There’s a social movement cropping up in fields and markets across the country — America’s next generation of farmers are stepping up to the pitchfork. Young, excited and energized, they’re facing many challenges, but also reaping many rewards.

To celebrate this burgeoning interest in farming, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York held their first Young Farmers Conference on Dec. 4 and 5. Bringing together 150 seasoned and new farmers, activists and leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, the conference focused on a critical component for the future of farming — the next generation.

These young farmers (whether young in age or new to farming) aren’t following blindly in the footsteps of the current generation, which is largely locked into large-scale commodity production and reliant on subsidies and GMO seeds. Instead, they’re using an environmentally sound, socially responsible, and community-building approach to bring unique and high-quality products to market.

Since many of these novice farmers start out with only a season or two of apprenticeships under their belt, they need easy access to the knowledge and tools necessary for success. Conference workshops began to address these needs with discussions covering everything from the three largest obstacles facing new farmers (access to land, capital, and markets) to practical farm skills like how to begin a CSA. They even included a session on work-songs, helping “put the ‘culture’ back in agriculture.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One of the most inspiring sessions was entitled, “Young Farmers’ Stories of Getting Started,” lead by Benjamin Shute of Hearty Roots Community Farm and Laura Meister of Farm Girl Farm. Their personal stories shed light on the many challenges involved in beginning and operating a farm, but their pleasure and passion was palpable. They highlighted the dynamic and demanding farming lifestyle which requires so much hard work and resourcefulness, but also provides many rewards and connections as they see the fruits of their labor spreading seeds within CSA, farm-to-chef, and educational programs.

Among the groups present, The Greenhorns, a nonprofit whose mission is to “support, promote and recruit young farmers in America,” seemed to best embody the youthful energy of the movement. Complementing their practical (and visually stimulating) “Greenhorns Guidebook for Beginning Farmers,” they host seed swaps and circulate coveted, hand-drawn stickers with sayings like “don’t buy food from strangers” and “compost! fight peak soil.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Also in the works is Serve Your Country Food, a new interactive online map and database that will help visualize and connect young farmers across the country. The Greenhorns closed out the conference on a high note with the enticing trailer of their self-titled, upcoming documentary about young farmers.

Other organizations present at the conference and helping to support the young farmer movement included Slow Food USA, Just Food, Glynwood Center, and the Yale Sustainable Food Project, among many others who are developing programs to help farmers problem solve and network.

It was inspiring to see the span of generations present at the conference. Keynote addresses from Fred Kirschenmann, farmer, president of Stone Barns Center, and distinguished fellow at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture; and Eliot Coleman, renowned four-season farmer, author and educator, provided support and guidance from those who’ve had their hands in the soil for many years. They too seemed inspired and honored by the enthusiasm young farmers have brought to the movement.

From young to old, the conference was alive with the cooing of babies, novice knitters, flannel shirts, beat-up boots, and an evening of contra dancing. It felt more like a family reunion than a conference. That right there may be part of the reason why people are being drawn to the movement — good, old-fashioned community.

Originally posted on the Green Fork.