If There Are No New Farmers, Who Will Grow Our Food?
Programs across the country are trying to make it easier for new farmers to get started and put down roots. Here's why: There's only one farmer under 35 for every six over 65. By 2030, one-quarter of America's current farmers will retire.
Against a backdrop of lush green mountains and swaying papaya trees, La‘amea Lunn readies his crop of carrots, kale, and eggplants for the weekly farmers market. He carefully tends his one-third acre on Oahu, Hawai‘i, preparing produce for a market stall he shares with friends—young farmers like himself, a few of whom he met when they worked neighboring plots on this land owned by the University of Hawai‘i.
At 32, Lunn has an office job with a career in restaurant kitchens behind him. He hopes to own a farm of his own, to be part of the local food movement, and to help transform the industrial food system. But taking that on now is a substantial investment, so Lunn is starting out here, in an agricultural incubator program called GoFarm Hawai‘i, where he can share resources, learn from experts, and, perhaps most importantly, join a community.
GoFarm Hawai‘i and other programs, from California to Maine, aim to soften the start for young growers. By providing access to some or all of the farming fundamentals—capital, acreage, and training—these projects try not only to help the individual farmer, but also to sustain and grow a new generation that will allow the local food movement to flourish.
“Doing it with other people helps you along in the hard times,” Lunn said. “I went into this not just for myself, but to network to help other farmers to make it easier to farm. It was a driving force.”
Lunn is among the thousands of people nationwide trying their hands at a career that traditionally was handed down within families. It is a daunting prospect: New farmers often struggle to find affordable land, pay for equipment, pay down student loans, and develop the myriad skills necessary to farm as a career, not just a hobby.
Farming as an occupation has been graying steadily for more than three decades. In 2012, the average age of American farmers was 58, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. In the same census, one-third of farmers were age 65 and older; only 6 percent of farmers were younger than 35.
And fewer new farmers are staying with it. In 2012, not quite 470,000 farmers had been on their land less than a decade—a 19 percent drop from the number of new farmers just five years before. About land for them to grow their products, and create a built-in network of fellow farmers.
Jennifer Hashley, a Concord area poultry farmer and director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, called this a “safe place to learn and to fail.”
In a farm incubator, “they can really just focus on production, gaining the skills they need, and taking their product to market,” she said. “People can try this and see if it works.”
Incubators are in various stages of development. Some have graduated participants and are tracking their progress in commercial farming; others are focusing on specific skills or populations.
Michigan’s Greater Lansing Food Bank, also home to a series of community gardens and a food bank network, operates one such incubator, Lansing Roots. Now in its third growing season, Lansing Roots targets immigrant and refugee farmers who work roughly quarter-acre plots and sell their vegetables at local farmers markets and to wholesalers and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers.
At first, explained Alex Bryan, director of the food bank’s agricultural programs, many of the growers were involved in the food bank’s community gardens effort. It soon became clear that some of them were serious about turning the experience—whether by building upon farming backgrounds from their native countries, signing up for multifamily plots, or selling produce on the side—into a business.
“We said, ‘We’re well-resourced. Let’s provide the space and make it transparent that we want them to make money and be farmers,’” Bryan said. “In the long term, it helps the food bank and helps localize our food. It’s important that we have a new generation of farmers.”
Today, there are 25 farmers working the incubator site, down from 29. Of the four who have left, two found other jobs, one is trying to find land for her own farm, and the other decided farming wasn’t the right fit.
“If someone understands that they don’t want to be a farmer, that’s still a success story to me,” said Bryan, who farms with a friend on 4 acres in Detroit and chairs the board of the National Young Farmers Coalition. Better to make the choice about farming while at the incubator, he explained, than after staking hundreds of thousands of dollars on a farm.
That was the theory behind the phased-in structure of GoFarm Hawai‘i, launched in 2012 by the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and Windward Community College. GoFarm starts with a three-hour seminar, which leads to a series of weekend workshops meant to introduce people to what they can expect from life as a farmer. From there, the program gets more intense. For four months, students attend two meetings a week that focus on specific topics, such as soil quality, pest control, crop varieties, and food storage. Participants can then move on to six months of AgPro, in which they grow crops and learn how to start a business. Some graduates of AgPro may then take advantage of AgIncubator, growing and marketing crops on land provided by GoFarm Hawai‘i.
Of AgPro’s first class of 27 graduates, 20 are farming commercially, including La‘amea Lunn.
Steven Chiang, GoFarm’s co-founder, credits the program’s progressive phases with the successful conversion of new farmers. GoFarm focuses on transitioning from stage to stage, on training, and on individual responsibility for a plot of land—surrounded by a cohort of classmates with their own farming responsibilities.
“People have to renew their vows, in a sense. And things get more real as phases continue,” he said. Student cohorts “struggle and work and dream together, [which makes] the prospect of actually doing this farming thing seem more achievable, less lonely.”
Establishing a network of mentors and peers is critical to building confidence and business know-how, Chiang added. It’s not just about the training; it’s about the transition. As the Beginning Farmer Center’s John Baker said, a new farmer also has to learn how to set up and sustain a business.
“We’re trying to re-evaluate what it means to be a farmer.”
About 40 miles southeast of Seattle, Abukar Haji surveys his beds of carrots, beans, collard greens, and romaine. Now in his third year with Seattle Tilth’s Farm Works incubator program, Haji has expanded his original one-eighth-acre plot to three-fourths of an acre and hopes to keep growing. A farmer in his native Somalia, Haji came to the United States five years ago and took a warehouse job until he learned about Farm Works at a local community center presentation. He now spends six days a week on the farm and is one of Farm Works’ top sellers in Seattle Tilth’s food hub, which distributes to its CSA, farmers markets, restaurants, and wholesalers.
Through a translator, Haji emphasized the help that Farm Works provided in learning and using new systems of planting and irrigation and in marketing his crops. Going out on his own, though, would be too stressful. “I’m going to stay here and get bigger,” he said with a laugh, gesturing toward the surrounding land.
And with Farm Works’ structure and goals, farmers like Haji likely will be able to do that. The 5-year-old program enrolls between eight and 10 new farmers a year for its classes and incubator plots, but no one has to leave, explained Andrea Dwyer, Seattle Tilth’s executive director. Rather, Seattle Tilth is actively seeking more land throughout the area to allow current Farm Works’ farmers to expand and to sign on new ones.
In the program’s “co-farming” model, subsidies to new farmers for seeds, equipment, and other resources decrease over time, while the land remains leased to farmers who participate in a farmers’ council to make decisions and solve problems and who can contribute produce to the food hub for revenue.
“We’re trying to re-evaluate what it means to be a farmer,” Farm Works manager Matthew McDermott said as he walked a path between plots. “Maybe a co-farming model is the way to be successful and grow a new generation of farmers.”
On an overcast yet mild weekday afternoon, half a dozen farmers tend to their chores. One motions Haji over to ask for advice. A few yards down, three young women work adjacent plots, maneuvering in and out of greenhouse tunnels packed with tomato plants.
Amber Taulbee pauses from her day’s task of removing thistles to pitch to McDermott the prospect of a Farm Works orchard.
That kind of access and support, Taulbee says later, has made all the difference in getting her dreams off the ground. At 37, Taulbee and her husband hope to find their own farmland and start a CSA.
“Farming is so challenging. I’ve had to become more realistic about how much help I’m going to need,” she said. “Until you start doing it for yourself, you don’t really understand it.”