All ideas start as seeds, but in order to flourish they need a lot of nurturing, planning, persistence, and — in the case of starting a farm — a lot of money and a little bit of luck. Some like-minded colleagues don’t hurt either. Nobody knows that better than Benjamin and Lindsey Shute, owners of the Hearty Roots Community Farm. Their first farming venture in 2004 involved renting an acre of land from a dairy farmer in Red Hook and growing vegetables by hand. Fast-forward a decade, and they now own 70 acres of land in Clermont, where they have a bustling business, including a well-regarded CSA that employs 10 people each year.
But it hasn’t been easy. Young adults like the Shutes face tremendous obstacles in setting up a farm — but they do think it’s been worth it. “Seeing how the farm has served so many community needs has been very inspirational to me,” says Lindsey. So to pave the way for other newbie farmers, she founded the National Young Farmers Coalition in 2010. As the president of the group, which has more than 10,000 members coast to coast, Lindsey networks with other young farmers and lobbies for new laws and programs. “We were able to convince the USDA to start a new micro-lending program; it’s been a huge help,” she says. “There are more services available now than there were as recently as 2010.”
Raised in New York City, Ben never dreamed of being a farmer. But after college he decided to investigate how food was grown. “I was totally overwhelmed by how much there was to learn,” he says. “My eyes were opened.” Lindsey, an Ohio native, never had childhood farm dreams either, but she met Ben in New York City — at a community garden — and later came to Bard College for graduate studies. By that point, Ben had already started farming.
The couple found success quickly. “My timing was right — people wanted our food,” Ben recalls. What they didn’t realize was that they would have to rent land for the next nine years. “Land prices were too high based on our revenue. It was very frustrating,” he says.
The couple had run into the biggest challenge young farmers in the Hudson Valley face: land access. In fact, most young farmers have to rent land when starting out due to prohibitive prices, an issue that creates many logistical problems and thwarts business growth.
“Farmland in the Hudson Valley can go for as much as $15,000 an acre,” says Seth McKee, land conservation director at Scenic Hudson. Luckily, the Shutes hit the jackpot when they found a landowner in Clermont who wanted to protect her property from development; they were able to acquire the land with assistance from the Scenic Hudson Land Trust. (This group has conserved 83 farms encompassing 12,000 acres in the Hudson Valley since its inception in the 1980s.) “We felt very lucky,” Ben recalls.
The second biggest challenge for young farmers is raising capital. Hearty Roots raises money at the start of each growing season through its CSA program. “This gives us a direct connection with our customers, whose feedback often helps us plan what to grow in the following season,” Ben states. Members — there are currently about 600 — purchase weekly or biweekly vegetables from June to November that they can pick up directly at the farm or have delivered to designated drop-off centers. Available vegetables (about 60 types) vary by the season. All farming is organic — including the pesticides and fertilizers used — and the grain fed to their egg-laying hens has no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Each season they also provide vegetables to five food pantries in New York City, thanks to funding from the state’s Department of Health.
New on the farm this year are 15 pigs. “We like pork; we are always looking for healthy proteins,” Lindsey says. “But we love having them on the farm. They are fun to watch, they have a good personality, and they even help maintain the orchard.” The couple thinks it’s a great environment for their two daughters (ages five months and two years). “We feel very privileged to be able to have them here,” says Lindsey.
These days, Ben oversees the farm while Lindsey focuses mainly on the coalition: “My talents lie in advocacy,” she says. In addition to new government initiatives, the group is concentrating on sustainable farm practices and working with land trusts on a national basis. But there is time for some good old networking, too — barn style. “There are so many young farmers here, it’s awesome,” says Lindsey. “The local chapter meets on a quarterly basis. There was just a big party a few weeks ago near the Red Devon [in Bangall]. There was a band, donated food, about 100 people; it was great.”