While the decline of independent farms in the US is a pressing concern for government leaders, a new breed of farmers is bucking that trend…and a growing number of Jews are among them.
The new farmer is young, cares about the environment, tends to be idealistic and looking for a life not dictated by a single-minded pursuit for wealth or status. Josh Rosenstein, farm director at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown, MD, near Baltimore, is one such farmer.
Rosenstein was a secular Jew with a house and a journalism career in the Pacific Northwest when he decided to change course. He quit his job, sold his house, moved across the country and started studying sustainable agriculture.
Nowadays Rosenstein manages Kayam, Pearlstone’s educational farm where school children, families and apprentice farmers learn about sustainable and organic farming and related Jewish values. Perennial crops include diverse fruit orchards, brambles, herbs, asparagus and gourmet mushrooms on just over two acres of land. The animal pasture is composed of one acre in pasture and forage, hosting seven dairy goats and almost 100 laying hens.
Rosenstein also sells the farm’s produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in the Baltimore area. In a CSA, community members commit to buying a full season’s worth of produce in the spring, pre-paying for their “share” of the farm’s harvest. CSA members then pick up a variety of fresh produce each week from the farm.
“There is a huge, burgeoning, almost exploding movement of people that care about food and how food is produced, and they want to have their hand in that,” Rosenstein said. “The Jewish farming movement is a facet of a larger movement, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s growing substantially.”
Along with the steady decline in the number of farms in the US, the most recent US Census of Agriculture in 2007 revealed the age of the average farmer is older than it used to be. At the same time, the number of young farmers in the organic farm market has increased.
In the local Jewish community, organizations like Pearlstone, Hazon and AVODAH offer young people opportunities to engage in some aspect of the “good food” movement. Jewish summer camps, such as Habonim Dror and the Martin Buber Summer Youth Kibbutz in Maryland also incorporate farming education.
Rosenstein honed his farming skills at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s Adamah program, which he said changed his life and ignited his interest in Jewish learning. Adamah is a leadership-training program for young adults on an organic farm in Connecticut.
Just after graduating from college three years ago, Julia Kahn participated in AVODAH, the Jewish Service Corps. She now manages a community farmer’s market in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, DC and sells sustainably raised lamb from Virginia at three other markets in DC and Maryland.
Kahn is trying to combine her love of urban living with her passion for building communities through connections to food.
“It’s about creating space in urban life where we can get to know our neighbors and build connections to our food and the people who create that food right in the middle of a bustling city,” she said. “Those worlds bumping up against each other–I like being part of creating that space.”
Living a farmer’s life is not for everyone, but an increasing number of people like Kahn want to participate in the process and are doing so by joining CSAs, shopping at farmers markets and planting community gardens in urban areas.
“It’s not just people in dreadlocks and hippies in Birkenstocks” who are joining the farm to table movement, Rosenstein said. He sees much broader interest, even from Orthodox mothers in Baltimore’s suburbs to sophisticated grandmothers from Manhattan. “They want to know how they can find food they can feel good feeding to their children.”
Top photo: Julia Kahn (left) and a volunteer at the Petworth farmers market.