FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Some mornings, Lara Collier dons rubber boots to walk the farm, snapping pictures of vegetables to share on social media and bundling bunches of leeks, strawberries and watermelon for customers.
The 24-year old helped Collier Family Farms launch its first organic growing season in September on 6 acres nestled next to the sprawling Ave Maria campus, with plans to expand the operations over 45 acres in coming years. For Collier, developing the organic farm is more than work — it's a passion she's fed through her studies at school and touring organic farms locally and abroad.
Collier is part of a wave of younger farmers in Southwest Florida with a penchant for agriculture and ranching, despite the aged population of farmers across the country. The fastest-growing group of farm operators in the U.S. is 65 years and older.
In the U.S. the average age of principal farm operators peaked at 57.1 years old, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. In Florida, the average is 58.4, according to the census. But young farmers — those in their 20s to 40s — are finding a foothold in Southwest Florida, bringing unconventional ideas and carving out a market for themselves.
"I think younger consumers are finding that they can become entrepreneurs here," said Robert Halman, the agriculture and small farm extension agent with the University of Florida in Collier County.
Each year, Lee County welcomes about three new farms, said Roy Beckford, the UF farming extension agent for Lee County. In Collier, Halman sees one or two new farm operations open each year.
In 2007, Florida reported 47,463 farms, according to the most recent count. In Lee, 944 farms were in operation in 2007, up from 643 in 2002. In Collier, the number of farms climbed to 322 farms, up from 273, but for both counties, the acreage of the average farm shrunk by roughly half.
"Traditional agriculture seems to be consolidating in bigger and bigger entities so the opportunities for smaller farmers are in niche markets," said Fritz Roka, an associate professor of agriculture economics with the University of Florida at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
Across the nation, droves of young farmers have united in recent years to lobby for improvements in education and training and for greater access to capital and funding for beginning farmers and ranchers. In 2009, the National Young Farmers Coalition was developed as other groups, including the Michigan Young Farmers Coalition and the Connecticut Young Farmers Alliance, were formed.
Many young and beginning farmers lack the money or land needed to get started.
They face high investment costs. Depending on the size of the operation, costs could range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $50,000 or more, Halman said.
Collier estimates it costs $10,000 to sow and sustain each acre of Collier Family Farms, and doesn't yet know how much profit the company reaped in its first year.
The farm is part of the agricultural division of Barron Collier Co. and gets money, land and support from its parent company. Collier, who works as assistant manager at the farm, is also a granddaughter of Barron Gift Collier, who founded the family business.
"We're definitely more fortunate to have that corporate background," Collier said.
Instead of applying for grants and farm loans and working with volunteer staff like other startup farms, Collier Family Farms can get funding quickly if it has a good proposal and is able to hire staff, she said.
Beginning farmers often need more experience, Halman said. But young farmers also have the drive and nontraditional thinking that gives them a chance to make a living from it, he added.
When Nick Batty began farming in Collier County 10 years ago, he started in a small plot, cultivating produce free of conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to sell at the local farmers market, and supplemented his income working in the restaurant industry.
"Once I saw that there was a demand for it, I decided to go and invest more into it."
Now at age 40, he runs Inyoni Farms, a 6-acre USDA certified-organic farm in Golden Gate Estates, sprouting a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers. He sells mostly to customers at area farmers markets as well as local restaurants.
"There is a demand now," he said. "You have to know how to find the demand, but there definitely is a demand."
Snowbirds are one of Batty's largest customer groups, coming from areas with strong local food communities. Restaurants such as The Local, The Bay House Restaurant, support local agriculture as well, he said.
Other niche farms with young farmers at the helm , include Wild Heritage Farms, Buckingham Farms and Crescent C Ranch.
Elissa Allen, 24, has run Crescent C Ranch Meats in Punta Gorda for four years, raising 40 head of grass-fed cattle on her grandparents' 114-acre ranch in DeSoto County. She'll raise the steers humanely, without any hormones or antibiotics, allowing them to graze and roam freely. She then takes the cattle to slaughter in Buckingham and delivers the meat to her customers.
"My grandparents ... used to take all of the calves to the livestock market, which is in Arcadia, and get whatever the market rate was for them," she said. "That's what all of the calf-cow operations do."
Those cattle are sold to feed lots, shipped out of state, and fattened on grain to end up on grocery store shelves across the country, she said.