Shellee Galyon entered the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a pre-med major with the goal of becoming a doctor. Midway through college, her dad married the widow of a dairy farmer, and the blended family moved to the farm.
The future doctor found the move to be the Rx for a contented life.
"I fell in love with agriculture. The peacefulness appealed to me," said Galyon, 23.
She changed her major, enrolled at Tennessee Tech and graduated with a degree in agriculture with a concentration in agribusiness management. Since graduating in December, she has been working the family farm in Chickamauga, Ga.
"A lot of people tried to tell me I was making a mistake. They thought organic farming was such a niche market that I wouldn't make any money in it, that I wouldn't be as successful as I would have in medical school.
"I have no qualms over the change of choice. I think this is what God called me to do. I like to think I have proven them wrong," she said.
Galyon is an example of a new generation of young farmers who are drawn to agriculture by love for the land and a goal to provide their communities a healthier, organic food option.
Some are returning home to work family farms. Some are juggling day jobs with farmwork, while others are new to agriculture. They say the proliferation of local farmers markets, in combination with a strong use of social media, has strengthened sales and broadened their customer reach.
"We're hearing a great deal of enthusiasm among these young farmers to be able to participate in bettering the health of their community," said Jeff Pfitzer, executive director of Gaining Ground. The nonprofit's mission is to promote locally grown produce and meats from farms within a 100-mile radius of Chattanooga
"The whole local-food movement is a passion-filled and heartfelt movement for those involved. Getting involved in farming is a powerful way to be part of that and make a difference. I think a lot of people are asking 'How can I align my work and my values?' For these individuals, this is a fulfilling way to do that."
Pfitzer said Gaining Ground has seen about a 40 percent increase in the number of farms affiliating with the nonprofit in a year.
"There were more than 100 farms listed in our fall edition of Tastebuds magazine. We had 85 farms listed in the spring edition and 60 before that."
Just this week the Washington Post reported that for the first time in more than 70 years, the number of small farms, many of them organic, has increased. Farming has been on a steady decline since 1935, when the Great Depression forced families to farm by necessity.
Now as more college-educated graduates return to their family land or find interest in organic methods, farming seems poised for a comeback thanks to this new generation of young farmers.
This is expected to be confirmed, industry officials say, when the USDA Ag Census, being taken this year, is released in 2013. The last census in 2007 reported that of the 2.2 million farmers nationwide, just 50,579 were operated by farmers 35 or younger.
In Tennessee, 27 agricultural producers of crops or livestock and 21 handling operations are listed with the National Organic Program, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
"Organics are definitely a trend, not a fad," said Jon Frady, marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "Consumer demand in organics continues to grow 15 (percent) to 20 percent per year, while the supply is not keeping up with the demand. It is a growing agriculture sector and should continue to grow given the consumer demand."
WHO THEY ARE
RYAN WELCH, 25
Farm: Walden Peak Farm on Signal Mountain opened in 2010 on two acres. He grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms, assisted by wife Brittany.
How started: Welch went to college to study environmental geology. While he was taking a nutritional anthropology class, the course's books interested him in new methods of organic and sustainable farming.
Growing methods: "From my mushrooms, I have a small worm farm going. I've been making soil with those worms, so I grow a variety of micro greens (sunflower shoots and pea shoots).
"I can get a ton of sawdust for $10 and grow shiitake mushrooms. I first start the fungus in a lab on grain, then I sprinkle the grain into my bags of sawdust. After a few months of the fungus colonizing the sawdust, it's ready to root mushrooms.
"From 5 pounds of sawdust, I can get a pound of mushrooms. I grow oyster mushrooms on straw. If you have 10 pounds of straw, you can easily get 5 pounds of mushrooms.
"I want to get into medicinal mushrooms such as reishi or turkey tails. Those are two known for cancer-fighting properties."
Financial return: "I sell to restaurants and at farmers markets. There are about a dozen restaurants who support me. When I sell to restaurants, I get $7 per pound of mushrooms. My sales last year were $14,000 for half a year, I only functioned half a year because of bug problems.
Use of social media: Welch supplemented his reading about how to grow mushrooms with YouTube videos. "I taught myself. It's been real trial-and-error. With the Internet you can read university studies and recommendations from tests they have done. The Internet has been helpful in narrowing down my failures."
Biggest challenge: "Startup capital. A lot of it (equipment) I got lucky on. I found a steam generator on eBay for $800. I made a private offer, and the guy accepted it. I built an insulated box out of plywood that I fill with my materials like straw and sawdust. I actually got my great-grandfather's 1940s tractor started up and used it to plow up a winter garden."
Appeal of farming: "I don't have to drive to the city and work, and I work for myself. I have a 2 1/2-year-old, and being around for the first two years of her life has been awesome."
SHELLEE GALYON, 23
Farm: Creekridge Farm, 250 acres in Chickamauga, Ga.
Produces: "We raise grass-fed beef, laying hens and broilers and produce when we have the time.
"At any given time, I have 100 broilers and 100 or more laying hens. It takes two to three hours to feed the chickens. I like to talk to our girls, and they like to talk to us."
How she started: "This land used to be Swanson Dairy Farm. My dad, Marvin Galyon, married Susan Swanson and we (the blended families) opened Creekridge Farms."
Use of social media: "We communicate with people by Facebook. We tell customers when we are having freezer sales, we advertise when we have broilers ready, what days we'll be at the Main Street Farmers Market or if we have to miss a market."
Biggest challenge: "Right now, doing organic, sustainable farming is sort of a limited market. Chattanooga is catching on to the trend, but trying to convince people to go organic and pay the prices of our products has been hard. Our eggs are $5 a dozen; if you buy a dozen large nonorganic in the stores you pay $1-$1.50.
"We try to get out the information that we don't put saline in our chickens. We try to sell people on the health benefits of organic sustainable foods."
The appeal of farming: "The peacefulness. I love the peaceful feeling of being around the animals."
BOB SWANSON, 33
Farm: Creekridge Farms. "My mom is married to Shellee's dad. I grew up dairy farming, so it was a natural fit for me to take care of the cows now. My grandparents started the dairy, and we dairied until 1991. My mom and I continued raising beef cows and gardening but mostly for our own production.
"Now my wife (Cheribeth), myself, Shellee and our parents all work the farm together. I handle the cows, Shellee takes care of the chickens and most of the sales and goes to markets."
His day job: Networking administrator for the Walker County School System.
Use of social media: "We have a Facebook page and are developing a website."
Biggest challenge: "Being able to get our product out. We all work together and can accomplish any task, but it's sales and marketing that's challenging.
"We chose organic because we've seen the reports on what's in everything else. In this area, a lot of people coming in to buy are just fed up with what the options are. They are ready for a better product for their families and themselves."
The appeal of farming: "I knew I wanted to do something else, but I'm a third-generation farmer. I knew I'd always still farm. It's peaceful and something to come home to and be able to relax."
JOHN DICKERT, 39
Farm: CoLyco Farms, 43 acres in Chickamauga, Ga. He and wife Stephanie operate the farm with her parents, Steve and Deb Cooper. None of them live on the farm, but all are within five miles.
How started: "We started a garden large enough to feed us, but we got so many requests for produce that it grew into three acres. That's what got us going to the new Ringgold Farmers Market this year. We also sell at Battlefield Farmers Market.
"My family and in-laws all come from farming generations. We did not have to put much investment in startup because we already had tractors, etc. Our investment was about $1,000 that we put into seeds and plants.
"We also have 25 head of cattle, but we're not selling beef now. We plan to by next spring."
Day job: Industrial maintenance worker at Burner Systems International. His goal is to transition into farming full-time.
Use of social media: "We use Facebook and Twitter to advertise and for customer feedback."
Biggest challenge: "Doing this part-time is that the garden's so big it's hard to keep up with it. We've done a really good job doing so, it just takes up a lot of time, obviously."
Appeal of farming: "Working with the land. It's a lot more relaxing. I like being able to provide a service to people. I like educating people on organic growing or just how to grow in general."
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...