America’s farmers are poised to start retiring in large numbers. In the next five years, something like 125,000 farmers will retire, says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Executive Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit group that’s working to attract and engage the 100,000 new farmers that the Department of Agriculture says the U.S. needs to make up for the losses.
The NYFC is currently lobbying Congress to roll back a proposed 50 percent cut to The Beginning Rancher and Farmer Development Program, and to provide $5 million a year in mandatory funding for the Individual Development Account Program, which sets aside matching funds for beginning and apprentice farmers.
While these proposals are critical to attracting more young farmers to the fields, it's sometimes hard to rally the general population around admittedly wonkish policy debates. That's why groups like the NYFC, and their sister group the Greenhorns, are also using other means to build awareness of both the challenges of becoming a young farmer, and the passion and perseverance required to successfully work the land.
The Greenhorns, whose mission is to "promote, recruit, and support new farmers in America," just released a documentary film and book of the same name. Both are designed to give new farmers a voice, while providing the public—including policymakers—a view into the complexities of farming, land ownership, and entrepreneurship.
The Greenhorns also host a radio program on the Heritage Radio Network called Greenhorn Radio, with loads of interviews and profiles of young farmers around the country. "We make media about young farmers so we can share our stories and feel kinship, and remember that we all overcome the same obstacles," says Greenhorns founder Severine von Tscharner Fleming.
The challenges to becoming a new farmer are formidable. NYFC recently surveyed 1,000 farmers from across the United States and found that access to capital, access to land, and health insurance present the largest obstacles for beginners. According to the survey, 78 percent of farmers ranked "lack of capital" as a top challenge for beginners, and 68 percent of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners. Young farmers are much more likely to rent land—70 percent of farmers under 30 rent land, compared to 37 percent of farmers over 30.
"What's different in the last five to ten years is that people who are pursuing new farm businesses mostly didn't grow up on a farm. They're not inheriting land and equipment and don't have relationships in the farming community to get it started," says Shute.
Fleming agrees that land is a fundamental challenge. "Land is expensive and farming isn't terribly lucrative, so there's some simple math to overcome. If you aren't born onto a farm, or married into one, finding land to farm can occupy most of your twenties and thirties…In buying that land, we're in competition with second-home buyers and established commodity growers with a strong price-point to show the bank," says Fleming.
For its part, the NYFC is launching a new blog post series called “bootstrap bloggers,” where famers in their first or second season blog about what they’re doing and struggling with, but also where they’re succeeding. Shute says the series is designed to be a window into the life of a young and beginning farmer. "It's also helpful for policymakers to see the challenges these farmers are facing," Shute says.
Despite the challenges, young people continue to return to the land for the meaning they get from such unambiguously hard work. "The rush of independence and accomplishment the soil returns, be it lamb chop or fresh cut of kale, is the most wonderfully visceral thing I have yet to experience. Everyone has to eat, and never before has eating healthy food been more important," says 29-year-old Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm in Jackson, New York.
"It's one of those jobs that provides endless opportunity to create positive change while making a living. As farmers, we're tasked every day with environmental stewardship, sustainable business development, preserving culture, and providing nutrient rich food for our families, friends, and neighbors. Although it can be fraught with stress and exhaustion just like any job, it's an incredibly rewarding way of life," says 32-year-old Brad Halm of the Seattle Urban Farm Company in Washington State.
By helping to spread the message that farming can make for a fulfilling and meaningful life in the 21st century, the Greenhorns and NYFC are hoping to attract a few more new recruits.