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Young Farmers’ Growing Challenges

The median age of American farmers is currently 57, and rising. Soon, they're going to retire--and young farmers face incredible challenges in taking over.

  • Rachel Beyer in a red jacket standing in a hoop house, smiling at the camera.  Behind her, various greens are growing in long rows..

    Image 1 of 3

    Rachel Beyer, 25, is the farm manager at Stranger's Hill Organics in Bloomington, IN. She grew up on a farm just outside Bloomington, and helped to run a farmer training program at Michigan State University before returning to her hometown to take on her current job at Stranger's Hill.

  • Joseph Swain is bent over a patch of dirt strewn with straw.  He is aerating the soil with a digging fork. In the background, neighborhood houses are visible.

    Image 2 of 3

    Joseph Swain of Swainway Farms in Columbus, OH, is an urban farming pioneer.

  • Salem Willard stands between two tall wooden stakes drilled vertically in the ground.  He is leaning against them.  There is a third stake in the foreground.  The ground and trees in the background are bare, reflecting that the picture was taken in early spring.

    Image 3 of 3

    Salem Willard is a permaculturist who lives in Monroe County outside of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, he stands between stakes that mark the site of a future chicken coop on the patch of wilderness where he is building his farm.

Earth Eats’ researchers stumble across young farmers surprisingly often. Rachel Beyer, farm manager at Stranger’s Hill Organics, was 25 years old when we interviewed her in the fall of 2011.  Permaculturist Salem Willard and urban farmer Joseph Swain are close to the same age.

But this doesn’t change the troublesome fact that the median age of American farmers is currently 57, and rising every year.

Before too long, they’re going to retire–and young farmers face incredible challenges in taking over, in terms of both finances and knowledge.

Who Are Young Farmers?

The dominant generation of farmers largely fell into the trade through family history or social connections to farm country.

But the new generation are drawn to the work by a punkish D-I-Y aesthetic and a desire to reconnect consumers to their food sources.

Grist.org calls them “hipsters.” The New York Times describes them as tending to “shun industrial, mechanized farming and list punk rock, Karl Marx and the food journalist Michael Pollan as their influences.”

This ideological mindframe causes young farmers to trend toward “alternative” growing methods like organics, permaculture or urban farming, in contrast with their predecessors who were often more motivated by economic sustainability and the pressure to operate on the largest industrial scale possible.

Knowledge Gap

The difference in motivations has meant that many young farmers struggle to find mentors able to coach them in their chosen profession.

While many older farmers are keen to teach the younger generation, they have been largely confronted by a gap in interests and knowledge:  young farmers want, by and large, to grow diverse food crops, often starting on a small scale. Farmers their parents’ age have focused on the more economically viable alternative of raising industrial corn and soy.

The result is that many of the dominant 60-year-old farming generation don’t know how to grow food.

The “grandparent generation” were food farmers, like the youngest generation now–but most of them are no longer around to pass on their valuable knowledge.

Money Troubles

The most substantial challenge faced by young, idealistically-minded farmers, however, is one of dollars and cents.

The start-up costs for a new farm–everything from equipment to land to seed to labor–are phenomenal. And it often takes several years before a food-oriented farm starts turning a profit.

Meanwhile, farmers struggle to deal with their own cost of living expenses, in addition to student loan repayments and health insurance bills.

Growing Money

Back in 2009, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a call for the 2012 farm bill to include support for 100,000 new farmers.

He backed that up with $17 million in grants to support the training of young farmers and ranchers. In September, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced an additional $18 million in grants to that same end.

These grants have helped to offset the phenomenal expenses of getting started in the farming business. Beyond training, these costs include land, equipment, seed, gas, and labor.

New Legislation

In October of 2011, Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) and Tim Walz (DFL-Minnesota) introduced H.R. 3236, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This new legislation includes, among other things provisions for grants and affordable loans for new farmers needing to defray start-up costs, incentives for retiring farmers to affordably lease Conservation Reserve Program land to young or socially disadvantaged farmers, and farmer training targeted toward returning military veterans.

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Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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