The agriculture industry has been graying in recent decades, prompting younger farmers to seek ways to make farms financially sustainable. Meet two such families: the Colemans of Mountain Run Farm and the Lindebergs of Native Spring Farm.
In an industry where the average age hovers around 60, Ben and Carly Coleman are decades shy of that and already veteran farmers.
The operators of Mountain Run Farm in northern Bedford County are as much idealistic as they are realistic. The couple have created a 30-acre agricultural utopia around their home that greets visitors, where chickens scurry underfoot and dogs boisterously announce their presence. It’s comforting and serene, yet lively.
But it also shields guests from a harsher reality of modern agriculture, one that includes difficult days, discord with neighbors, potentially tens of thousands of dollars in financial losses and a graying population.
From 2002 to 2007, the number of principal farm owners younger than 45 in the United States declined 21 percent, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent available. Of those, only 38 percent farm as a primary occupation, and 81 percent also work off the farm to earn income.
Mary Ahearn, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pointed to hurdles that make it difficult for younger generations to start their own farms or transition into family farms. She said having the market opportunity to buy or rent suitable land can be a struggle, as is having capital to acquire land on a large enough scale to be profitable.
Beginning farmers, many of whom are younger, make up about one-fifth of all farms nationally, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Mountain Run Farm’s working property, near the couple’s own 30 acres and covering about 1,000 acres, was purchased two decades ago by Ben’s father, A.C. “Buzzy” Coleman. The farm, now a limited liability company, consists of several pastures, home to a herd totaling 430 head of cattle, and spans the land between the tree-covered mountains near Sedalia. The Colemans raise livestock that is grass-fed from start to finish, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are used.
According to the agriculture census and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, farming has an annual economic impact of $55 billion in Virginia and incorporates more than 47,000 farms. Like the Colemans’ Mountain Run Farm, the large majority of farms in the state are owned and operated by individual families.
Ben Coleman, 37, didn’t grow up a farmer but has had a lifelong love of animals and the outdoors. His father was a construction contractor, a profession that Ben’s older brothers continued. Ben said he was in and out of college for six years pursuing an agriculture degree while spending summers farming.
Buzzy Coleman invested in the Sedalia property in 1991, and that is one of the main reasons Mountain Run Farm can exist at all.
“The opportunity I have to do this life and job is because he worked somewhere else and bought this land,” Ben Coleman said. “It wasn’t left down in the family, and I’m not a fourth-generation farmer. I’m a first, trying to build a start that I can give to my kids that have grown up on it.”
Wealth is in the land
The Census of Agriculture shows that the average market value of farmland in Virginia is $4,200 an acre. That constitutes a potential seven-figure investment that Ben and Carly Coleman didn’t have to make themselves.
Across Virginia, the average size of farms is 171 acres, the census shows.
“The hard part is for the young couple and person to get the land in the first place,” Ben Coleman said. Otherwise, “I cannot afford to have done this, period.”
Elaine Lidholm, communications director for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, agreed that it requires substantial assets to succeed at farming.
“It can take hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to buy land, build barns and sheds, acquire equipment and/or livestock, and few young people have these kinds of resources,” Lidholm said.
And, she said, because transitioning a farm from one generation to another can be complicated, many farmers do not prepare adequately. Tax issues, stewardship, people’s emotions and family decision-making can create hurdles in the process.
Lidholm said the state’s Office of Farmland Preservation can provide resources for younger generations looking to take over a farm. The USDA, too, provides help and in conjunction with the state agency and other organizations has a regional workshop planned for early next year.
Property transition is a big concern, said W.P. Johnson Jr., county executive director for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Pittsylvania County. “We can assume that families would transition to their sons or daughters, but that’s not a guarantee,” he said.
Johnson is in line to take over his family’s nearly 500-acre farm in Chamblissburg. His father works full time on the property, which has been in the family for about a century, and grows hay, wheat and soybeans. Johnson works on the farm part time.
He sees many young farmers struggling with land availability, market flow and financing, while his family’s farm has another primary concern: labor.
“Labor’s a huge thing, especially for me being off the farm part time,” he said.
To cope with the weight of startup costs, Ben Coleman said he and others are advocating that new farmers consider leasing land instead of buying outright. The 2008 federal Farm Bill provides incentives to retiring farmers with land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program to rent to beginning farmers, Ahearn said.
Another approach is sharing the cost. Nathan and Lindsay Lindeberg, who own Native Spring Farm in Giles County near Staffordsville, opted to split the land costs with family.
Nathan Lindeberg also falls into the 81 percent of young farmers forced to find a full-time off-farm job – in his case, after the birth of son River last year.
While the extra income helps the couple get by, his sporadic shifts at Lowe’s make it difficult for them to plan large projects and work consistently toward planting and harvesting goals. And the lack of manpower can be emotionally and financially draining, Lindsay Lindeberg said.
“In a way, it makes it easier on us,” she said, “but in a way, it’s also a lot harder because it’s just me here.”
The Lindebergs – he’s 31, she’s 30 – met as students in Virginia Tech’s horticulture program. They bought their 50-acre property with Nathan’s parents in 2004.
Without that financial help, “We wouldn’t have been able to buy property at all or, at least, to get this much acreage,” Lindsay Lindeberg said.
On the handful of cleared acres that the property offers, the first-generation farmers have crops that are Certified Naturally Grown, an alternative to the USDA’s National Organic Program. The Lindebergs started slow without the aid of much large machinery before setting their sights on the Blacksburg Farmers Market, where they’re in their third season of selling produce and other products.
Family, friends, natural-food stores and restaurants such as The Palisades are also customers of the vegetables, berries and handcrafted bath and body products that Native Spring Farm offers.
Lindsay Lindeberg said the farm is profitable and that diversifying its offerings has been part of their success. They not only grow products for their customer base but also are trying to become self-sufficient. That includes being able to sell soap and tomato-based products such as marinara sauce year-round.
“You got so many farms that are growing tomatoes that when they come into season, everybody has them,” she said. “There’s no sense in even trying to sell them.”
She said the farm continues to try out other value-added products, most recently homemade ice cream under the label Big Lick Ice Cream Co.
The couple are still trying to settle on a long-term financial plan that would allow Nathan Lindeberg to return to the farm and would offer a solution for having to change the products they market widely from year to year.
“This is working for us now. If we had more space, I would probably choose more crops to really specialize in,” Lindsay Lindeberg said.
Back in Bedford County, the Colemans took a blank slate and built a farm that not only has cattle but also hogs and dozens of chickens being raised for laying and slaughter. The gravel driveway wraps around a stocked pond. The couple have two children, Gilliam and Noah, and Carly, 35, is pregnant with a third.
Each morning, Ben Coleman follows a routine of first tending to the chickens and milk cows. Then he heads over to the land his father bought and tends to the cattle and swine that live there.
These routines have changed significantly over time.
Their first years on the farm, they used industrial agriculture, incorporating antibiotics and other synthetic substances in raising their livestock. But the Colemans say that method eroded both their bottom line and their enthusiasm. Instead of raising cattle for live sale, they decided to be more involved in the slaughter and sale of the meat.
Their pasture use is drawn on the system of Holistic Management International, which Ben Coleman said promotes a “triple bottom line” of financial, social and environmental sustainability. It’s a system not widely accepted or used, but the couple feel it’s the best path for them.
The Colemans used to have multiple herds spread throughout their land but now have one large herd that grazes on about 10 acres a day. This gives the remainder of the land adequate time – as much as 60 days – to rest. More importantly, it means Mountain Run farm has no need to augment the grass with chemicals.
Ben Coleman said his pasture system has allowed him to go from feeding hay 150 days a year during the winter to feeding it for just 55 days – a savings of $50,000.
He said in the past he’s also burned 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fuel a year but has reduced that to virtually none. Coupled with some of the highest cattle prices ever and a dwindling number of head across the country, the Colemans are making a dent in their losses.
Any savings helps. The farm isn’t making money – in fact, the operation lost tens of thousands of dollars last year. But the couple get money monthly from other family members who are investors. They push forward with the farm because they believe in what they’re doing, and the process pays off a little more year after year.
“You can farm without going to the bank or without going into debt,” Ben Coleman said. But it isn’t easy.
Reaching the customer
The retail side of Mountain Run Farm – along with farm tours that are offered occasionally – is handled on Ben and Carly’s portion of the property. Deep freezers are stocked with meat sold under the entity Mountain Run Meats LLC, and tables are covered with stacks of “No Farms, No Food” stickers and other items for sale.
Lidholm, who has been with the state agriculture agency for nearly 20 years, has seen a trend among young farmers toward direct marketing, cutting out the cost of a middleman. She noted that they lean toward offering pick-your-own operations and selling at farmers markets, through Community Supported Agriculture networks or directly to restaurants.
Such direct marketing can limit the need for money spent on advertising.
Advertising and other marketing efforts at Mountain Run Farm are primarily word of mouth, though it does have a website and a Facebook page.
“The meat sales and the direct marketing was the only way to do it,” Ben Coleman said. “It’s the only way I see for a farm to be a business that’s viable – sell directly off the farm. You be the breeder, the manager, the producer, the middleman, the marketer, the salesman, customer service. We have to take all those roles.”
When you throw in the insurance and other costs, it can be a struggle to pay the bills, he said. But things are improving.
They’ve found that their niche needs to be high-end, chemical-free meat.
Early in their transition from selling live cattle to selling meat about five years ago, their research led them to believe that, financially, they couldn’t sustain a system of “props and Band-Aids,” referring to the synthetic substances used to assist animals’ growth.
Instead, Mountain Run Farm spends money on good-quality salts and minerals, which can also be expensive. It’s still a “prop,” just a more natural one.
“Let’s get the kind of cattle that our grandfathers actually had when they didn’t have the money or the resources to give them any supplements,” Coleman said. “And you might lose a few animals, but if you just cold-turkey quit everything, you’re going to end up with a herd that’s built for your land and resilient to anything.”
He insists that his herd is healthier than it’s ever been, and reduced costs on his end means savings for the consumer.
“If I save,” he said, “then you save.”