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Social Issues

Young Ohio farmers grow hope
A documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival shows the plight and the passion of America's young farmers
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
Matt and Chris Vodraska have worked for 10 years to get Rittman Orchards into full production.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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In The Region:

A quiet revolution is changing America' food culture, and our state is in the vanguard. A healthy appetite for local food puts Ohio in the top five for farmers’ markets. And according to the recent USDA Census of Agriculture, Ohio is No. 7 in the number of farms. 

But growing food can be back-breaking work. We’re steadily losing farmland, and our farmers aren’t getting any younger.

Tonight at the Cleveland International Film Festival, the documentary "FARMLAND" profiles a new generation of Americans struggling to stay on the farm in hard times. 

In today' Quick Bite WKSU' Vivian Goodman reports that young farmers in Northeast Ohio are just as challenged, and just as determined to succeed.


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In the opening scene of "FARMLAND" a young farmer laments that his way of life seems to be fading away. 

In past generations, the number of people coming back to the family farm has decreased substantially because the young people weren’t coming back and the average age of a farmer kept increasing.” 

According to the latest agriculture Census, the average American farmer is 58 years old, about a year older than the previous Census, continuing a 30-year trend of steady increase. 

For each farmer under 35, there are six over 65. 

The average Ohio farmer is 57 and the number of farmers under 25 decreased from 2002 to 2012 by 39 percent. 

Not getting any younger
We’re losing a lot of our younger farmers. But a couple of brothers are sticking with it. Chris Vodraska is 33 and his kid brother Matt is 29. 

They returned to where they grew up, Rittman Orchards in Doylestown, soon after college. They don’t see that happening much these days. 

“Just general disinterest I think,” says Matt. “It’s not really seen as a noble profession. It’s not aspired to. It’s not what kids want to go to college for.” 

"It’s hard work," says Chris. “It’s dirty, it’s time-consuming and nerve wracking. Manual labor and depending on Mother Nature for things is questionable at best sometimes.” 

Why do they want to do it? 

 “It’s fun," says Chris -- more fun than what they had been doing. 

“It’s totally different being out here and getting in the dirt versus an office job,” says Matt. “Neither of us planned on coming back to the farm. Chris went to Case (Western Reserve University) and was getting bio-medical engineering, and I have a degree in fine arts. After a while, though, you've got to do what you love. And a cubicle is just not going to do it for us.”    

Their duties vary. Matt sells at farmers’ markets. Chris handles botanical matters. 

“My undergrad is in biochem," he says, “which has a lot of application to what I do now.” 

But this morning in the orchard's farm market, Chris has to climb a ladder to change a light bulb. 

“On a good day, I’m mostly outside.” 

Vanishing farmland
Matt picks us up in his mud-spattered Subaru for a bumpy ride out to the fruit trees. CSX train tracks separate the rolling terrain of the orchard from a bog. 

The landscape has changed radically since their early years here. Neighbors sold out to housing developers. 

“You can see the houses across the street," says Chris. “Within the past few years, that was all farmland.”  

Rittman Orchards was established in 1922 but had been barren for years when the Vodraska family convinced the owner to sell to them instead of a developer. 

They bucked a trend. 

There were 6 million farms in the U.S. in 1910, but only 2 million today. America has lost a half million farms since 1982, and Ohio is second only to Texas in its loss of prime farmland. 

The Vodraska brothers doubt they’d be nurserymen and orchardists today if they hadn’t inherited the land from their parents. 

“We’re lucky to be in the situation we’re in. If we were to do it on our own there are a couple of government programs actually that offer low-interest loans to new farms, but not anything on this scale.”  

Rittman Orchards covers 125 acres. 

The government has a $300,000 low-interest loan limit for land buys by new farmers, but first they have to locate the real estate, and in Ohio that’s getting much harder. 

“There’s just no land available or the price of the land is too high," says Matt. “Especially east, now with the natural gas and oil, land prices just keep going up in rural areas. 

And if they wanted to expand? “It would be difficult," says Matt.  

Difficult for them, impossible for many others. 

Tough start when it’s from scratch
Recent surveys by both the American Farm Bureau and the National Young Farmers Coalition show access to land and capital are the top two concerns of beginning farmers. 

Kevin Henslee is 35. “You can’t go out and start farming as a young person unless somebody dumps it in your lap," he says.  

Henslee raises sheep in Seville and makes artisan cheese at his Yellow House Farm. “It’s a lot of hard work and you really have to be stubborn to do it. I couldn’t support my family off what we do. I have a job off the farm.” 

He’s a school teacher, farming on a very slim profit margin. He took a big risk last year buying another patch of land. 

“Ground prices go up and up and up, and we just started. Nobody left me a farm. There’s no economical start-up. You’ve got to have a million dollars in your pocket to buy equipment and land and all the resources. You can’t do it. So you just scratch, and claw, and fight your way.” 

Henslee plans to diversify and try selling lamb and pork along with the cheese. 

Growing hope
Ashtabula rancher Mardi Townsend knows the initial barriers to starting farming remain high, but she draws encouragement from young farmers like Henslee. 

“There are a lot of young people who are being extremely creative in how they’re getting into farming," says Townsend. “And they’re not getting in in the usual ways. They’re sort of coming in the back door. And I see a lot of hope. There’s a lot of young people who are going to farm one way or the other.”    

At a time when the USDA expects one out of four farmers to retire in the next 20 years, a young farmer in the documentary "Farmland" holds out hope that a new generation can take over. 

“I think that there are young people who can be very successful farming. But it takes a very special person. It is not for everybody.”  

The average income of a beginning farmer in 2010 was minus $888. It can take years of grueling work and railing against Mother Nature before the investment pays off. 

It takes patience and passion
It’s taken the Vodraskas 10 years to get their orchard in full production. 

They can’t start picking apples until mid-July, so on a cold, windy spring day they’re pruning their fruit trees for better light exposure. 

 “Actually if you look close right now you’ll start seeing the buds plumping up,” says Chris. 

 “We’re standing in front of peaches right now, lots of plums, put in Asian pears last year, and we’ve got some of the more traditional European pears coming this spring that we’ll be planting. We’ve got more apples than anything though.” 

Establishing a regional niche
They grow 70 varieties of apples and 30 different kinds of peaches, raspberries, and strawberries.  And that’s one way they compete with bigger producers: growing heirloom fruit you can’t get in grocery stores. 

 “We kind of lose regional identity and character," says Matt, “and being able to grow these varieties you get to explore that tradition. We’re both big history buffs. Our families are.”  

Their father is a life-long nurseryman and their Mother is  a former school teacher who bakes pies for the orchard’s farm market. 

The brothers inherited their parents love for the outdoor life. 

 “We grew up outside among the trees and we weren’t allowed to sit and watch TV all day. We got home from school and we either went outside to pick or went outside to play and run around. And when it comes down to it there’s not a lot of things you can do professionally that keeps you outside and in tune with nature. That was super important to me.”  

The local food movement is important to them, too, and it’s the mainstay of their business. 

 “The interest in where food comes from, the quality of the food, the heritage of the food helps us sell our products because that’s what we’re about," says Matt. "We’re not about growing apples as cheaply as humanly possible. We’re about growing the best apples humanly possible.” 

Connecting with foodies and chefs
At farmers markets, now a one billion dollar industry, that kind of quality is appreciated. 

Ohio now has 400 farmers markets, 70 in metropolitan Cleveland alone, and that’s where the Vodraskas connect not only with consumers but also high-end restaurants. 

 “It was a few of the more locally-minded chefs that shop at the markets on Saturday mornings," says Matt. “First we met up with Flying Fig and Bar Cento. That was really early on. Chefs talk and our name gets passed around. We have about a dozen restaurants now we deal with.”

 Mary Holmes founded the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square and is now president of Innovative Farmers of Ohio. She’s counting on young farmers to change the food system because they connect directly with their customers. 

 “They’re taking advantage of farmers’ markets; they’re creating community-supported agriculture; they’re partnering with schools and institutions.”   

Support groups
The Vodraska brothers also connect with other young farmers. 

 “Part of building this new food system is building support groups," says Matt. "Whether it’s the pork producers, apple growers, more and more of these trade organizations have special meetings to really help try to connect young farmers to each other. Because farmers are independent. You can be an island practically when you’re a farmer if you want to be.”   

Matt Vodraska is active in the Ohio Farm Bureau and meets monthly with his Wayne County Young Farmers group, but he says they can only do so much when the real problem is lack of government support for small, independent farmers. 

 “And that’s why farmers keep getting older. That’s why farm numbers keep going down. We can’t afford to let us just fade away. We have to re-establish a food culture in America. And hopefully people like us there’s going to be enough of us that maybe we’ll get that done one day.” 

With help perhaps from documentaries like "FARMLAND" that fight stereotypes. 

Gothic no more
“Most Americans probably view farmers as the old American Gothic," says one of the 6 young farmers profiled in the film. “ The old man and lady holding a pitchfork standing out there, they look very plain, maybe unhappy, very unfulfilled. In my opinion I think the general public sees the farmer as your stereotypical, bib overalls, straw hanging out of your mouth type person. I’ve got nothing against bib overalls or straw hanging out of your mouth if that’s what you want. But that’s not the way all farmers are.” 

And judging from the likes of orchardists like the Vodraska brothers and farmstead cheesemakers like Kevin Henslee, it’s not the way all Northeastern Ohio farmers are, either. 

"Farmland" screens tonight at 6:15 and tomorrow at noon at the Cleveland International Film Festival. 

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next week we dine like the ancient Greeks.

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