05/11/2011 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2011

A New Generation of Farmers

At age 39, Kylie Spooner put her Ivy League education to unexpected use. She moved into the farmhouse where her father, Dean Spooner, was raised. The late Henry Spooner, Kylie's grandfather, bought the two bedroom farmhouse in 1938 along with the small plot of land upon which the house sits. Using simple tools, two horses, and an axe, Henry cleared forty acres of field from the land and put it to use as grazing for cattle. The farm, located in West Edmeston near Cooperstown, New York has been a working dairy ever since.

In the year 2000, Dean retired due to a farm-related illness that took him out of the fields that he had been working since he was four; almost sixty years of farming the property. Farming, it seems, was becoming a family vocation. It was a vocation that Kylie had no intention of taking up when she started her own business, got married, and pursued her degree in Urban Studies and Sustainable Development at Columbia University. But, in 2010, after finishing her degree and ending her marriage, she yearned to come back to the land, "I had a little drawing of an old barn under snow, a beautiful old barn with a stone foundation." That farm drawing, pinned to the wall in front of her desk served as a beacon; an image to bring her back to the farm. We all have fantasies that pull us through difficult times, and for Kylie, "That little picture of the farm sustained me. I would see it and remember that I was going to go back to the farm." Today, Kylie is proud to be taking her turn as the third generation of farmers on her family's land.

I am really excited to be tuned into all the history. I love that this is how my people survived. I love that I am part of that determination. I am honoring and nurturing this land. In the meantime, it is just so satisfying to grow things myself, to understand plants and animals, and to understand what it takes to make them healthy.

Kylie is part of a new generation of farmers. While 39 may not sound much like a "new generation," she stands in stark contrast to an aging face of farming. National estimates account for 2.2 million farmers in the U.S. and their average age is 57.5 years old. One fourth of U.S. farmers are 65 years old or older. Only 2.8% are between the ages of 24-35.

As a new farmer, Kylie is lucky. She has already overcome two of the many obstacles that new farmers face including access to land and the skill-training that allows for capable new farms to be ready in the face of difficult seasons. There's a huge learning curve, and most of the country comes out of school having no idea how to plant, cultivate, or harvest food or fiber: our most essential and basic needs. Kylie was able to spend her first season working alongside of her father and learning from his years of experience.

Kylie, along with other new farmers, also represents a new variety of practices and goals that she uses to develop her farm. Over the decades, farms have been set up to promote efficiency. This has meant large scale, single-product cropping. But that has only been possible due to stable oil prices, relatively stable weather patterns, and access to healthy soils and water (70% of the water that we use now goes to agricultural lands). More recently, along with the explosion of a conversation around sustainability, ideas like soil health, nutrition, and resilience seem to be taking center stage. Kylie relies on a diverse ecology to create a healthy farm and revenue that goes along with varied production.

Spooner and Daughter Farm
is no longer grazing territory for dairy cows. Instead, they now cultivate a market garden on an acre and a half of the land and has been selling the vegetables in three different farmers markets. The garden, along with a burgeoning flock of Dorset sheep are choices that represent this dynamic resilience in farming.

Spooner's background in sustainability doesn't only mean a difference in her farming practices that she uses to manage the farm, Spooner is also thinking of her farm differently, "If you are going to devote so much of your life to work, then you better love it." And this is reflected in her goal for the land,

To think of the farm as one being. To think about it as a being that needs to be made healthy and whole. Whatever I am raising on the farm, I want them to be both taking from the farm but also inputting and helping to make the farm a healthy and whole organism.

Despite growing support for local food movements, we have a long slog before we achieve a sustainable food system. As we move toward approaching sustainable food and farms as a human system, the work work of inspired new farmers and their practices, like the one's at Spooner and Daughter's Farm, are a good reason to be hopeful that we're making progress.