Farmers perform one of society’s most essential functions, yet farming is one of the most undervalued and endangered professions in the United States. Beginning farmers face many challenges: limited access to land and capital, hard physical labor, slim margins, debt, and uncertain income, just to name a few.
“It’s a gamble every year,” said 30-year-old farmer Kenny Baker of Lonely Mountain Farm at a recent CUESA discussion called “Growing New Farmers.” “There are a lot of variables and you’re pretty much not in control. You’re just trying to manage what’s going on out there and not mess up.”
But for all the uncertainties and difficulties young farmers like Kenny are up against, many are able to find much deeper rewards. “Farming has freedoms that other jobs wouldn’t have,” he said. “It’s about having a long-term vision for your life.”
The age of our farmers is steadily climbing, with not enough younger farmers stepping in to replace those who retire. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farm owner in 2012 was 58.3, up from 57.1 in 2007. Half of all farmers are likely to retire in the next decade.
One reason for this generation gap is that many children of farmers are moving into other careers. Journalist Kiera Butler, who recently wrote a book about the youth development program 4-H, noted that many parents in farming communities discourage their children from following in their footsteps, instead wanting them to go to college. At one 4-H she visited in Salinas, “Parents were shielding their kids from agriculture,” she said. “The last thing they wanted for their kids was to be farmworkers like them.”
Also behind this shortage of farmers is the shift in our food system over the last 100 years from small family farms to large-scale industrial models. Many mid-sized farmers are going out of business, while large operations are buying up the land, leaving few opportunities for new farmers.
First-generation dairy farmer Jennifer Taylor saw that there were not many opportunities for first-time small farmers to get the formal training and resources they needed to get started. She was hired by the Center for Land-Based Learning to establish the California Farm Academy, a six-month “farmer bootcamp” with a focus on hands-on practice, marketing, and business skills, and a strong emphasis on sustainability.
“People come for all kinds of reasons,” said Taylor, “mostly because they became passionate about the food system in such a way that they want to back up to actually growing the food.” Once students successfully complete the program, they can lease farmland and equipment through the Academy’s incubator program, or get assistance with leases on other farms, overcoming one of the biggest hurdles new farmers face.
Like many first-generation farmers, Kenny Baker took the less-traveled path. After growing up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, he went to college at UC Santa Cruz to study anthropology, but he found himself drawn to farmers markets. He spent a couple years learning the ropes at Thomas Farm in Corralitos, then took the plunge to start his own operation, Lonely Mountain Farm.
With a savings of $10,000, he was able to lease a couple acres, buy a tractor and some seed, and install irrigation. He planted dried beans and potatoes, crops that he knew wouldn’t go bad while he figured out how to sell them. He started with farmers markets, where he could develop direct relationships with shoppers and chefs. Farmers markets are now 90% of his sales.
With help from his parents, he was able to purchase 12 acres, a huge step in growing the farm. “Owning a piece of land has changed our operation,” said Baker. “We’re investing in the future, putting fruit trees in, setting up infrastructure, using animals in rotational ways.” After five years of farming, economic sustainability still remains elusive, but Kenny says his farm is moving in the right direction.
Evan Wiig had a similarly winding path to farming. While working an office job in New York City, he took refuge in his local community garden. When an opportunity to help out at his friend’s cattle ranch in Sonoma County arose, he jumped at the chance, but there was a steep learning curve, compounded by the isolation of rural living. “There were definitely more cows than people,” said Evan.
Other young farmers were few and far between, but he sought them out and started hosting “Meatloaf Mondays,” a regular gathering to bring his fellow farmers together at his ranch house to talk shop and share their experiences. The gatherings quickly grew from a few farmers to 50. He had to move them the local grange hall and started calling the group The Farmers Guild. Guilds have blossomed across the state as forums where farmers can share knowledge, pool resources, and build community.
With so many barriers facing young farmers, the panelists offered some lessons from their journeys:
Develop a business plan: As Wiig put it, “A lot of people come into agriculture because they’re fascinated with growing plants or working with animals, not recognizing that you will spend a lot of time adding up numbers, communicating with customers, and doing logistics.” Resources like the California Farm Academy train farmers in sales, marketing, and developing a long-term business plan for economic viability.
Be thrifty: For large-scale farmers the infrastructure and overhead costs are high, but resourceful small-scale farmers can often make do with less. Taylor says, “You may not start out with all the biggest, shiniest gadgets, but if you’re a creative person, if you have friends, if you barter, if you build…you can do things for less than what the industry may say you need.”
Start small and expand wisely: Medium-sized farms, unfortunately, are being squeezed out by large-scale farms, but there are opportunities to be economically sustainable on a small scale. “People are starting small farming operations of a couple acres and maybe growing to 300 or 400 acres, but that’s still fairly small. That’s where people are getting into direct marketing, grass finishing, and small dairy operations, where there’s an ability to make a profit,” says Taylor.
Grow your niche: Many beginning farmers gravitate toward organics, heirlooms, and pastured livestock, where there’s less competition from the big guys. “We try to focus on color, texture, and shape, bringing more than just conventional produce you would see at the grocery store,” says Baker, who now grows a variety of organic vegetables and flowers. “We want to wow people with unique items they’ve never heard of.”
Find strength in numbers: Meeting with other farmers is important not only for exchanging knowledge, experiences, and resources, but also for political organizing and raising public awareness about issues that farmers face. For example, recognizing that student debt is a huge barrier for recent college grads, the National Young Farmers Coalition recently launched a campaign to include farming in the national Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
Educating the Next Generation
All the panelists agreed that there’s a deep cultural need for exposure to our food system at all ages, and a need to create bridges between rural producers and urban consumers. Such education is crucial in building community support for young farmers, so that farming is seen as a viable and valuable occupation.
One of the huge advantages that small farmers have is the ability to meet and interact with consumers directly—to literally put a face on their farm. As Kenny observed, “We’re in a good place education-wise because people are interested in the story of the farm and are willing to invest more in that.”
Wiig concurred: “You can’t compete with the commodity prices, so you really do have to tell a story. Hopefully it is one of doing something differently, something that’s more fair, just, and ecologically minded, and something that’s going to support rural America.”
Photo courtesy of Lonely Mountain Farm.