Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, July 22, 2018

By Teresa Wiltz, Stateline.org

EARLYSVILLE, Va. — The Rhode Island Reds run free, which means the hens have a habit of laying their eggs anywhere they please: under the porch, near the hog pen, next to that tree over there. So Chris and Annie Newman have no choice but to play a kind of farmer hide-and-go-seek, squatting and squinting, reaching and grabbing for those hidden brown orbs. That beats their poultry processing duties, though, which are messy and bloody and decidedly not for the faint of heart.

A little more than a year ago, Chris, 32, and Annie, 28, threw $27,000 of their life savings and Kickstarter proceeds into “guerrilla farming,” a beyond-organic approach that relies on imitating nature to create self-sustaining agriculture that looks out for the environment, animal welfare and public health.

Newbies like the Newmans face a number of challenges. For first-generation farmers who didn’t grow up on the family farm, access to affordable land is a big deal. The days of being able to purchase some cheap land in the country are gone.

Young farmers often find themselves competing with deep-pocketed land developers for scarce resources. Access to capital and financing pose other problems. Getting a loan isn’t easy, particularly for young college grads saddled with heavy student loans.

Recognizing those obstacles, some states have created programs to provide the next generation of farmers with the skills and land needed to be economically competitive. Missouri, Maryland and Virginia, for example, are among the states that help prospective farmers access available land, while Massachusetts, Minnesota and Delaware provide financial assistance to independent farmers who are just starting out, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The future of young farmers has broad implications for states, from ensuring the safety and security of the local food supply to strengthening rural communities to mitigating climate change and drought, according to Holly Rippon-Butler, land access campaign manager for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC).

“If we don’t help the young generation of farmers get on the land, retiring farmers will quickly run out of people to sell the land to, individuals who will continue to grow food on it and treat it as farmland,” said Rippon-Butler. “We will lose the ability to produce our own food and to ensure that our food supply is controlled and safe.”

According to Rippon-Butler, there are two big needs to keep farming viable for the next generation. “You need farmers who are willing to work every day on the farm,” she said. “And you need farmers who are willing to go out and advocate for the structural changes we need to make that work possible.”

For years, the small family farm has been slowly dying out, as large corporations, such as Monsanto and Perdue, increasingly dominate the industry. Every week, about 330 farmers leave their farms for good, according to Farm Aid; less than 1 percent of Americans today claim farming as an occupation. The fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers is 65 and older, according to census statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the second-fastest growing group is young farmers and ranchers who are under 35. There are only about 110,000 nationwide, but they are the only age group under 55 whose numbers are increasing. Most of them are first-generation, new to the industry and trying to earn a living on independent farms. According to a National Young Farmers’ Coalition report, the vast majority of young farmers — 78 percent — did not grow up on a farm.

For most first-generation farmers, securing land is a daunting obstacle. According to the NYFC survey, 70 percent of farmers under 30 rent farmland, compared with 37 percent of farmers over 30. Farmers who were raised on a farm were much more likely to own land — 65 percent — compared with 50 percent of farmers who did not grow up farming. According to Rippon-Butler, more than two-thirds of American farmland is currently being farmed by individuals who are 55 and older, who will be nearing retirement over the next couple of decades.

“In the next 20, 25 years, there’s a lot of land transfer that’s going to be happening,” Rippon-Butler said. “There’s lots of potential for people who own land to think creatively and create opportunities for young farmers.”

But real estate changes hands quickly and most young farmers don’t have the wherewithal to quickly secure financing, she said. Between 2000 and 2010, national land prices doubled; an average-sized farm can cost upwards of $1 million.

As Chris Newman sees it, he and his wife “hit the lottery” when it came to securing land. A member of the Choptico-Kanawha band of Piscataway Indians, Chris was eager to farm as his ancestors once did, eschewing loans, pesticides, fertilizers, expensive equipment and bureaucracy. His in-laws happened to have a house on 26 acres of land here just outside Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia is located — land that was zoned agricultural. Annie’s parents were going to sell their property, which was mostly covered by trees, but agreed to let the young couple “squat” on the land for a year or so.

Eventually, the Newmans hope to find another property and move once they’ve established themselves in the business.

“It’s not easy when you’re trying to learn a new career on the fly,” said Chris, who quit his job as a software engineer to launch Sylvanaqua Farms. Annie used to be an art gallery director. “Farming’s not simple. You’ve got to be smart to do it. But people are really attached to us being here. When the pigs escape or you’re killing a chicken and you get poop in your mustache, you say, ‘Well, people really appreciate what we’re doing.’ ”

Agriculture, Virginia’s biggest industry, has an economic impact of $52 billion annually and provides nearly 311,000 jobs, according to the state agriculture department. But a lot of the farm land is owned by people who never were farmers or who have given up farming for good, according to Ron Saacke, the young farmers’ coordinator for the Virginia Farm Bureau. So in 2012, the state agriculture department partnered with the Farm Bureau to link existing landowners with young and beginning farmers looking for land through a farmland database. Virginia Tech University, with a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also helped.

Progress has been slow, Saacke said. More than 80 young and beginning farmers have gone through the application process, but only 15 have been certified to participate. Only a handful of matches have been made. “Until you have a whole lot of examples of successes, it’s hard to get people on board. That’s our challenge,” Saacke said.

Matching farmers to farmland can be as tricky as finding a suitable mate to marry. Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak, young farmers who live up the road from the Newmans, thought they’d found the ideal situation: a landowner willing to lease their land to them so that they could explore sustainable farming. They were already farming on Joel’s parents’ 13-acre land, but they were looking to expand.

“It sounded awesome, to live in a house on the owner’s property and transition it to a sustainable farm. At the end of the day, she wanted (the farm) to look like a (well-manicured) golf course,” Erica said. Instead, the couple ended up “nickeling and diming” on other people’s land, using a tiny parcel here for one crop and another parcel at another farm for a different crop. They lease a total of about 100 acres.

In Nebraska and Iowa, landowners are offered tax incentives to sell or lease land to young farmers. Other states are experimenting with conservation easement programs, which designate certain amounts of land as farm; developers can’t buy the land, and, for example, turn it into condos. Anyone buying the land has to use it strictly for agriculture.

Often, getting access to land happens when farmers become part of the community, Rippon-Butler said. “Many real estate deals don’t make it to the market. They’re happening at dinner, or at church. You’ve got to be someone that people trust business-wise and socially. That’s the reality of farming in many places.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Want more national and political news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!