Young farmers tap into an aging industry (Thursday, July 22, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

Ever at the mercy of the weather and the markets, farming never has been easy work.

But with the rising cost of starting a farm and competition with developers for land, Greg Hicks of the Virginia Farm Bureau said the number of young people pursuing agricultural careers is dropping.

“It’s very difficult to break into the industry because of all the expense and starting out,” Hicks said. “You have to have the land. You have to have equipment. It’s very difficult to get into the business, and the profit margin is not that high.”

In 2007, U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the average farmer was 57 years old. Still, a number of young farmers in Augusta County are doing what they can to make it in the agricultural industry, sometimes in unconventional ways.


Rosalea Riley

Riley, 28, still raises a flock of sheep at her parent’s place, Rocking R. Farm in Hebron Church. Most days you can find her teaching small engine repair or floral design in Buffalo Gap High School’s agriculture program, where fewer students have been enrolling in “Ag” electives in recent years.

“Because they don’t have to produce their own food anymore … they’ve gotten further and further removed from production agriculture. They don’t have to care anymore,” Riley said. She said she’s trying to make students more aware from where their food and clothes come.

As the chairwoman of the Augusta County Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Committee, Riley encourages young farmers to network and share trade secrets. Social networking websites such as Facebook make that aim easier.


Bud Shaver

When he was 15, Shaver got a job tending the flower garden and cleaning turkey waddles at Doug Flory’s Weyers Cave farm. He never left.

Shaver, now 38, learned the tricks of the trade and eventually became a partner in the farm.

When Flory retired in 2006, Shaver bought the farm, naming it “Lucky Charm Farms.” He raises beef cattle and Pilgrims Pride chickens.

Shaver said he lucked out.

“It’s a lot tougher for a young person like myself to come through into farming without a start like a family farm,” Shaver said, explaining that equipment is expensive — his new tractor and disbine for cutting hay cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — but the right technology can allow farmers to do more with fewer people. “You work smarter, not harder. It used to be 15, 20 acres was a big day for us. Now, we cut 50 or 60.”

Shaver, who is on the Augusta County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, said he is the “eyes and ears” of the Middle River District for the Augusta County Board of Supervisors’ Agriculture Industry Board.


Jack Kerr

Kerr, 24, didn’t grow up on a farm, but he loved helping his dad raise a pair of steers each summer to sell off in the winter. After graduating from Virginia Tech’s Agriculture Technology program, he moved onto the grounds of Sugar Loaf farm in Staunton, where he works as a herdsman.

Although he doesn’t own the farm, Kerr said he enjoys working outside, and his jobs — baling hay in the summer, chopping corn in the fall — change with the season. He hopes to have a farm of his own someday, but for now, he’s raising a some cattle on the side.

“I love it,” Kerr said. “I do it all day and then I go home and do it some more.”


Clint Lyle

At a young age, Clint Lyle. 30, began helping his uncle Glen Skelton raise show cattle and became fascinated by the possibilities that lay in breeding based on genetic properties, such as meat quality, appearance and personality.

“All I wanted to do was farm … but there’s not enough money there. And I couldn’t really get the free time working for somebody else,” Lyle said. He got a contractor’s license and started a construction business, Glenbrook Enterprises, with his uncle because he could be his own boss and have more time to work with the cattle. “I’m not to that point quite yet. At the same time, I don’t have to worry about getting fired.”

Lyle said he spends Saturdays and the occasional free afternoon at Glenbrook Farm in Swoope. He is also the president of the Virginia Club Calf Producers, LLC, which sponsors the Best of the Valley Club Calf Sale in the fall.


Jenny Driver

Jenny Driver, 29, grew up on her family’s centennial JMD Farm in Staunton, feeding cows and driving tractors. After college, however, she left the farm to be a teacher for several years.

“I always definitely felt a pull back to the farm, but it was always an issue of what we do different from what we’ve been doing so I can be on the farm full time,” Driver said. She eventually began a community supported agriculture program, where customers buy a share of her crops in advance and receive a portion of meat, eggs or produce every few weeks.

Many customers are attracted by Driver’s natural approach to farming — she sells grass-fed beef and lambs, pastured pork and poultry. She said the program pays 90 percent of her bills.

Charles Curry, president of the Augusta County Farm Bureau, said young people are an asset to farmers who have spent decades in the industry.

“One thing they bring is a comfortable use of technology. Of course, most farms these days are very much involved with these satellites and computers and GIS systems,” Curry said. “They also bring energy and enthusiasm. I think they bring an optimistic attitude for the most part to the farming community.”


About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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