VIDEO: Living the Agrarian Life: Young farm workers form their own community. (Elaine McMillion)

Growing season: Young idealists turn to farming

The move toward sustainable agriculture has some young adults deciding to spend a season -- or a lifetime -- in the fields.

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By Mara Lee
Sunday, October 25, 2009

On a sunny morning in July, Alicia Jabbar's tank top is wet with sweat along her spine from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. She climbs onto the horizontal ledges at the bottom of a metal stake next to an ankle-high tomato plant. Jabbar, who's wearing two ponytails under a baseball cap, has to use all of her body weight to push the stake into the earth. When she's done with a row, she stands on tiptoes in her running shoes to drop a metal cylinder with two handles on the top of each stake.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. The noise echoes off the trees.

"Twelve more rows," she says.

"What time is it?" her friend Jessica Stanley calls. She's busy looping string from a box at her waist around the stakes to support the tomato plants.

"Ten-thirty, and we're halfway done," Jabbar, 26, replies. They've been working since 7 a.m. and staking for the past two hours. "Sore back?"

Stanley says with a sigh: "There's no way to avoid it. I try to move my hands in a different way -- doesn't matter. Well, I guess I'll pound with you."

Stanley, 26, who's working in a camisole tank top, lives in an uninsulated barn on the farm and spends more than 50 hours a week weeding, mulching, harvesting and selling at farmers markets.

Just a year ago, she was making $110,000 a year at Cisco Systems in Herndon, often telecommuting from the two-bedroom condo she owns in Georgetown. Now, she makes $7 an hour. She and Jabbar, along with Jabbar's fiance, Steve Hirschhorn, work for Chip and Susan Planck on Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Loudoun County.

They're part of a growing pool of young, educated, politically motivated workers drawn to farming. Books such as bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma," in which Michael Pollan championed the local food movement, are sparking interest in sustainable agriculture, or small-scale farms that embrace humane and eco-friendly practices. Such operations are getting a boost from Community Supported Agriculture, a system that lets customers pay in advance for a weekly share of a nearby farm's crop; the number of members participating in CSAs grew 50 percent between 2007 and 2009. The number of farmers markets in the United States has jumped by almost 13 percent over the last year. Even the White House now has its own organic garden.

Some young workers are looking for a career change; others are in it for a season or just a summer. Their passion for small farms is real -- but so is the physically exhausting, often tedious labor that comes with it. And reconciling theideals of local food and farming with the reality of sore backs, sweaty days and low pay isn't easy.

***

Chip and Susan Planck have owned their 60-acre spread in western Loudoun County since 1979. Stanley said she and her friends chose Wheatland Farms because they wanted to work for "someone who was profit-driven and making a life of it, doing well."


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