A new breed of global growers embraces agriculture
Shelby Grebenc was 7 years old when her mother, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, had to go live in a nursing home. Her family was struggling financially, so Grebenc’s mind turned to chickens. She’d always had a few egg-layers clucking around her family farm, but after a capital investment (a $1,000 loan from her grandmother), Grebenc turned her brood into a business. Now 14, Grebenc is the owner of Shelby’s Happy Chapped Chicken Butt Farm, selling farm-fresh eggs every week and making a tidy profit. The learning curve was steep for Grebenc, with more pecking incidents than she’d prefer, but she’s picked up some lessons along the way. There’s basic economics, for one; Grebenc can quickly rattle off the cost of feeding, housing and watering her 135 chickens weighted against the price she needs to sell her eggs to be profitable. She’s also a shrewd student of marketing: “People prefer brown eggs because they think the white eggs are unhealthy,” she says. “But there’s no health difference. People just think they’re different.” She’s even learned about the price sensitivity of progressive consumers. Customers say they want free-range eggs, but sometimes balk at Grebenc’s prices. “People like to say, but they don’t like to do,” she sighs. Another feather in Grebenc’s cap: She’s the youngest farmer ever to be certified Animal Welfare Approved. It’s a grueling process that had inspectors examining every aspect of Grebenc’s operation before she could put the AWA sticker on her egg cartons. Her chickens are cage-free and free-range, with plenty of access to open air and sunshine. “They get to be chickens and do what they want,” she explains.
With the loan from her grandmother paid off, Grebenc is now using the profits from her chickens to save for college. A ninth-grader, Grebenc is unsure if she’ll become a farmer — right now she’s leaning toward being a pharmacist. Either way, her love of chickens will remain. “They peck the ground, they sit there and waddle around,” she laughs. “They’re just really interesting to watch.”
Cattleman Pete Clemons was a bit of a prankster when he was still riding the rodeo circuit. Once, Clemons painted the number 16 on the side of a goat — which was the number of a bull who just happened to belong to the man who ran the rodeo. Clemons eventually rode #16 (the bull, not the goat) and won an $800 purse. “Apparently the joke wasn’t funny to the man,” he says. “He ended up paying me part of my prize money in pennies. I had $500 in pennies that I could hardly pick up.” At 86, Clemons has lived his whole life around cattle. He was born to a pioneer family in Florida and worked the rodeo for 25 years, using his earnings to pay for a degree in agriculture. In 1961 he co-purchased the Okeechobee Livestock Market. It has since become Florida’s largest cattle market and one of the largest cattle volume dealers east of the Mississippi River with over 2,000 cows, calves and bulls auctioned annually. On sales days, around 50 farmers and ranchers (plus 75 more online) bid on livestock. The market was one of the first Internet auctions in the United States.
Over the years, Clemons has seen ranching change enormously, namely get more expensive. “And when that happens,” Clemons says, “there is always pressure from developers and commercial real estate to sell the land.” Clemons believes programs that reward ranchers for preserving their land are crucial. In 2008 he was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. He still works at the market. His advice to young ranchers? “Be active in meetings on public policy,” he says. “Also, realize that you need a lot of love for what you do, and patience, determination and hard work to succeed in the business.”
—Audra Clemons, granddaughter of Pete
Germantown, New York
When Dana and Michael Eudy met in Texas in 1998, they had no idea that their love story would one day involve herbs. Dana — a photography agent — had her lightbulb moment in 2008 after reading “In Search of the Medicine Buddha” by David Crow. Two years later, Michael, an artist and a teacher at the Fashion Institute of Technology, signed up to apprentice at Goldthread Herbal Apothecary farm in Florence, Massachusetts. Those experiences planted the seed for a life change. It took them another year to give up their New York City life and move to Germantown, New York, to start Field Apothecary. “We believed in the power of the plant,” Dana says one steamy July afternoon from her barn, where she and Michael sit sipping soda flavored with homemade bergamot syrup and dandelion tincture.
They began growing herbs on their 3-acre farm only one year ago — no small feat, as they had to start everything from scratch including trucking in dirt and organizing planting parties. “Herbalism takes a village,” Michael says. Now in their second growing season, they are producing oils, salves, tinctures, extracts, bitters, tonics, syrups and dried herbs and teas, which they sell under the label “Field Apothecary and Herb Farm.” Last year they began a medicinal CSA with over 30 members. The pair is also selling herbs at local farmers markets and has plans for regular “pharm”-to-table dinners; they hope to begin peddling their wares in a repurposed wagon in towns throughout the Hudson Valley next year. They are also teaching classes and workshops. (In addition, Michael works part-time and as a freelancer.) It sounds like a pretty hectic schedule for only their second year as farmers. “But if you create space for that energy,” says Dana, “it flows.”
Cape Town, South Africa
One line sums up Nokwanda Nkqayi’s philosophy: “Education is power and food is wealth.” She’s a full-time farmer, farm coordinator and teacher at Abalimi Bezekhaya, a farming cooperative based in the poverty-stricken Cape Flats area of Cape Town. Founded in 1982, Abalimi Bezekhaya (which means “Farmers of the Home” in isiXhosa) provides training and equipment to around 3,000 farmer aspirants annually in the Cape Flats and has spearheaded community gardening projects across the region.
Like many in Khayelitsha, the sprawling settlement where she farms, Nkqayi, 57, left her rural home in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape as a child in search of a better life. Now, 45 years later, she is teaching both kids and adults how to farm like her. Nkqayi, who joined the organization in 2007, wants more small-scale organic farmers to think like businesspeople. “Money is here, in our hands,” she says, “but we must use our common sense to make it. People need skills more than anything.” She sees farming in the city as a dignified, secure and profitable way to make a living, but it’s not just about the money. Having food gardens at home makes a big difference in the Cape Flats, where the unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent. “We need our kids to learn what we are doing; we need people that can take over the garden,” says Nkqayi. Those values can be hard to impress on kids who often view farming as a backward, outdated way of making a living.
Being a farmer in the Cape Flats has its challenges. The farm where Nkqayi works is located on the border of two gang territories, and violent flare-ups are common. Thieves have stolen shade cloths and garden hoses — and it’s not just people who are interested in the farm’s valuables. Rats once scurried around the garden, but the farmers seem to have gotten rid of them. Now, snails are a problem. But Nkqayi is undaunted. “Our plants still grow well,” she says, picking a snail off an otherwise healthy patch of cabbage thriving in the rejuvenated earth of one of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs.
One of a handful of shepherdesses flung across Europe, Cheyenne Dapra wakes at dawn and goes about her business (made more interesting these days with a newborn baby, Emil, in tow), ensuring that her flock is fed, healthy and protected. Dapra is absorbed by her responsibilities, by the seasons and by the mountains in northern Italy’s Trentino province, on whose vertiginous slopes she spends many quiet hours. “Summer is the best time for a shepherd,” says Dapra, “while the winters are hard on the plains, the animals and us. Also going to work in the mountains with a newborn is tough, but I actually think he enjoys it.”
Born in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, Dapra, 38, grew up in a house with few agrarian tendencies. Her father was an artist and her mother, an art therapist; two siblings went on to pursue architecture and political science while Dapra, uncertain about attending university, contemplated becoming a veterinarian.
On a whim, she decided she wanted to tend sheep. She applied for a number of apprenticeships, then spent the next two years working on a farm and attending a sort of hands-on tech school in Merbitz, Germany, where she learned, among other things, about animal biology, stable construction and the legal rights and duties of a shepherd.
It took five years of fieldwork, but Dapra began to work her own fields as a master shepherdess. She admits the first years of her work were grinding — long hours, at times brutal terrain and frigid days — but all of that, she says, made her resilient. A few years ago, she suffered heartbreak when a meadow project wasn’t renewed and she lost the land.
But it brought her west to Trentino’s Giudicarie Valley, where she met her husband, a transhumant (traveling) shepherd, who spends his summers leading a flock over the sawtooth mountains of Trentino and down into the Veneto region’s flat, green plains.
And their family continues to expand: They now care for 41 horses, 60 goats and 1,000 sheep, not to mention, of course, Emil.