Young people flock to organic movement as they flee conventional agriculture

Story, photos and video by Bethany Knipp, NewsNetNebraska

Doug Dittman started organically farming 22 years ago when he became interested in the quality of food, not the quantity.

Dittman farmed with his father growing up and studied environmental science at the University of Kansas. After  taking a job in Europe, he noticed agriculture in Norway and Switzerland was smaller and more pastoral.

In contrast with Europe, Dittman said United States agriculture is more of a commodity.

“You grow grain and you dump it in a train and you haul it to a co-op and then it goes somewhere, but it’s just this anonymous commodity,” he said. YouTube Preview Image

Dittman and his wife Krista own Branched Oak Farm near Raymond, Neb. north of Lincoln. Together they manage a 30-cow dairy, raise vegetables, produce meat from cattle and pigs, and collect eggs from poultry.

Doug Dittman embraces his  dairy cow Robin.

Doug Dittman embraces his dairy cow Robin.

To take care of the 240-acre farm, the Dittmans receive help from their two sons and people whose interests have turned to the organic movement – young people.

According to Doug Dittman, young people seem to have a growing interest in organic agriculture.

“I don’t know if it’s a fad because people have been fleeing agriculture for a long time,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be something that’ll stay around.”

Currently, the Dittmans have five interns on their farm and also host a slew of people from the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. The WWOOFers stay on organic farms to labor and learn various techniques while being accommodated with meals and a place to stay.

Doug Dittman said Branched Oak Farm hosts about 12 – 15 WWOOFers a year, bringing in people from all over the world. The Dittman’s have hosted people from China, Canada, France, Holland and Norway.

No matter where their farm help is from, Doug Dittman said they’re all in their 20s and 30s.

“Young people really seem to be experience hungry,” Krista Dittman said. She said young people might be attracted to their farm because of its location close to I-80. Young adults who are traveling cross-country find it convenient to stop along the way, she said.

While some farmhands might be seeking an adventure, others are there to break into agriculture, which is a difficult thing to do according to Doug Dittman.

“It’s very capitally intensive, land is expensive [and so is] machinery.” Organic farming is more expensive and labor intensive than conventional farming as well, he said.

One person breaking into farming at Branched Oak is intern Drew Nelson, 34. When he isn’t working at Lincoln’s Pioneers Park Nature Center as an educator, he’s working in the dairy’s cheese room  in exchange for the use of the Dittmans’ land. Nelson came into the internship when he started volunteering at the farm after his girlfriend and her business partner developed their own farm project next door to the Dittmans.

Drew Nelson, 34, works in the cheese room at Branched Oak Farm. He gets to use a portion of land to grow crops and raise ducks and pigs in exchange for his help.

Drew Nelson, 34, works in the cheese room at Branched Oak Farm. He uses a portion of land to grow crops and raise ducks and pigs in exchange for his help making cheese.

Nelson said the experience is beneficial because he gets to learn how to make cheese and grow his own vegetables while the Dittmans get extra help.

With the benefit of a learning-labor exchange from internships and the WWOOF program, the organic movement has brought more diversity to agriculture.

Women have been leaders of the movement when there is only one type of person who dominates conventional agriculture; “a male, introverted mechanist, or a dude who loves tractors,” Doug Dittman said. The movement has also interested young people raised in cities when generally the average farmer is from a rural area and in his late 50s, he said.

Doug Dittman said much of the attraction to organic farming is the desire for people to have agency over their food by knowing where it comes from, which comes with a higher price. Instead of feeding the world, the Dittmans and their interns produce enough food for 25 – 30 families. The production is a “drop in the bucket” in comparison with conventional farming, but to Doug Dittman, that’s OK.

“It’s about doing the best you can, right where you are,” he said.

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