A New Crop of Farmers: More Millennials living off the land

Molly Shaw

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the USDA cites the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58.3; up 1.2 years since 2007 and continuing a 30-year trend of steady increase. But, in some corners of the country, the trend is showing signs of reversal and it’s thanks to a new crop of 20- and 30-somethings –the new face of the farmer.

A generation that’s grown up in the midst of the digital age is turning back to the basics and the land for a lesson in a sustainable life. The 20- and 30-something demographic has turned states across the nation, particularly in the Northeast, into hot beds of activity for small farming.

The search for greener pastures

The new-age farmer –most likely college educated and in exchange for a more meaningful, beyond-the-cube existence, they’ve cashed in the comforts of a professional life, including health benefits, a 401(k) or retirement plan and even a guaranteed paycheck for something more fulfilling; life on the land.

NPR reports in Maine, farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40%, while the national average is creeping up by about 1.5%. “This is about creating something. This is about building something themselves. This is about using their two hands to make a difference," John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension told Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN). Rebar says this new generation of farmers has made farming cool again.

Today, the novelty in a young person trying to make a living off the land stems from a different mindset, one that surrounds fact this generation grew up with the issues of global warming and climate change looming overhead. This sense of responsibility coupled with a cultural shift in more consumers buying and eating locally grown foods has heightening the value of agriculture and made for considerable changes.

More people want a connection with their food, beyond the grocery store shelf. They want to know where it originated, who grew it and know their purchase –from eggs to cheese, potatoes to greens and everything in between- is benefiting a smaller producer. The response around the country has been powerful with more farmers markets springing up and local food co-ops every year, in cities all the way from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.

Though the number of young farmers in support of the local movement is increasing, the USDA found that farmers over age 55 own more than half of the country’s farm land. In response, the 2008 Farm Bill included a program for new farmers and ranchers –the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).

In 2010, the department distributed $18 million to educate young growers across the country. The 2014 Farm Bill ups the ante, including $100 million over the next five years for BFRDP, which provides grants to organizations that train and educate beginning farmers about production, marketing, business management, legal strategies and other tops vital to running a successful operation.

Funding a startup and a piece of the land pie

But most young farmers say it’s not the grunt work that goes into farming that’s the challenge; it’s the access to land and money to buy equipment –the basic startup costs. One organization started by and for new generation farmers –the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) launched in 2010- is working to get startup operations off the ground.

NYFC was co-founded by three farmers in the Hudson Valley of New York State: Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Ben Shute and Lindsey Shute. In late 2009, all three were facing major challenges securing long term and affordable land access to grow their farm businesses. Around a farmhouse table, they decided that they and other young farmers needed to step up and fight for the future of farming as a united, national front.

Accessing farmland is still one of the biggest obstacles young farmers face, but NYFC says the good news is that there are a growing number of land trusts, working to keep farmland in the hands of new generation farmers. In the last several years, NYFC has worked closely with groups across the country to support these efforts, including the release of A Farmer’s Guide to Working with Land Trusts –a resource designed to help farmers connect and partner with land trusts and secure acreage.

The guide offers new startups an overview of a typical land-trust transaction, including a sample timeline and project budget and also an appendix, which lists organizations that may be helpful partners in the process.

Another hurdle new generation farmers face is student loan debt suggests NYFC. The coalition is pushing for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which offers student loan forgiveness to professionals providing a public good such as teachers and nonprofit employees, to include farmers on the list of qualifying careers.

“With only 6% of American farmers under the age of 35, we must take immediate steps to incentivize young people to grow food for the nation,” says NYFC. As America’s farmers grow older, the reality is, someone has to fill the void. And surprisingly enough, many Millennials are stepping up to the plate, leaving cities and desk jobs behind for a plot of land and a meaningful role in the community.