- Associated Press - Saturday, December 9, 2017

AUGUSTA, W.Va. (AP) - Calvin Riggleman, 36, got his start in farming the way many do.

He grew up on his family’s multigenerational farm in Hampshire County, working in his grandparents’ orchard.

“It’s something I did all the time, and it was never like I had to go to work,” he said. “It’s something I enjoyed.”

When Riggleman graduated from high school, not much had changed at the family fruit stand - an offshoot of the orchard - since the 1940s. And the industry that had sustained his family since before the American Revolution was becoming less reliable.

Despite this and pressure to further his education at a higher institution, he planned to continue to work at the orchard once he turned 18 - which makes him a rarity in West Virginia.

Farmers are getting older, and the next generation is lagging behind.

Currently, the average age of farmers in the West Virginia and the United States is pushing 60, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Despite the pride many farmers take in producing food for their communities, younger farmers face obstacles in getting their farms started and finding resources to support them.

A new documentary attempts to bring light to this issue. “Farmers for America,” a film narrated by Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” travels around the U.S. following the lives of young farmers.

The documentary examines young farmers’ joys and everyday successes, as well as the challenges they face trying to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams.

“I was talking to a lot of farmers all across the country, and everyone was saying it was hard for young farmers to get started,” said the film’s director, Graham Meriwether. “So I started filming with young people around the country who have successful farms and also who face some challenges.”

Riggleman, now the owner of Bigg Riggs Farm in Augusta, is featured in the film, which was shown at his farm recently. Locals and workers in attendance cheered as Riggleman made his debut.

In it, he explains his commitment to agriculture and love of farming - the life he always knew he wanted.

Upon graduation from high school, Riggleman joined the Marine Reserves and left for basic training at 19. Three years later, in 2003, he was deployed for the invasion of Iraq.

Unsure of the life he would come home to, while overseas, he pondered ways to better his family’s business.

“I needed more of an income for myself because nothing had really changed for a long time at my grandparents’ farm,” Riggleman said.

While discussing ideas with his comrades from larger cities, he learned about farmers markets - an opportunity to reach a larger audience without selling his produce at wholesale prices.

“I saw an opportunity to make more of an income for myself with farmers markets,” Riggleman said. “And I could provide more for my family by being able to sell our produce for more value.”

He also chose to invest in value-added products, such as jams and jellies, which, to his surprise, sold for nearly double the money of the produce at his grandparents’ stand.

He attended his first farmers market in Cascades, Virginia, around 2004. Despite a few hiccups - including his tent flying away - he said the sale was a success.

“I was impressed with my first year, going from only a few dollars an hour to feeling like I was supporting myself,” Riggleman said.

Eventually, the young farmer purchased more land with a friend and chose to continue growing.

Today, Riggleman co-owns a commercial kitchen on the property where he produces more than 70 products, including pasta sauce, salsa, dips and jellies. He also owns Flying Buck Distillery, which produces moonshine.

Bigg Riggs Farm now sells at four farmers markets in Northern Virginia, as well as select Whole Foods locations.

He said the markets give him opportunities to build relationships with his customers.

“I can tell them our strawberries are blooming, just to give people a heads up on what to look forward to,” he said. “They can ask any questions they want about our growing practices. They’re definitely interested in where their food comes from.”

Riggleman was deployed again in 2006, but this time, he wouldn’t return home without a plan. He ordered seeds to be delivered to his mom, who then took them to the local high school to be planted in its greenhouse.

On the day he returned home, he was in the fields planting broccoli.

“If you don’t do it, then no one is going to do it for you,” Riggleman said. “It’s a pretty committed occupation.”

Looking back, Riggleman said without the help of his grandparents, this dream would have been nearly impossible. Acquiring the land and equipment to make farming possible comes at a high price.

“When I was in school, all I ever heard was, ‘You need to go to college to get a job,’” Riggleman said. “That’s not true.”

He said it was an honor to be featured in the documentary because the film gives a voice to people like him who chose to farm when it “wasn’t cool.”

“It was just good to get recognized, because when I started farming, there were no organizations or groups trying to get young people into farming,” Riggleman said. “I literally felt like I was the only person that was 20 years old when I started farming.”

Riggleman wasn’t quite the only 20-something who was farming at the time, but he was one of few.

In 2007, only about 4.2 percent of farmers in West Virginia were under the age of 35, according to the USDA census report. In 2012, that number was 4.1 percent.

West Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture, Kent Leonhardt, admitted how difficult starting a farm can be without inheriting property or a family business. He said he relates to this on a personal level.

Leonhardt did not grow up on a farm, but growing a garden with his family piqued his interest in agriculture as a child. He knew he wanted to farm while on active duty in the military.

“There’s nothing like the rewards,” he said. “The birth of a new animal or the crops sprouting from the ground, it’s a refreshing experience.”

He purchased land and began paying it off before he retired from the Marine Corps, and he truly began farming in his 40s. His retirement income supplemented his regular income as he built his farm.

To Leonhardt, farming is an opportunity to attract younger workers sick of the “hustle and bustle” of a big city or who would rather be outside than sitting at a desk.

“Starting part-time is a very viable option,” Leonhardt said. “People can have a job, but they have to be willing to put the hours in after the regular working day.”

Leonhardt said it’s important to prove to potential young farmers that though starting a farm requires a lot of work, it’s worth it.

Agriculture has the potential to grow West Virginia’s economy while providing more healthy food choices for residents, he said.

“We have to get the message out there that it’s possible,” he said. “It’s going to take some hard work, but it’s doable.”

Riggleman echoed a similar attitude.

“I think that people see that it’s an opportunity now, where before it wasn’t; only old people did it,” he said. “My best advice would be to start small and not go too big their first time, or to work at a farm and get their feet wet to decide if it’s something they want to sacrifice everything they have for.”

A father of two, Riggleman said he’s raising the next generation of farmers.

“That’s what they want to do when they grow up,” he said. “I’m trying to teach them not to be lazy. I lead by example.”

For now, the little ones, 6 and 4, help with simple, fun tasks, like picking peppers.

Years down the road, they’ll likely wake by 6 a.m. to harvest produce and can sauces and vegetables with their father.

At least, Riggleman said he hopes so.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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