November 18, 2019 |Robin McKinney | Food and Farms

Working Farms Fund Aims to Grow A New Generation of Farmers

Fifty-eight is the average age of a farmer in this country. With so many farmers retiring, there should be tremendous opportunities for young farmers to enter the sector. However, new farmers face challenges, especially farmers close to the major markets of metropolitan areas. They often cannot afford to own farmland because of high, development-driven land values, and lack access to capital necessary for startup and scaling.

Recognizing these challenges, The Conservation Fund developed an innovative model to support next generation farmers. Known as the Working Farms Fund, the program will unlock capital and resources for farmers to access farmland in the 23 counties surrounding Atlanta, Georgia. It will also ensure these lands are protected for future generations to farm. By accelerating the pace of working lands conservation through capital and training, the program aims to help transform local food systems and provide a pathway for beginning and new farmers.

In developing the Working Farms Fund, they are connecting with many individuals who exemplify the spirit of this new crop of beginning and young farmers. I had the pleasure of speaking with one of these farmers, 24-year-old Demetrius Milling, Assistant Manager of Love is Love Farm. He and his mentor, Joe Reynolds, currently lease a 4-acre plot of land from East Lake Commons, a cohousing community in suburban Atlanta.

Joe Reynolds and Demetrius Milling run their business Love is Love Farm on land known as Gaia Gardens that they lease from the East Lake Commons cohousing community in Decatur, Georgia, near Atlanta. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

What draws you and other young people to farming?

Demetrius: I think the next generation of farmers includes people who want to be connected to the earth in a way that hasn’t been emphasized for the past couple generations.I think people want to stretch and grow. I think that there’s an entrepreneurial spirit about people, and this really unleashes that. Lots of farmers raise tomatoes, but there’s a million different ways they raise them and how they get them to market. So that ability for people to be themselves, achieve things in their own way, I think that’s what really attracts the new generation of farmers.

You weren’t born into farming. How did you decide this is the path you wanted to take?

Demetrius: After college, I went through a period when I was really unsettled. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. So, I just started asking people about their jobs. When it came to complaints, there were a lot of commonalities. People said they didn’t feel challenged at work, they weren’t able to learn, they felt numb and stuck in a routine. I said to myself, if this is a commonality of problems, let’s find the job that doesn’t have those problems.Out here, I always feel challenged. As soon as you think you’ve unlocked one door to a new knowing, there’s an unknown door directly in front of you.

You’ve also chosen to farm here in the metro area of Atlanta. Why is it important to you to farm here?

Demetrius: Growing up in Atlanta, especially for myself, you want to be close to home, you want to feed the people that you’ve been around the most, for the longest. Farming in Atlanta is only natural for me and my family, and especially with Joe being here, having roots here.We don’t own this land we farm, but this is a special place and we feel a special responsibility in taking care of it. Holding it, making sure that it’s well taken care of and that it’s producing, so people understand that it’s possible, and that this is where food comes from, this is what food production looks like. We believe it’s healthy for people in metropolitan areas to be close to fresh food.

Demetrius Milling and Joe Reynolds pick vegetables to deliver to a local restaurant. Photo by J.D. Belcher.

What do you want for yourself and for Joe moving forward? Where do you want to take this?

Demetrius: We want to show that a small farm can grow and expand. There are examples here and there of thriving, organic, local farms, but we want to show that it’s very possible here in the South, here in Atlanta. We want to take this to the next level. Ultimately, we want to feed more people. We want to take organic, local, sustainable food from a niche to something that is accessible to everyone.

Why did you choose organic growing?

Demetrius: For me, it’s really rooted in the fact that you want to stand behind your product. You want to be confident. You want to not only take care of the earth, but you want to take care of the people that you are feeding. So, it’s really important to us to be able to stand behind what we’re selling. There are risks in organic growing, but I see them as challenges I’m willing to take on. I believe that we’re healing the soil; I believe that we’re doing the right thing, and in the long run, that does pay off. It’s something that’s going to continuously feed us versus feed us for the moment.

Farm to table food might seem like it’s accessible only to people who can afford pricey restaurants. But you want to make it more accessible?

Demetrius: Yes, we want to make wholesome, organic, food available to more people. We want to share it with everyone, no matter their income.If you stand behind your food and believe that it’s beneficial and healthy, then you want everyone to have it. I think it’s important to make people feel that they’re not an “other” in a situation. Part of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) agreement is to offer the ability for people who have Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to join our CSA through Wholesome Wave Georgia, so they get half off and access to our food. There are other mechanisms that we’re using, because we want it to be inclusive to everybody.

Can you talk about what would help you and Joe the most, in terms of scaling your farming and making healthy, local food more available to more people?

Demetrius: I think the certainty of land is key. In order to scale up, there’s going to have to be a lot of capital put into the farm. The land itself is one certainty that’s very comforting, because in organic agriculture, as in all agriculture, the soil is the most important thing. Without it, you don’t really have a product.Preserving land that is farmable and tillable and caring for the soil, keeping the soil healthy over time is key. Having some ownership of the land would be comforting.

You and Joe lease the land you farm. If you were to walk into a bank for a business loan, what do you think would happen?

Demetrius: I think a business plan to sell a large volume of produce directly to local people, markets and restaurants might be head-scratching to a lot of bankers. A banker might say, “Well, I believe in you, but what are you going to lend against? You don’t own the land.”It’s challenging to convince a banker, who’s only used to seeing farms selling big commodity crops, that a local, organic farm is a winning proposition. There’s a lot of uncertainty there, and it’s something that hasn’t been done for a long time here in America. It’s difficult to make sure that people understand it’s a viable business model. We’ve had success here, and we want to scale this business model up slowly and safely, but making sure that people understand that it is possible is the first step.

The Working Farms Fund was designed to support farmers like you—to provide a path that can lead to land ownership. Can you explain why this matters to you?

Demetrius: Most people at this age have not built the capital to sell something in order to buy land. Most commonly, you’ve not had the ability to accumulate wealth or a cash flow to purchase land. What you’re relegated to is maybe borrowing money from your family, if you have any family with money.Farmers are really competing against people who are going to draw a lot of cash value out of this land, from strip malls or from big housing developments. Our cash value is slow and long over time. That’s why I can see the Working Farms Fund giving a leg up to farmers like me.

In spite of all the challenges you describe, you’re still committed to farming.

Demetrius: Definitely. I started farming when I was 18, now I’m 25. I’ve sunk my teeth into this real hard. I’ve learned a lot from my mentors, and so many people have invested in me. I’ve had many conversations on the back of pickup trucks, and so many conversations in the middle of fields about what people’s fathers did or what they’ve learned from the mistakes they’ve made. It’d be a real waste to just walk away from that.For myself, I definitely will be farming in 20 years. It’d just be very difficult to walk away.

Written by

Robin McKinney

At the time of publication, Robin Ashley McKinney was the Graphic Designer for The Conservation Fund.