Matt Niswander of Lawrenceburg didn’t grow up on a farm, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream career in agriculture.
“I didn’t have any background in agriculture whatsoever, but when I was 16, I got a summer job as a dairy hand milking cows,” says Niswander, now 32. “That job instilled in me a love for cattle. I grew up in the city, but I was dating my wife at the time and told her one day, we were going to farm.”
Niswander married his wife, Colbie, when they were both 19. He graduated from college at 21 and wanted to start farming, but the high price of land made it nearly impossible.
“It’s a struggle to be a first-generation farmer because the initial capital investment is so large,” he says. “Starting a farm from scratch takes hundred of thousands of dollars.” Niswander began working as a family nurse practitioner, while Colbie worked as a radiologic technologist. After several years of saving money and researching agriculture, the couple bought a farm in 2014.
“Another obstacle to being a first-generation farmer is the knowledge deficit. If I had grown up on a farm, I would know most of the basics, but I’ve had to learn from scratch,” Niswander says. “I’m a YouTube farmer. I’ve learned how to put up fences and drive a tractor by watching YouTube videos.”
The couple installed fence posts and built barns on their property, and strung 30,000 feet of barbed wire. They bought two heifers and later a bull to breed them, and today they run a successful cow-calf operation with 30 to 40 head of cattle at a time. They sell their black Angus beef after processing direct to consumers by the quarter, half and whole cow.
“Before our first purchase, I sat down with experienced farmers at a sale barn and asked them all my questions, listening to them point out things good and bad about the cattle,” Niswander says. “They were really helpful and supportive.”
He continues to work full time off the farm and the couple plans to delve into agritourism in late 2018.
“We cleared 10 acres of land to plant a pumpkin patch, and we’ll have a corn pit, big slides and fun things for families,” Niswander says. “We have three kids, so we’ve been to lots of pumpkin patches. Agritourism is hot right now. It takes thinking outside the box to make a family farm profitable today.”
Teaching Agriculture to the Next Generation
Josey and Matt Miller of Lenoir City are also first-generation farmers. She used to work as a 4-H Extension agent with the University of Tennessee Extension, and now teaches agriculture at Lenoir City High School, while he works as an excavator.
“Our son wanted to show cattle in 4-H, so we went off the deep end and bought some cows,” Josey Miller says. “Currently we have about 20 head of cattle with more on the way. We do freezer beef [beef bought in bulk to keep in the freezer] and sell through our local livestock market.”
Both Niswander and Miller are involved in the Young Farmers & Ranchers program through the Tennessee Farm Bureau. It promotes agricultural leadership skills for farmers ages 18 to 35 “Young Farmers & Ranchers helped us get started,” Miller says. “It’s nice to have a network of people going through the same challenges as you.”
“They send us all over the world and train us to advocate for agriculture in our own style,” he says. “So far I’ve been able to go to New York City and Washington, D.C., where we talked with legislators about the 2018 Farm Bill. In March 2018, we are going to Europe for international ag advocacy.”
As the farming population ages, Niswander says it’s critical for more young people to pursue careers in agriculture.
“The average age of farmers today is 60, and more farmers are aging out with no one to replace them,” he says. “Farmers aren’t American Gothic anymore. They are on the cutting edge of technology, and agriculture needs fresh, new ideas from younger generations. The future of farming depends on us telling our story.”
Miller agrees. “Agriculture is such an important industry and most people take it for granted,” she says. “My students often have preconceived ideas about it. Most of the time, they are wrong. If we don’t teach our youth about agriculture, someone else will, and it may not be accurate.”
Miller says it’s rewarding to see her students develop an understanding of agriculture.
“The students come in thinking they know all about agriculture, and then we do a unit on animal health and I see them really mature in their ideas,” she says. “I explain to them how agriculture gives us food and drink, and even the clothes we wear. Agriculture is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”