Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Rookie Farmers Get the Dirt on How to Make It Work

Tyler Dennis at Alewife Farm in Clinton Corners, N.Y. Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal 

At a two-day conference last week in New York’s Hudson Valley, Tyler Dennis was among the 250 attendees picking up pointers on how to make a living from the land.

The agenda covered agricultural practices ranging from soil science, crop rotation and open-source tool sharing to rabbit husbandry and “farming with empathy.” A whole-pig butchering demonstration and lavish farm-to-table meals offered ample proof of concept at the event, which took place at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

The goal is to help young newcomers such as Mr. Dennis, 25 years old and a recent Cornell University graduate, to sprout a farm business.

Mr. Dennis hadn’t attended college with a vision of weather watching and dirty fingernails; he had majored in film.

But the farming bug took hold, he said, after he read Michael Pollan ’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which he described as the “gateway” book for many into the world of sustainable agriculture.

After volunteering on an organic farm abroad, Mr. Dennis rotated through several apprenticeship programs at Stone Barns, part of the former Rockefeller estate and now a sustainable-agriculture lab.

Yet when it came to starting his agricultural career, he faced the same core challenges as most young farmers—lack of access to land and capital.

Many in the agriculture industry are eager to attract people like Mr. Dennis and help them over those hurdles.

About a third of the roughly 20,000 farmers in New York state are older than 65, according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, while only 6% are younger than 35. Nationwide, the average age of U.S. farms’ primary operators was 58.3 in 2012, up from 50.5 in 1982.

New York state has ramped up efforts to cultivate young farmers. In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a fund that will provide grants of up to $50,000 for qualified new farmers, and last month, a college-loan-forgiveness program aimed at easing their debt load when most need to plow money into land and equipment. Last week, the state committed $500,000 to an initiative that will help low-income city households use supplemental-nutrition-assistance benefits to purchase boxes of fresh produce grown upstate.

And this month, state Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball will preside over the second meeting of a working group dedicated, he said in an interview, to “doing a better job of connecting the dots” between aspiring farmers and the financial institutions, agencies and land-resource specialists that can help them.

Mr. Dennis considers himself lucky. He teamed up with landlord Benjamin Hoyer, a former hedge-fund manager who became a volunteer at Stone Barns and ended up buying a 40-acre parcel of land in Dutchess County. The lease agreement they struck calls for sharing a percentage of annual gross revenue. He also plans to apply for a $20,000 new-farmer matching grant from the state that will help him buy equipment, including a refrigerated delivery va

Already Mr. Dennis has negotiated wholesale agreements with online local-food retailers Quinciple and Farmigo and sells greens, tomatoes, squash and root vegetables to several restaurants in the Hudson Valley.

Still, Mr. Dennis said he would end his first year at a slight loss and knows there aren’t any guarantees of future security. For a beginning farmer “to make $20,000 a year reliably,” he said, “is considered a success story.”

But while the notion persists that small-scale diversified farms have a tough time getting a decent return on investment, others say time, patience and hard work prevail.

Richard Wiswall farms on 148 acres in Vermont and spoke at the conference of his 33 years of working the land. With no money or credit as a young farmer, he started with a 5% stake in the property, he said, and 12 years later was able to take out a loan and buy the rest of it.

“I want to challenge the paradigm that there’s no money in farming,” said Mr. Wiswall, who also has written a guidebook on managing organic-farm finances.

With many young farmers coming into the industry from nonagricultural backgrounds and saddled with college debt, said Jill Isenbarger, Stone Barns executive director, she sees increasing interest in business planning, cooperative structures and distribution channels beyond farmers’ markets and consumer-supported agriculture, in which customers buy shares in a farm’s seasonal harvest.

“They want to know how to scale up from as little as 5 or 6 acres to 20, 40 or 50. They’re looking to make a more serious, long-standing business, and trying to tap into any kind of business acumen,” she said.

To that end, about 15 conference attendees signed up for one-on-one consultations on topics such as marketing, food law and agriculture financing.

Leanna Mulvihill, 24, sat down with business planner Julia Shanks to discuss funding prospects for a small pig and lamb farm in New Paltz.

Among the options: “bootstrapping it” through her first year with no assistance, which Ms. Mulvihill said isn’t possible; crowdsourcing funds, which she said she would prefer to have a track record before trying; or applying for a $10,000 USDA Farm Services Agency microloan.

While the conference theme was “Reviving the Culture of Agriculture,” veteran farmers on hand kept the focus on practicality as well.

When one acolyte approached the esteemed biodynamic farmer Jean-Paul Courtens for advice, he replied: “Make sure you become really good at what you enjoy most—and don’t take on a lot of debt.”

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