Duke University students Emily McGinty and Hilary Henry check on their radishes and lettuces. McGinty is the project leader for Campus Farmers, a social networking website and information hub for campus farmers and gardeners.
If you ask most college students what they want to do after graduation, becoming a farmer probably won’t rank high on the list.
The farmer demographic is aging — 57 is the average age of a U.S. farmer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.
Despite this statistic, there has been a resurgence in young farmers and gardeners, and those who are interested can get a head start on their college campus. College growers recently got their own social network — an online community to share tips and information.
Emily McGinty, 22, a senior public policy major at Duke University, knew as soon as she stepped foot on campus that she wanted to be involved with the Duke Community Garden.
She had no prior experience and said she had never even seen a broccoli plant, but she was interested in learning about growing food. Now, she helps manage the community garden, where students, staff, faculty or anyone in the community can reserve individual plots to grow their own food.
McGinty also helps out at the Duke Campus Farm, located on a separate acre plot off campus, which is used for more commercial ventures, such as providing produce for the university’s dining hall.
For her senior project, McGinty is helping out with Campus Farmers, a social networking website aimed at connecting campus growers across the nation. McGinty describes it as a Facebook for young growers because students can upload pictures of their projects to share with the network and the community can ask each other questions or simply get information on how to start a campus garden or farm.
Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service company with cafes at over 250 colleges and universities, took notice of the campus farming movement. Together with the non-profit Kitchen Gardeners International, they launched Campus Farmers in October.
Campus gardens and farms supply food in the cafes Bon Appétit owns.
Through her work with Campus Farmers, McGinty wants to show people that anyone can learn how to farm as long as they understand it takes hard work.
“It’s really all about people understanding that farm work is about making connections and that it’s wonderful when it’s collaborative,” she said. “I’m constantly learning how willing and interested people are in building strong communities around food.”
Being involved with the campus farming movement doesn’t stop on the farm or the garden, though.
McGinty and the other growers host public events like festivals, musical performances and weekly volunteer days, and they keep a blog to educate the community about food issues and where their food comes from.
To promote the campus farm, McGinty talked about a whole campaign around beets and even organized a beet festival — complete with beet jam.
“Campus farms around the country aren’t just trying to fulfill an agricultural mission, but also educational, which I think is what makes the movement so dynamic,” she said.
For students like McGinty, college might be the first time they get hands-on experience on a farm. Those students interested in starting their own farm quickly learn that financing a farm and how to find proper land can be a challenge.
The challenges that new growers face are examples of why the National Young Farmers Coalition was formed in 2010.
Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of the coalition, was struggling with the issue of long-term ranch success and finding affordable land in the Hudson Valley, N.Y., area, where she’s based. She formed the coalition to help provide young farmers better access to programs within the USDA as well as funding training at universities.
Shute said the coalition’s main goal this year is to campaign for funding for the Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, a program that provides money to service providers, colleges, universities and non-profit community-based organizations. The program lost funding after the most recent Farm Bill expired.
Apprenticeship programs are important for young people to get into farming, Shute added, because aspiring farmers can get paid for their work while learning day-to-day operations.
She said more young people are becoming interested in farming because they’re making a difference in their community and are able to be outside and active.
Nicole Tocco, a Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation East Coast Fellow, is overseeing the Campus Farmers effort. She talks with students about food and sustainability and educates them about everything from sustainable seafood to the relationship between climate change and the food system.
Tocco travels around the East Coast and has hosted events like movie screenings, a food trivia night and a sustainable food challenge. She is also focused on expanding the Campus Farmers network.
“Students are finding a positive way to get involved and a positive way about the hard work it takes to grow food that’s not reliant on fossil fuels and chemicals,” she said. “It often feels like there’s nothing we can do to change the system, but growing your own food and being tired from a hard day’s work, figuring out all that takes to grow food, is a positive way to be involved.”
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