Farming’s biggest conundrum

Farming’s biggest conundrum

Young people want to farm but can’t afford the land, while older farmers search for ways to keep their farms in production

BRATTLEBORO — Do you have a farm in the area you'd like to sell?

If so, Jonah Mossberg wants to talk to you.

Mossberg, the proprietor of Milkweed Farm, has been growing vegetables and flowers on leased land at the Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center for the past three years.

At the end of this season, Mossberg has to remove his stuff - three greenhouses, a few sheds, one walk-in cooler, all of his tools, machines, and irrigation equipment - and leave the property and the soil he has carefully maintained.

The Famolare family, who owns the land, has registered with the state Agency of Agriculture to grow hemp there for medicinal cannabidiol (CBD) use and is not renewing Milkweed Farm's lease.

Mossberg said he is “sad to leave this place.”

“There's over a decade of history of youth agriculture” at the Education Center farm, he said, and added, “the soil grows really nice vegetables.”

Milkweed's farming practices are a point of pride for Mossberg. While the farm isn't certified organic, “[n]o genetically modified seeds, pesticides, or chemicals are ever used on the field,” according to the farm's website,

Mossberg has carefully built the Education Center land's soil biology and preserved its structure through adding organic matter, mineral amendments, and using low- or no-till practices.

He explains on the farm's website that “biologically active soils grow healthy plants that are far less likely to be attacked by diseases or pests.”

And larger issues are at stake.

“The future of our food system and our rural economies really depends on the transfer of agricultural land to young farmers - we have to have access to it,” Mossberg said.

Queerness and agriculture

In 2013, Mossberg made a full-length documentary film, Out Here: A Queer Farmer Film Project, which looks at the relationship between queerness and agriculture. Part of the film's focus is the difficulty faced by many queer people who are estranged from their farming families and are left out of the legacy of inherited land.

But this challenge is shared by people of all orientations who move to this area seeking to start a farm.

“Land is expensive here,” Mossberg said. “It's way out of most farmers' reach on a purely farm-based income. Most young farmers I know have an outside job, myself included,” the 32-year-old farmer added.

“The big question,” he said, is “what will happen to the land and food as farmers retire and nobody wants to take over?”

In his experience farming and trying to buy a farm, Mossberg has learned that the only way to do so affordably is through a Farm Service Agency farm-ownership loan.

The agency is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program offers 100 percent financing, which means a farmer doesn't need to provide a down payment, and the loans have low interest rates - currently between 2.5 percent and 4.125 percent.

“They've been helpful,” Mossberg said of his loan officer at the USDA. Through a separate loan program, the USDA helped him purchase two caterpillar-tunnel-style greenhouses.

Mossberg, from northeastern Connecticut, didn't grow up on a farm. Milkweed's website notes that he “spent his childhood romping through his family's blueberry patch and ignoring his mother's vegetable garden entirely.” During a summer break from college, Mossberg took a job as a farm hand “and his life was forever changed,” the website says.

Milkweed Farm is a one-man project. Although Mossberg said he has occasional help, “mostly, it's just me.”

Farming is hard work anyway, but Mossberg said that “not knowing where I'm farming next season” is most exhausting.

He wants to keep his farm in Brattleboro or nearby - “definitely in Vermont,” he said - and he has actively searched for available farmland for about a year.

“This is my community. It's where all my business and community connections are,” he said.

Getting the word out

Mossberg sells Milkweed's produce at the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market on Saturdays, at Avenue Grocery in Brattleboro, local restaurants, and through Food Connects's Food Hub wholesale distribution system.

He told The Commons that at the farmers' market, he mentions his quest for new farmland “to anyone who asks about the farm. It's helpful to get the word out.”

He said many have offered to rent land, but only on a short-term basis. That won't work.

“I'm open to leasing, but only if it's a long-term thing. I don't want to move everything twice,” Mossberg said. He also wants to begin growing perennials, such as flowers, and fruit and nut trees.

“I can't do that in a short-term situation,” he said.

One scenario Mossberg envisions is a purchase or long-term lease from an older farmer who wants to retire and has no children to take over the farm. He's also not opposed to the farmer's family continuing to live on the land, as long as Mossberg can live there, too.

“Farming is place-based, and there's a lot to do all the time,” he said. Not living on the farm makes his work that much harder.

He knows this first-hand: Even living as he does a few miles from the Education Center land can require numerous daily trips for tasks like monitoring an irrigation valve.

Living on the land will also make it easier for Mossberg to continue opening up Milkweed Farm as an educational experience to school groups, queer people, “and anyone who wants to learn about farming,” he said.

“Farming is not just a job,” said Mossberg. “It's my whole life.”

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