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Bayer AgVocacy Forum: Returning to rural America

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Vivian Howard always swore she would never be a farmer, marry a farmer, or settle down in Eastern North Carolina, but after 15 years away she returned to her roots in rural America and rediscovered a taste for the farm life.

Zach Bailey’s father didn’t want the farm to be an obligation for his children and told his son to only come back if it was in his heart’s desire. After attaining an associates degree in speech communications and formal education in aviation management, Bailey’s overwhelming passion for agriculture brought him home.

Jeremy Brown always thought he would come back to the family farm after college, but after his father made a career change Brown realized he needed to find a new niche in agriculture and start all over.

“I cherished that 10 years away from the farm because I appreciated it more,” said Brown, who now runs a 3,000-acre farm in West Texas, growing both conventional and organic cotton, wheat, rye, grain, sorghum, peanuts, and sesame.

While all three young agricultural professionals carved a different career path, they all ended up making that you-turn and returning to rural America.

Howard, Bailey, and Brown shared their personal journeys during the panel session “Coming Home: Next Generation Returning to Rural America to Invest in Infrastructure and Communities” during the Bayer AgVocacy Forum in San Antonio, Texas this week.

“The root of why I am in rural Eastern North Carolina and why so many choose to leave rural America is that word opportunity,” Howard said. “I had that opportunity and I made the most of it.”

Howard seized that opportunity in 2006, returning to her hometown in Kinston, North Carolina, to open Chef & The Farmer, which utilizes 60 percent of their ingredients from local farmers in a 90-mile radius. After initially opening as a high-end molecular gastronomy restaurant and receiving a luke warm opening reception, Howard decided to take a deeper look at the local cuisine she grew up on. Today the restaurant strives to create modern interpretations of traditional regional dishes and calls upon the wisdom of past generations for authentic deep South recipes.

“It was then I was able to connect to my community in an authentic and a powerful way,” Howard said.

Howard now shares her story on the PBS television series, A Chef’s Life.

“One of the things I like about A Chef’s Life and dislike about modern media, in general, is that (our culture is) very young-person-new-ideas driven and I don’t think people call on the wisdom of older folks very much,” Howard said.

Bailey Family Farm’s slogan is “faith, family, farming” and it’s something Bailey takes to heart every day and one of the reasons he returned to his family’s 11,000 acre, third-generation corn, soybean and wheat operation in south central Illinois.

“It goes back to that passion and you have to be obsessed with it,” Bailey said.

Bailey said it isn’t an easy choice for people his age to return to the community, with limited opportunities and the cost of farming these days, but it’s something he hopes his kids will do.

“I want the same opportunities for my children that I had. If they want to farm, there is no reason they can’t,” Bailey said. “My investment in our operation is so much greater because it was an active choice.”

Brown agrees and wants his children to leave the farm for at least three to five years before coming back.

“We have a big challenge ahead because if it is not profitable there is no reason to come back,” Brown said.

And it hasn’t been easy for Brown’s farming venture. The 36-year-old has diversified Broadview Agriculture Inc. and added organic cotton farming to the mix to try to build his return on investment. The young farmer said he is selling cotton cheaper than what his granddad did in the 1970s, yet the cost of equipment has tripled.

“We are farming entirely different than we did five years ago,” Brown said. “I love what I do so it makes the challenges worth it.”

Despite those challenges, all three panelists said the time away from rural America made them only appreciate the return more … even if the path wasn’t the one they set out on.

As Howard said she always thought she had to move away and forge her own path to be successful.

“What I have learned living across from my parents is I’m far more successful being near them,” Howard said.

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