Meg Goettleman apologizes as she breaks away from our conversation. A customer waves as she walks down the small hill behind Goettleman’s home, and now Meg has gone to greet her.
She shares a big laugh with Meg, then a hug, as she approaches the small barn, inside of which the week’s treasure awaits – a box full of fresh vegetables grown right here, without pesticides or industrial fertilizers.
It’s Wednesday at Steep Creek Farm, and this scene will repeat itself a dozen times or more over the next few hours as members of the Steep Creep CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) swing by to pick up their shares. As Meg and her husband Adam Goettleman roam the grounds of their seven-acre farm along the trickle of Steep Creek on County Highway U, just a few miles southeast of Sturgeon Bay, their CSA members stream in for their weekly “treasure,” as more than one of them calls their box of produce.
They’ll park in the Goettlemans’ driveway, maybe weave past one of their three children bounding around the property, and head down past the chickens pecking at garden scraps along the path. On this August afternoon the land has its own lush aroma, the smell of ripening tomatoes carried through the air on a pleasant breeze warning of rain to come – at least Meg hopes it brings rain on its tails. It has been an extremely dry summer.
Most of these customers are the Goettlemans’ elders by a healthy margin, a rarity in the food production world today. Meg is 33, Adam is 39, mere babes in an agricultural industry that claims six farmers over age 65 for every one under the age of 35. The face of the American farmer, never youthful, is getting even older. The number of farmers over the age of 65 grew 22 percent from 2002 to 2007, and the average age of a farmer now is 59 years old, according to Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
Merrigan desperately wants to reverse this trend. She has become a self-described missionary on the topic, embarking on a campaign to raise awareness of the growing problem. “There is an incredible need to repopulate our working land with young people,” she says.
The behemoth that is the American agricultural industry is a difficult ship to turn, Merrigan admits. “We’re probably not doing enough,” she says of efforts to lure young people back to the land. “In some ways we’re constrained by legislative authorities. We need more tools in our toolkit, but we’re making some progress.”
Last year, 40 percent of the loan portfolio of the Farm Services Agency was made up of loans to beginning farmers, defined as those in the industry for 10 years or less. Merrigan preaches the value of facilitating lending and opportunities in local and regional agriculture through programs such as grants to build high tunnels, or hoop houses.
The Goettlemans are precisely the type of farmer Merrigan aims to help, though they’re also members of a growing tribe of young farmers attracted to the dirt not by financial incentives, but a way of life.
“It’s fun to work outside; it’s fulfilling,” Meg says as her 10-year-old son Emmet darts around her, making faces at the photographer working with me today and poking his head out from behind the thick rows of tomatoes climbing toward the ceiling in the greenhouse behind his mother.
Adam, who owned an auto parts store in Sturgeon Bay for 19 years before he sold it in December of 2011 to focus solely on the farm, says it was a shift not just in career, but also in his life’s priorities.
“For the first 20 years of my working life the financial aspect was the number one thing,” Adam says. “Now that is much lower down the ladder. I’m a better dad. I was always a good dad, but now I’m here more. Hopefully we turn out a better child because of this.”
The hours are long. Meg is usually walking the grounds early in the morning, creating a work list for herself, Adam, their employees, and their work-share volunteers who spend a few hours helping out each week on the farm in exchange for a share. Days can easily stretch to 12, 13, 14 hours, but when those hours are spent at home, Meg says they become another part of parenthood.
“It’s important that they see us work hard, that they see us being fulfilled in our work,” she says of her three children. In addition to Emmet they have seven-year-old twins, Jasper and Calvin.
“I worked 70-hour weeks for 19 years,” Adam says. “I didn’t feel like I was doing my kids justice. Financially, we’re going to make a lot less money in the next 25 years than the last 20. But if there aren’t people taking this role of the dice, where does that leave us for the next generation?”
George Evenson, a Door County historian and a man who has lived all of his 83 years on a Sevastopol dairy farm, says there’s little interest among young families to get into farming, even if they grew up on one.
“The young kids, they go off to college and find that there are simply easier ways to make a living,” he says.
Those who do yearn for a life on the farm face tremendous financial hurdles.
“Simply getting into it is an enormous investment,” he says. “Where do you get the money? If you do have it, why would you invest it in a farm?”
Lindsey Shute and her husband Benjamin faced precisely those problems, and they saw a lot of their contemporaries grappling with them, too. In 2010 she helped found the National Young Farmers’ Coalition to advocate for young farmers and create a network of resources.
“Land access and access to capital is the most difficult thing,” says the 33-year-old Hudson Valley, New York resident. “Banks don’t want to finance farms in general, let alone beginning farms.”
Not long ago the Goettlemans were bringing in steady, predictable income over the auto parts counter. Meg had stopped teaching and was handling his books, but “auto parts weren’t my thing,” she says.
Even then she worked a small garden, one that grew each year to the point they had too much to use or even give away to friends and family. She suggested to Adam that they might be able to make a business out of it.
They took a three-day course on market gardening in Madison, and by the time they hopped in the car to head home they had latched onto the CSA idea, spending the drive mapping out a plan in a notebook.
But scaling up the garden to pay the bills, buy health insurance, and send the kids to college someday if they choose to go was no simple transition. For three years they did the garden and the store, and on December 1, 2011 they finally felt confident enough to sell the store.
“It was hard, because if we kept doing what Adam was doing we would be fine,” Meg says.
“It was very unnerving, and it still is,” Adam says. “We’re definitely living out of the savings account. [It was] really tough to leave the other business because I had such a good relationship with my customers. That was harder than leaving the paycheck.”
Now their roles are reversed. “We’re in this together, but it’s definitely her farm,” Adam says with pride, not complaint. “She’s the boss.”
Steep Creek Farm distributed shares to 160 homes in 2012. The plan is to grow to 400 or 500, and next year they’ll move to a new 40-acre farm down the road.
From farm to market
The Goettlemans are joined in their passion to create a healthier food supply by a couple in Egg Harbor taking on one of the local food movement’s most vexing problems – distribution.
Partners Yvonne Rynearson, 29, and Steven Shoemaker, 31, launched the Trusted Earth Farm and Forage in 2011, aiming to lower the hurdles between small growers and the restaurants they have long struggled to connect with.
Dozens of Door County restaurants have moved to local sourcing on some level over the last decade, but local commitment can’t trump the bottom line. Even if a restaurant is willing to pay a premium to go local, relying on the sporadic growing season can be a business-busting risk.
A harried kitchen manager is hard-pressed to find the time to make seven or eight phone calls to local growers instead of making one to a large distributor. It’s asking even more to handle the invoicing and stocking headaches of so many different bookkeeping and delivery schedules. In the short Door County tourism season, a restaurateur doesn’t have time – or income – to spare.
“We’re trying to eliminate that hurdle so restaurants can support local agriculture on a broader scale without having to deal with seven invoices,” Shoemaker says. “The grower only has to deal with us, not seven different restaurants.”
No, Shoemaker doesn’t see the local distribution channel rivaling Sysco or Reinhardt, which is why it’s important for the segment to build trust with the restaurants through communication.
“It’s our responsibility to let them know when something isn’t going to be there,” he says.
That communication starts in the offseason. Shoemaker and Rynearson sit down with restaurant owners to plan their menu to match projected seasonal availability.
During the growing season, they ask restaurants to get their order in Sunday night. Growers are contacted Monday, and the produce is gathered for Wednesday delivery. Shoemaker says Trusted Earth fills a quality control function as well because new, smaller growers don’t always know what restaurant standards for produce are.
“We feel like we have a keen eye for the product restaurants are looking for,” Shoemaker says. “That helps us get the right product from the farmer to the chef.”
Each has a culinary degree, and their passion for food carried them toward a passion to learn how to grow food. They were drawn not to large-scale conventional farming, but like the Goettlemans, they were pulled by the idea of growing better food and creating a positive social and environmental impact.
“There’s a romantic lure to the organic farming world that initially attracts a lot of young people,” Shoemaker says. “People looking for an alternative way to make a living. There are a few tough folks out there that realize it’s not romantic at all. It’s hard work, tough work, and they’re willing to stick with it.”
Trusted Earth began as a 20-member winter share CSA, which has grown with the distribution network. The farm now includes four acres of diversified vegetables as well as chickens, rabbits, birds, and hogs.
The CSA model is an innovative way for young, under-capitalized farmers to get started. By getting the investment of their customers on the front end, CSA owners cover their planting and operational costs, essentially getting a no-interest loan from their members. Going small, local, and organic lowers the cost of entry into agriculture for young people interested in farming, but it’s still a difficult door to open. Shoemaker admits that he and Rynearson are lucky because they have family property available to rent. “Without our family we definitely wouldn’t have been able to get started,” he says.
Today’s young farmers need such helping hands, plus a fair amount of luck, but most importantly, a willingness to take a tremendous leap of faith.
Near the end of my day on the Goettlemans’ farm, a trickle of rain finally arrived. It wasn’t the steady crop savior Meg was wishing for, but it was something. As it fell Adam and Meg stole a glance at the clouds to make their own weather prediction the way we all do – a look to the sky and a guess. As they did, I stole a look down at their hands, blackened by a day in the dirt.
Not long ago they had jobs with steady paychecks they counted on to put food on the table for three young children. Now they count on these blackened hands to provide both a paycheck and food, not to mention pay the mortgage.
On this day, as the clouds roll over Steep Creek Farm, they couldn’t be more happy.
“I had a wonderful business,” Adam says. “But I see our members come here and they walk into that barn with huge smiles on their faces and give Meg a big hug. Nobody ever hugged me when I sold them auto parts.”
Community Supported Agriculture
Community Supported Agriculture farms, or CSAs, have taken root in Door County in recent years. The model is simple: CSA members invest in a farm at the beginning of the growing season, providing the farmer with capital for operations such as seed, equipment, and labor.
In exchange, the member gets a share of the farm’s output, usually distributed weekly. However, many who either don’t have time to cook often or don’t have large families prefer half shares.
In the CSA model the farmer and the member share in the risk of the harvest. Some CSAs deliver the food as well, but as I watched members stop by Meg and Adam Goettleman’s Steep Creek Farm to pick up their share on an August afternoon, it was clear that the pick-up was part of the joy of membership.
“There’s great variety,” says Lisa Heise, a happy first-year member of the CSA. “I have to try new recipes, get ideas. And it’s fun. It’s like getting a vegetable treasure each week.”
In this week’s share is 1.5 pounds of food, plus a bonus bowl of cherry tomatoes. Included among them is a variety I’ve never seen, a ground tomato encased in a fragile brown shell, similar to a tomatillo. It looks like it could blow away, but a peel of the shell reveals a small tomato with a surprisingly sweet, almost grape-like flavor.
One of the biggest complaints the Goettlemans receive is that their members get too much food, a good problem. Meg started a newsletter to help ease the problem, letting her members know what’s nearing harvest and providing a few recipes (courtesy of another member) that use some of the more obscure additions to the weekly share.
“We get a lot of great feedback from that because they’re cooking, and they’re saving money because they’re planning their meals,” Meg says.
Penny Starr says she loves how fresh her share tastes each week and knowing that her food is free of pesticides.
“I see their chickens running around taking care of the bugs,” she says, bubbling with laughter as she shuffles through her share for me. There’s corn on the cob, potatoes, some purple peppers she seems particularly excited about. “There are some items I’m not quite sure what to do with, so I’ll just throw it in a stew with venison.”
Number of farms in the United States
Number of farms that show positive net cash income
Number of farmers who report something other than farming as their primary occupation
Number of farms with a white male principal operator
Percent increase in female principal operators since 2002
The average age of U.S. farm operators in 2007, up from 55.3 in 2002
Percent increase in operators over 75
Percent decrease in the number of operators under 25
Source: 2007 Census of Agriculture
Photography by Len Villano.