New Jersey’s Beginning Farmers: The Journeyperson Interviews
Two organic farmers and one on his way tell us about their experiences as beginning farmers, and how the NOFA-NJ Beginning Farmer Program helped them get their start.
Here at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) we are in our third year of the Beginning Farmer Program. In this program, qualified beginning farmers can receive stipends for educational courses and materials, scholarships to our annual Winter Conference, mentorship and access to land. The Beginning Farmer Program also contains our Journeyperson program. A Journeyperson is a beginning farmer who has recently begun farming independently, makes his or her own financial, marketing, and production decisions, while having access to an experienced mentor for advice and encouragement. So, how has the NOFA-NJ Beginning Farmer Program aided beginning farmers in New Jersey? I’ve interviewed three of our Journeyperson farmers to find out. Matt Hand is the owner and operator of Hand Picked Farm in Flemington, NJ, and is in his second year as a Journeyperson. Lindsay Napolitano and Johann Rinkens of Fields Without Fences in Frenchtown, NJ have recently completed their participation in the Journeyperson program.
Erica Evans: What drew you to the Journeyperson Program?
Matt: During my apprenticeship I attended a few NOFA-NJ workshops and the ‘08 Winter Conference. When I found my land, my landlord had let me know about the Journeyperson program, and after learning about it I knew it was the right step in my farming career. It gave me the opportunity to employ a seasoned mentor, tap into a network of other beginning farmers, and get involved in NOFA-NJ in a significant way.
Lindsay: As the flagship participants in the NOFA-NJ Journeyperson Program we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Looking back on it now, I think this program really facilitates interpersonal connection, and a semi-conscious or unconscious desire for this connection is probably what initiated our involvement. We have developed relationships with our mentors, the staff at NOFA-NJ, and our local farming community in general, as a result of our participation in this program. This is how ecosystems take shape, diversify, and self support – interconnectivity. The more we are able to conceptualize our work as part of a larger movement toward collective change, the more we become galvanized beyond our ego-driven individualistic motivations.
Erica Evans: How do you feel about your experience as a Journeyperson?
Johann: I had a wonderful experience in the Journeyperson program. The development of the mentor relationships are an invaluable asset, the depths of which will unfold far beyond the program’s timeframe. Our mentors are now allies and friends that we can turn to in the future. The educational stipend allowed us to participate in educational programming we otherwise would not have been able to attend. The two components of mentorship and self education compliment each other well and allow a flexibility in learning styles, approach, and lend a balance to the deficits of relying solely on either component.
Erica Evans: Any lessons learned?
Matt: I have learned the great value and importance of meticulous planning, and that “its never too late”.
Johann: Farming is like kneading dough, we take in the experience of other farmers as the flour and water we ferment. This folding in and unfolding again promotes growth within our operation and ourselves. We observe and interact with one another’s landscapes and practices and that bonded relationship influences our direction moving forward.
Erica Evans: What do you wish you had known when beginning to farm? What advice would you give to someone beginning to farm?
Matt: I wish I better understood the zoning, land use, right to farm criteria better. Best advice: talk to as many people as possible and make good connections. Take good records and review them, and have fun!
Lindsay: Advice I wish I had taken to heart earlier on, is to not compare yourself to anyone else. Experience has infinite range, and the moment that you start conforming to someone else’s expectations, you deny the creative process within yourself. I think most people understand the severity of the environmental issues we are experiencing right now. As creative individuals we all have an opportunity to reconceptualize how we interface with the planet, and that includes the agricultural sphere. It can be difficult to challenge conventions and traditions – even within organic farming – but this is the process by which new paradigms emerge.
Erica Evans: What are some difficulties as a beginning farmer?
Matt: Starting from scratch. All of the land I have access to has been hayed for decades, which has pluses and minuses, but it needs work to be the best it can. Equipment-wise I don’t own much, but through networking I was able to borrow a tractor from one person, and a plough and disc from another person to get tillage work done.
Johann: The time and energy commitment needed to continue with daily tasks, climbing the learning curve of ownership of one’s own operation, and having the resolve to continue in the face of adversity are all difficulties I face as a farmer.
Erica Evans: What are the joys?
Matt: Being tied to the rhythm of the seasons, working outside, being around my family, solving complex problems and seeing my progress as a tangible thing.
Lindsay: I enjoy the spontaneity and surprise of working with nature. It is an experience that requires thoughtful engagement and radical acceptance. Understanding the fragility and persistence of life and biological processes has really shifted my experience of a complex emerging reality that connects all living beings. There is also an incredible sensory experience working with plants.
Erica Evans: For someone thinking about becoming a farmer, what kinds of questions do you think they should be asking themselves?
Matt: Do you enjoy the outdoors in all conditions? Is your family prepared, ready, and supportive of your endeavor? Do you have income security for the startup period?
Johann: How committed are you to farming? If it is something you love in your heart, move forward. Do you have the fortitude to push through (or bend to) obstacles that will arise? They will arise, and though painful when faced head on, by overcoming them, they dissipate and leave the joy of accomplishment in their wake.
Erica Evans: As a farmer, what is one tool or resource you cannot live without?
Matt: Google Drive, I do all of my planning and record keeping with it, so I can update financial, field or harvest records from my phone.
Johann: ATTRA/NCAT publications. The combination of research data, summary, and forthrightness put into their publications are an incredible resource for the farming community.
Erica Evans: How has NOFA-NJ contributed to your beginning farmer experience?
Matt: Great workshops and Winter Conference, JP program providing mentorship and educational opportunities, knowledge of [NOFA-NJ’s technical specialist], and the whole Beginning Farmer Program for addressing a need in society.
Lindsay: Through our involvement with NOFA-NJ we entered into a growing community of individuals and organizations working toward alternatives and remedies to an increasingly toxic environmental and food landscape. Their spirit of collectivism has been a real impetus for us to engage with fellow farmers and the larger community. Through NOFA-NJ events we are constantly coming in contact with farmers, mentors and peers, pursuing similar initiatives and experiencing similar struggles. In a society that is increasingly atomized and propelled by scarcity and competition, the value of connection with likeminded people really cannot be downplayed. We feel incredibly lucky to have access to an organization like this, and inspired by the individuals who operate it from a spirit of collective advancement.
Erica Evans: Why is farming meaningful to you?
Lindsay: Farming provides the opportunity to connect with the fundamental experience of interacting with the natural world. It is a creative and humbling practice that engages the entire body and mind. Farming is a complex endeavor that has the potential to regenerate or continue to pollute ecosystems. To that extent, I think there is a growing impetus for organic and sustainability minded individuals to enact radical change.
Johann: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” -Masanobu Fukuoka Farming encompasses all aspects of our relationships to ourselves and others. Farmers are scientists, artists, mathematicians, mechanics, teachers, students, learners, and doers all wrapped up in a dirty package of self-doubt, agonizing work days, joyful accomplishments, and sorrowful loss. We view each season as a cycle of growth and dormancy, your one chance, your one shot to make it happen, whether it’s that season’s crops or the achievement of your life’s goal, the lines blur in the field.
Erica Evans: As you know the NOFA-NJ grant cycle that funds the Beginning Farmer Program ends in August. Why would you like to see the Beginning Farmer Program at NOFA-NJ continue into the future?
Matt: The Beginning Farmer Program is just getting started! With the population of farmers aging and dwindling, we need to ensure that new farmers have access not only to land but to technical support and educational resources. The Beginning Farmer Program fills the gap left by colleges and vocational schools for real and intensive farming experience.
Lindsay: The Beginning Farmer Program is an exceptionally well-rounded initiative that offers support in the form of physical resources, educational resources, and community building opportunities. It is generally uncontroversial to acknowledge the benefit of continuing education. There is always room to expand understanding and grow, and organizations that support that process contribute to the advancement of individuals with a larger societal impact. Beginning farmers face a consortium of challenges including limited access or resources in all forms. As a culture we face a perplexing paradigm; food security depends on a decentralized, sustainable, and diversified agricultural landscape. Farming requires significant capital investment, often with limited return. Local small farm producers must compete with a global food system that often relies on low wage labor and crop subsidies resulting in food prices set artificially low. Climate change is contributing to increased stress on growers who must contend with unpredictable weather and degraded ecosystems. And government policy continues to support conventional chemical agriculture that pollutes our bodies and our planet. Funding for organizations like NOFA-NJ supports alternatives to this man-made reality by empowering conversations and actions around a systemic shift.
The funding cycle for the Beginning Farmer Program grant ends August 2014. We hope to renew funding for the next cycle of this program so that we may continue fostering an environment that allows beginning organic farmers to grow and flourish. Funding for the Beginning Farmer Program is provided in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2011-49400-30739.
For more information about NOFA-NJ’s Beginning Farmer Program, visit their website.