They graduated to farming

A pair of young college grads are tilling Berks County fields with an invaluable tool: The Internet.

Posted: June 29, 2011

Looking across their Berks County farm an hour outside of Philadelphia, Landon Jefferies and Lindsey Shapiro aren't exactly where they expected to be.

Sure, Landon sold blackberries on the side of a Massachusetts road as a child, but, as the 26-year-old political-science grad put it, he was just in it for the cash back then.

His girlfriend, Lindsey, 26, a Vassar College sociology grad, thought she'd be working at a "bad-ass nonprofit" by now.

So maybe they aren't a natural fit among the tractors and cows.

But they're exactly where they want to be.

Welcome to Landon and Lindsey's Root Mass Farm in Oley, where these newbie farmers are not afraid to get down and dirty with some on-the-land learning. And where answers for managing their new terrain are just a search engine away.

When Landon needed to customize an implement to build raised beds, he started with one of his most indispensable tools - the Internet.

Pipes bursting in the house? He rolled up his sleeves and got down to business - watching plumbing videos on YouTube first.

And as they gain earthly wisdom, Lindsey freely shares it on their blog (www.rootmassfarm.com), inviting readers to "laugh at the bloopers of two people who are trying things for the first time."

A link to a YouTube video shows Lindsey narrating the story of the farm's compost pile, while Landon shovels throughout, and eventually puts it to use for the first time:

"Just to clarify, this is like the last piece of the puzzle that makes this house entirely habitable. Because now we have some place to put all our trash."

And they invite people to be part of their farm experience. "Please visit us!" they encourage on their blog. "It's hard (impossible) to play board games with just two people. (Plus, we could use your labor.)"

Hardly the typical path for today's twentysomethings, the idea of becoming farmers surfaced about three years ago.

After graduating from Vassar, Landon joined Lindsey in Philadelphia and quickly immersed himself in the city's agricultural scene, having worked on a farm during college. He managed farm markets for the Food Trust and later went to work at the Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market and as a manager at the Wyck urban farm.

Lindsey was finding it tough getting work in the nonprofit field, but eventually landed as a nonprofit events coordinator after working at a coffee shop for two years.

So the two started saving for their farm, depositing $15 a week in their savings account and later increasing the amount to $22.50. They estimated they would need $10,000 to start. Lindsey also took a small-business class.

"Instead of like, 'Oh, we're thinking about starting a farm,' it became, 'We are starting a farm,' " recalls Landon. "And people were like, 'Whoa, they're kinda serious.' "

Their road to the farm became even clearer when one of Landon's friends connected them with a family that had land and equipment left over from a failed attempt at farming.

"They didn't want to make decisions or invest a lot of time or effort into it," says Lindsey. "But they were excited about giving people the opportunity to get started and see their land being used productively."

So with their $4,750 in savings, $5,000 from family and connections through organizations that help young farmers, they were on their way.

Says Lindsey, "The existence of Root Mass Farm is pretty much entirely indebted to the green movement in Philly."

A year later, all of the summer crops - tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, okra, potatoes, summer squash - have been planted. Fall's offerings - collards, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts - are getting started in the greenhouse.

This spring, they went to market for the first time, another learning experience, which Lindsey recounted in a recent blog entry.

Someone should've passed the word onto our fields. The rain and cool weather slowed our harvest to a near standstill - we had just under $100 of produce to sell. What do you want first? The good news or the bad news? Good news: we sold all of it (with the exception of two bunches of lemon balm)! Bad news: most of it was gone by 10:30.

BUT WAIT, we have more good news. Landon and I had a great time!

We were reminded of why we decided to do this thing in the first place - a reminder we desperately needed amidst the early season stumbling blocks. Connecting to people around food and having those connections grow into something bigger felt really nice. So, maybe we looked a little silly with an empty table and a few milk crates full of books. If we're afraid of looking silly, we won't last long as farmers.

They look forward to the day when the fruits of their labor materialize into sustainable cash. They sell on Sundays at Headhouse Square at Second and Lombard and on Wednesday afternoons at 10th and Germantown. With access to 30 acres of land, they're cultivating one acre at a time and plan to expand incrementally over the next five years.

"It's a long stretch of time of not having money coming in necessarily," Landon says with a laugh. "I'd like to not lose money, and ideally make some. And as long as we're eating and not like going into debt, that's good."

Lindsey, meanwhile, will start a temporary job soon as a marketing associate at a local engineering firm while Landon manages the farm full time.

"Landon really likes farming, and he has kind of like an infectious love for it," Lindsey says. She, however, admits to going through phases. "I'll want to harvest everything, get really excited, and then I'll have to, like, take a few weeks off. I do like it. It's exciting to me. Things you put into the ground turn into food and a meal. That part I don't think will ever get old."

They're working hard on spreading the Root Mass message.

Taking to Facebook and Twitter, they're part of a growing trend of farmers, especially young ones, using social media to connect and sell.

"Research clearly shows the uptick of social media usage by farmers," says Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of Cause Matters. She trains farmers to connect with consumers, so that people can better understand where their food comes from.

Social media allow farms "the opportunity to connect with the 98.5 percent of the population that's not actively farming," notes Payn-Knoper. "As more people are disconnected from the farm, it is more difficult to find accurate information about how farmers are raising food. The sense of community allows people across all walks of agriculture to connect and to share frustrations/needs and learn from each other."

Their social media sophistication also gives twentysomethings a big business advantage, says Marilyn Anthony, southeast regional director of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, allowing them to better develop products and sell directly to customers.

Pennsylvania in particular has an active population of young farmers because the local-food movement is fairly mature, Anthony says.

That allows Landon and Lindsey, active proponents of "food justice," or making sure everyone has access to healthy food, to easily connect with those who feel the same way.

"Landon and I regularly brainstorm ways to push our politics on people, and our social media outlets are definitely part of the equation," says Lindsey. "When the Senate refused to authorize payments to black farmers, we criticized them via our Twitter account. We also use the account to spread news regarding farm workers' rights, cool urban farming projects, or anything else we believe in."

But mostly they use their blog to chronicle their life as new farmers.

Landon's hot afternoon on the tractor:

Thanks to Landon's "sweat equity," the fields are now (almost) ready for their first planting. We're putting down buckwheat to suppress all the tall grasses currently dominating our future vegetable beds. If Landon and I are the mob bosses, buckwheat's our muscle. Muscle with pretty flowers.

 A farewell video tribute to slaughter-bound Wilbur the pig:

Wilbur, may you always eat apples in Heaven.

 Tactics for surviving the first country winter:

Sledding. Boggle. Buffalo wings. Fires. Road trips. Books on tape. Hot toddies. Hobbies. Spanish.

 And noting their sixth anniversary, and their new beginning on the farm:

We planted two fig trees that had, much like Landon and I, started their lives together in Philadelphia. . . . Sometimes, I'm almost overwhelmed by how much I miss living in Philly. I'm overwhelmed by the magnitude of our decision to move here. In those moments, I want to tear up the onion bed with my teeth and pour sugar into the tractor's gas tank.

But then I remember to breathe.

I remember that building a new life takes time. I remember that it happens in those small moments when you're not even paying attention. I remember that it's two cats in a windowsill and two fig trees in the ground.

 


See Lindsey and Landon in action on their farm at www.philly.com/

rootmass.

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