Old old old MacDonald had a farm
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Wave Williams, a 4th-generation farmer at Gardeners Gourmet in Westminster, Maryland, knows first-hand that getting into farming is difficult.
“A lot of the people that are farming are the sons, the daughters, the grandkids of the farmers,” Williams said as he sold vegetables at Washington DC’s Eastern Market. “Even if you want to start farming, it’s really hard because to get the land, it’s expensive. So the only people that are actually going to have the land are the people it got passed from the generations, like our family, for instance.”
At 26, Williams stands out in the agricultural industry. American farmers are older than they ever have been. In 2012, the average farmer was 58, compared to 50 in 1982, according to the Census of Agriculture. It’s a 30-year trend.
And while farmers are aging, fewer young people are entering the industry.
Creating an even farming field
The biggest obstacles beginning farmers face are access to capital and land, according to a 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC).
It costs a couple million dollars to get the land, equipment, machines, seeds and more to start a small farm, according to David Fowler of Sunnyside Farm in Mechanicsville, Maryland, who’s been farming for 50 years.
“There’s no guaranteed retirement, there’s no guaranteed income,” he said. “What you make today is spent yesterday. You don’t have any money until you die because all your assets is tied up in your equipment and your land.”
This is why young people aren’t going into farming. “Besides that, they don’t like to work,” Fowler said. “Farming’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job with no time off. And young people just are not going to do that anymore.”
FFA tries to eliminate obstacles that keep young people from entering agricultural fields by offering students Supervised Agricultural Experience grants, scholarships, proficiency awards, internships and other resources, according to Dwight Armstrong, CEO of the National FFA Organization and National FFA Foundation.
FFA offers mentorships and other opportunities for middle and high school students to learn agricultural methods. Armstrong encourages those in agricultural fields and older generations of farmers to get involved with FFA, 4-H or similar groups.
NYFC, founded in 2010, uses a different approach to encourage young people into farming. The group of young farmers, with 24 chapters in 22 states, pushes for policy shifts.
They’ve been talking to Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) about introducing a bill that would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which currently offers loan forgiveness for teachers, physicians, not-for-profit and government employees. Student loan debt makes it difficult for beginning farmers to get a mortgage, credit, land and equipment, according to Lindsey Shute, the Executive Director of NYFC.
“What we’re asking is the U.S. government put farming in the category of public service, which it really is,” Shute said. “There is a group of young people that want to farm. But to enable them to make a career of farming, there has to be structural change.”
Changes taking hold
FFA is seeing record-high membership with 610,000 members and 7,570 chapters across the country. And new chapters are starting in urban areas like Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia. Two-thirds of FFA members live in suburban or urban locations. Brian Walsh, 21, the president of FFA, believes the organization is effectively helping more young people get into agriculture.
Walsh said FFA is reaching members who might not be traditionally interested in agriculture because the industry is diversifying.
“Agriculture is interesting,” he said. “We see it all over the news, we see it everywhere. People want to know where their food comes from. It’s no longer just large conventional farming. There’s organic farming, there’s locally grown foods.”
There is constant innovation in the agricultural industry, Walsh said.
He’s witnessed this innovation and various pathways to agriculture while traveling across the country since 2013. In his travels, Walsh has seen ag-science programs and greenhouses at schools. He’s spreading the message to FFA chapters that agriculture needs young people to survive.
“Farmers are arguably one of the most important professions in the U.S.,” said Shute, who runs Hearty Roots Community Farm with her husband in Germantown, N.Y. “They’re taking soil, water, sunshine, seeds and turning that into value and feeding local people and creating very vibrant economies. So this issue of farmers aging is so vital to the future of our country.”