By Dinesh Ramde
MILWAUKEE (AP) - A Wisconsin factory worker worried about layoffs became a dairy farmer. An employee at a Minnesota nonprofit found an escape from her cubicle by buying a vegetable farm. A nuclear engineer tired of office bureaucracy decided to get into cattle ranching in Texas.
While fresh demographic information on U.S. farmers won't be available until after the next agricultural census is done next year, there are signs more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming: Enrollment in university agriculture programs has increased, as has interest in farmer-training programs.
Young people are turning up at farmers markets and are blogging, tweeting and promoting their agricultural endeavors through other social media.
The young entrepreneurs typically cite two reasons for going into farming: Many find the corporate world stifling and see no point in sticking it out when there's little job security; and demand for locally grown and organic foods has been strong enough that even in the downturn they feel confident they can sell their products.
Laura Frerichs, 31, of Hutchinson, Minn., discovered her passion for farming about a year after she graduated from college with an anthropology degree. She planned to work in economic development in Latin America and thought she ought to get some experience working on a farm.
She did stints on five farms, mostly vegetable farms, and fell in love with the work. Frerichs and her husband now have their own organic farm, and while she doesn't expect it to make them rich, she's confident they'll be able to earn a living.
"There's just this growing consciousness around locally grown foods, around organic foods," she said. "Where we are in the Twin Cities there's been great demand for that."
Farming is inherently risky: Drought, flooding, wind and other weather extremes can all destroy a year's work. And with farmland averaging $2,140 per acre across the U.S. but two to four times that much in the Midwest and California, the start-up costs can be daunting.
Still, agriculture fared better than many parts of the economy during the recession, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts record profits for farmers as a whole this year.
"People are looking at farm income, especially the increase in asset values, and seeing a really positive story about our economy," said USDA senior economist Mary Clare Ahearn, citing preliminary statistics. "Young people are viewing agriculture as a great opportunity and saying they want to be a part of it."
That's welcome news to the government. More than 60% of farmers are over the age of 55, and without young farmers to replace them when they retire the nation's food supply would depend on fewer and fewer people.
"We'd be vulnerable to local economic disruptions, tariffs, attacks on the food supply, really, any disaster you can think of," said Poppy Davis, who coordinates the USDA's programs for beginning farmers and ranchers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has responded with proposals that would provide young farmers with improved access to USDA support and loan programs.
One beginning farmer is Gabrielle Rojas, 34, from the central Wisconsin town of Hewitt. As a rebellious teen all she wanted to do was leave her family's farm and find a career that didn't involve cows. But she changed her mind after spending years in dead-end jobs in a factory and restaurant.
"In those jobs I'm just a number, just a time-clock number," Rojas said. "But now I'm doing what I love to do. If I'm having a rough day or I'm a little sad because the sun's not shining or my tractor is broken, I can always go out and be by the cattle. That always makes me feel better."
Rojas got help in changing careers from an apprenticeship program paid for by the USDA, which began giving money in 2009 to universities and nonprofit groups that help train beginning farmers. The grants helped train about 5,000 people the first year. This year, the USDA estimates more than twice as many benefited.
One of the groups that received a grant is Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES. The Spring Valley, Wis., chapter teaches farming entrepreneurs how to cope with price swings and what to do in cases of catastrophic weather.
MOSES also organizes field days, where would-be farmers tour the operations of successful farms to learn and share tips. Attendance is up 20 percent this year, director Faye Jones said, and some outings that used to attract 30 or 40 people have drawn as many as 100, most between the ages of 18 and 30.
"I think for many people, farming has been a lifelong dream, and now the timing is right," she said. Among the reasons she cited: the lifestyle, working in the fresh air and being one's own boss.
If farming is beginning to sound like an appealing career, there are downsides. The work involves tough physical labor, and vacations create problems when there are crops to be harvested and cows to be milked.
In addition, many farmers need second jobs to get health insurance or make ends meet. As the USDA notes, three-fifths of farms have sales of less than $10,000 a year, although some may be growing fruit trees or other crops that take a few years to develop.
None of those factors dissuaded 27-year-old Paul Mews. He left a high-paying job as a nuclear engineer last year to become a cattle rancher in Menard, Texas. His wife's family has been ranching for generations, and Mews decided he'd much rather join his in-laws and be his own boss than continue shuffling paperwork at the plant.
"When you're self-employed it's so much more fulfilling. You get paid what you're worth," he said. "It's really nice that what you put into it is what you're going to get back out."