One way to tell the story of American agriculture is through the demographics of farmers. Increasingly, it’s an elderly population. Fully a quarter of all farmers are 65 or older (compared to about 3 percent of the U.S. labor force).
At 24, Justin Trussoni is bucking that trend. He’s one of a growing number of organic farmers who are taking on the project of growing the world’s food with enthusiasm and energy. Across the board, organic farmers are younger than their counterparts in chemical-based agriculture. And in large part, this fact is due to people like Justin, who grew up experiencing the life of an organic farmer, first-hand. Justin is a sixth-generation farmer.
“I never really knew the ‘conventional’ way of farming,” Justin says. “It was always organic as long as I could remember. That gave me a good impression of farming.” Justin’s dad ran a dairy and raises laying hens and beef cattle. “Every morning, I went to the barn to milk, then picked up the eggs, and then I went to school,” Justin recalls.
In high school, Justin was one of the only organic farm kids in his circle of friends, and he had an ongoing, mostly friendly, argument with them about the merits of the system. “A lot of those friends, they don’t have that passion to take up farming now in their lives, they’re off doing other things. Some of their parents even told them ‘Don’t get into farming,’ whereas the organic farmers, they want to farm. It’s calling them.”
After high school, Justin spent a few years at tech school before the urge to farm called him back home. He knew he didn’t want the daily responsibility of operating a full-scale dairy operation. Instead, he remembered the words of a family friend who had once told him that winter squash was a particularly rewarding crop. “I’m someone who likes to experience a lot of different things,” Justin explains, “and dairy farming is a big commitment.”
Justin started out on three-and-a-half acres, which he leases from his father. “I didn’t know anything about it then,” he chuckles. He asked a number of other farmers for advice. In the Organic Valley farmers’ co-op, collaboration and information sharing is valued, so Justin had good support from the start (a fact that helps explain why young farmers like Justin succeed). Eventually, through trial and error, he developed his own system that’s a hybrid of what he learned from others and in the field.
He uses a method that minimizes the number of tractor passes he must take across the field, which not only saves labor but precious fossil fuel. He plants and cultivates his crop during the season, then instead of ripening his squash on the ground, he cures the squash on flat-bed trailers in the sun, which results in a cleaner and more consistent harvest.
When Organic Valley got its start back in 1988, many of the farmers were already running dairy operations. Dairy forms the heart of the co-ops consumer offerings, but from the start, the co-op has marketed other organic crops and products, too.
For Justin, this support from the co-op is crucial. “I really enjoy the growing part,” he says, “and I don’t have the connections or time to do the marketing. Organic Valley is a great opportunity for me, because the co-op takes care of the marketing and distribution, and it’s got a recognizable label everywhere in the country. We farmers in the co-op really take pains to do things the right way, and consumers respect that.”