Young farmers will need access to land and partnerships to help them learn how to be successful in a changing agricultural landscape. That was the central message emerging from a series of panelists at Investing in Discovery: 2017 Food Tank Summit Boston.
Matthew Dillon, Director of Agricultural Policy and Programs at Clif Bar, says that, to help young farmers, we need to disrupt the “myth that we’re feeding the world.” Decentralized models give farmers access to ways to adapt to emerging challenges. He says “innovation is not always finding new tools; it’s adapting existing tools.” Farmers who make most of their money from seed crops can look at a crop with the lens of “whole ecological agriculture,” which he thinks is “a model that should be extended throughout the U.S.” to meet a wide variety of contemporary agriculture needs.
Timothy Griffin, Director of Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, reminds us that small and large farms “have more in common than we give them credit for. They engage in similar activities. They’re engaged in a set of products that are destined for us.”
With the average age of farmers at about age 58, young people need to be incentified to farm. Scholarship programs are offered to kids who want to go back to the farm, according to Paul Willis, of Niman Ranch Pork Company. He feels that “we just don’t have enough farmers.” At Niman, they are raising livestock that are enterprises on diversified farms, giving young people the opportunity to return to the family farm and gain a foothold.
The U.S. “has the lowest percentage of farmers of anywhere in the world,” he notes. “Agribusiness probably thinks this is a good thing. I don’t.” He says that “how animals are raised is important,” and that at his ranch the animals don’t “have any confined spaces… you want to ask where your food comes from, whatever it is, and if you pay attention to that, then production will be better.”
The power of partnerships can be a strong indicator of success for young farmers. Rukia Bilal, a farmer at Flats Mentor Farm notes, when people learn from others and see how other “people from other countries do things differently,” it’s a chance for new knowledge and practices. She allows that young farmers are “expanding and learning more everyday.”
A range of efforts is being made, from USDA, many nonprofits, and evolving business supply chains, to develop partnerships between young farmers and the knowledge they need to find success in a farming career. Governments can make a difference with policies that benefit small farmers. For example, if farmers do not have access to land, farming becomes less and less viable as a career. Iowa and Nebraska have tax credit policies to give incentives to farmers.
Lindsey Shute, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, says it’s important that young people who are considering farming as a livelihood should go to a farmer’s market and see others who are good role models. With 1000 laying hens, pigs, orchards, and other crops, her organization has less need of “inputs” due to the overall biodiversity. The National Young Farmers Coalition works with thousands of farmers nationwide, helping out with issues of student loans and access to health care as primary concerns. “New farmers should find some old farmers, some mentors, teachers, and become part of a farm community.”
She says “having the motivation and the will to farm is good , but access to land is the number one challenge for farmers.” Access to capital is sometimes available through new micro lending programs, which Shute says is a “great way to get a farm capitalized.”