America’s farmers and ranchers are aging. Half of all current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade while the number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987, according to the Center for Rural Affairs. The average age of American farmers is 58.3 years, and new farmers are needed to carry the torch. However, for aspiring and new young farmers, challenges abound – from obtaining access to land, procuring loans and credit to being saddled with student loan debt that forces them to pursue alternate careers, and a shortage of apprenticeship programs to arm first generation farmers with the knowledge that farmers typically receive from their forbears.
“I grew up on the family farm, but there’s no place for me on the farm—the future’s not there,” says Ryan Reed, who was raised in Illinois and is now involved with the International Gay Rodeo Association.
“A nonprofit did not renew my contract after two years because of who I am,” says lesbian urban farmer Ari Rosenberg of Philadelphia.
“Farming in general is rural, and in a rural environment, LGBT does not fly,” says Nathan Looney, a transgender urban farmer in Los Angeles.
Their voices are among many LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) farmers who strive to be true to themselves—not only in terms of vocation, but also regarding their core selves as expressed through sexual orientation and gender identity. This can be difficult, but a number of organizations are engaged in some serious advocacy work to help LGBTQ farmers live up to and into their truest selves.
The average age of American farmers is 58.3 years, and new farmers are needed to carry the torch. One of the biggest barriers to beginning farmers is access to land.
But obstacles are meant to be overcome, and land trusts provide an effective way to preserve farmland while blazing a pathway for retiring farmers to pass their land on to others.
Land trusts are nonprofit entities designed to protect resources, including farmland. One of the best ways they come to the aid of new farmers is through conservation easements—binding contracts through which a landowner sells some or all of his/her property rights to a land trust. Under this arrangement, a farmer would still own and be able to earn money from the property, but the trust would ensure that the land continues to be used for agricultural use, rather than swallowed up by development.
A Fort Wayne, Indiana food desert is now home to the city’s first urban farm.
A $430,000 grant from the City of Fort Wayne provided initial funding for the farm and an associated commercial kitchen. The operation is leased to and operated by Growing Minds Educational Services, a company devoted to tutoring students in helping them live up to their potential.
The organization’s motto is “planting seeds… establishing roots,” but Growing Minds co-founders Beth Hodges and Carlos Brooks never saw growing food as part of their original plan.
That was until four years ago when Brooks heard northeast Indiana farmer Pete Eshelman speak at a business conference. Eshelman is not your average farmer—the former New York Yankees baseball player now raises Wagyu, a legendary Japanese breed of beef cattle, along with Mangalitza pigs, Dixie Rainbow and Naked Neck chickens, and a variety of other livestock and produce.
Gary, Indiana, known for being the birthplace of Michael Jackson and home to massive steel plants, now has a high school with an urban farm program.
Last year, students at Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary started the urban farm. It’s founded and operated under the principles of a business plan written as part of an entrepreneurship and personal finance class curriculum.