There aren't enough young farmers. Congress is looking to change that
Bobbi Wilson is about to kick off her first farming season, prepping the soil to yield ripe tomatoes and potatoes next year. Her plan: to start a small farm market — which she hopes will also include other produce like onions, beans, strawberries and corn — and to eventually expand to grow flowers and raise poultry.
For Wilson, this has been 10 years in the making. The 32-year-old living in southern Oregon fell in love with farming during a year off from college, when she worked on a northern Arizona farm in exchange for housing and food.
Wilson does not come from a farming background, and she spent years trying to figure out how to access land. Ultimately, she opted to lease part of her mom and stepdad's property. If it wasn't for this, she said, she wouldn't have any options.
"I think there's kind of this phrase of like 'marry it or inherit it' kind of thing — like, that's the way that people access land, and that's not something that was previously accessible to me," she said.
Access to land and the ability to purchase it were rated as the top barriers to entering farming in a new survey released by the National Young Farmers Coalition and analyzed by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. According to the survey, 59% of young farmers named finding affordable land to buy as very or extremely challenging, and 45% of young farmers named finding available land to buy as very or extremely challenging. The rates were higher — 68% — among farmers of color.
"No matter how you look at the data, land access is the top challenge that young people who are involved in agriculture are facing," said Holly Rippon-Butler, land campaign director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. "It is the No. 1 challenge for current farmers and ranchers. It's the top reason that young people report having left agriculture. It's the primary barrier to getting started regardless of the region of the country that you're in, whether or not you identify as a first-generation farmer or a rancher. It's also regardless of age or number of years of experience in farming. And it's an even greater challenge for young farmers of color who are experiencing much greater systemic oppression."
Those barriers have created a more dire situation as the average age of a farmer has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. Most recent ag census data shows farmers' average age is nearly 60 — and that is concerning lawmakers in Washington who say getting a younger generation involved in agriculture is key to building a sustainable food system.
The pandemic highlighted the need for local and regional food sources
The Agriculture Department defines a beginning farmer as one who has been in business for 10 years or less. In the 2017 Census of Agriculture — the last time the USDA collected the data — about 1 in 4 were classified as beginning farmers. That year, the number of young producers — defined as 35 and under — was 121,754, a small slice of 3.4 million total producers. New data is expected to come in 2024.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans say ensuring a younger generation of farmers can enter the business is key to upholding local and regional supply chains needed for emergencies, for general domestic food production and to meet the growing demand of local food.
As big distributors and producers faced supply chain snags during the pandemic, more people turned to their local markets and sellers to purchase foods they couldn't find at the grocery store. Even as many supply chain disruptions have eased, demand has stayed high, according to Heidi Noordijk, small farm coordinator at Oregon State University.
"During the pandemic, when food access was tight, people were like, 'We want to buy local food. We want to support our farmers and community-supported agriculture,'" Noordijk said. "There were waitlists happening and just a huge demand wanting to support their local farmers."
At a hearing in July, farmers and representatives of credit agencies and socially disadvantaged groups testified before the House Agriculture Committee about the barriers for young and beginning farmers.
Adam Brown, owner of B&B Farms in Illinois, told the panel that his biggest challenge was keeping up with the programs coming out of the USDA and being aware about his options.
"I think USDA, from my point of view, does a poor job educating on the programs that are out there and accessible. And with farm bills changing every several years, a lot of the times the programs go away or are new out there," he said. "We hear about them by word of mouth instead of direct FSA [Farm Service Agency] or county offices notifying us."
Zach Ducheneaux, administrator for USDA's Farm Service Agency, the lending arm of the department, told NPR that he knows loan applications can be so lengthy and complicated that prospective farmers can give up.
"There aren't less stringent collateral and security requirements for young and beginning farmers — they still have to qualify just as an established farmer would," Ducheneaux said. "We're working on streamlining access to all of these things across the board that I think will benefit our young and beginning producers."
Ducheneaux, who lives on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, said it's important that groups communicate to lawmakers what changes they want to see made to programs, especially after the pandemic.
"We saw in this pandemic how fragile our food system is and if we don't have producers that have the ability to develop capacity for internal economic resilience at an earlier stage, our food system is literally in jeopardy," Ducheneaux said. "We have roughly 40,000 cattle growing on my tribe's territory and during the pandemic, our grocery stores didn't have any meat on the shelves. So there's so much fragility built into this food system."
Advocates are calling for federal help and making recommendations
On Aug. 24, the USDA unveiled new pandemic aid dollars aimed at getting younger and more diverse people interested in jobs within agriculture — both farming and at the government level. About $300 million is now available to organizations that have projects for helping to increase access to land, capital and markets.
"We think there's a real opportunity here to expand the universe of people interested at all levels of farming and in food production — and we think it's important to maintain our country as a food-secure nation," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters.
But many changes are still in Congress' hands for the 2023 farm bill.
"What's happened time and time again over the last several farm bills is everyone goes in with [young farmers] being one of their priorities, but somehow it falls off the list as the farm bill gets created," said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, during a panel at the Minnesota Farmfest.
Groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition are pushing for lawmakers to address land access and barriers to USDA programs in the upcoming farm bill. The farm bill, which gets negotiated every five years, is an avenue for Congress to change the way that federal loan and technical assistance programs work — something the USDA cannot do on its own.
"We're at this moment now where young people are in crisis in terms of land access, and we need our federal government to act," said Rippon-Butler of the National Young Farmers Coalition, "and we need equity to be at the center of that so that we are creating policies that really center young farmers and ranchers of color and lifts up our whole next generation of young farmers as a whole."
Developing a preapproval process for farm lending, easing requirements for new producers and raising loan limits are just some of the recommendations.
"I would ask that we have some predictability going into the next farm bill," Brown told the House Agriculture Committee. "We have so much volatility throughout my operation, throughout the ag economy. If we know what we are dealing with we can plan better."
For now, those who want to get into farming can look to groups like land grant universities and nonprofits, which have created training programs to teach them how to stand up a successful business.
Wilson, the new vegetable farmer, helps train and advocate for prospective young farmers through her work with the National Farmers Union as well as Rogue Farm Corps, an Oregon-based program.
"We are helping to ensure that the future of farming is in good hands. The U.S. farming population is aging, and here in Oregon we expect two-thirds of our agricultural land to change ownership in the next 20 years," Wilson said. "Breaking down barriers to entry and ensuring that new farmers succeed is more important than ever if we want to make our food system more equitable, resilient and life-sustaining for generations to come."
Correction Sept. 1, 2022
A previous version of this story said new agriculture census data from the USDA will be released in 2023. It is expected in 2024.