CROWN POINT — Born into a white-collar family, Anna Massie spent much of her childhood lending a hand at her family’s office supply store in Hammond. And in college, she even dabbled with the idea of going away to law school.

But Massie’s life was sent in an entirely different direction in 2008 when she listened to Will Allen, an internationally known urban farmer with the nonprofit, Growing Power, speak at Kalamazoo College.

“Through his speech, I saw how many social issues could be addressed through farming and a healthy relationship with food. It was sort of a light-bulb moment for me,” the 32-year-old first-generation farmer from Crown Point said.

“I felt like this was the way I could affect the most good in this one life and knew I wanted to be part of the local food movement.”

Massie spent the next few years in volunteer or apprenticeship roles on farms, distribution centers and in sales, eventually finding mentors with her same passion for local, sustainable foods, and the rest is history. She was hooked.

Setting her roots in Crown Point, Massie now owns 11 acres with her husband and two small children, and together they farm and produce wide variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, jams and jellies.

“We practice organic … We’re no-till. We are really concerned about our impact on the environment, as human beings, and committed to sustainable agriculture,” Massie said.

Massie is part of a younger generation of growers younger than 35 who are focusing on organic and smaller-scale, low-impact farming.

“It’s an actual movement,” Massie said.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers younger than 35 is increasing, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest census available.

The movement could not have come at a better time. Agriculture in the U.S. is at the breaking point, with farmers older than 65 outnumbering farmers younger than 35 by a margin of six to one; and nearly two-thirds of the country’s farmland is set to transition to new ownership within the next two decades, according to a 2017 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition.

“These circumstances are decades in the making. Federal farm policies and broader economic trends have fundamentally altered our nation’s agricultural economy — incentivizing industrialization and consolidation of farms, and leading to the disappearance of millions of family farms,” the 2017 survey states.

New community needs support

Because the majority of young farmers come from a non-farming background, they face a unique set of challenges, Damien Appel, 33, of Wanatah, said.

Inaccessible, expensive farmland — coupled with scarce federal and state resources for entrepreneurial farmers and a lack of a young, skilled workforce  — have made it difficult for newcomers to stick it out. And many are still leaving the industry after only a few years for a lack of profitability.

Appel said young farmers don’t always have access to the right resources, land, tools and knowledge.

“One major issue is the lack of a robust farmers market scene in Northwest Indiana. We do not live in a region where they are well attended. We need to support this new community coming out of the woodwork,” Appel said.

NWI Food Council here to help

Massie said she and her husband were challenged for years to find farmland suitable for them. But they stuck it out. Last year was their first year on the farm, and she was pregnant with their second child.

Knowing the challenges young farmers face, the NWI Food Council, a volunteer-driven organization in its third year, is on the front lines of this movement.

Massie, who serves as president, said the organization promotes farming as a way of life and advocates for local food accessibility regardless of income level or socioeconomic status.

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NWI Food Council was fortunate enough to secure three new grants this year to help support young, local farmers gain footing in the industry.

The grants will establish a farming tool rental system; build capacity for existing farmers' markets and establish news ones; and hire a value-chain coordinator that connects farmers with wholesale producers and institutions, she said.

'New American farmer'

Appel said he and his wife, Ali, who married in May, said they started the producer-only Coffee Creek farmers market in Chesterton to offer an alternative in the area.

Unfortunately, not all vendors grow the produce they're selling, and instead buy from wholesalers and resell, he said, so customers don’t truly know where their food is coming from.

“It’s about developing a community of small-scale farmers and giving everyone a level playing field. Every farmer should be allowed to charge what is appropriate and bring quality products to customers,” he said.

According to a Purdue University news release in December, Andrew Flachs, an environmental anthropologist at PU, uses the term “new American farmer” to describe a younger generation of growers who are motivated to join the industry for different reasons than the conventional farmer: disenchantment with urban life, higher education, personal politics, or they may be in search an authentic rural identity.

That stereotype rings true for many, Appel said. One thing that intrigues him about a newer generation of farmers entering the scene is whether they are pursuing it as a livelihood, a hobby, or with the cushion of having a second job.

This is a way of life for him and his wife, he said.

“That’s why we charge what we charge. We pay our mortgage with this farm,” he said.

'Change is hard'

Elizabeth Brownlee, president of the Hoosier Young Farmer Coalition, said her organization’s mission is to connect young farmers to promote a more sustainable, organic agriculture industry.

Large-scaled cropping still has a place in today’s society in that it feeds the masses by providing inexpensive food, but that can come at the expense of the environmental and public health.

Brownlee said younger farmers are taking a new approach, focusing on the health of the land by building up the health of the soil, protecting water quality, and adding organic materials to the soil.

A second-generation farmer in Crothersville, Brownlee said she humanely raises chickens, pigs, turkeys and lambs and sells the meat and produce locally at farmers markets and through a CSA, where customers can subscribe for locally grown, season food year-round and help support her family’s work.

Like Massie, Brownlee falls under Flachs' definition of the “New American Farmer” in that she didn’t grow up thinking she would end up in the farming industry, but instead went off to college.

“I grew up on a conventional farm, but my parents stopped farming in the early 80s. It wasn’t profitable to farm on 100 acres, so they started renting out the land,” she said.

“Growing up, in 4H and (Future Farmers of America), the clear message was 'Don’t be a farmer.' The idea was to go to college and get off the farm.”

To aid young farmers, Brownlee said the Hoosier Young Farmer Coalition has launched a jobs board/classified section on Instagram and other initiatives. 

“We’re seeing more people start farms than ever before, but not enough. We need everyone who is interested to engage in the food system. Change is hard. People are eager for more food options, but there are also people who haven’t yet thought about where their food is coming from.

“Our food system is at a key juncture,” she said. “We need new farmers to take care of the land and feed our communities. And more and more, people are seeing this is a fun and meaningful way to spend their time.”

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.