By Lesley Lammers for the Green Chamber of Commerce
The average American farmer is 57 years old. Only one percent of our population actually declares their main occupation to be farming. While such stats show that most of the nation’s farmers are getting old and gray, there is an emergence of young people interested in farming again, and more specifically, in doing it sustainably. The folks you see hopping on this bandwagon are a savvy bunch – mostly women (a 30% increase in female farmers since 2002 says the 2007 Ag Census), college-educated, with a leaning toward sustainable agricultural practices and away from conventional, mono-crop, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) farming.
To get a taste of the caliber of people we’re talking about here, take a gander at Mother Nature Network’s 40 Farmers Under 40. You will notice the diversity, but more importantly, their innovative approaches and overarching eagerness to ride on the cusp of this new wave of sustainable farming. I recently had the pleasure of witnessing this energy while attending a panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco called “The Urban Farming Movement.” The room was packed to the brim with twenty and thirty-somethings excited to learn how they could start growing food. You might have thought that the panelist farmers such as Jason Mark of Alemany Farm and Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City, were Hollywood celebrities by the enthusiasm permeating the room.
This resurgence of novice farmers is due in part to the renewed recognition of the importance of this work – the acknowledgment that producing food that is good for our health, our community and our planet is a noble profession and vital to leaving a sustainable world for our children. As Booker T. Washington said, “No race can prosper until it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” This flood of young farmers is taking responsibility for cleaning up the mess that conventional, industrial agriculture has left behind for them. They envision that going “back to the land” does not necessarily have to mean completely leaving civilization, but rather transforming decaying cities with urban farms, turning our major metropolises and rural communities alike from food deserts into holistic food systems. The growth of interest in this profession can also be credited to the rise in demand for organic produce, alternative grocery stores, farmers markets and sustainably raised meats, all of which have dug a hole that these young farmers are looking to fill.
Evidence of this groundswell has been mostly behind the scenes, like the 2008 first Young Farmers Conference put on by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, as part of its Growing Farmer Initiative. The first year saw 170 attendees and last year that number grew to 200. These numbers might not sound promising, but confirmation on a larger scale can be seen in the form of provisions for beginning farmers that were included in the 2008 Farm Bill. While many sustainable agriculture activists complained this David & Goliath bill left much to be desired for the small family farmer, it did provide some surprisingly positive new resources for farmers who are just getting their feet wet, as pointed out by this Civil Eats article
Challenges and resources for beginner farmers
It’s tempting to paint a rosy picture, but the obstacles young farmers face must be recognized if they are going to make any headway in creating a new agricultural landscape for America. Among the issues are health benefits, a living wage, and viable local markets, but the most critical are as follows…
Though most young folk lack the financial capital and strong credit needed to purchase land or receive loans, alternatives are available. Beginning Farmers gives a comprehensive list of funding resources, including information on grants, loans, and advice for how to create a farm business plan. Amidst the programs mentioned is the USDA’s Farm Loan Program for new farmers who cannot get loans from traditional lenders.
Access to land
Fortunately, in this department things are looking up as the USDA just announced in May a new initiative called the Transition Incentive Program, giving Conservation Rental Program (CRP) money to retiring or retired owners and operators of CRP land, under the condition that the land is leased or sold to a “non-family member beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher for the purpose of returning some or all of the land to production using sustainable grazing or crop production methods.” Similarly, the Center for Rural Affairs Land Link program helps connect beginning farmers with exiting farmers.
The know how
If you are looking to gain training through a sustainable farming apprenticeship, internship or educational experience, opportunities abound. An accredited program through the University of California, Santa Cruz, offers a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture after six months of working and living on the university farm. However, millions of internships, volunteer jobs, and apprenticeships exist for those who don’t have the money to pay for such an experience. For example, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) connects people with farms in need of workers, and provides a good opportunity to gain practical farming skills while working in exchange for room and board. To search a wealth of internships and apprenticeships, the USDA’s Alternative Farming Systems Information Center and the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) are a great place to start. Lastly, get on the Ecological Farming Association’s Sustainable Ag Job List that almost daily sends announcements on available work and educational prospects.
As in any other profession, an integral part of being a successful rookie farmer is knowing what support systems are available to you. Luckily, organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition and The Greenhorns have stepped in to try and fill that void. The Greenhorns are a grassroots non-profit whose mission is to support beginning young farmers and connect them with the resources they need to be thriving food producers and simultaneous stewards of the environment. Not only do they have a fresh approach by throwing events like Young Farmer Mixers, but they also created a short documentary highlighting young farmers across America as well as the Greenhorns Guide for Beginner Farmers. In addition, networking circles are popping up such as the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society new support group for young farmers and EcoFarm’s GenNext that puts on conferences and workshops for farmers just starting out.
If you are a student at a university trying to green your school’s dining program or start a university farm or garden program, look no further than Bon Appétit Management Company’s Comprehensive Student Garden Guide (PDF). And no need reinventing the wheel — research the methods of successful established sustainable college dining/farm programs (started by students no less) such as the Yale Sustainable Food Project and Evergreen State College’s Organic Farm.
If you want to stay local, consider what your own backyard has to offer. Get out into your community, go to your local farmers market and talk to the farmers about what opportunities might exist to work with them. Ask how they started their operation and what hurdles they had to overcome. Most likely, you will find that they are absolutely thrilled to find new, young recruits who are as crazy as they were to join this trying but rewarding profession.
Related 3P articles:
Farming Internships: Vital or Illegal? The Answer is Both
Urban Farming at Hayes Valley Farm…the Ultimate Reclamation
Will Farmer Janes Lead the Local Food Revolution in Your Neighborhood?
Lesley Lammers is a freelance environmental writer and regular contributor to the Green Chamber of Commerce. The Green Chamber of Commerce represents the NEW voice of commerce, one that can envision the future – a future where businesses work to protect our planet.