All across America, in the wheat fields, hog pens, and milking barns, aging farmers often repeat a sad lament.
Younger generations, they often say, don’t want to be farmers. The work is too hard, the margins too thin.
Thousands of generational farms have shuttered and sold in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in recent decades. Other farmers, or their children, cling to untended acres for years, hoping for the day a couple like Joe Kalucki and Kelly O’Neill come knocking with unfounded optimism and products unfamiliar to most old-school farmers. Like a “pleasure oil” made of sunflower oil and an assortment of herbs.
“It’s lube,” Kalucki said recently at Timberline Farms, their business in Hammonton, near the Pinelands. “I guess I don’t know another farm that sells lube.”
Pennsylvania has a litany of programs under the banner of “Beginning Farmers” that assist wannabe farmers with loans and grants. According to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania actually leads the nation in the percentage of farmers who are under 35, at 14%.
The New Jersey Farm Bureau didn’t have statistics about the state’s young farmers available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t include the Garden State among the nation’s top states for “young producers.”
The viral Jersey farmers
Kalucki, 37, and O’Neill, 35, left Point Breeze and bought the 9-acre family farm in 2015. They got married at a ceremony there soon after, and now have a young son who’s far muddier and goat-aware than they were as kids. Timberline is best known for its U-Pick sunflower fields — perfect for selfies — along with its goat milk soap and the lube, known as Petra’s Pleasure Oil.
Together, the couple also tend to social media with funny, self-deprecating videos of their newfangled farming life. It’s fun, yes, the couples said, but also vital for business.
“The younger farmers, it seems, have two communities, our in-person community and social media, where we can connect with farmers all across the world. You have to have a presence,” Kalucki said.
One of their more viral videos was a “self-roast” of being young and inexperienced in agriculture. Not everyone got it, the couple said, and not everyone is welcoming of new faces and ideas in farming.
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“We’re millennial farmers, we both have full-time jobs, because of crippling student loan debt,” O’Neill said in the video.
Kalucki, who works in digital marketing, grew up a “skater/punk” 60 miles north, which explains the skate ramp on their farm. He majored in U.S. history. O’Neill grew up in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, and worked in Washington, D.C., before doing a 180. She went on to work at farms in Maryland and Vermont and learned how to make goat cheese on an island off the coast of France.
She has more of the green thumb, and it’s been places.
“I think I delivered like 80 goat kids in three months,” she said.
O’Neill works for New Jersey’s Department of Fish and Wildlife by day.
Christa Barfield, known to many as “FarmerJawn” in the Philadelphia region, grew up in Germantown. She worked in health care for a decade but a trip to the Caribbean island of Martinique in 2018 changed her life.
“I saw Black people farming and that was an inspiration to me,” Barfield, 36, said. “Not just farming, but Black farmers who owned the land. That was the key for me.”
Barfield came back to Philly and opened a tea company, then FarmerJawn, which includes greenhouses and storefronts. She recently began organic farming on the 128-acre Westtown School property in Chester County.
She said she’s also experienced the agricultural cold shoulder at times, particularly at her latest venture in Chester County, where people have scrutinized her online.
”I guess people that live near farm, that patronized it over years, start to feel they know a lot about agriculture,” she said.
From fashion to farming
David Darling Jr. and his wife, Anne, also took an unconventional path to owning The Farm at Catawissa Creek, a picturesque, 130-acre organic farm and retreat center in Columbia County. David, 34, was a mathematics major and lacrosse player in college. Anne, 32, studied fashion in Florence and Milan and worked for a menswear company in New York City.
Together they sell direct-to-market vegetables, raise Moreno sheep for knitwear, and host retreats and campers.
David worked serving the unhoused in Philadelphia after college and began to ponder food sourcing. According to the farm’s website, he wanted to “reconcile his relationship with the natural world.”
“I needed to go to the source and be a producer,” he said.
David delved into farming and vegetable growing apprenticeships in Pennsylvania and chanced upon a man whose family owned the vacant farm in Catawissa. That family waited patiently for someone to come along and take over, for years, and offered David a steeply discounted price.
“They waited for someone who would preserve the farm,” he said.
The Darlings are on social media too but don’t rely on it too heavily. They said they haven’t had negative experiences with neighbors out in rural Pennsylvania.
“Nobody has ever asked us a political question,” David said.
Still, farming’s never simple. They inherited a bone-cold farmhouse built in 1900 that required an extensive overhaul.
“There’s reasons why this can seem so insurmountable to a young person,” David said.
The Darlings and Kalucki and O’Neill, at Timberline Farms, shared a similar observation: Friends from the city want to visit often. The Darlings hope to bring more people onto their farm for stays and, perhaps, draw more people into farming.
Barfield said branching out into Chester County made FarmerJawn the largest regenerative, organic produce farm owned by a Black woman in America. She’s set bigger goals too.
“We want to harvest a million pounds of produce,” she said.
Kalucki and O’Neill said they’ll keep making funny, weird videos and unusual products. They hope to quit their day jobs, sooner rather than later.
“People think younger generations don’t want to work anymore,” Kalucki said. “We’re working too much.”