted their initial crop in long rows on an old horse pasture. Onions. Peppers. Kale. Collard greens.

The couple went to college for this, studying sustainable agriculture at the University of Montana before moving back to Spokane to start the farm.

Now, at the end of their first season, they’re just hoping to break even.

“At the farmers market, it’s hard because no one sees the whole picture; they only see what’s on your table,” said Cano, who started CasaCano Farms with Versteeg earlier this year. “Anyone who comes out here gets that we’re struggling and we’re working really hard.”

Cano and Versteeg, both 23, typify the new breed of farmer: young, college-educated, passionate and determined.

The number of young farmers like them is growing in the United States – alongside consumer demand for locally grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and meats. Also growing is the average age of the American farmer, fueling forecasts of an 8 percent downturn in the agricultural workforce by 2018.

While more young people are farming now than they were nearly a decade ago, numbers are nowhere near as high as they were in the early 1980s. And multiple barriers face those wanting to break into the business.

The biggest challenges: coming up with capital and locating land.

“The idea of owning a farm seemed impossible to me,” said 33-year-old Eileen Napier, manager at Ramstead Ranch in Ione.

She was able to follow her farming dream with the help of partners: the husband-and-wife team of Stan and Jean Hayes. They bought the ranch six years ago with the aim of sustainably raising cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and pigs on the rolling hills of the Pend Oreille River Valley.

“The option for buying this kind of food and having this kind of connection has been diminishing – and it’s young people who are asking why,” Napier said. “I think they are creating their own opportunity for that connection.”

Cano and Versteeg, who plan to marry next summer, saved money for a year before they had enough to buy the irrigation pipes, livestock, feed and seed they needed to start their operation.

Since they’re practicing no-till farming on rented land, they were able to skip buying expensive machinery like tractors and avoid recurring costs like fuel and upkeep – as well as a mortgage payment.

Still, Cano said the couple have invested at least another $15,000 in the farm since starting it last February. And each continues to work another job – she as a server and bartender at Central Food, he as a construction worker for his dad’s company, also named CasaCano – in order to pay rent. Their landlords are the parents of their two housemates and longtime friends.

Most young farmers rent land, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition. The coalition’s 2011 report found 70 percent of farmers younger than 30 rented land, compared to 37 percent of farmers older than 30. Started in 2010, the organization aims to support “practices and policies that will sustain young, independent and prosperous farmers now and in the future,” according to its website at www.youngfarmers.org.

Its report also found 78 percent of farmers ranked “lack of capital” as a top challenge for beginners, with another 68 percent ranking land access as the top obstacle.

Cano and Versteeg love their farm’s location, 3 miles south of the city limits and close to consumers and farmers markets. They plan to farm there again next season.

They grow tomatoes, potatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, beets, basil, bok choy and squash on 1.5 acres. The rest of their rented plot is home to two steer, five heritage pigs, 50 pastured meat chickens, 60 laying hens and 18 ducks.

Eventually, the couple want to transfer operations to a more permanent location: their own. They’re also hoping to eventually become certified organic.

Trouble is land prices where they want to be – near a population center with people who seek out locally grown food – tend to be pricier than parcels farther into the countryside.

“We like the interactions we have in the city. We don’t want to be alone way out in the country,” Cano said.

But, “For affordability,” Versteeg said, “we’re probably going to be out 20 to 30 minutes.”

The couple are planning to apply for a federal farm loan, and they’re trying to be realistic.

“It is hard physical work,” Versteeg said. “It’s good we’re young. We can do the work.”

Neither comes from a farming family. Versteeg’s father teaches English at Spokane Falls Community College. Her mother is a lab tech for an orthodontist. Cano’s father has the construction company and his mom teaches math at Chase Middle School.

Both became interested in agriculture at Ferris High School under the guidance of science teacher Robin Crain, 54, who teaches Advanced Placement Environmental Science, or APES, and an elective called Outdoor Living.

This fall, he helped Cano and Versteeg butcher their first crop of chickens – and bought two. He’s also purchased produce from his former students, whom he admires for their sustainable practices.

“If people wanted to farm the area in another 50 years, the soil would be even richer because of some of the things they’re doing,” he said.

According to the most recent census by the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of young farmers – those younger than 35 – climbed from 118,613 to 119,833 between 2007 and 2012. That compares to 356,146 in 1982.

While the trend is starting to change, the uptick in the number of young farmers remains slight. And the overall number of farms is dropping. In 2012, there were 2.1 million farms in America, down a bit more than 4 percent from 2007.

Published every five years, the USDA census accounts for U.S. farms and ranches and their operators. The latest also shows principal farm operators nationwide were an average of 58.3 years old, an increase of 1.2 years from 2007 and nearly eight from 1982, when the average age was 50.5.

Between 1982 and 2007, fewer people were getting in to farming.

“Nobody wanted to work on the farm; it’s hard work, long hours and no days off basically. I mean, who wants to do that?” said Crain, whose grandparents raised cattle and crops on a farm west of Deer Park. When they died, the land was sold; no one in the family wanted to take it over.

“In our society, we’re just so far removed from nature, and part of that is our food: it comes from a grocery store and it comes in plastic bags and we never really see the process,” Crain said. Now, “I think you’re seeing a lot more concern about where our food is coming from.”

Versteeg and Cano made their debut at the Thursday Market in the South Perry District in May and started a seasonal farmstand and community-shared agriculture program around the same time. Through the CSA, a dozen customers pay $500 in spring, then pick up produce once a week through the fall.

“We consider ourselves young business people,” Cano said, listing their values as transparency, community, education and sustainability. “We’re in the business of producing the highest quality food we can. But we want to do it in a healthy ecosystem and in a healthy human system.”

They’ve seen some success with regular customers, including a few local restaurants – like Central Food, Boots Bakery and Casper Fry. Still, they aren’t doing as well as they had planned. In April, two months into their operation, they realized they couldn’t afford to keep paying their only employee.

Ben Alexander, 19, another Ferris grad, still works on the farm – as a volunteer.

“I couldn’t not be out here because this is where I feel I belong,” he said. “I feel like this is my calling.”

Alexander believes in the approach at CasaCano Farms. “We’re weeding and mulching,” he said – but, that’s about it. “It’s beyond no-till. We leave the soil in its natural state.”

He, too, was inspired by Crain, who showed the 2009 documentary “Fresh” in class. After watching the film about sustainable agriculture, “I was totally fired up,” Alexander said. “That is the way I want to live – just living in relation to the earth and being a farmer.”

Versteeg and Cano hope to be able to afford to pay him next year.

“We want to have a working model that’s a good source of income and sustainable in its practices,” Cano said. “We were planning to do better at the farmers market and just in general, but especially at the market. To be sustainable you have to be able to pay people. It’s very emotional to not be able to follow through.”

Ramstead Ranch is more established. The last two years, it’s been able to recruit and pay summer interns, young people in their late teens and early 20s who are interested in agriculture.

“I’d love to have my own farm,” said 22-year-old Sam Rosenthal, of Agua Dulce, California, who interned at Ramstead Ranch last summer.

“Our food has changed so much in the last 100 years,” he said. “We’re not eating what our grandparents were eating. So much of our food comes from all over the world. We have so many more exports and imports. By eating seasonally and buying locally, we’re really improving our health and also the local economy’s health.”

While CasaCano Farms isn’t yet turning a profit, all three young farmers believe they’re in the right place.

“All of us have a lot of faith that Spokane is growing and becoming a more attractive place,” Cano said. “We want to put our roots down here.”

Selling their produce in South Perry evokes a particular sense of pride for Cano, who used to skateboard in the same parking lot where he sets up for Thursday Market. He, Versteeg and Alexander grew up nearby.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel by any means,” Versteeg said. “But, as you can see, throughout the world, there isn’t one way to farm. We’re still figuring it out, I think.”