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Business and Economy

In Maine, More Hipsters Choosing Life on the Farm

LINCOLNVILLE, Maine - The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58.3 - a number that's been steadily ticking upward for more than 30 years. The graying of America's heartland is one indicator that farming isn't a go-to career: Fewer kids are choosing a life on the land. But in some places, like Maine, the trend may be reversing.

Thanks to an availability of land and a cultural shift toward slow foods, hipsters are giving farming more than a passing glance.

It's 10 degrees. The snow is crunching underfoot on this windy hillside in Lincolnville, just a few miles from the coast.  A trio of hairy highland cattle munch on flakes of hay, seemingly impervious to the bitter wind.  Nearby, a native breed of white sheep known as the Katahdin, are mustered just outside the fence. Heritage chickens scuttle about a mobile poultry house that looks a bit like a Conestoga wagon. Josh Gerritsen, a New York City photographer-turned-farmer, has created a small, agrarian ecosystem.

"The cows move through the pasture first," he says. "They take the grass height from maybe 8 inches down to 4 inches. The sheep follow two days later, and then after that, the laying hens come in.  They spread out the cow patties, they clean up the parasites, and they get additional protein from the bugs."

Gerritsen's classic backyard farm supplies a small, loyal consumer base. He says his generation has found a niche market that doesn't have to compete with agribusiness in the supermarket. It's a hipster generation whose outlook has been shaped by the backdrop of climate change, who've come to embrace facial hair, the farmers' market, craft beer, and artisan cheeses.

The focus, Gerritsen says, is on locally-produced goods of superior quality.  But it's not a particularly easy or lucrative life. So why cash in an expensive college education to raise poultry?

"Just a few years ago, if you'd told me that I was going to be a farmer, I would have probably laughed at you," says Marya Gelvosa, Gerritsen's partner. She's 29, majored in English literature, and had never lived in the country before. But she and Gerritsen have thrown all their resources into this fledgling farm in Maine, a career move which came as something of a surprise to her urban family.

"They definitely had their raised eyebrows, like, 'Are you sure?' " she says. "Because, I mean, I grew up in the city. It's just, I got the bug and I wanted to have this life where it gives back to the community and it's very fulfilling work. And noble work."

"I think that we want to be reconnected with the fundamentals of life," Gerritsen says, "with growing food, with producing things with our own hands. Living in the city, you commute by subway, you buy your food at the supermarket, you work in a cubicle all day. You're not intimately tied to anything."

But how typical is this young couple in the farming landscape? It turns out, pretty typical for some areas of the country, not so typical for others, says John Rebar, executive director of University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

"Certainly in Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased 40 percent, when nationally that increase is 1.5 percent," Rebar says. "So, in our state, we are way ahead of that national trend."

And there may be several reasons why, he says. A big one is that relatively undeveloped states like Maine still have affordable land to offer - a luxury not seen in many other parts of the country. Farmland has become so expensive across the the Midwestern breadbasket, and in California's Central Valley, that some financial experts have hinted at an actual "farmland bubble."  

And, says Rebar, Maine, which was a hotbed of activity during the first back-to-the-land movement in the 70's, has many knowledgeable people working in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, which offers a training program for new farmers in how to do it old school in a new age.

"I think one big difference is a lot of the young people that are going into farming now are going into it looking at it very much as a profession, rather than a home-steading, self-sufficiency type of thing," says 31-year-old Gene Ripley of Dover-Foxcroft.

Ripley's parents were part of that earlier back-to-the-land movement, but even he didn't consider farming as a career until a college trip to Thailand, where he visited a rice farm and realized that, not only could he live the good life, but he could help others live it as well.  Now, he and his wife Mary Margaret have put their political science educations from Bates College in Lewiston aside.

"We just finished our fifth season here on this farm, and it's our sixth season farming on our own," Gene says. "We farmed on leased land in Waldo County for one year before we found a property to buy."

Jennifer Mitchell: "How many acres?"

"We have up there about five acres in production," says Mary Margaret. "And so that includes the cash crops and the cover crops. And we did about two-and-a-half acres of cash crops this year."

"We are getting to the point where demand is outstripping our supply," Gene says, "and so this year we cleared a one-acre section of woods right here. And just last week, which is really exciting, we just hired our first full-time employee who is going to be starting in the spring."

John Rebar, with Cooperative Extension, says that's an accomplishment that should not be overlooked. If young farmers like the Ripleys can become successful in a 21st century economy, they'll also become employers, and that's especially important in places like Piscataquis County, which has seen its mill industry gutted.  

There's no doubt in Rebar's mind that there is an agrarian Renaissance happening.

"I was called farmer by my classmates in high school. That was OK with me, but you could tell it wasn't a term of endearment," Rebar says.

But there's been a cultural shift in attitude, he says. People are starting to understand the value of farms, the products they produce, and the role farms can play. Long-term success, he says, will come as people embrace the culture and support this new generation of producers.

And meanwhile? The hipsters are making it all look pretty cool.