In this season of gift-giving, why not think about what the young farmers in our country would want. After all, they are the next-gen cohort who are choosing as their career path NOT to occupy a Wall Street — or a consulting or law firm — office. Rather, they are opting, against great challenges, to nurture the soils that coddle the roots that grow the vegetables that feed all of us everyday.
“Serve Your Country Food,” exhorts The Greenhorns, the activist young farmers group that has produced an engaging film and an upcoming book with their same name. “Young farmers are poised to redefine the American landscape along with our food scene,” said Severine vT Fleming, The Greenhorns’ Director. ” We are strong of will and determined to make farming sustainable in this country.”
So who are these intrepid young agrarians?
“The ‘good food’ movement—the interest and enthusiasm for organic, local and sustainably grown food now spreading across the country—is one of many factors bringing young people back to farming in the United States,” according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, a grassroots advocacy and support organization of young and sustainable farmers headquartered here in the Hudson Valley. “The young men and women pursuing agriculture today have a diﬀerent proﬁle than generations past: they come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, they embrace sustainable growing practices, and many did not grow up on a family farm. Their families may have abandoned rural areas for the city many generations ago. Pursuing a farming career is a return to these roots. Young people increasingly view farming as a physically engaging and fulﬁlling career that guarantees independence and leadership.”
Indeed, earlier this month, a capacity crowd filled the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture‘s 4th annual Young Farmers Conference which covered a range of subjects from Basic Soil Science and Handling Skills with Sheep to Helping Farmers and Landowners find Common Ground.
This fall, the NYFC released a report, which may well be the first of its kind. It zeroes in on the barriers beginners face launching a farming career in America today. Based on surveys done with more than 1,000 farmers from 34 states across the country, the report found that access to capital, access to land and health insurance were the greatest obstacles for starting farmers; on the other hand, apprenticeships, local partnerships and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) were the most helpful programs.
More than three quarters of those who self identified as farmers described themselves as first generation farmers. To highlight the youth of this population, sixty-eight percent of the farmer respondents in the survey were under age 35, with the majority between 25 and 29 years old, and most already had between one and five years of experience in the field.
This crop of youthful farmers is actually very good news for the country. Over the last hundred years the number of American farmers has dropped from 6 million to 2 million, and we all know what direction the American population has gone in during that same period. Furthermore, the average age for American farmers is now 57 and the USDA reports they expect 500,000 — one quarter of them — will retire in the next 20 years.
So, it behooves us to pay attention to what beginning farmers need to make a go of it. After all, we really need them. Unfortunately federal and most state agriculture policies at the moment don’t sufficiently acknowledge this need or provide the support to keep America farming through this century and beyond.
Here are some of the things on the young farmers wish list: Better credit and micro credit programs — or grants like Massachusetts has — for beginning farmers, as well as individual development accounts (IDAs) geared to start-up farmer needs; tax credit programs like Nebraska and Iowa have that encourage landowners to lease long term or sell land to beginning farmers; land protection policies that make farmland affordable, keep it as working land, and facilitate transitioning land within a family or to new farmers. Young farmers also want states to do a better job legalizing safe and fair apprenticeships and they want health care programs for small businesses that would make it affordable for small farms to provide health insurance for themselves and their employees. Way too many farmers go without health insurance. Young farmers would like to see more programs like Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Education Loan Forgiveness which works with folks who return to the state to work in designated agriculture jobs.
On a local level, young farmers welcome zoning that protects farmland from development and inclusion of farmers at the table where planning conversations are held. Local farmers markets, CSAs and farm-to-school programs are win-wins for the community and the farmers.
Now that the super committee no longer controls the 2012 Farm Bill, there are opportunities for Congress to do right by sustainable agriculture and the country and pass policies that support the next generation of American farmers. For their part, these young farmers are not afraid to speak up and speak out. “We know who our senators and representatives are, we vote and our friends and families vote,” said Tierney Creed of the Washington State Young Farmers Coalition. “We need USDA and government support to succeed and we’re going to let the nation know that.”