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Young people choosing life on the farm


SCHAGHTICOKE, N.Y. - Sebastian Meier dug his fingers into the dirt in a field on the banks of the Hudson River. He tugged out a weed. "Goldenrod," he said, holding up the offending clump.

Nearby, Shanti Nagel knelt down to eyeball her organic kale. Clean and green, with no trace of flea beetles.

"God, that's beautiful!" she said.

It is their first field. Most days, they can't wait to get to it. Before Nagel and Meier came along, it lay fallow for 30 years. Tilling it required hand-to-hand combat with sapling roots, poison ivy and battalions of baseballs and golf balls thwacked skyward from neighbors' back yards.

"It's been a bit of a challenge," said Meier, 25, who has not slept much this spring. "It's a short, intense season where you just work yourself to the bone."

Once, he swore he would never be a vegetable farmer. Then he met Nagel, 20, a vegetarian, fell in love and joined the grass-roots revolution in the food industry. Now he plants tray after tray of vegetables, which is fun for the first couple of flats. "Then I get really cramped shoulders."

So go the days at Mantis Organic Farm in the eastern New York village of Schaghticoke. Like many other new young farmers, Nagel and Meier are fighting back against agribusiness with organics and kinship.

It is not just about food. They want to preserve the land. Like the mantis, a beneficial insect known in some cultures as the god of little people, they are doing something to make the world a better place.

"There's a million causes out there in the world that you can get involved with," Nagel said. "But this is a really important one. We have to bring food production back to being local, and not this multinational scariness."

Farm life has changed. Rookie farmers need to incorporate marketing, work second jobs and be good at saving money. To survive, Nagel and Meier rented a small Mechanicville apartment and cultivated 3 1/2 acres of a nearby family farm. For $10 a year, the farmer threw in the use of his tractor and a shed. They borrowed a seeder from another farmer.

First-year goal

First-year goal: break even. Their start-up costs to date are $12,000.

"Here's our babies," Nagel said at their greenhouse, pointing to trays of lettuce, radicchio and other plants seeded in organic soil and ready to plant. On deck are basil, peppers, fennel, scallions, leeks, sorrel, snapdragons and black-eyed Susans.

More and more consumers are buying organic produce, and many look for fresh, local produce grown by someone they know and trust. Nagel and Meier sell vegetables at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market on Saturday mornings and offer them wholesale to restaurants.

They also have lined up 10 subscribers for a 30-member community-supported agriculture project. Members pay $350 at the start of the growing season in exchange for weekly bags of fresh vegetables from June 1 through October.

As children of aging farmers leave the industry, the number of U.S. farms has dropped from 6.4 million in 1910 to 2.2 million in 1999, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Statewide, the number of farms shrank from 218,000 to 39,000 during that time.

But new, nonfarmers are turning to agriculture with fresh enthusiasm and deeply held values for motivation, said Tracy Frisch of the Regional Farm & Food Project in Albany, a clearinghouse for community-supported agriculture. And the number of New York farmers selling more than $1,000 a year rose from 36,000 in 1997 to 39,000 in 1999.

'The miracle of life'

"You see the beauty and the miracle of life every year. There are spiritual aspects. There's a real sense of completion and accomplishment," Frisch said.

Nagel's parents weren't farmers. "My parents had a garden and I used to weed. One day the weeding went from a chore to something I really looked forward to doing," she said.

After graduating from Emma Willard girls' school in Troy, she took an apprenticeship on Roxbury Biodynamic Farm in Claverack, which sells to soap opera stars on Manhattan's Upper West Side as well as residents in the Albany area.

Sebastian Meier, however, is the son of Christoph Meier, an esteemed Swiss dairy farmer and former manager of the 400-acre biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent who currently operates a biodynamic banana farm in the Dominican Republic.

Biodynamic farms predate organics and are pesticide-free and self-sufficient, relying on their own feeds, manure and compost.

Sebastian Meier studied farming in Switzerland, apprenticed on Fred Kirschenmann's 3,000-acre biodynamic grain farm in North Dakota and worked as a dairy herd manager in Pennsylvania before returning to Ghent as a much-in-demand equipment mechanic.

One day, while servicing tractors at Roxbury Farm, he met a young apprentice whose name, Shanti, means peace in Sanskrit. Last winter, as the two searched for a farm they could work on together, it hit them. Why not start our own?

Most days, though, "it feels like going from one catastrophe to the next," Meier said as he pulled out a sapling root near yet another baseball in their newly plowed field.

"Hey, the broccoli is buttoning, I think," Nagel called out from the next row. Premature blooms could scotch their broccoli sales.

Eventually, they want a farm productive enough to supply a community - "their whole food source, you know, their dairy and grains and vegetables," Nagel said. "And to find a community that's willing to learn to eat locally."

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