Mary Sandrini never pictured herself as a farmer.
She was content working as a barista and a waitress in Milwaukee and tending to her vast array of plants when she got home. She never thought those skills with plants could translate into a full-time gig, caring for produce and animals out in a rural part of Marathon County.
Sandrini met Flynn Carlson, who grew up on Ninepatch farm, in 2011. After a handful of years of dating, the two packed up and moved back to the Wausau area to help out the family at the farm, as Craig Carlson, Flynn’s father, grew older. Ninepatch is a family-run farm that raises chickens, sheep, cows and pigs in addition to a small amount of vegetables. The farm sells their products at the farmers market each Wednesday and Saturday, in addition to selling to restaurants both near and far.
Now Sandrini has found a job, and a place, where she feels happy and content with her work.
“It’s a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “There are not very many places where you can spend the whole day outside and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Sandrini isn’t the only young farmer at Ninepatch. She and Flynn Carlson, both 27, returned just last year. And long before they returned, Dylan Carlson was the first of nine children to make the jump back to farming after leaving Athens behind for college.
Dylan Carlson, 33, got a bachelor's degree in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison while working in restaurants as a cook. After college, he set out for Milwaukee, where he worked as a chef. And that's what reignited his interest in farming: seeing where the food he prepared daily was produced.
"I liked seeing where things were coming from," he said. "And I had the opportunity to have more of a hand in the process. Being able to serve food is more than just cooking."
Sandrini and Dylan Carlson are just two of the millennials who are part of a growing trend, turning to farming to make a living. Though the number of farmers in the country has continued to fall, from 3.28 million in 2007 to 3.18 million in 2012, as noted by the 2012 census data by the United States Department of Agriculture, there is hope. Between the years of 2007 and 2012, the number of young farmers, ages 25 to 34, grew nationally, from nearly 107,000 to over 109,000. And in Marathon County, the Farmland Preservation Plan found in 2013 that the average age of a farmer decreased for the first time in many years, to 52.7 years of age.
What's driving it? Not big agribusiness, but small-scale, local farms like Ninepatch.
A Family Tradition
For the Carlson family, farming is a part of their heritage.
"My grandparents were the original grow-your-own-food people," Craig Carlson said. "And when I was a kid, we had a large garden, and it supported us."
He said that as a child, his family relied on that garden. And now, as an aging parent of nine, he hopes to see his farm legacy carried on with his children.
"With a large family, I'd like nothing more than to move on and they continue," he said. "My biggest goal is to leave it to people who care the same."
The small farm depends on the people who care — like Dylan and Flynn Carlson and Sandrini — to keep it up and running. Each day, they are a part of the five-person team that starts the morning chores by 7:30 a.m.
"We take care of the chickens, youngest to oldest," said Dylan Carlson of the early morning routine. Chickens are the farm's largest product; at any given time there are usually 3,600 on the property, from chicks in the warming barn to egg-laying hens in one field to free-range meat chickens in another. The chicken and eggs the farm produces reaches restaurants not only in Wausau, but in Madison and Milwaukee as well.
The family gathers for a quick breakfast inside at 9:30 a.m., then it's back out to tackle a daily to-do list of chores. They range from tending to the sheep, cows and pigs and moving the chicken coops, to ensuring that the produce growing in the gardens stays bug-free and healthy. And they do it all without any type of herbicide or pesticide. Ninepatch isn't certified organic because of the grain the chickens eat, but all of the members of the Carlson clan work to make sure their farming is contributing as much to the earth as the earth is giving to them.
"We're land stewards," Sandrini said. "I strive to be one. You only get one Earth, and you can't turn back."
But What if You're Not Born with It?
For other millennials who dream of being farmers, getting into the business isn't as easy as inheriting the family land. Stacy Martin, the owner of MooPoo Ranch in Junction City, had a hard time finding land to raise animals on in her early 20s.
"The biggest struggle was having to wait," said Martin, who grew up in the suburbs of Rothschild. She had to wait until she had the space for the cows she'd always dreamed of having.
But luckily, after marrying her husband, they were able to build a house and a farm on 40 acres on State 34. Martin now cares for the farm full-time, using the knowledge she gained in college and in her years of working for big agriculture companies. She didn't like what she saw at those companies and decided that creating her own farm would lead to a healthier life.
"I strive for simplicity and aligning with nature," she said. "Everything I do with my little ranch mimics nature. (The animals) are eating what they would eat in nature. I'm letting them harvest their own food, and they're out in the sunlight and fresh air."
Martin said that she believes millennials have the power to cause change in the agriculture industry, through starting their own farms.
"There's more ambition," she said of young farmers. "It's more common with millennials."
She said that though people associate high prices with breaking into agriculture, it doesn't have to be that way. Though the property likely won't come cheap, there's no need for expensive permanent buildings, and the farm can be built over a series of years.
"I build to my needs," Martin said. "It's an ongoing process. It wasn't something that was done all at once."
Resources, Plans and a Future for Farming
Heather Schlesser is an agriculture educator at the Marathon County branch of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which means that she works with farmers of all ages. Mostly, she said, she sees farms passed in succession from an aging parent to sons and daughters who will continue the work.
But increasingly, she's seeing younger people with no background in farming.
"It seems pretty typical across the state that non-farming couples are taking interest," Schlesser said.
And those younger people are diversifying the landscape, adding several different crops and types of livestock to one piece of land, just like Ninepatch and MooPoo Ranch are doing.
"They're using the land for different purposes, it's more of what we were brought up on," Schlesser said. "And they're more fiscally stable. Being diversified is better."
For example, dairy farms that produce milk and milk products are struggling as prices drop. But farms that also raise beef cattle in addition to milk cows are able to maintain a revenue stream through selling their meat as well, she said.
But what it all comes down to is that millennials are realizing that the best way to see where your food comes from is to grow it yourself, Schlesser said. And that's changing how people see farms, from big dairy conglomerates to a slower, more open concept where animals roam pastures in small numbers.
Martin thinks young farmers are going to create change in the industry.
"The reason that older farms are dying out is there's no desire to adapt," she said. "I think millennials are more open to (starting a farm). They don't believe that they can't. The desire is there."
This article was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.