Like many idealists, George Macros thought life as a teacher sounded good. At the Brooklyn school where he started his career, he ranked lowest in seniority. “I was given the classroom none of the other science teachers wanted,” he said. “It had a greenhouse attached to it, and the greenhouse was filled with dead plants.” But it was his classroom, so he thought he’d try to resuscitate the greenhouse – and he kept at it, until he found himself leaving in time to get to work by 6 o’clock in the morning. “I would come in as soon as the school building opened,” he said, “to spend more time with the plants.”
It was the beginning of an odyssey that would eventually take him to the West Coast, where he volunteered on organic farms from Washington to California until he discovered the place he wanted to settle down: the rolling hills outside the town of Sebastopol in western Sonoma County, a coastal climate where greens could be grown year-round.
Estimates of the number of farmers needed to replace the retiring generation over the next two decades range from 700,000 to a million.
Macros did some substitute teaching while he learned more about the area and worked on farms part time until, he said, “I decided: Hey, I’m going to have a really large vegetable garden. It’s going to be either a great hobby and I’ll have tons of stuff to give to my friends, or restaurants and customers will take an interest and we’ll take it from there.”
In Northern California, where wine grapes are grown in abundance, agricultural land is pricy – out of reach, really, for a substitute teacher. With the help of California FarmLink, an organization established in 1999 to help new farmers get started, Macros connected with an older couple, goat ranchers who leased him a fenced half-acre plot and let him use their tools.
Today, Macros farms full time on a 3/4-acre plot he calls Earthworker Farm. “I do two farmers’ markets and a little bit of wholesale,” he said, “and I only grow salad greens and edible flowers. So I’m growing high-value crops that have a maximum return for square footage.”
While the news in recent years seems to include many stories like Macros’ – stories of young, educated people, many without money or land or much experience farming, who nevertheless opt for a career in agriculture – the available data indicates it isn’t much of a trend. But the United States needs it to be:
- Seventy years ago, nearly 40 percent of Americans grew up on family farms; today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), that number is less than 3 percent.
- According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer continues to climb steadily, and is now at 58.3 years old. About a third of the nation’s 2.1 million farmers are at least 65 years old; they outnumber young farmers by a ratio of 6-to-1.
- According to a 2014 USDA survey, about 10 percent of U.S. farmland, or about 91.5 million acres, is expected to change hands by 2019.
- Only about 6 percent of American farmers are under 35 years old, and the number of young farmers only increased by about 1,220 from 2007-2012. Estimates of the number of farmers needed to replace the retiring generation over the next two decades range from 700,000 to a million.
Money and Land
There is a sliver of hope in these statistics: The 6 percent figure represents a slight increase in young farmers since the 2007 Census of Agriculture, which reported that 4.1 percent of American farmers were younger than 35. This increase may be due, at least in part, to a growing network of public and private organizations dedicated to pooling resources and connecting young farmers with opportunities in their states and local communities.
Aside from the many other things that attract people to agriculture, there’s a lot of money to be made in the nation’s $167 billion farming industry – but several challenges confront new farmers. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), established in New York state’s Hudson Valley in 2009, conducted a survey of beginning farmers in 2011 that identified a lack of capital (78 percent) and access to affordable farmland (68 percent) as the two primary obstacles they faced.
According to Holly Rippon-Butler, NYFC’s Land Access program director, access to affordable farmland is one of the organization’s top priorities: “Something like two-thirds of our agricultural land is owned or managed by a farmer who is 55 or older,” she said. “So in the next 20 to 25 years, two-thirds of our land is going to need a new farmer.” Much of Rippon-Butler’s work is devoted to linking farmers and land trusts to make sure farmland remains in agriculture.
Several state programs, such as California FarmLink, mirror this effort. Iowa State University’s (ISU) Beginning Farmer Center operates a program known as Ag Link, which matches landless beginners with retiring farmers who don’t have heirs to continue the family business. David Baker, the center’s farm transition specialist, said the program was launched during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when the state began to suffer what’s known as the “grain drain” – the exodus of farmers’ children out of agriculture into other sectors that assured a steadier paycheck. “Now,” said Baker, “we’re reversed. I think we have a large segment of young people who are interested in where their food comes from, and in the quality of the food.”
These talented young people, of course, are more likely to transition into smaller operations, such as a modest family dairy or hog-raising operation, rather than a vast tract of commodity crops such as corn or soybeans. And Baker usually likes to work with people who are educated and have spent some time in the workforce: “I don’t work with too many 20-year-olds,” he said. “I want them to get through college. I want them to experience real work before they start trying to run a business.”
The task of finding programs like California FarmLink and Ag Link can be overwhelming for beginning farmers. NYFC has several “Resources” portals on its website (www.youngfarmers.org), including “Credit and Capital” and “Land and Jobs,” linking beginning farmers with opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels.
While the USDA considers itself a “lender of last resort,” many of its programs, particularly those administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), are aimed specifically at beginning farmers. According to Kent Politsch, FSA’s public affairs chief, the programs range from crop insurance incentives to direct loans: “We know that if we can get them started and get them over that inertia of the cost of startup, then they’ve got a good chance to succeed.” FSA offers microloans of up to $50,000 to beginning farmers. Another FSA program, the Transition Incentives Program (TIP), encourages retiring farmers who have land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to cede that land, through sale or lease, to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers. Since 2009, TIP has facilitated 2,305 contracts for more than 384,000 acres of expiring CRP land.
According to Rippon-Butler, a significant remaining obstacle for young farmers is student loan debt. “Our big campaign right now,” she said, “is to get farmers added to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.” NYFC partnered with the office of U.S. Congressman Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., in writing the Young Farmer Success Act of 2015, which would add farmers to the list of professionals, such as civil servants, teachers, and nurses, who, after making 10 years of income-driven student loan payments, will have the balance of their loans forgiven.
“We were really, really excited to see that bill introduced,” said Rippon-Butler, “and are working hard now to get co-sponsors and get people excited about it across the country.”
Knowledge and Training
Farming is a business, and no amount of land or capital guarantees success for beginning farmers. Along with the vast acreages of farmland that will transition into new hands in the coming decade, said Rippon-Butler, “There will be a large amount of knowledge and skill – and knowledge and skill that’s particular to the pieces of land being passed on – necessary to facilitate that transition.”
Many of the organizations originally established to facilitate access to land and capital – including NYFC, California FarmLink, and the ISU Beginning Farmer Center – have also formed programs and partnerships designed to give beginning farmers the knowledge and training they’ll need to make a success out of their new ventures. NYFC supports farmer-to-farmer training initiatives and recently partnered with FarmLink to conduct a series of California workshops.
Meanwhile, as Congress has worked to expand financial resources for beginning farmers, it has provided additional resources for training and education. The 2008 Farm Bill established the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The BFRDP is a competitive grant program, explained Jill Auburn, its national program leader: “We fund collaborative networks and partnerships of organizations that then do actual training, technical assistance, and mentoring programs for new farmers.”
California FarmLink is among several of the BFRDP’s recent grantees, which include a broad range of agricultural interests, from an urban agricultural training program administered by the Chicago Horticultural Society to a modular instructional series, provided through the University of Arkansas, in the basics of farm safety, business development, poultry, and livestock production.
The array of federal programs and other resources available to beginning farmers is increasingly numerous and can be difficult to sort through – but fortunately, USDA has set up a one-stop portal that offers new farmers a step-by-step guide through the process: newfarmers.usda.gov.
In Iowa, the Beginning Farmer Center conducts seminars, offers consultation, and publishes manuals for beginning farmers. Through Lutheran Services of Iowa, Baker also works with immigrants in the Des Moines area, many of them from rural villages in countries such as Laos or Burundi, to find them access to small lots and provide for their families and perhaps sell some produce at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market, which is visited by about 20,000 people every weekend throughout the summer.
Baker is himself a farmer who, nearing the end of his career, hopes to give back to his community and encourage as many people as possible to connect to the land that’s given him so much. “If you’re a farm community and you’re not trying to bring young people into your community through opportunities and jobs in the farming industry,” he said, “you’re a dying community.”
This isn’t what farmers, young or old, want for America’s rural communities. Said NYFC’s Rippon-Butler: “We want to make farming a viable career in America.” With help from a widening network of public and private partners, the industry may be on the verge of growing a new generation of family farmers.
Caption for top photo: Calvin Riggleman, pictured here holding an oregano seedling and soil, is a former Marine who served in Iraq. Now he serves his community farm fresh organic produce and food products made by his Bigg Riggs Farm team. Bigg Riggs Farm sells under the Homegrown for Heroes label. Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung
This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.