Ethos Health is the result of a vision: a symbiotic relationship between a medical practice and a small-scale organic farm, where a patient's food would be their medicine and a comprehensive health and diet plan would prevent and treat diseases. Situated on nearly 350 acres in Long Valley, New Jersey, Ethos Health has dedicated 12 of those acres to raising organic produce in an ecologically sustainable manner.
It's a model built on a holistic philosophy, and one that founder Dr. Ron Weiss and farm manager Nora Pugliese would love to see replicated elsewhere for the health of both people and planet. Small-scale organic farming, in particular, has generated a lot of buzz recently as Americans desperate for healthier and more ethical food production search for alternatives to the dominant system. There's just one big problem to spreading the Ethos gospel: Agriculture is an aging industry.
Young farmers in short supply
Farmers are nearing retirement and are not being replaced by young successors. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average age of farmers and ranchers is 55.9 years old and rising. Proliferating local organic farms enough to make a serious impact on the way food is produced in the U.S. demands young blood, fresh ideas and new startups, but farming just doesn't seem to be attracting young producers. For some reason, whether it's cost barriers like acquiring land or education barriers like the knowledge of how to run a successful operation, young people simply don't flock to farming as a career path.
To solve these problems, Ethos Health launched a young farmers incubator program designed to reduce barriers to entry and coach the next generation of American farmers.
"There were a few reasons why we started the incubator program," said Pugliese, who is the incubator mentor at Ethos Health as well as the farm manager. "It's always been one of my goals to make sure that when I leave farming I am replacing myself, hopefully more than once, with young farmers."
This, Pugliese added, specifically means young farmers who believe in the environmental stewardship that comes along with small-scale organic farming. Finding those people can be difficult, she said, especially in the broad numbers needed to revolutionize food production.
"It's not just that I'm coming to the end of my career, but also understanding we're in a bit of a rush with the state of the environment as it is," Pugliese said. "It's important that we get as many farmers out there as possible working in a really environmentally sustainable way."
The key to doing that, she added, is helping young farmers get hands-on experience not just cultivating and harvesting crops, but also running a business.
That's exactly what the Ethos incubator program is designed to do. While the program is undergoing constant tweaks and adjustments, Ethos has historically leased its land to the farmers at just $1 per acre in exchange for agreeing to a certain set of standards: All crops will be certified organic, methods will be sustainable, and the farmers will obtain liability insurance. Along with the land, incubator participants get the experienced guidance of Pugliese, when it comes to both farming and navigating red tape.
The importance of mentorship in small-scale organic farming
"Part of what we're doing is making sure [young farmers] understand how to set up a business," Pugliese said. "I help walk [them] through all that, because if we don't, they won't have a realistic understanding."
Andrew Patterson just concluded his second season as a farmer and his first as owner and operator of Jersey Natural Farm. He credits the mentorship of Pugliese and Ethos Health with not just his knowledge of how to manage a small-scale organic farm successfully, but also giving him the opportunity to launch his own business so early in his career.
"With this platform I was given, I walked into a market and I knew I was going to make my money back," Patterson said. "That was huge. All I had to do was produce. I had soil that was properly managed for a number of years too, so I knew it was going to produce.
"If I were running my farm alone, I don't think I'd do it again next season," he added. "It was hard the way I've got it now, and I've got it made. I would've had to start smaller, and I wouldn't have been able to do it full time."
It's because of the incubator program at Ethos, he said, that he was able to lean in to farming the way he wanted to and become an entrepreneur at this early stage in his career.
The mentorship that comes along with the incubator program is critical as well, he added, because in farming there is a great deal you simply can't learn without doing it. By leveraging Pugliese's decades of farming experience, Patterson's been able to learn at a rapid rate.
"Farming is an art and a science, but you only learn the art – those real practical skills and game-time decisions – when you're out doing it," he said. "I was given a safe space to do it as real as it gets."
For Patterson, the incubator program has been a personal lifeline, but he sees the big picture as well. If the model were to grow, it could create an influx of young farmers industrywide and show them a path forward in a difficult industry to break into.
"If you have more small local farms and we're on the same team, we believe in the same thing, it fixes problems," Patterson said. "You've got more local food, real food, and you're on this little space, so there can be a lot of us. Instead of one huge farm destroying all this land to produce as much as they can with the least labor, we can have all these little farms that sequester carbon and boost the ecology."
Benefits of becoming a mentor
While the incubator program is an advantage for farmers like Patterson, mentorship is a two-way street. Ethos Health reaps some benefits from having young farmers in the program; it's not just about the big-picture benefits of growing the small-scale organic farming movement, but also the day-to-day operations of Ethos Health itself.
"What we're hoping to do here is expand the program as more land becomes available," Pugliese said, adding that a large field currently leased to a conventional farmer will soon return under Ethos' management. "It's too much land for us to manage on our own at this point without significant investment in more infrastructure and equipment."
Bringing more farmers into the fold to launch their own businesses on that land would not only benefit the startups, but also help Ethos Health manage the property. Moreover, it would begin the yearslong process of rebuilding the soil's health, which Pugliese said is a top priority for getting the land back into sustainable food production.
"It's helpful for us," she said. "It begins to form more of a community in this area and hopefully a healthy, clean, vibrant food shed, which benefits everyone. And if we can help create this area and our farm as a place known where healthy food is grown, that, of course, is great for [Ethos Health] as well."
Small business mentorship a win-win
Farming might be a unique business, but mentorship is a win-win relationship for the teacher and student in any industry. Research from Kabbage finds that 92 percent of small business owners believe mentors have a big impact on growth and 89 percent of entrepreneurs wish they had a mentor from the beginning of their business. The study also found that 61 percent of small business owners go on to mentor others, with 58 percent focusing their efforts on younger entrepreneurs.
The results are clear: The mentored business owners learn the ropes and receive critical advice based on experience, as well as help dealing with logistics and byzantine regulatory considerations. Mentors, in return, build on their personal brands as thought leaders, expand their networks and pass on their ways of life to a new generation. When veterans and young entrepreneurs get together to share their knowledge and ideas, it's a recipe for success.