Our future farmers: John Agostinho

John Agostinho’s path to farming full-time took him from an IT career in New York City, to an ever-growing flock of sheep in the Hudson Valley. Like many recent new entrants to agriculture, John didn’t grow up on a farm. However, that’s not to say he hasn’t got a bit of farming in his blood.

Born and raised in the New York City borough of Queens, John was introduced early to urban agriculture and a farm-to-fork way of life. Before immigrating to the United States 35 years ago, his parents farmed in their native Portugal, and although their new hometown didn’t exactly look like farm country, John’s parents were able to hold on to some of their rural heritage and instil the same values in their son.

‘My dad was doing urban gardening before it was the thing to do. He would have backyard plots behind people’s houses. He’d come home from working his construction job and go right into the “fields” of Queens. I didn’t realise at the time how special and unique that was.’

farm4The fruits of that labour (and his mother’s cooking) were the centrepieces of family gatherings around good food. John recalls that he ‘was always sort of attracted to food,’ growing up. He knew instinctively, though, that the lifestyle of a cook just wasn’t for him.

Initially, John studied political science at night school while pursuing an IT career during the day. He found that he was always relating what he learned back to food, which got him interested in food and agriculture policy work. As a city slicker, though, John figured, ‘if I’m going to be making policy, I should have some experience in farming so I actually know what I’m talking about.’

John volunteered at nearby Queens County Farm and fell in love with the work. During a very eventful 2010 wherein he graduated from school and got married, John was offered a full-time apprenticeship at the farm. He quit his job and got down to the business of becoming a farmer.

The focus at Queens County Farm was on growing a variety of veg. Following that experience, John was certain that the next part of his agricultural education would be animal-centric. He spent the next two years as a livestock apprentice at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, just north of New York City.

‘I liked the interaction with the animals. It felt like a natural thing for me. And I really fell in love with the sheep.’

At Stone Barns, John was given the chance to focus his learning in animal husbandry on the farm’s flock of (mostly) Finn-Dorset sheep. ‘The more time I spent with them, they became more than just numbers. I got to know them by face.’

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John’s IT skills were put to good use setting up an ovine database for the farm, making the tracking of various criteria like weight gain, lambing rates, and genetic selection more efficient. Additionally, Stone Barns’ pasture-based, multi-species approach towards raising livestock gave John a glimpse of ‘what a beautiful thing a diverse operation can be.’

As John’s apprenticeship came to an end, he was confident that he had the skills to manage his own livestock operation. The major barrier to making his farm dream a reality, however, was access to affordable and appropriate land – a stumbling block faced by many young farmers. Enter Joan Snyder, owner of Hollow Road Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Joan had been looking for a good way to transition herself out of farming, while transitioning her flock into the hands of the next generation. While travelling in New Zealand, she became acquainted with the milk share scheme, a programme where dairy farmers would allow new entrants to earn equity and breeding stock in the existing herd while working there. Eventually, the new farmer would move with the newly acquired animals to start his or her own business elsewhere. Joan decided to apply this practice to her sheep operation and offered John the chance to build a farm enterprise from the hooves-up.

John and Joan worked out a three-year plan for the eventual takeover of the flock’s offspring. In year one, John owned 1/3 of the ewe lambs born, in year two, 2/3, and in year three, he’ll own all of them. In addition, Joan has provided him with housing on-site and a stipend to manage the farm. John provides her with IT support and gets free reign on how to direct the farm and his burgeoning business.

This unique arrangement eased the financial burden John would have faced in a traditional land search, and it also gave him an established setting to gain the farm business experience he needed to launch his own operation, Fatstock Farm.

There were still loads of challenges to be overcome, though. ‘Running a business, making money, bookkeeping, marketing – it was all new to me, a lot of things all at once. [In the beginning], I didn’t have as strong a community of support as I do now. I just tried to keep my head above water for a while.’

i-b6xx4xq-X2John needed some more guidance on the business side of things. He applied to the Journeyperson Programme at the New York chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NY). This two-year programme offers technical guidance and educational opportunities for new farmers. NOFA-NY’s Rachel Schell-Lambert describes the ideal Journeyperson as a farmer with ‘a strong vision for the future of [his or her] farm business, and someone likely to become a leader and model for other beginning farmers.’

A vital part of the programme is mentorship. Each Journeyperson is paired with a farm mentor to provide advice and real, on-the-ground help. John’s mentors are Lee Ranney and Anna Hodson of Kinderhook Farm. From general resources to shepherding questions, to advice on his grazing plan, John has found the mentorship to be invaluable.

For Lee, it’s been a two-way street. ‘We have more years in farming and sheep than John, but his enthusiasm and inquisitive mind make the relationship more of a collaboration than a traditional mentorship. I think the NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program has functioned for us – and hopefully for John – as a means of establishing a farming community for the sharing of ideas and experiences.’

Now in its second year of business, John’s Fatstock Farm is coming into its own. This spring brought 84 lambs into the farm flock. His (now annual) shearing party drew young farmer friends from the area, to both share their expertise and teach a few newcomers the art of the perfect ewe haircut.

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Besides sheep, Fatstock Farm raises pigs, broiler chickens, and laying hens. Product is marketed through a meat CSA made up of city dwellers in John’s old neighbourhood in Queens. Additionally, John has partnered with two local veg CSAs to offer their membership (a combined 500 households) a monthly meat subscription.

Financially speaking, Fatstock Farm is doing better than your average new farming business. John broke even last year and believes this year’s numbers are headed towards profitability. He credits his unique land tenure situation, diverse product outlets, and a supportive community of like-minded farmers with helping Fatstock Farm succeed.

Eventually, John will need to move his business (and all those ewes) to a new farm. His arrangement with Joan Snyder, though, has given him a leg up that will hopefully make that transition a much easier one for him and his animals. With land costs forever on the rise, these types of alternative tenure agreements may prove to be the only way forward to usher in the next generation of agriculturalists hoping to raise good food for an eager market.

For more information on Fatstock Farm’s products, visit them online.

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  • Once Upon a Cook

    What a great story!