Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Lindsey Lusher Shute’s talk, “Building a Future with Farmers,” that she gave on February 16, 2013, at the TEDxManhattan conference, “Changing the Way We Eat,” which examined how we think about food. Lindsey and her husband Benjamin own Hearty Roots, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm here in the Hudson Valley. They personify the new generation of young farmers – highly-educated, innovative, vocal and actively involved in and passionate about the development of local food systems and the future of sustainable food production. They represent our best hope for the future of farming and our nation, for as the popular saying goes, “no farms, no food.”
My great-grandfather, Henry Clerkus Sheets, was the last farmer in our family. He farmed in the foothills of Southeast Ohio and produced dairy, salt pork, and tobacco. Henry worked hard and earned enough to own land, eat well and get three of his kids (my grandmother included) to college. Those kids became a teacher, a principal, a welder and a gas station owner. None of them stayed on the farm.
The path my great grandfather was likely proud to put his children on is the same one that 99% of us find ourselves on today. For generations, farm families have been sending their kids away from the land–and all for good reasons: a dairy crisis; discriminatory federal policies that left families of color without a safety net; consolidation and vertical integration; skyrocketing land prices and plummeting incomes. Life has been difficult for many farm families and opportunities outside of the farm sector have grown.
That’s why today there are 28 million fewer farmers than there were in 1920, when my great-grandfather was farming, and that’s in a country with 200 million more people. And because a least two generations of young people left the farm, farmers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of 6 to 1. As a 34-year-old farmer, I and my husband Ben, along with thousands of young people across this country, are bucking the trend by starting a new farm operation. These young farmers and ranchers represent an incredible opportunity for food, agriculture and rural America.
They are cultivating their crops by hand and with tractors that haven’t seen the outside of a barn in 50 years; they are putting cows and sheep and goats and chickens back on grass where they belong; they are creating jobs and opportunity in places that haven’t seen new industry in decades. They are demonstrating, as did generations before them, the more a farmer is able to care for the land, the more the land gives back. Not just to the farmer, but to everyone.
At our farm, Hearty Roots Community Farm, we grow 25 acres of vegetables and produce eggs for the members of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that feeds 900 households in the Hudson Valley and New York City. Our 25 acres is bringing in gross revenue of $425,000 per year, which is being spent mainly on creating jobs in our community. We employ nine other young people—some seasonal and some year round—who in turn spend their paychecks at stores in our town. Many of our supplies are purchased locally or regionally, and our contractors live down the road. The percent of our budget spent on fossil fuels is very small.
Compare that to commodity corn, which is what was being grown on our land before we transitioned it to vegetables. Twenty-five acres of corn produces about $25,000 in revenue; half of that is spent on inputs like fuel and GMO seed and machinery, and only about $750 goes to labor. That means our farm would need to grow over 5,000 acres of corn to produce the same number of jobs we offer producing 25 acres of vegetables. That is half the size of our town.
The more growers we have caring for smaller parcels and maximizing the land’s potential, the more benefits our town will experience. As I said before: The more a farmer is able to care for the land, the more the land gives back.
The challenge is putting more young people, more farmers in the position to do just that. What would our rural communities look like if we had 1 million more farms like Hearty Roots, like the Salad Garden of Missouri, the West Georgia Cooperative, Three Springs Farm in Oklahoma, Kilpatrick Farm of New York, Bucio Farm of California or Sauvie Island Organics outside of Portland? Just think of the social, economic and health benefits for the nation.
But a million new farms like these aren’t going to just come along. It’s not 1920 when Grandpa Henry was farming. Land is crazy expensive (it took us 10 years to find a permanent home for our farm). Banks forgot how to loan to us, and there is now something called a student loan that zaps hundreds of dollars from a bank account each month (for decades), supply chains are in shambles, research on new organic systems is behind the curve, and Federal Policy is largely written to perpetuate what we already have.
In 2010, I co-founded the National Young Farmers Coalition. We are a team of farmers and consumers that want at least a million new farms in this country, and know that big change is necessary to make that possible. We are working to create land agreements, policies and local networks that will create a permanent home for independent, diversified, family-scale farms in the United States.
In our national survey of 1,000 young and beginning farmers, we found that capital was the number one challenge to starting a farm. Of course banks and investors need to be engaged to help solve this challenge, but history teaches us that getting capital to farmers can’t be left to private interests. It is much too important for the nation’s security. That’s why the federal government makes low interest loans to farmers through the Farm Service Agency – and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt helped to start the cooperative Farm Credit system in 1908.
These institutions can do a lot more for young and beginning farmers. We were very proud to have worked with the Farm Service Agency to revise their rules to allow new farmer training programs, such as apprenticeships, to be considered as experience that would qualify them for a loan. And we helped the agency launch a new micro-lending program. But there is so much more that needs to happen.
Right now, Congress only allows the Farm Service Agency to loan a farmer $300,000 to buy a farm, when that amount of money can hardly buy a house in most regions. Also, they have no permanent funding from the Farm Bill. So each year they are at the mercy of the Appropriations Committee, and farmers are left to wait for months on loan decisions.
We need to give this agency more money and more stability, so that farmers can use it like a bank. If you want to go out and buy a house, you get pre-approved from a mortgage lender, then make an offer. If you want to buy a farm with help from the Farm Service Agency, you find the farm, hope that it’s under $300,000, and then beg the owner to slog through many months of bureaucracy while you both wait and hope that money will be available. This is no way to buy a farm, and no way for our most important farm lender to operate when 70% of all farm land is going to change hands in the next 20 years. They are more important than ever before.
And speaking of land, it is the second biggest challenge to getting started farming. Land is selling at prices that are many times what a working farmer can possibly afford. Just like you all have affordable housing in this town, we need to work with the land trust community to create affordable farms in ours. And out in the Midwest, we need to trade the subsidies that grow mega farms for incentives to sell or rent ground to beginners.
But the National Young Farmers Coalition is not waiting on Congress. We are rebuilding local support networks of farmers on the ground. We have local chapters made up of farmers that are helping each other overcome day-to-day obstacles. Our Hudson Valley chapter gathers together to share meals, put plastic on hoop houses, and uses their combined purchasing power to get a better price on animal feed.
We are getting a lot done, but we can’t do it alone. Even if every farmer in the United States stood with us, we would only represent less than half of one percent of the population.
I said before that we’re working in the same structural environment that led to the downfall of so many farms, but I didn’t point out the big difference between now and 20 years ago: you. You as consumers that buy our food. You as consumers that care deeply about the future of American agriculture. You as consumers that might still remember a family farm, even if you didn’t grow up on one. If we’re going to create a new path of opportunity for American farmers—one that helps them care for the land and helps us all experience the benefits that an independent farm can bring—then we need your help.
You can help us rebuild American agriculture by helping everyone buy locally-grown food, encouraging your kids to farm, helping transition farmland to a new generation, and joining with us to tell Congress that if we invest in new farmers, the entire nation will win.
I hope you will join us.