CHICAGO — Nick Batchelder and his wife moved to Chicago at the start of the economic recession, hoping their years of experience in ecology and construction would land them jobs.
After months of scouring the Internet for openings and pumping their contacts for leads, it was only when the couple responded to a Craigslist ad for two farmhands on an organic vegetable farm that they found steady employment.
"All the other stuff we knew how to do weren't really hiring," Batchelder said. "We were like (we) might as well. … It wasn't any spinning moment of clarity."
Now Batchelder and his wife, Becky Stark, both 32, are hoping the demand for local food will help them expand their own organic farming business.
For decades, the average age of farm operators has been rising, but experts say the growth of the local food movement is giving a new generation of farmers a foothold in the market.
Nonprofits, meanwhile, have offered a slew of new programs to not only support new farmers but also give Illinoisans more opportunities to buy locally grown food.
"There is growing consumer interest in local foods. People are willing to pay a premium on that," said Chuck Hassebrook, the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs. "Young people are learning how to do develop and pursue those new markets."
In high school, Curt Elmore never thought he would take over his father's corn and soybean farm in Allerton, Ill. But after his father got sick and had to retire in 2006, Elmore felt the lure of a farmer's lifestyle was calling him home.
"That thrusted me into the position of, 'You are on your own,'" Elmore said. "I had to grow up."
Elmore, 34, was the only one of his friends from college and graduate school to pursue farming as a career, he said.
The average age of farmers in the United States is 57. In 1982, 16 percent of head farmers were younger than 35, but by 2007 that number had declined to 5 percent, according to a USDA report released last month.
But behind the aging industry an even larger force is at work: the consolidation of U.S. farmland, experts say.
As universities and extension centers introduced new technology in the 20th century, farm operators were able grow more crops on larger amounts of land with fewer people. Farms had to grow in size to remain competitive in the commodity market.
"We've had fewer and fewer farms but we haven't decreased farmland," said Conner Bailey, a professor of rural sociology at Auburn University in Alabama.
Some farmers sold their land to larger operations, which decreased the number of young people who could inherit a farm. Meanwhile, a farming industry with fewer players but larger territories became even more difficult to break into, experts say.
"We hear from people every day who want to get into farming or ranching," said Virginia Meyer, a rural policy organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs. "I don't think the industry is lacking interest from young people, I think it comes from the lack of opportunity to get into the industry."
Traditional obstacles to getting into farming, such as the price of land and the cost of equipment and materials, have only worsened over the years, experts say.
Between 2011 and 2012, crop land values in Illinois grew 17.2 percent, from $5,800 an acre to $6,800, according to a USDA report.
And as farms have consolidated, fewer younger people have been trained in the trade. For those who don't inherit a farm from a family member, the barriers to conventional farming can be insurmountable, experts say.
"I think it would be very tough. The land prices and the initial startup equipment," said Elmore. "You would have to have quite the bankroll. … There is a lot of money to shovel out."
But industry leaders see hope in the burgeoning local food movement. The capital necessary to run a vegetable or fruit farm is significantly less than it costs to grow commodities such as soybean and No. 2 yellow corn — crops that have long dominated Illinois farmland.
And the market for locally grown produce has room to grow, say experts.
"If we want local food, if we want natural foods then we're going to have to have young farmers," said Hassebrook. "It's not the whole answer, but it's part of it."
"Particularly in the Midwest, there aren't so many older farmers growing vegetables," he added.
But efforts to increase more regional produce farming opportunities have faced criticism. Some argue that local food movement ignores the practical benefits of a specialized food production system, where each region of the country grows the crops that are most suited to its climate.
A food production system that is too localized will not only yield inferior crops, it will make food more expensive, critics say.
"There is (a) reason why we import bananas from Costa Rica," said Pierre Desrochers, a geography professor at the University of Toronto. "There is a reason why you … export corn and soybeans to other countries. You specialize in what you do best."
Still, the influence of the local food movement has attracted some younger farmers, particularly those without a farming background, to try their hand at produce production, industry leaders say.
Take for example Krista Kane Witzig, 26. The tea-store manager never thought much about where her food came from until she started reading works about the disconnect between community and food production by scholars such as Wendell Berry.
Now she is interested in farming, but "only as much as it's going to help people," she said
The Chicago resident hopes to start a farm in the city within a year or two that would provide natural food to an underserved community.
"They are the same demographic as the people who are starting new tech companies … coffee companies, beer companies," said Mike Sands, senior associate of the Liberty Prairie Foundation a sustainability nonprofit that helps beginning farmers. "They just happen to pick farming."
In recent years, nonprofits have capitalized on the local food movement and new federal funding to train fruit and vegetable farmers. The 2008 farm bill authorized funding for a USDA program aimed at increasing training and opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers.
Illinois organizations have been awarded more than $2 million for new farmer training programs from the USDA for the 2012 fiscal year, according to the agency. By contrast, the government dished out more than $438 million in the 2012 fiscal year for crop insurance premium subsidies for Illinois farmers.
The USDA awarded specialists at the University of Illinois and the Illinois Migrant Council around $632,000 to put on a yearlong workshop for beginning farmers once a month for three years. The program, which started in December, serves about 100 people at three locations in the state, said Richard Weinzierl, the director of the program.
"We need to replace a lot of farmers or all farms are going to continue to get much larger," said Weinzierl. "In Illinois, we made the case that there is a particular need because there is growing demand for local produce."
On a recent Saturday, about two dozen students crowded around their instructor, Bill Shoemaker, as he demonstrated how a folded note card could be used to pour seeds into a container of soil.
"I do a lot of my seeding like that," he told the students. "You don't have to be fancy to be good at some of this stuff."
In 2006, The Liberty Prairie Foundation started The Farm Business Development Center at Prairie Crossing, a program that leases about 30 acres of certified organic farming land inexpensively to beginning farmers to test their business model for up to five years.
Participating farmers can also rent equipment and draw on the expertise of an organic produce farmer who works the land nearby.
For Batchelder and Stark, the three years they have spent in the program have helped them get their business off the ground.
After starting with an acre and a half of land and fewer than two dozen "shareholders," or customers who buy their produce through a subscription, the couple now grows vegetables on about seven acres of land and supplies food for 70 shareholders.
Within the next two years, the couple hopes to purchase or lease land in the Chicago area to grow vegetables for at least 100 shareholders.
"It's not lost on us that organic vegetable farming is kind of a trend," said Stark. "Everybody wants to go start a farm."
But "as a reality, it's way better and way worse than you could ever imagine," she added.