Plowing the way forward

Despite challenges, young resident is committed to making farming work

She may have completed her final 4H farm show last weekend, but 19-year-old Kristen Jenkins’s work with livestock is far from over.

Starting in September, she’ll take the helm of the 4H junior livestock club, with a little help from her mom, Sandy Falls. She’s also taking an increasingly active role in her family’s small cattle operation out in Woodville.

Kristen Jenkins stands at the top of a cattle grazing area on her family’s farm in Woodville days before her last 4H farm show. Courtesy photo

It won’t be her sole focus — Jenkins is starting the phlebotomy program at Lord Fairfax Community College in the fall and plans have a full-time job in addition to caring for the farm.

But she’s a rare example of someone who is choosing to stay in Rappahannock and continue to invest in agriculture.

“When I was little my grandpa and my dad would sit me up on the fence post, and I’d count the cows as they went by,” she says. “I’ve always had it in my blood.”

That’s not true of a lot of kids in the county. Many don’t have the land to care for an animal or don’t want to invest in one, says Jenkins, particularly when there are so many other things they can get involved with.

Rappahannock’s 4H program offers a varied menu of activities, such as knitting, film-making and gardening clubs. That makes it less livestock focused than some of the surrounding counties.

But Jenkins hopes she can drum up some early enthusiasm — and awareness.

She’ll have help from the county’s 4H coordinator, Jenny Kapsa, who brought a group of kids to the farm show to see the cows, pigs and sheep and hear from the youth who owned them.

Kristen Jenkins with one of her cows at the 4H farm show in Culpeper Courtesy photo

When Jenkins starts talking about cows her excitement is almost contagious — she bonded with some of the older farmers at the show while sharing pictures of bulls on their phones, Falls recounted.

She’s also clear-eyed about the challenges: “A family can’t rely on a farm income,” Jenkins says, referring to small-scale operations.

Still, having kids see that farming is enjoyable and possible is important, said Kapsa. “Kristen brings that voice to our community and to this age group.”

Drumming up appreciation

Not many of Jenkins’s peers were from farming families. And few, whether they farm or not, have stuck around since graduation.

Like many rural counties across the U.S., Rappahannock has lost young people to cities in search of broader opportunities. Only 6 percent of primary farm operators are under the age of 35, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census.

But that number is increasing — albeit by a tiny percent — as young farmers see potential in tapping into demand for locally grown, sustainable food. Among the young farmers who do commit, around 60 percent are women and the majority — 75 percent — didn’t grow up on a farm, according to a 2017 survey from the Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy network of young farmers.

Many of the kids who are currently active in the 4H livestock club have moved to Rappahannock from more urban areas and are not familiar with being around farm animals, Jenkins says. The chances they’ll go into farming are slim, but what matters more to her is that they have an appreciation of something she loves and wants to see continue.

“We’ve definitely been trying to put it out there so that the kids know what is available,” she says.

Social media has helped.

Kristen Jenkins poses for a selfie with Hershey, one of her cows. Courtesy photo

Falls and her husband Tim helped launch an Instagram page after taking over the livestock club two years ago. This year they started a Facebook page for the club and in the run up to the 4H show they posted pictures with bios of each participant.

And the number of members has increased in the last few years. While Jenkins was the only one from Rappahannock showing cattle three years ago, this year five members did.

“We hope that this let’s the kids see that this is another opportunity for them,” Kapsa says.

Keeping farming afloat

The farm Jenkins’s dad Tim currently runs has been passed down through the generations. Between the land they own directly and the land they lease for hay making and cattle grazing, they work about 20 percent of the land the family did a generation ago and work off-farm jobs, evidence of how the economics of farming have changed over the years.

“You really don’t make a profit off cattle,” says Jenkins. “There’s no way you could not have an income [outside farming],” she says.

Still, she wants to keep the farm going because she knows how much it means to her family and because, well, she just loves cows. (Her fiance got her one for Christmas that she’s nicknamed Sweet Potato).

She’s also hoping to show kids that livestock farming is multi-faceted.

Through the 4H projects, kids learn to track feed amounts and outlays, calculate monthly costs and monitor market values for livestock. The goal is to learn about budgeting and money management as well as how much work and expense farming involves.

Jenkins doubts that many people will be converted, in large part because they don’t have the time or the money. But she’s not going anywhere.

“I want it to keep going,” she says. “I don’t want it to just sink into the ground.”

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 20 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.