The youth these days

A highlight of my summer was the occasional e-mail I received from a friend in New Hampshire who has returned to our small town to start her own farm. Her parents, my family’s closest friends, are organic farmers, so it’s not exactly a new science for her. But it was a long, long struggle to buy land; thanks to urbanites’ lust for third homes, the going rate was $10,000 an acre when she started her search. For over a year, she and her husband sent out letters asking if anyone was looking to sell and willing to undercut the market in order to keep it in community hands. And then one day, a retiring couple responded. This summer, she left her office job in Maine and moved back home.

Judging from her effusive e-mails, the 40 acres they were able to buy are now being transformed into a magical homestead. Trees have come down, a driveway built, a house beginning to take shape. There are organic veggies on the horizon, livestock, perhaps a pottery studio. With all the time I spend thinking about the more depressing aspects of our food system — I mean, let’s admit it, I don’t generally cover the cheeriest of topics for this blog — her updates positively made me glow.

And that’s how I felt again the other day as I looked through the blog of The Greenhorns, a film project about young farmers (the trailer of which you can watch here). We’ve written about our love for the film’s fearless leader, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, before, but I have to say it again here: That lady and her team are absolute stars. Their blog, The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles, is becoming not just a space to celebrate young farmers around the country, but to make them.

It’s no secret that the farming sector is in crisis. With the average age of a farmer in the U.S. nearing 60, and with skyrocketing land prices shutting young people out, things are looking pretty dire. But as The Greenhorns crew has documented, young folks are finding ways to get back to the land. As the up-and-coming center of the young-farmer universe, their blog is becoming something of an ad hoc bulletin board for farmers looking for young people interested in leasing, buying, or share-cropping their land. Case in point, from just a few days ago: “Seeking caretaker of 50+ acres which is in fruit trees and has a vegetable garden that needs attention…. This is a great opportunity for a farmer who is looking to grow and bring in enough income to sustain and grow over time.” !!! (I’m kind of speechless at how cool this is.)

I’m excited to see what Sev and her crew find out about the innovative, creative land-tenure and training arrangements that are cropping up between young and aging farmers. And if you’re a young farmer, or if you aspire to be one, there may still be space to register for The Greenhorn’s Rabbit Roast and Encampment taking place this weekend in New York’s Hudson River Valley. See the blog for more info on how to register.

Finally, because this is a post written by yours truly, it wouldn’t be complete without some mention of farm policy. I’ll keep it short, though, and just point out that there are some great programs and policy work taking place to support beginning farmers across the U.S., led by Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project and Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs. Thanks to these and other groups in the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program received a funding boost in the Farm Bill this year. Let’s keep the support — and the inter-generational collaboration — coming.

6 Responsesto “The youth these days”

  1. Eric Reuter says:

    Neat. There are more young farmers popping up, but they often fly under the radar. Here in central Missouri, I’m personally familiar with four other new or recent (last five years) small direct-market farms run by people 25-25 or so. Two of those are now full-time operations supporting the entire family (they both made that transition this year), one is about halfway there (my wife still works off-farm, I’m full-time) and two are just starting up and planning to be self-sufficient down the road. Then there’s our local goat dairy, which is a full-time operation for its comparably aged owners and has been so for a while now.

    We and the goat dairy are the only ones with a website or online presence, though, so it’s easy to miss all the others that are only known locally. If it’s happening here, I’m sure it’s happening many other places that wouldn’t be known other than locally.

    Check out our farm website & blog if you like:

  2. Howling Hill says:

    Being able to buy land to farm in the town I live in would be pure heaven. But I’m unemployed with no job prospects which pay a living wage on the horizon.
    Living on one income as Wolf and I do does not allow us to save the 20% needed for land here in New Hampshire. And that sucks because there’s actually a couple pieces of land available for sale here in town and there’s no way, NO WAY we can afford it.
    It makes me wonder though, if we’ll be able to purchase land before we’re 50. Already we’re pushing 40 with a future filled with living paycheck to paycheck without a change on the horizon.

  3. Eric Reuter says:

    Location definately makes a difference. We moved out to Missouri from the East Coast (Vermont & Virginia) in part because of the far lower cost of living. Good farmland can be had here for $1500-$3000/acre, and the sales market is much wider open than back east.

    I read recently about a grant program that had started in the Upper Midwest which helped loan down payments to starting small farmers, overcoming that significant barrier to getting started. Is there any such thing in New England?

  4. Howling Hill says:

    Erik, I have not looked into any grants but I should. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

  5. The cost of buying land is an issue. Unfortunately the best land gets sold for development which raises the price far higher than one can make back from farming. Our state department of natural resources with their septic permitting regulations encourages development on the prime farm lands. Over the decades I’ve watched thousands of acres of crop land and pasture lost to this development pressure, replaced by McMansions on sterile mono-crops of mega-lawns. Sad.
    My solution was I did something different for years to save up enough to pay for land and I bought higher up in the mountains where the land was cheaper and not under so much development pressure thus being cheaper. This does mean I can’t do large crops – our land is too sloped – but it works very well for pasturing livestock. To garden I’ve carved out terraces on the mountain much the way that the Chinese and Incans did. Even then it took over a decade more for us to get to the point where our farming is paying. It’s a long row to hoe.

  6. Kim says:

    The grants are called individual development accounts.  They’re for low incomes (200% of Federal poverty level) They match what you save with state, federal and private money.  Then if you qualify for that you can leverage more down payment assistance.  You have to build an asset with the grant, and a farm would be an asset.  You have to take a free course on Financial Literacy, and it’s definately worth your time.  They’re all over the US, just google the name with your state.