by Wes Hannah
With nearly one-quarter of American farmers expected to retire in the next two decades – indeed, the average age of a farmer in the U.S. hovers around fifty-seven – the need for an effective plan to encourage beginning farmers has never been more pressing. As with any entrepreneurship, farming has a number of major barriers to overcome: access to land and capital, access to healthcare, and the need for successful markets and business strategies. These obstacles, however, are magnified in the field of agriculture – access to land (and credit to purchase or lease land) is of the highest priority, healthcare becomes especially important because of farming’s high injury rates, and the capital required can be prohibitively expensive and is needed up front.
Enter the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC). The difficulties that young farmers face, juxtaposed with the accelerating need for a new generation of farmers, spurred the creation of NYFC, a non-profit with the goal of organizing and advocating on behalf of young and beginning farmers. For the past two years, NYFC, headquartered in upstate New York, has been building a grassroots base across the country. With that support, it has networked with state coalitions of young farmers, lobbied politicians for their backing for more supportive agricultural bills, and organized technical skill-shares and sharing of innovative solutions to on-farm problems.
Having encountered a lack of a complete analysis of the needs and obstacles of young farmers, NYFC worked for most of the past year on a massive survey of young and beginning farmers – the first survey of its kind and the first to accurately pinpoint obstacles faced by those entering the field. With over one thousand young farmers surveyed, the report represents views of everyone, from apprentices to farm owners, ranging across 38 states. With this data, NYFC produced a seminal report, entitled, “Building a Future with Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed.”
Focusing first on the positive, the survey found a number of programs to be invaluable in young farmers’ development. Apprenticeships were the highest ranked program, followed by local partnerships and then closely by CSAs. Also high on the list were land-linking programs (which help to pair aspiring farmers with land-holders), non-profit training and education, and college-level agricultural education. Apprenticeships, whether through the World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program or through seasonal hiring, are the way that a large percentage of young farmers first get their hands dirty and find their interest piqued. Those farmer-apprentice relationships often continue as personal mentorships when the beginners move on to their own projects. Local partnerships, such as “Buy Local” campaigns and direct financial assistance, as well as CSA relationships, are especially useful, particularly since a large number of young farmers are entering the field with an interest in non-commodities production and thus need that local support in developing a market.
More sobering are the results of the survey showing beginning farmers’ largest challenges. The most-cited challenge, with nearly three-quarters of survey respondents selecting it as highly important, is lack of capital. Following that – and intertwined with it – is access to land. Further down the list are access to healthcare, access to credit, and the need for business education.
Access to capital is a problem that goes beyond trying to buy land. In meat and dairy production especially, cost of equipment and processing facilities can be an insurmountable barrier. When a beginner does finally come to the point where they want to purchase their own property and invest in permanent infrastructure, loan programs are not set up to adequately meet the demand. Commonly raised issues with government programs included: an inability to get small operating loans; overly strict experience requirements for beginners; and loan limits on direct farm ownership loans. Perhaps because of these problems, 73% of those surveyed said they had to depend on outside incomes in order to keep their farms going – obviously not a sustainable system for the future of American agriculture.
Since most of the survey respondents did not come from farming backgrounds (and in fact only ten percent were working on the farms on which they grew up), land access is hugely important. Between the year 2000 and 2010, the price of an acre of farmland doubled (according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service) due to increasing development and the ethanol production boom in the Midwest. In Northeastern states, the average price is actually five to ten times higher than the national average.
Working Toward a Better Tomorrow
With these results in mind, NYFC is hard at work organizing for improvements in our laws to help nourish beginning farmers. The organization has been pushing on the federal level for a number of changes, many of which are included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (BFROA). In terms of education, the report shows a need for expanding trainings and education through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and through continuing funding for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA). Improving access to land and credit means building on the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), altering FSA requirements and creating a micro-loan program more accessible to small-scale producers, and offering tax credits and other incentive programs to keep farmland affordable as it transitions to a younger generation.
At the same time, states can improve apprenticeship programs while making sure that they protect young workers and respect labor laws. States can also build tax incentive programs for encouraging landowners to lease to beginning farmers, can consider improved health care systems, and establish student loan forgiveness programs for full-time farmers (as is seen in other critical professions such as doctors, teachers, and government employees).
Finally, individuals and communities can take this survey to heart and work to support beginning farmers. Joining CSAs and farmers markets, as well as pushing schools and other institutions to source food locally, all will help to develop local agriculture and help beginners. Even just renting available land to beginning farmers can become a win-win situation for the farmer and the landowner.
Lastly, the easiest and most direct way to help create a positive future of American farming is to join the National Young Farmers’ Coalition. This non-profit is active in building that future and will continue to blossom with your support. Visit www.youngfarmers.org to read the report and find out how to plug in!
Wesley Hannah is an Organizer with the National Young Farmers Coalition and a farmer at Second Wind Farm, a 40 member organic CSA in Gardiner, NY. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org