Young People Returning to Farming
A new survey of young farmers finds these entrepreneurs have plenty of energy and ambition, but not nearly enough capital. Access to land, student debt, costs of labor and healthcare raise big questions for the next generation of farmers.
As Bobby Jones was getting ready to start his own farm several years ago in rural Georgia, he ran into an unexpected problem. “I thought I’d done a responsible thing. I had no student loans, no credit cards, lived modestly. And I had a zero credit score,” Jones said. Without credit of any kind, Jones faced difficulties securing capital to pay for land, equipment and supplies his family needed for their startup produce operation.
Jones and his wife, Chelsea, had significant experience and contacts in the region, having attended Georgia College in nearby Milledgeville. They were looking for a way to meet the growing demand they knew existed for fresh, organic produce. “But we had the same challenges as a lot of young people who want to start a farm. Access to land, a secure tenure on the land and access to capital to get going,” Jones said.
Eventually, Bobby and Chelsea Losh-Jones were able to find land and build a profitable farming enterprise. Their Babe + Sage Farm now provides weekly deliveries of fresh produce to 80 families in Middle Georgia.
The Babe + Sage Farm story, with its local variations, is being repeated all across the nation according to a new survey and report from the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). A significant number of young people are pursuing farming and agriculture vocations, the study finds, and the group is getting organized and active in federal policy debates related to farm and food issues, health care, education and more.
The survey collected data from 3,517 current, former and aspiring U. S. farmers under 40 years old. Compared to current farm operators, the group is highly educated, more racially and ethnically diverse and is more likely to feature women as farm owner-operators.
The survey respondents also reported a strong commitment to conservation-based agriculture and environmental stewardship. A full 75% of current young farmers describe their practices as “sustainable,” with 63% describing their farming as “organic,” though many of them have not been officially certified.
NYFC’s executive director and co-founder, Lindsey Lusher Shute, said that the survey bolsters the group’s Young Farmer Agenda. “Ensuring the success of our nation’s newest farmers and ranchers requires deliberate policy change at all levels of government,” Shute commented in a press release. The Young Farmer Agenda is a package of policies that:
- Addresses land access and affordability.
- Helps young farmers manage student debt.
- Increases the skilled agricultural workforce.
- Enables farmers to invest in on-farm conservation.
- Improves credit, savings, and risk management opportunities for young farmers.
- And addresses racial inequity among farmers.
Getting started in farming can be very expensive. The cost of land, infrastructure, livestock and equipment can reach into the millions for even a startup operation. While some retiring farmers and ranchers will be passing on their land and operations to their children or other relatives, many are heading toward retirement without a succession plan in place. Hundreds of millions of acres of farmland will change hands during the next five years, a time period that will be punctuated by the farm bill currently being negotiated in Congress.
“The average age of today’s farmer is 60 years old, and many folks are preparing to retire without someone lined up to take their place,” said Aaron Johnson, owner/operator of Johnson Organic Farms in Madison, South Dakota, and a member of Dakota Rural Action. “It’s not that those wanting to farm or ranch have a lack of desire, but they lack the guidance and support to get started,” Johnson said.
“For young farmers I know, the student debt issue, it’s just so important. It’s a huge barrier,” said Davon Goodwin, who operates Off the Land Farm near Raeford, North Carolina. “It’s like this. You told me to get educated, so I did. You told me to go to college, so I did. And now I want to serve my country as a farmer.”
Goodwin became a farmer after being injured on military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He now raises wine and table grapes on leased land. “Farming is serving your country to its highest ability, right up there with being a soldier,” he said. “Farming is public service, just the same as being a police officer or a nurse. We deserve a respectful and supportive approach to help us out.”
The group of young farmers calling for a new approach to the aging agricultural population is gaining some traction in Washington, D.C. In early November, Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (H.R. 4316), in the House of Representatives. This proposal lays out a national strategy to address the issues new farmers face in accessing land, building skills, managing risk, reaching financial security and investing in conservation.
One important issue is securing permanent funding for USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a grant program that funds beginning farmer education, outreach, training and land access. Since its creation in 2002, the program has invested nearly $145 million in developing and strengthening innovative new farmer training and resource programs across the country, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. To date, the program has funded 291 projects across the country.
USDA announced the recipients of its annual Beginning Farmer grants last month. The program is currently seeking applications for another set of eligible projects through February 8th, 2018.
Back in North Carolina, Davon Goodwin said he’s very hopeful and positive about the organizing and action he sees from young farmers, but he also understands that progress won’t be easy. “If you watch these things, the politics, it’s hard not to be discouraged right now. I mean, our president campaigned on rural values, and then they come along and propose billions of dollars of cuts to agriculture and rural budgets.”
“The sooner our country starts to understand that our security is tied to farming and agriculture the better,” Goodwin said. The grape grower said that for some rural economies, including his region, “agriculture is all we’ve got. My question is whether it’s feasible for this new generation to take over or not. I don’t know the answer.”