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Survey Outlines Challenges Faced by Young Farmers Along with Strategies to Help Them Succeed

November 17, 2011 |

Barriers to entry into a career in farming for young aspirants appear to be a bit daunting, but not impossible to overcome. So says a recent report based on a survey of 1,000 farmers across the US that was carried out by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition (NYFC). The report, entitled “Building a Future With Farmers: Challenges Faced by Young, American Farmers and a National Strategy to Help Them Succeed,” cites access to capital, land and health insurance as the largest obstacles to launching a career in farming. Apprenticeships, local partnerships and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), on the other hand, were cited as the most valuable means of helping beginners get started. 

“If Congress wants to keep America farming, then they must address the barriers that young people face in getting started,” commented NYFC director Lindsey Lusher Shute. “We need credit opportunities for beginning and diversified farmers, land policies that keep farms affordable for full-time growers and funding for conservation programs.”

Some key findings in the report include:

  • 78% of farmers ranked ‘lack of capital’ as a top challenge for beginners, with another 40% ranking ‘access to credit’ as the biggest challenge.
  • 68% of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.
  • 70% of farmers under 30 rented land, as compared to 37% of farmers over 30.
  • 74% of farmers ranked apprenticeships as among the most valuable programs for beginners.
  • 55% of farmers ranked local partnerships as one of the most valuable programs, and

Steep Barriers to Entry

Lack of capital, or access to it, was the most frequently cited barrier for young and aspiring farmers. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) does offer loans to beginning farmers, the NYFC points out in its report, but even experienced farmers with good credit are often disqualified under prevailing rules.

The time frame for FSA loans is also prohibitive, while small loans are few and far between. FSA loans take up to thirty days to process and those who are approved can wait as long as a year before receiving the funds. FSA loans are also capped at $300,000, which in many markets isn’t enough to purchase enough farmland to build and run a sustainable business.

Land access ranked second in terms of barriers young and aspiring farmers face. Moreover, farm real estate values and rents doubled in the past decade, making it almost impossible for beginners to make a start, the NYFC notes in the report.

Inheriting farmland is one of the only ways young and aspiring farmers can gain access to farmland, commented William A. Powers, a Nebraska farmer and executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.

NYFC’s Recommendations

NYFC is urging action at the local, state and federal levels to help beginning and aspiring farmers. To establish and assure market and business opportunities at the local level, the organization recommends forming Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and farmers markets, along with protecting existing farmland through zoning and purchasing development rights.

At the federal level, the NYFC is recommends that Congressional members to include the “Beginning Farmers and Ranches Opportunity Act” in the next five-year Farm Bill, which is currently being hashed out in private “Super Committee” negotiations.

“Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is calling for hundreds of thousands of new farmers nationwide,” the NYFC notes, pointing out that the number of American farmers has declined from over 6 million in 1910 to just over 2 million today. The average age of farmers is increasing. For each one under 35 there are six over 65, while the average age of American farmers is 57. The USDA anticipates that 25% (500,000) of farmers will retire in the next 20 years.

These trends coincide with what’s forecast to be even more challenging times ahead for US farming and agriculture.

On a positive note, Americans’ growing awareness and interest in food and agriculture is evident in the growing sustainable agriculture, locovore, ‘slow food’ and ‘good food’ movements. These are sparking younger generations’ interest in farming and agriculture and inspiring a growing number to consider farming as a career.

“With the release of reports such as this one, the agrarian revival, this influx of young and beginning farmers, gains status – we’re not just a few people spread across the country, we’re a well organized, politically active group that can be documented,” commented Tierney Creech of the Washington State Young Farmers Coalition. “We know who our senators and representatives are, we vote, and our friends and families vote. We need USDA and government support to succeed and we’re going to let the nation know that.”

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