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A crop of rethinkers

The last time consumer writer Noel Paul traded his city-kid loafers for Wellingtons and went afield to report on agricultural advances, he took to the Midwest's cornfield-lined byways.

The story he harvested on that August trip looked at the big issue of succession at family farms - and at programs to pair young, aspiring farmers with old-timers whose own offspring had pursued other jobs.

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For this week's lead story, Noel headed north to Vermont. Just shy of the Canadian border, at the deep-frozen homestead of another young farmer, he found fodder for another study in rural innovation.

Farming has plenty of time-worn traditions, of course, but a good many of its practitioners also think past the next planting.

The urge to experiment is by no means confined to the young. But in reporting the two stories, Noel encountered men at opposite ends of the career trajectory, and with very different perspectives.

Bert Henderson, a dairyman he interviewed in Cleremont, Iowa, told Noel he was ready to quit.

"He was still paying off debt," Noel says. "He'd been hoping for 30 years that conventional farming would prove profitable, but it never had. This former marathon runner had been worn down by the work."

Vermont farmer Travis Forgues, late-20s son of a farmer, booster of organic practices, and true believer in niche marketing, is debt-free and set to ride a growing market.

"His life seemed less stressful. Travis appears to see the light at the end of the tunnel, where Bert felt the milk market was out of his control," adds Noel. "I think Travis is energized from having seen the small farmer's ability to change the system and make things work."

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His is an energy that stands to revitalize a hard-pressed industry.