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A passion for local food is sweeping across the U.S., and a new generation of young farmers is trying to grow it. But local also means more farms near cities where land is expensive. As NPR's Dan Charles reports, lots of young farmers have to get creative in the search for affordable land.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Lindsey Lusher Shute and her husband own a farm in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City. And she's executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
LINDSEY LUSHER SHUTE: We did a survey of over a thousand farmers in 2011, and land access came up as the number two challenge for new farmers getting started.
CHARLES: It came in right behind not having enough financial capital. The simple fact is close to major cities, farmers can't pay nearly as much for land as people who'd build houses on it. Now, many state and local governments and nonprofit organizations have been trying to save farmland. They'll give farmers cash in exchange for a legally binding promise that their land can only be used for farming forever.
That way, farmers don't have to compete against developers for the land and it makes land cheaper. Lindsey Lusher Shute says those programs are great. But when she and her husband went looking for land to expand their farm, they found that even this permanent farmland was too expensive for normal farmers to buy.
SHUTE: We're making, per acre, just about as much as you can. And still, this conserved land was really out of reach.
CHARLES: The reason, they realized, there were wealthy people who want to turn farms into country estates and they bid up the price. So Shute and her Young Farmers Coalition are pushing for an extra level of farmland protection. You'd only be allowed to own this conserved farmland if you actually make most of your money from farming. This kind of program already exists in Vermont and Massachusetts.
But it still has some limitations. Robert Wagner, a senior advisor for the American Farmland Trust, says Massachusetts and Vermont recently looked at who's buying this relatively cheap land.
What they found is that these properties, when they sell, are primarily being sold to other farmers that are adding these operations or adding these properties onto their farms.
Apparently, young farmers starting out still can't compete with established farms that want to get bigger. So a lot of the young farmers are not taking the traditional route. They aren't buying land at all. They're renting, sometimes forming partnerships with older farmers who are leaving the business but don't want to sell the family farm, at least not yet.
For instance, Chris Guerre. To get to his land, you drive down a long lane past million-dollar homes on multi-acre wooded lots in a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C. Then you come to an old barn, a couple of chicken coops and two-and-a-half acres of vegetables.
CHRIS GUERRE: We're one of the few farms left in the county, let alone one that grows and harvests every week of the year. So every week, even in the winter, I'm growing and picking crops.
CHARLES: Chris Guerre didn't grow up on this farm or on any farm. About five years ago, when he was living somewhere else, he ditched what he calls his career job to grow and sell food. He and his wife expanded their garden. They started selling vegetables at a farmers market. And one day at the market, a woman came up to them.
GUERRE: She approached my wife and just wondered if we might be interested in living on her family's farm and there was room to grow vegetables or have animals, and we said, yeah.
CHARLES: It was this farm. Guerre and his wife moved into the house. They're renting the land, so there's no guarantee that the family that owns this land won't someday decide to sell it to a developer. But Guerre does not seem worried.
GUERRE: They've just been very kind to us and very encouraging and have helped us get to where we are.
CHARLES: Guerre has built a new chicken coop. He's fixed roofs and plumbing, turned an old milk room into a washroom for vegetables. He says even if he did have to move someday and leave all this behind, it would not be the end of the world. He's pretty sure he could find land somewhere else.
GUERRE: If you walk a couple of miles in any direction, you know, there's hundreds of acres.
CHARLES: And you don't need much, he says. You can make a living just from a few acres.
GUERRE: And actually acquiring the land is honestly probably the easiest part of doing all this. It's the commitment, the stamina, learning how to do it and doing it every single day. That's the hard part.
CHARLES: If you're ready to do that, he says, you really can make a living at this. Just start hanging out with farmers, asking questions, and chances are you will hear about places where you can grow some food. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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