The Youthful Return of the Family Farm
A new generation is energizing the old tradition
Against all odds, the family farm is back in business. At one time, small farms ruled the hills and valleys of New Hampshire. Life appeared simpler then. One could provide food for the family and a few neighbors with a diversified farm. But cleared lands grew fallow over the next century as serious farmers headed to the richer and less rocky soils of the Midwest, while the remaining souls concentrated on sheep farming and then apple orchards. All these iterations of the land left New Hampshire very picturesque, but underproductive.
Much has been written about the simple fact that small farms can’t compete with large-scale operations, whether it be produce, livestock or dairy. It’s simple economics — huge acreage and modern machinery can be quite effective in producing everything from a turnip to a tomato to a chicken thigh. It’s all packed and shipped — often over great distances — to the supermarket.
But educated consumers are asking for more. They want locally grown foods, free of chemicals, full of taste and delivered with a smaller impact on the Earth. And yes, they are willing to pay for the privilege. Enter stage left, the new small farmer.
It seems that New Hampshire is poised to meet that demand. When the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture was published in 2012, there were 4,391 farmers in the state, an increase of 20 percent over a 10-year period. During that same timespan, young farmers (ages 25 to 34) increased by 40 percent to a total of 186. A new census is due this year — hopefully the positive trends will continue.
“It is encouraging to see young people continuing to enter farming,” says Gail McWilliam Jellie, director of the New Hampshire Division of Agricultural Development.
Two such young farmers are Jeremiah and Nicole Vernon. It’s only been four years since the couple purchased a parcel of land in Newfields, located less than 20 miles from Portsmouth. Vernon Family Farm is just that — a farm run by the Vernon family and a great place to raise kids. Jeremiah Vernon looks the part of a farmer of yore — tall, strong and fully bearded. He says, “This farm ticked many of boxes I had wanted. It already had a conservation easement and was close to my wife’s workplace.” It also has plenty of outbuildings, a nice home for his family with three young children and enough acreage to grow. The farm hadn’t been a working farm for many years, just a pastoral patch in a somewhat suburban neighborhood. The reemergence of a working farm has not made all abutters happy, but hey (or hay), they did purchase land in an area zoned for agriculture.
Like early family farms, new family farms are advised to diversify. Vernon previously worked with refugees from Bhutan, helping them with farming and marketing skills. He also managed a large farm store and understood the dynamics of the agricultural marketplace. Now he’s walking the talk. He chose chickens as his cash crop because he saw a need for “more accessible” chicken. As he says, “Not everyone wants to buy a whole chicken.” They are available as drumsticks, thighs, boneless breasts, broth, wings, sausage, organs and bones, and even come cooked on a rotisserie. Chicken sandwiches and chicken soup are probably on the horizon.
The farm moves about 250 chickens to market each week via a slaughterhouse in Maine. The breed Vernon chose — Cornish Cross — grows to maturity in just eight weeks, taking three to four weeks in the brood house and four to five weeks in the field. He uses the “tractor” method popularized by Joel Salatin, whose farm is featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Chickens are corralled in movable pens that are relocated each day. The birds can pick bugs from the grass, but are also supplied with water and a high-protein, non-GMO feed. The elegance of the method is in the circle — chickens fertilize the land as the pens move along, and the land is eventually hayed for bedding in the brood house. Vernon started with simple pens of PVC piping and chicken wire, but is converting to a more stable construction of two-by-fours with flaps that can be moved with a tractor. The newer version will be slightly weatherized to extend the growing season on each end by about a month. In winter, stock will come from the freezer.
Diversification comes with a large patch of land devoted to produce — radishes, turnips, tomatoes, etc. Next year he hopes to have a high tunnel for cold crops. Beyond vegetables, he is breeding and raising Mangalitsa pigs. This heritage breed comes from Hungary and is known for its well-marbled fat, a feature that had been bred out of modern porkers. They also take longer to get to market — 18 months, twice as long as conventional pigs. “I was asked by a local chef to raise them. They are considered the Kobe beef of pork,” says Vernon, who had initially purchased piglets but now has his own boar and sow.
Marketing the farm’s products is the other half of the work. The onsite farm store is open daily, with produce, “parted out” chicken and other producers’ eggs, beef, maple syrup and milk products. Vernon had experience growing mushrooms, so he added that to the mix too. For fun they have frozen pops made with beets or berries, and also offer Stock + Spice spice blends and, on occasion, some honey from Nicole’s beehives.
Vernon attends both the Exeter Farmers’ Market on Thursdays and the Portsmouth Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. On a good day, the markets are bustling with buyers. Sellers need an attractive booth and salesmanship to be successful as there are many offering similar products. Meats and sausages are displayed in cases and not just sold out of blue-and-white picnic coolers anymore. The flowers are fresh-cut, the berries fragrant. Prepared foods are offered to take home or eat onsite. It’s a scene not to be missed.
The demand for local foods has increased each year and markets are flourishing all across the state. People are willing to pay higher prices for locally grown foods, and, simply put, this is what is sustaining the rise of small farms, many started by young farmers like Vernon. Farm marketing often takes place on Facebook. Yes, it takes knowledge of social media too.
With a new rotisserie, he’s taking his chicken sales to the next level. He’s offering the cooked birds at the Exeter Farmers’ Market and special events at the farm. Prepared foods are the new farmer’s secret arsenal. They are easier to sell and have a higher profit margin. Besides, what is tastier than a succulent, local-pasture-raised, rotisserie chicken?
Vernon connects with his customers and has built a network of top chefs who are using his chickens. An open-concept CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) helps funds flow too. Salesmanship, social media skills and business savvy, along with a strong back, are what it takes these days to be a successful farmer. Most importantly, he’s doing what he loves. And the love comes back in cash from a host of satisfied customers.