The Young Grower Alliance organized this get-together with those from “the old generation” to discuss the orderly transition of ownership and management.

The Young Grower Alliance organized this get-together with those from “the old generation” to discuss the orderly transition of ownership and management.

The Young Grower Alliance was formally organized with a mission “to encourage, develop, support, and equip the next generation of fruit growers in the Mid-Atlantic region.”

When the group formed in 2005, it was called the Mid-Atlantic Young Grower Alliance, but interest in membership spread, and Mid-Atlantic was dropped from the name. Several members have made visits to New York, mainly to attend the annual fruit field day at the Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, and have met informally with young fruit growers there.

“We’re really excited for these groups starting in New York and are interested in finding ways to work with them,” said Katie Ellis, an Extension educator in Adams County, Pennsylvania, who coordinates activities and keeps track of finances for the Young Grower Alliance.

She sees great merit in what she calls “peer group learning.”

“When parents aren’t around, they open up. They ask more questions and give more answers. It’s great to be part of a nonjudgmental peer group.”

The Young Grower Alliance was organized by two Penn State Cooperative Extension educators—one of whom, economist Matt Harsh, was a young grower who returned to his home farm. It started as an informal group of young fruit growers from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. The Extension people saw a need to give encouragement, ­support, and networking opportunities to these young growers.

Nathan Milburn, of Milburn Orchards, Elkton, Maryland, was one of the first to join the Young Grower Alliance, even though, at 35, he was on the older side. Now 40, he has “graduated” to mentor status.

“I’m not very active any more,” he said. “I am running the home place now, so I’ve ­gotten where I wanted to go.” Nathan’s father is Evan Millburn, one of the best-known growers and farm marketers in the East.

“It broke me out of my shell,” Nathan said of his being a part of the group. “It linked me to people I’d looked up to for years. I made a lot of friendships and formed a lot of ­relationships that have been priceless for me.”

Educational tours have been a key part of their activities. Young growers have traveled to Washington State, New York State, Ontario, and New Zealand to tour innovative orchard technologies, precision agriculture, high-density plantings, unique marketing strategies, and more, Ellis said.

The group continues to have an annual lunch meeting during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Members of the group have begun to take leadership roles in state and local industry organizations through membership on committees or boards of directors.

Just recently, the group sponsored an educational meeting on farm transition planning—bringing in their parents to talk about plans for their home farm’s future. This was somewhat of a role reversal. Instead of parents seeming to push their kids to take over the farm, the kids showed their interest in stepping up to the plate.

Ellis said the group keeps together via an electronic mailing list that has about 150 participants.

That is, in fact, one of the key features of this new generation of growers: “Their social networking is huge,” Ellis said. They use all the modern social media tools that give them instant and seemingly total contact.

One other aspect of commonality: Many of them are coming into the family business in the marketing end, rather than production. They have a keen interest in direct ­marketing through farm and farmers’ markets and often relate very well to customers, Ellis said. —R. Lehnert