The average age of today’s farmer is 57. For each farmer under the age of 35 there are 6 over 65 and the USDA estimates that in the next 20 years, 500,000 American farmers will retire. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is calling for hundreds of thousands of new farmers nationwide as the total number of American farmers continues to decline – from more than 6 million in 1910 to more than 2 million today.
As general awareness about food and farming has increased in recent years, a new opportunity for offsetting the numbers of retiring farmers and keeping family farms alive has emerged. In fact, an increasing number of young people from non-farm backgrounds are pursuing or considering careers in agriculture and there’s a higher level of interest among farm youth in staying on or returning to the family farm. However, breaking into farming has never been harder.
Tremendous Barriers to Starting a Farming Career
The National Young Farmer’s Coalition recently released a study showing that the nation’s young and beginning farmers face tremendous barriers in starting a farming career. Lack of capital, access to land and credit were identified as the biggest obstacles for young farmers.
Because starting a farm is expensive and the returns in the first few years may be less than what a person can live on, many farmers (more than 73%) depend on off-farm income. Commercial lenders are often hesitant to provide loans to farmers, making access to capital through credit a challenge for beginning farmers. The USDA Farm Service Agency loan program is an option for obtaining subsidized loans, only after a commercial lender turns them down. However, the study revealed that many young farmers are not qualifying for the loan program due to stringent requirements.
As the cost of farm land is on the rise and the availability of farm land is declining, ownership may be out of the question for many young farmers. Between 2000 and 2010, national farm values doubled from $1,090 per acre to $2,140 per acre which has affected the price of land for purchase and renting.
What We Can Do – Creating Opportunities for Young Farmers
There are several support programs in place for beginning farmers and according to the study by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, apprenticeships, local partnerships and community supported agriculture (CSA) were rated as the most important and successful programs.
Seasoned farmers can help the young farmer by offering apprenticeships on their farms to give people with little or no experience in agriculture the opportunity to learn the ropes firsthand. Working for one or two years as an apprentice is good preparation for young farmers to successfully work as full-time farm employees or farm managers.
Local partnerships such as farmers markets, “Buy Local” promotion programs and support from community organizations encouraging consumers to eat and buy locally are also helpful for the young farmer to start and grow their business. CSA is also a valuable business model for young farmers in which community members commit to buying a full season’s worth of produce in the spring by pre-paying for their share of the farm’s harvest. Each week, CSA members will pick up the fresh produce from the farm. This system provides beginning farmers with the capital needed at the beginning of the season to pay for the seeds and tools they’ll need and consumers, in turn, get a better price on produce and a budding relationship with their local farmer.
Young farmers are the future of the ag industry and our food supply. How will you support the young farmers in your community?