26.02.2015

Who Are America's Next Generation Of Young Farmers?

FARMING | | | | |

Image via NYFC

This is Sarah Chase, the 27-year-old owner of Chaseholm Farms in Pine Plains, New York, who is converting her dairy farm from conventional to organic. She’s a far cry from the overalls-wearing, straw-hat-capped farmer of yore. She’s the image of young farmers across America who are not only savvy at milking cows, but also idealistic, culturally aware, and clever at publicity.

And these farmers are the ones on the frontlines of a battle to make sure that their ilk doesn’t disappear. Because young farmers in America are actually an endangered species. 

Currently, the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 60. If the U.S. doesn’t see a rise in our young farmer population in the next few years, then we might be facing a serious shortage. One of the main problems facing young farmers is land access.

“The challenge is that landowners are 50 years or older, and there’s gonna be an incredible amount of land changing hands in next 10 to 15 years — well over a billion acres, I’ve heard,” explained Graham Meriwether, a filmmaker who is currently making a documentary about America’s young farmers. 

“So, how is this transition going to take place?” he added. “Can we incentivize this land getting into the hands of young farmers, or will it be bought by companies that are detrimental to the environment?”

Let’s face it. Farming ain’t easy — but it’s necessary. Fortunately, there’s strength in numbers.

Sarah Chase made this video about her life on the farm with support from the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, an organization that is branding farmers as sexy warriors of the earth, and public servants of our society. Chase’s farm has been in her family since her grandfather switched from managing horses to cows. She runs the herd and her older brother makes Old World-style artisanal cheese, including a creamy one called “Moonlight” that Food and Wine noted was “one the the best cheeses” they’ve ever had.

But Sarah and her brother aren’t just coasting on the 350 acres that they inherited; Sarah is working to convert the farm from conventional to organic. In fact, this difficult task was the main reason she took over the farm, two years ago, and purchased the cows from someone who had been leasing the land.

Chase grew up helping out on the family farm, but she never thought she’d be a commercial dairy farmer. She went away to school, but every summer she came back to work — and each year, she noticed more and more young people moving into the area and they were farming organic vegetables. 

“Seeing them come in, meeting people I had a connection with ideologically, was showing me that the type of farming I grew up with wasn’t the only kind. Because of that hub of organic veggie farms, it was possible for this coalition to spring up,” she explained. After meeting some people who were involved in the Coalition’s blogging project, called Bootstrap, where farmers blog about the ups and downs of their work lives, Chase began contributing, which eventually led to the video she made, above.

Chaseholm Farms

Now, two years into managing the farm, Chase is in the process of transitioning her cow feed to non-GMO, reducing or eliminating the use of antibiotics, ceasing the use of pesticides and increasing the grazing time for cows. She credits the Coalition for being a supportive network, a community of likeminded young farmers.

The National Young Farmer’s Coalition was started by two farmers, Lindsey Shute and her husband Ben, who were confronted by the problem of access to land.

Lindsey and Ben were renting their farm land, which meant they couldn’t erect any structures — essentially putting a cap on any growth. They started looking for property but found nothing under $1 million.  

“We could see no future for the farm,” Shute told Collectively, “We knew we needed help from the community, and realized that farmers across the country were also experiencing these struggles.”

Five years later, there are 24 National Young Farmers Coalition chapters across the U.S., bringing together farmers in the 25-35 age range to talk about solutions to the land access problem — like land trusts, for example, where land is demarcated as exclusive for agricultural use, keeping costs down. They also work on other areas of policy change, and provide each other with a supportive community including technical support, events, and understanding conservation issues. 

They also have a campaign to forgive student debt, based on the argument that young farmers are trying to provide a public service by growing food — much like teachers are seen as public servants for raising our children — and should therefore be forgiven for their education debts, especially given the financial inputs involved in farming, like equipment and feed. 

Will the Coalition be able to get the next generation of farmers to a place where they are surviving economically — and also farming according to their values? It has to happen, because if not, in a few short decades, we’ll be facing a nation of commercially-oriented, Big Ag. 

But as the face of farming changes, hopefully so too will the values of the industry and the practices of its participants. Humans cannot live on corn, wheat, and beans alone. So, if you love eating fresh, organic veggies, sustainably-farmed meat, or artisanal cheese made from antibiotic-free cows, cross your fingers that there’s a gang of radical, sexy, determined, young farmers near you.

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