The Coming Agricultural Crisis—And 8 Things You Can Do About It Right Now

The next generation of farmers needs your help!

April 11, 2017
senior farmer walking in field
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According to the latest USDA agricultural census, the average US farmer age has risen steadily over the last 30 years, placing the typical farmer at age 60. Inversely, new farmer numbers dropped at least 20%. Most farmers today will retire soon, leaving behind a smaller population to replace them.

These statistics bring a flood of questions: where will farms go? Where will our food come from? Who will grow it? 

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The next generation of agriculture—especially young farmers, who are far from retirement—may be the key not just to our food security, but to the future of the planet. It is they who will soldier on to change the food system as we know it. Unfortunately, it is those very farmers who today face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to getting a foothold in farming because of lack of land access, lack of capital, and inadequate government support.

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Luckily, there are ways you can help the next generation of farmers. Supporting the businesses of young farmers, improving their access to land, and pushing for better farmer assistance programs can make an impact—along with learning, getting involved, or even becoming a farmer yourself.

Want to make a change? Here are the most direct ways to help farmers and steer us away from food crisis and towards sustainability.

support young farmers and those just starting out
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Support Farmers Who Are Just Starting Out

With most farmers nearing retirement, young and beginning farmers are a bright hope. Still, new farmers face unprecedented barriers: land access is difficult due to climbing land prices. Capital requirements are high, while resources are few.

 

Not all beginning farmers are young, but the majority of them tend to be. Further, not all willing new farmers can gain access to land and capital through inheritance—i.e., receiving family land and businesses.

Farmer Shanti Sellz, 34 and operator of Muddy Miss Farms near Iowa City, Iowa, states: “One of the most challenging things setting up my farming business was accessing capital, and accessing land…and being a first-generation farmer with no inherited resources.”

She gratefully acknowledges retiring farmers who transition their farms outside the family. “These folks also understand that this next generation of farmers may not be their kids or their family.”

Assisting disadvantaged young farmers is possible in many ways: buying from their businesses, making land available or leasable to them, or passing on your farming business and land to them instead of to other interests.

Related: Conventional Farming Ruined The Soil On Our Farm—Here's How We Saved It

buy from small local farms
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Buy From Small, Local Farms

97% of beginning farms are small farms. Their capital potential is small, limited to nearby markets only. One powerful way to prevent crisis: support these small farmers directly.

 

Buy local, fresh foods as much as possible from small farms instead of larger chains. Start with your local farmers market – invest your dollars there first. Become a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) member, or buy from a local or regional food hub. All these guarantee that you’re directly supporting small farmers in a huge way.

Support Women Farmers

Beginning farmers are more likely to be female than established farmers. One in 5 beginning farmers are women; however, the female farmer population overall is dropping quickly. The female farmer population dropped over the past decade at a faster rate than male farmers. Today, 86% of US farmers are male.

Women willingly step up to farm, but statistics suggest factors discourage their entrepreneurial longevity. Support gender diversity among farmers, and you support a significant part of the next farming generation.

Buy From Immigrant and Minority Farmers

New farmers are much more diverse. The recent ag census saw a 15% increase in non-white farmers, while white farmers dropped by 5%. Support farmers of minority backgrounds, and you’ll assist the fastest-growing portion of new farmers in the country.

While this growth implies that more beginning farmers are minorities, a good portion are also immigrants. Hispanic and Asian-American farmers grew more than any other demographic: 20% in both populations, owed much in part to immigration. However, immigrants and minorities face far more challenges for farm startup and accessing capital than white or non-immigrant farmers—and they need your help.

Related: 7 Secrets To A High-Yield Vegetable Garden, Even When You're Short On Space

Support sustainable farmers
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Buy Sustainably Produced Foods

A notable subsection of next generation farmers grows sustainably. This includes USDA certified organic, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), or Food Alliance certified growers.

In fact, certified organic farmers are more likely to be new farmers than conventional ones are, representing an important facet of the next generation. But they aren’t important in that sense only: sustainable farmers avoid labor-saving approaches conventional farms use to attain market premiums. Instead, they favor techniques like cover cropping, healthy soil building, and minimal use of harmful chemicals.

These ethics ensure that farmland is a protected resource. Regardless, sustainable farmers face the same challenges conventional farmers do—but with less access to and education about government programs or assistance.

According to Sean McGovern at the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE): “The largest barriers to young and beginning [sustainable] farmers today are issues related to capital, specifically land access. Many farming practices are capital intensive, and therefore it’s difficult for new producers to become established and profitable.”

Buy food from farmers who grow sustainably. This not only supports a vital portion of next generation farmers, but ensures the longevity of the land that produces it, so food production happens there for years to come.

Related: 10 Plants You Need To Grow If You're Suffering From Depression, Stress Or Anxiety

Support Farmer-Friendly Bills and Food Policies

Farmer-supporting consumers are essential to our survival. Farmers produce food consumers need, while consumers provide farmers’ income. Still, much more is needed at state and federal levels to provide funding and initiatives to sustain the longevity of farming businesses.

The 2014 Farm Bill, for example, was signed into law to provide programs and assistance to new farmers around the country. More bills like this are needed, as well as those that give incentives for landowners to sell farmland to farmers (not developers), increase access to crop insurance and subsidies, and even forgive student loan debt for struggling young farmers.

Farmers need the public’s support in making these initiatives a reality. Support farmers by voting for bills and food policies that help them, while voting against those that hinder them. A great way to stay informed: follow the National Young Farmer Coalition, a nonprofit giving voices to voiceless new farmers at a legislative level.

how to become a farmer
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Grab the Pitchfork—Become A Farmer Yourself

If your passions to change the food system are great enough, consider taking up the farmer mantle yourself.

You can start small: expand your food garden, rent a food plot in town, or volunteer at a community garden or urban farm (or, start one). Get involved with farms directly to learn the trade, such as through volunteering or work-trading for local farms or CSA’s.

If you want to farm full-time, nonprofit organizations around the country provide apprenticeships, training programs, and courses to prepare the next farming generation. One such is the Farm Beginnings Collaborative, encompassing many training organizations in various states.

Amy Bacigalupo, Director of the Farm Beginnings Program at the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project, says of the program: “…training has been the most helpful component of our work with beginning farmers. We offer a series of trainings for farmers to help them at each stage of their farming start-up. 

“We are really excited about the results we are seeing for people who have completed all of these trainings.” Though she adds, “[The] beginning farmers' struggle to establish financially viable farms is often ignored…This struggle is also often treated as inevitable and acceptable, with no acknowledgement that the system is not working for the vast majority of beginning farmers.”

Donate land to a farmland trust
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Donate Land to a Farmland Trust

If you’re unable to farm but own land, then protect it through a farmland trust—especially to see it produce food by a dedicated farmer. These organizations legally protect land by permanently shielding it from non-agricultural interests while promoting farming on its soils.

After all, land access is the most stubborn barrier for new farmers. John Piotti, president of American Farmland Trust says, “the vast majority of our farmland is owned by really old farmers…who aren’t farming it themselves. There’s going to be at some point a huge transfer or transition of land, and if we don’t take the right steps, a lot of that land is not going to be retained in agriculture.”

That is, it’s less likely to go to new farmers. “About 370 million acres in the next 2 decades will change hands, simply due to demographic factors,” Piotti adds. “But there are a lot of young people who want to get into farming. If done well, [land trusts help] land becomes affordable to beginning farmers.”

If donating land to help food-growing farmers, look into regional progressive trusts that guarantee food production and farmer stewardship of your land, because not all trusts are the same. Equity Trust, Vermont Land Trust, and Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) are a few pioneers in this work around the country, guaranteeing that land stays in sustainable food production—not just that it’s protected.

To protect the future of our food system, we must support the next generation farmers who are stepping up to this risky work, especially as farmers today age and retire. Though it may not feel so close now, ignoring it any longer means our farmers slip away faster. And when that happens, the hope for better food security goes with them.