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For decades, young people have been leaving farms behind. The average age of the American farmer keeps rising. It's now 55. But recently, there's been a small surge in the other direction. Young people who've never farmed before are trying it out.

NPR's Dan Charles went to find out why.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I should admit right away, I'm one of those people who left the family farm. Maybe the problem was, I never went to a gathering of young farmers quite like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CLAPPING AND CHEERING)

CHARLES: It's the fourth annual Young Farmers Conference, put on by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, just north of New York City. Two hundred young men and women - more women than men, in fact - are dancing and clapping and laughing into the night. They're in their 20s and 30s. Some of them have their own farms. Some are working for other farms as apprentices for a year or two. Some are just thinking about it.

They came here to learn new skills and meet each other. Earlier today, there were seminars on soil fertility, managing sheep, how to find affordable land. Now, it's time for the folk dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CLAPPING)

CHARLES: The Stone Barns Center is a gorgeous place, a country estate that once belonged to the Rockefellers. There really are stone barns here; also, a high-end restaurant. These days, it's devoted to a new kind of farming - organic, environmentally conscious, supplying people nearby. That's what attracts the people to this conference. They're a new breed of farmer. Most of them are children of the cities and suburbs. They went to college. Now, they want to grow vegetables or feed pigs.

I keep asking them, why?

BRIAN BATES: Essentially, it just was sort of borne out of a concern for the environment. I spent the first two years of college with one question in mind. Basically, how can I have the greatest impact in my life in the world? And so the thing that I kept coming back to, that played the largest role that everyone connected to, was food.

CHARLES: That's Brian Bates. Some of these farmers talk about what they want to accomplish farming. Others say they love the work itself - like Liz Moran and Rodger Phillips.

LIZ MORAN: Yeah. It's never a question for me. I mean, I feel lost when I'm not farming, when I'm not out in the field. And it's, you know, where I find the most peace and harmony in my life. And that's, I guess, what we're here for.

RODGER PHILLIPS: I love being outside. I mean, when I look around and, you know, you're amongst the plants and the sunshine and that's my office, that's where I want to be.

CHARLES: Some like the feeling of doing something practical, like Kristin Carbone.

KRISTIN CARBONE: Having a skill is really important to me. Having studied political science, I wanted to do something that I could – that was productive, that was real; and have a real skill and to be able to provide, you know, my family or my community with something, a vital - you know, a vital element.

CHARLES: And then there's Lindsey Shute.

LINDSEY SHUTE: How did I get into farming? Primarily because I started dating a farmer.

CHARLES: Nobody really told me they're doing it to make money. This is an idealistic crowd. Some describe their farming as a kind of protest against the idea that success means a big paycheck; against big corporations.

Lindsey Shute's husband, Ben, has been running his own farm for 10 years now. He says the great thing about it is, it's a really practical kind of idealism.

BEN SHUTE: It's all well and good and important to, you know, have political opinions. And I'm into protests and things like that. But when you're farming, you can kind of live your values and kind of, you know, farm the world you want to see.

CHARLES: Nobody knows how many young farmers like this there are. They certainly don't produce more than a tiny sliver of the country's food, but they do seem to be part of a real social movement. Organic farmers who used to spend part of the winter recruiting workers for the next summer now are turning people away. This conference, which started four years ago, has been selling out months ahead of time.

But along with the enthusiasm, I also heard some uncertainty and anxiety - about not making enough money, about settling in one place for good. And it's hard work for not much pay. A lot of the young farmers said their parents wish they were doing something else. It made me wonder whether they'll really be able to stick with it, so I looked up a real old-timer of the local organic food movement, Jim Crawford.

JIM CRAWFORD: We had a huge day today. Everybody bought everything out.

CHARLES: Crawford runs New Morning Farm in south central Pennsylvania. On weekends, he gets up at 4 in the morning, and brings vegetables to a market here in Washington, D.C.

When Crawford looks at today's new generation of would-be farmers, he sees himself when he was younger.

CRAWFORD: It was exactly the same things in my head 40 years ago; exactly the same.

CHARLES: In 1972, Crawford was in law school in Washington, D.C., and working on Capitol Hill, but not really enjoying it that much. Through happenstance, he ended up running a vegetable garden in West Virginia one summer. He really enjoyed it and got more serious about it but soon, the summer was over.

CRAWFORD: I didn't really want to go back to law school in the city and everything, but I knew I had to. So I went back, and I walked into the law school - and then I said no, I'm just not going to do this. I'm going to go the other way. So I just walked back out, and went back out there.

CHARLES: He went back to the thing he was ready to throw himself into. And he's been doing it ever since, even though it hasn't always been one, big, happy folk dance.

CRAWFORD: I can remember feeling kind of desperate, and just having many failures - and a lot of failures, I mean, in the first couple of years of growing crops and not really knowing what I was doing, you know.

CHARLES: But there's one thing he had, a big reason why he's still farming. He loved the business side of it - finding customers, making a living on his own. So that's what he now preaches to his apprentices today. Hang on to your ideals, he says. That's important. But try to be just as serious about earning a profit.

CRAWFORD: You know, I do it for basically idealist reasons. But if you're going to stick with that and you expect to make a living at it, you've got to be realistic about the business aspects and the money - and managing money and borrowing money, and all the things that a business person has to do. And you have to accept that and learn to like that - somewhat, at least - and be willing to be good at that, you know.

CHARLES: That may mean compromises, he says. Maybe it means burning a little more fossil fuel to get your vegetables to a city where people pay higher prices. That's OK, Crawford says. Making tradeoffs but holding on to what's most important - that's what growing up is all about.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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