The Wisdom of Young Farmers: Amy Rice-Jones

At 28, Amy Rice-Jones has built Bounty Farm in Petaluma, California, from the ground up, transforming an empty lot with dilapidated sheds full of garbage on it into a productive urban farm. The farm is part of Petaluma Bounty, a non-profit with a mission to provide everyone with access to healthy food. As the farm manager, she plans the entire year's production of food, trains and coordinates volunteers, and teaches classes on the farm. Here's what she has to say.

As a child I despised pulling weeds. It wasn't until I went to college that I became more interested in people's access to healthy food, and the ability to grow stuff for myself.

The apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz gave me all the tools I needed to figure out all the problems and things I needed to tackle. I knew if I didn't know how to build an irrigation system I at least had the knowledge to find the resources to figure it out.

I learned so much by having to do so it all on my own. Now I have skills as an electrician, carpenter, volunteer coordinator, everything in between. It's been very exhausting, I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life.

I dream about the farm. On the weekends I'll have to run to check on something in the greenhouse. It definitely limits what I can do outside of work, but that being said, farming is a lot about a lifestyle too. People who get into farming enjoy the lifestyle.

Most people thinking about getting into farming have a romanticized notion of what it's about. It is hard, requires a lot of planning, money, and personal sacrifice. It's challenging to make money farming on a small scale, it makes you change your standards and what you value in life.

If you have simple humble tastes you can be comfortable farming. If you have really extravagant tastes, farming's not for you.

I always want to improve the lot of others. Food is one of the basic necessities of life, and it's a basic human right to have access to healthy food.

There are a lot of people into the local sustainable aspect of food but there is still a great inequality of access. The seasonal, local, aspects are all great, but it's really based around a community of people that can afford to pay the highest price of produce. I felt like an organization that is trying to make healthy food available to people that couldn't afford it was something I wanted to participate in.

I'd really like to see more grant money out there for for-profit farms to produce food and sell it at a lower price. It's one way farmers could help supply food to low-income people. Small-scale farmers already have such a challenging job just to cover their costs—it has to come from outside the farming business. I have a lot of friends starting farms that can't afford to lower prices to make it affordable and stay afloat as a business.

I tried to do everything in the first season. And there have been a few times in the past few years where I've felt on the brink of a mental breakdown trying to do everything and be everywhere.

I tell people: "I don't want to think during the farming season because there is not enough time." I spend a lot of time in the winter months developing a crop plan that's very detailed, right down to number of seeds I need. It's a huge, huge time consuming effort, but it's basically a blueprint. If you have a CSA, and restaurant accounts, you can't let people down. You have to be well organized to make sure you meet all your commitments.

I have a strong desire to connect people with plants. But as the manager of the farm I don’t get to do that all that much. It's been a hard transition to move away from being a person who does it all to be more of an observer and communicator and less out in the field. But if I really want to grow a lot of food for the community I have to spend my energy giving people these tools.

I think more and more every year I'm so happy I've chosen this as my career, because there are a lot of kids who come out to the farm and it's so amazing to share the wonder they feel when they dig up a carrot and they've never seen how a carrot is grown before. That's really where my greatest happiness is.

The Wisdom of Young Farmers is an ongoing series where we talk with the new generation of farmers in America about raising food and figuring out how to make farming a viable profession in 2010.

Images courtesy of Amy Rice-Jones

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