Investing in the Future Farmers and Stewards of America

March 13, 2018 | 3:25 pm
Farmer Kate Edwards of Wild Woods Farm in Johnson County, IowaPhoto: USDA
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

Many of you have probably heard that the average age of the American farmer has been trending up, as the number of farmers in our country has been trending down. As of the last census, US farmers averaged 58.3 years, continuing a steady creep over two decades. Six times as many farmers are over 65 as are under 35. The agricultural industry as a whole has the highest median age of all reported sectors in the US labor force. Who will be the farmers of the future?

A new farm bill offers an opportunity to recruit new farmers to this vital occupation. Since it’s in all our best interests that new farmers succeed, now is the time to address some big questions: what are the hurdles for this community, how have we been helping, and what more can be done?

The lay of the land: No one ever said that farming was easy

Given the steady stream of news about low crop prices and farm profits, it should be no surprise that farming hasn’t exactly been a magnet for jobseekers in recent years. But while the slow drain of farmers from the landscape is invisible to many of us, the shift poses a major threat to food security, to the health of the nation’s soils and the quality of its water, and to the vitality of rural communities. And, with experts expecting that 100 million acres of US farmland (an area the size of California) will change hands in the next 5 years, the declining number of folks ready to fill this generation’s shoes feels like double trouble.

Perhaps against the odds, however, there has been a recent pulse of optimistic, creative individuals apparently willing and able to protect the future of our food system. This pleasant surprise was reflected in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and there are signs that the movement continues to grow. But the road ahead for these farmers isn’t easy, and not just because of long days and hard labor. Some of the even tougher challenges were highlighted in a recent survey from the National Young Farmers Coalition, which included several straightforward obstacles that policy could actually help address:

  • You can’t farm without land and, even with the anticipated massive land transition ahead, affordable farmland is hard to come by.
  • Tools and training are tricky to find, outdated, or hard to access, even in cases where these resources do exist.
  • Capital is hard enough to access when young farmers are trying to start from scratch, and even harder when you add in the student debt crisis.

With all of this in mind, how can we help?

What’s the baseline?  Progress and programs for beginning farmers in the 2014 farm bill

Before thinking about what more can be done, it’s important to note the investments that have been made in the past. In the 2014 farm bill, beginning farmers did receive a boost (worth $440 million, an increase of about 150% from the previous farm bill). This package of investments provided a variety of supporting, enabling programs to provide training, education, outreach, and technical assistance while also reducing barriers related to accessing land, acquiring loans, and developing a safety net (e.g., through crop insurance and disaster relief).

Overall, this progress was critical, but not sufficient.

Crafting better conditions for the next generation of farmers

Given the urgency of the situation, and with the next farm bill process well underway, it’s time to take more action.  Fortunately, several ideas for improving support for new farmers are already on the table, encapsulated in two bipartisan bills that could be folded into the 2018 farm bill  (both of which have been applauded by the National Young Farmers Coalition).

  • First, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2017 (H.R.4316, introduced by Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE)), which tackles obstacles for the next generation of aspiring and retiring farmers in a variety of ways. These include continuing to improve access to land, skill-building opportunities, capital, crop insurance, and strategies to conserve natural resources and develop farm resilience for years to come. Among other things, this bill would ensure permanent support for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, expand the flagship USDA public research program to incentivize new studies on barriers and opportunities for new farmers, and increase access to key conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Second, the Young and Beginning Farmers Act (H.R.4201, introduced by Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) and Ryan Costello (R-PA)), which also works to improve conditions for new farmers focusing on land access, the need for more training and business opportunities, and barriers that keep farmers from available federal resources. For example, this bill would also ensure the future of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and address land-access issues. In addition, it would modernize programs and service platforms, and would make it possible for new farmers pre-qualify for loans, all of which could give these entrepreneurs a better shot at success.

And there’s more good news.  Because as we wait for the next farm bill, advocates for young farmers are also busy finding other ways to break barriers.  For instance, the bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) aims to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to include farmers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which would forgive student loans for farmers after 10 years of income-based payments.

And there’s progress at the state level, too. Young farmers in Minnesota recently celebrated a major win: a new tax credit law that will help get more farmland in their hands in years to come, and that attention from both state and national leaders. In Colorado (where the average age of farmers is 59) there was recently good news about a bill that will help farmers get started by investing in agricultural apprenticeships. And with an amazing group of new farmers in this region busy paving the way for the next generation, there’s surely more on the way (for a little dose of inspiration, treat yourself to a few minutes watching this beautiful short film based on the award-winning documentary, “How We Grow”):

Hopefully, these steps and stories are motivating leaders at all scales, and in all states, to support those who are ready to take up this challenge.  After all, the future of our food system depends on it.