I walked out to the fields at Boggy Creek Farm to find Austin Prince pulling up a row of Juliet tomato plants. It was 9am and Texas’ big August sun was just starting to rain down its daily punishments. “Don’t be awkward; just be yourself,” I said as he spotted me walking up the aisle with my camera.
“Well I can’t do both at the same time, so we might be in trouble.” Austin was using a pair of loppers to cut each drooping tomato plant at the soil line, working his way down what looked like a 150-foot bed. Although there were still some perky red tomatoes hanging from the vines, the leaves were brown and curled–dried up from the oppressive summer heat. Austin was removing the plants so they could eventually be composted.
Austin Prince, who has been a farm worker since he graduated from Saint Edward’s University in 2009 with a degree in Environmental Science, is part of a burgeoning community of young people going into farm work after graduation from four-year universities. There is some mystery surrounding kids like Austin. Why farming? What kind of career is there in agriculture? In the 107 degree Texas heat, what keeps him going? And where, exactly, is he hoping to go anyway? Watching him methodically bending and pulling gloomy tomato plants didn’t do much to solve the puzzle. The glory, clearly, wasn’t in the work. So where was it, at least for Austin?
“I got into farming out of concern for the environment,” Austin tells me, “and sustainable farming seemed to be the answer to pretty much all of my concerns.” Farming as a solution, rather than a contributor, to environmental damage is a key component of organic growing. Austin’s entry point into organics materialized after learning about the gamut of pesticides used in conventional farming. It wasn’t so much his own consumption of these pesticides that worried him as their absorption into the surrounding ecosystems. “We know that DDT, for example, thins bald eagle shells,” he illustrated. “Once the public caught wind of that, there was enough outrage that DDT was banned. If you could take that to a logical end, we should stop using harmful synthetic pesticides altogether.”
Austin continued snipping at tomato roots, stopping only to wipe the sweat from his face with a red bandana he kept in his back pocket. Organic farming, he continued, was a tangible way to correct the problems he saw. So after he graduated in December of 2009, he and his girlfriend Susana (now fiancé) moved to California to work at a farm called Foggy River. Almost immediately, he and Susana knew they had made the right decision. The farmers at Foggy River were only a handful of years older than they were, and they shared the same outlook on farming and the environment. The fact that they were so young and running a farm of their own also must have served as a great source of encouragement.
“Susana and I realized in California that, through farming, we could become stewards of a piece of land. We could do our part by consuming fewer resources and improving the soil. That really gets to the heart of environmental issues.” The philosophy behind organic farming is to minimize disruption to the environment. Proper farming methods strive to create an ecological balance, one that can actually improve an ecosystem by aiding natural processes, improving soil health, and creating a healthy, balanced habitat.
Once the season ended in California, Austin and Susana moved back to central Texas. Austin began looking for another farm job, and after a short stint elsewhere, he landed at an iconic urban farm called Boggy Creek. Perhaps the most beloved farm in Austin, employment at Boggy Creek is elusive to say the least. Carol Ann, who farms there with her husband Larry, only has a few employees, and she rarely advertises when she’s looking for help. Even if you are in the know, getting hired takes persistence and good recommendations from trusted sources. But being choosy with employees may be deliberate. Boggy Creek also has the highest percentage in the city of former farm workers who are now farming for themselves.
Still, working at Boggy Creek doesn’t define Austin. “I think a healthy part of working on a farm with the intention of starting your own is forming a criticism of wherever you are.” That doesn’t mean nitpicking the employer or being obstinate, of course. But Austin makes it his priority to observe which systems work, which don’t, and how he would tweak them to fit his definition of sustainability.
A half hour passed, and Austin reached the end of his Juliet row. He walked me past Carol Ann’s twittering chickens and into her house to grab a glass of water from the kitchen, then moved to the well to turn on the pump and begin his irrigation rounds. Water is always an issue on Texas farms, but this summer in particular has been challenging to keep plants alive, let alone producing.
“If I were just given land tomorrow,” he said thoughtfully, “the first thing I’d do is figure out an organized and highly functional irrigation system. But after that, I tend to emphasize building soil through composting. So if someone gave me some land, I’d try to forget about farming for a little bit, not get too excited, and just try to build up the soil for a season or two. You need that. Especially in Texas. Because otherwise you’re just going to be wasting water, and we can’t do that right now.”
For those who want to make farming a career, finding the right path from working on a farm to owning a farm can be daunting. Austin admits that he swings back and forth between optimism and pessimism about starting a farm of his own. Keeping his focus small–on himself and Susana–keeps him positive, he says. But the larger picture is nowhere near as rosy. The vast majority of agriculture subsidies go to corn and soy, with a very distinct tilt toward large, monocropped farms. With more and more young people interested in starting their own farming businesses, it would be nice to see more money being put toward programs to encourage them. He highlights incubator programs as a concrete way to encourage young farmers because they provide the chance to grow and experiment before taking the full plunge into a farming business. Formalized programs like that in Austin “would be phenomenal,” he said. “I would jump on that. Everyone would.”
But while many young farmers find the price of land to be their biggest obstacle, Austin admits that he has a leg up in that department. Austin has some money tucked away from an inheritance that he could potentially use as a down payment on land. He also has a supportive family who could support Susana and him through their first struggling year. Don’t think Austin has it easy, though. While he may possess the basic practicalities to start a farm, this isn’t a guarantee of success. As he puts it, “The scary part is that if one day I can find some land or convince my parents to split it with us, that’s really just step one. That’s not the end. That’s only the beginning.”
So getting back to finding glory in farming, Austin’s goal of creating a sustainable, environmentally responsible space for his family is notably personal and modest, as far as glories go. But according to Austin, expecting much more from a career in farming is foolish. Farming, he says, “is not for people who want to look good, make a quick buck, or sit back and relax. Farming is for people who want to dedicate their lives to it with very little credit, very little pay, and a lot of hard work. Anything less, and it won’t work. But if you’re in farming for the right reasons, then it will stick.”
Hard work and low pay–who could resist? But for Austin, and many young farmers, the dream of space and stewardship is more powerful than a high income bracket. Even now, working on someone else’s farm gives Austin a unique opportunity to shrink his world to a more sustainable size. Biking to and from work every day, getting most of his food from within two miles of his house, seeing the work he’s doing right in his community, and of course, Carol Ann’s famous mid-day meals with her farm workers, are all things that make farm work rewarding It’s these perks that compensate for things like mediocre-at-best pay, no health benefits, and falling asleep at 9:30 every night. Creating a pocket-sized world in the digital age may seem anachronistic (although if you think about it, most of us carry around our whole worlds in our pockets nowadays anyway), but it also prevents farmers from getting too proud or lofty. Austin admittedly isn’t trying to save the world. He and Susana just want to change whatever small piece of land they get their hands on, “If everyone did that, then maybe the world would be a better place. But until then, we’ll do our part for our piece, and be satisfied with that.”
This was published on FarmAid's blog, Homegrown.org.