A Comment from Phoebe Garfinkel
Phoebe Garfinkel received a Master in Public Administration degree from the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) in May of 2011. While at Cornell, Phoebe served as the Program Assistant for the Cornell Farm to School Program, as a Researcher at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy, and as the Chair of the CIPA Colloquium Series. Prior to pursuing her graduate degree, Phoebe worked in Vermont as the Food Systems Coordinator at Shelburne Farms and as Secretary for the Vermont Fresh Network Board of Directors. Phoebe grew up in Downeast Maine.
On March 6, 2011, The New York Times published an article under the headline “In New Food Culture, a Young Generation of Farmers Emerges.” The digital version of the article is accompanied by photos depicting the lives of “young farmers” in rural Oregon. The leading shot is of a young couple dressed in stylish leather jackets, plaid shirts, and colorful scarves, each holding a laying hen. Behind them is a two-story structure in clear need of renovation, and a chicken coop secured with chicken-wire doors. The caption of the photo reads, “Tyler Jones, 30, and his wife, Alicia, 27, are among an emerging group of people in their 20s and 30s who have chosen farming as a career.”
The article depicts farming as a socially inspired, hip career choice for young people. This in its own right is not a problem. Farming should be a great career choice for anyone, young or not-so-young. The real problem is that this portrayal is unrealistic. The unfortunate reality is that becoming a farmer in America is really hard if you aren’t previously endowed with at least one piece of the puzzle — access to capital or land.
Celebrating farming in American media is one tactic for leveraging food system reform, and I’m all for more mainstream media reporting on the re-localization of agriculture taking place across the country. But turning young farmers into celebrities is a far cry from actually helping them succeed at the business of farming. America desperately needs new farmers. The best way to support them is to change the policies that prevent them from making a living. In fact, your next meal may depend on it.
Uncle Sam Wants YOU…to Farm
Consider some startling statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2007 Census. The average age of the American farmer in 2007 was 57, up from 50 in 1978. Although the majority of farm operators are between 45 and 64 years old, it’s the population of farmers ages 65 and older that’s growing the fastest. While the number of farms owned by older people continues to increase, the number of farms owned by farmers under the age of 25 continues to decrease.
The average retirement age for farmers without off-farm income is 62 years old. Let’s add three years, given increased fuel costs and the recent economic crisis. That bumps up the retirement age to 65, which means that the average American farmer will be retiring within the next five to seven years. Workforce replacement is not a problem in most other industries, but replacing retired farmers proves much more difficult.
Farming is, after all, not for the risk-averse: a farmer spends all of her money upfront on equipment, inputs and seeds before she has even planted a single row. She relies on good weather, strong infrastructure and stable demand by the time harvest rolls around. Farming is not exactly the type of job you can learn from a textbook or an online course. To be a good farmer you have to know your land, your crops and your livestock, and you have to be thrifty, innovative, motivated, and tireless. These skills are best learned firsthand from a farmer, but since most small-scale farmers can’t afford to pay their apprentices or interns, only the financially stable have the opportunity to learn farming from a farmer.
Let’s not omit the fact that farming takes a serious toll on the body. The 14 months I spent living on a farm were the hardest physical months of my life, and my salary wasn’t even tied to the success of my irrigation skills. In fact, the concept of a salary, for many beginning farmers, is foreign. Since most rely on large loans to get them through the initial three-plus years of growing, they earn very little income.
Yet another occupational hazard is lack of insurance. Most beginning farmers can’t afford an individual insurance plan, so they go without — a scary thought for anyone who has ever driven a tractor or spent 14 hours a day bent over a row of weeds.
Given the serious hurdles a beginning farmer must face, it’s no wonder college graduates aren’t lining up to farm. Who will grow our food when our farmers retire? Sure, urban farming is gaining popularity, and rooftop gardens are sprouting up all over the place. You probably know someone who knows someone who has just started farming or is planning to start farming, or who just bought a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share for the summer, or who found a new raw-milk supplier in the neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong: I am in favor of this do-it-yourself attitude — I think everyone should have the experience of growing their own food.
But most people can’t or don’t want to: they don’t have the time, space, or money to invest in raised beds and compost. Not everyone should farm: comparative advantage and economies of scale in agriculture are a primary economic driver, and it’s illogical to think of America feeding itself (and exporting to international markets) from individual garden plots.
I am not the only one concerned about the country’s impending lack of farmers. On June 30, 2010, the Senate Agriculture Committee met to review progress on the implementation of 2008 Farm Bill programs. Instead of reading his written remarks, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged the committee to focus its attention for the 2012 Farm Bill on new and beginning farmers (the USDA defines “beginning” as anyone with less than 10 years of experience). In his request, Vilsack noted that increasing small and medium-sized farming operations must be part and parcel of the broader goal to improve prosperity and economic development in the nation’s rural areas, where political clout is slowly evaporating.1
It’s usual for presidential administrations to set milestones for public-sector job creation. Vilsack suggested setting the goal for new and beginning farmers at 100,000. It was an ambitious request, and unprecedented. Non-governmental organizations such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Community Food Security Coalition have been calling for support for new and beginning farmers for years, but the Administration had remained mostly silent on the issue until now.
Normally, when administrations call for increasing the number of public-sector workers, they roll out a detailed plan to do so. The 2008 Farm Bill appropriated $17 billion to fund a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).2 The Agriculture Secretary wants 100,000 new and beginning farmers planting seeds, hoeing rows, and heading to market in the next few years. What, exactly, is the plan?
This Mess We’re in
It’s worth taking a moment to remember how we got into this predicament of aging farmers in the first place. Let us return to The New York Times article, in which the author cites, in the second paragraph, Earl L. Butz, a former Agriculture Secretary. Butz’s economics were of the free-market variety, and he is best remembered for his famous “get big or get out” quote directed at American farmers in the mid-1970s. Butz served as assistant Agriculture Secretary during the Eisenhower years; in 1971, a narrow Senate vote of 51 to 44 confirmed him as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon.
During his stint in office, Butz held that farmers should produce as much as possible and sell surplus overseas. Democrats and moderate Republicans criticized him for being a mouthpiece for agribusiness and corporate America at the expense of consumers and small farmers, and though farm income rose during his time in office, so did consumer food prices. As encouraged, farmers unable to scale up their operations left farming. Their land and equipment was taken by the bank, bought up by expanding farmers, or laid fallow.
Butz laid the groundwork for the consolidation of America’s agriculture while steamrolling the notion of diversified farmers selling to regional markets. Fast forward 40 years and you can see Butz’s legacy represented in the giant monocultures in the Midwest and West Coast farming communities. But one can’t place all the blame on Butz; policies that predate him are also responsible for the challenges facing beginning farmers today. For example, here’s a brief look at the role of agricultural subsidies.
Sustainable agriculture advocates often use the term “subsidies” as code for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing. I don’t agree. I think agricultural subsidies are a great idea, just not in their current iteration. The concept of rewarding good behavior with an economic incentive is a tried-and-true method of influencing behavior. Economic incentives in the form of subsidies for beginning farmers, for example, would be one good way to encourage 100,000 young people to invest their careers in agriculture. The problem with today’s agricultural subsidies is that they don’t incentivize a healthy, equitable food system.
Modern agricultural subsidies originated from the New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. American agriculture was already protected by trade tariffs; support in the form of subsidies enabled the government to set prices for commodity crops and create plans for destroying livestock during periods of oversupply.3 The government kept commodity crop farmers in business by providing them income support not to grow during times of oversupply. Initially, a tax on producers funded the subsidies, which were intended to be temporary.
The plan worked inasmuch as more farmers survived and food prices rose, but the trend of paying farmers not to produce certain crops took root. Since farm subsidies were and are geared toward commodity growers, America has since enjoyed an oversupply of corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice, as well as their highly processed byproducts such as high fructose corn syrup.
Today, farmers who don’t farm anything — and wealthy people who bought land that used to be farmed for commodity crops — receive large payments in the form of subsidies. The 2012 Farm Bill includes a subsidy portion for $30 billion, of which $5 billion are direct payments.
This system puts beginning farmers at a clear disadvantage for two reasons. First, farm payments drive up the price of land for beginning farmers. Agricultural land once productive with commodity crops is now valuable to landholders because it generates a profit even if uncultivated. Second, the government doesn’t provide subsidies to non-commodity growers, so farmers who don’t grow commodity crops don’t receive direct payments and are therefore less competitive.
It’s clear that today’s subsidy system supports large-scale farmers and is responsible for the mass production of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice — 92 percent of the commodity spending programs go to these five commodities. It’s also clear that beginning farmers are at a disadvantage as a result of agricultural subsidies.
But I don’t believe that subsidies are the reason more people haven’t started farming, so let’s put subsidies aside for a moment and revisit the reality facing beginning farmers today.
So You Want to be a Farmer…
It is now in vogue for recent college grads to take a farm apprenticeship or to volunteer at a local CSA to “get their hands dirty,” but I was a bit of an anomaly when I graduated and started farming. For eight months I lived on a mid-sized vegetable farm in southern Colorado with a friend. He and I provided the labor for an organic vegetable farm and for a hog and chili farm two miles down the road. Like many beginning farmers, we chose to work for someone else because we weren’t ready financially, mentally or physically to start our own farm.
Each week we took our products to a market an hour away to sell and trade what we could. Although the Western Slope of Colorado had a vibrant local agriculture community, southeastern Colorado lagged a bit behind: at the market we were the only vendors under 40 years old, and among the minority with four-year liberal arts degrees. The few market regulars were thrilled to see us each week but could not understand why we were “wasting” our time farming. By the time the winter rolled around, it was clear that both farms were enduring serious financial hardship. Our $7 per hour wage was no longer feasible for our employers, nor was the pork-for-work system we had going. Besides, I felt ready to live in a house with plumbing and a real stove, and to have health insurance. With no money and a car full of Mason jars with preserved fruits and vegetables, we relocated to Vermont to try again.
In Vermont, I spent six months on a highly diversified farm learning to build raised beds, dig deep trenches for water pipes, milk cows and make cheese. I lived in very comfortable apprentice housing with a thoughtful mentor at the ready. (The apprentice program I took part in was well-established and part of a much larger education operation). Although the farm life in Vermont was in many ways much easier than in Colorado — well-supported by a vibrant community of like-minded young farmers, and fun — I decided that I’d prefer to make a living supporting farmers in some way rather than farming myself. Furthermore, I noted immense differences between the farmers in Colorado and Vermont. Weather aside, it was clear that the Vermont farmers had something that the Colorado farmers didn’t.
Many of the farmers I met in Vermont were young — sometimes younger than I. They were fresh-faced, with business plans in hand. And a lot of them were succeeding. During my time in Vermont I got to know a lot of beginning farmers, producers, and entrepreneurs, and I spent a lot of time comparing Vermont to Colorado, and to my home state of Maine. Why was it cool to be a farmer in Vermont? How were so many of them able to make a living growing vegetables and making cheese? Why didn’t rural farmland across America buzz with the same excitement?
I will be the first to admit that Vermont is not representative of the norm — pastoral rolling hills dotted with red barns and Jersey cows are a dime a dozen — but it’s not just the agricultural history and landscape that draws so many beginning farmers. It took me several years to piece together the complexities of the system, but I came to understand that much of what enables the Vermont farmers to succeed is a support system composed of like-minded farmers, mentors and effective policy. I left Vermont after three and a half years for Cornell University to study how to design and implement policies to support beginning farmers across the country.
The View from the Hill
On April 14, 2011, Matt Starline, the owner of Starline Organics and member of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Agricultural Committee’s Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit to urge them to retain the Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct loan program. The FSA makes direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans to family-sized ranchers who cannot obtain commercial credit from a bank. The USDA website notes: “FSA loans are often provided to beginning farmers who cannot qualify for conventional loans because they have insufficient financial resources.”4
Starline is a beginning farmer from the Athens, Ohio area, and he runs a 50-acre diversified farm in the Appalachian foothills. “Diversified farm” means that instead of growing just one crop (such as corn), Starline grows many different types of vegetables, and has recently added livestock and grains. Risk aversion and biodiversity are two primary reasons for diversifying a farm. At the market level, if one crop fails you can fall back on the other to recoup at least a percentage of your investment. At the biophysical level, different crops deplete and replenish the soil in different ways; diversifying your crop can therefore reduce the dependency on inputs to maintain soil quality.
In his testimony, Starline stated that his farming practices are centered on sustainability.5 Reading through his testimony makes it clear he takes this seriously: Starline Organics employs natural gas to heat the greenhouses, spring water for irrigation, plant waste as pig feed, and rotational grazing. Starline currently has three separate Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) contracts, and is applying for an agricultural easement as a long-term insurance policy for moneys the farm receives. Starline says:
I think my story is indicative of the opportunities in today’s agriculture. Farming as a career choice is one of the most difficult occupations to enter. Limited access to land and markets, high input costs, and lack of sufficient support networks are major barriers to entry into agriculture. Yet the burgeoning local food movement and the growth in organics are just a couple of the trends that have more individuals and families interested in farming.6
Starline went on to say that he is $300,000 in debt, primarily from buying land, even though land is relatively cheap in his area and his expenses are relatively low compared with someone who would start on an average-sized conventional farm. A loan from a Farm Credit institution made his land purchase possible, and he is applying for a FSA loan for a cold-storage unit, with the goal of expanding products and market share. At the conclusion of his testimony, Starline urged the committee to retain the program so that other young and beginning farmers could overcome the “greatest hill to climb for a new beginning farmer”7: the initial start-up costs.
On the same day, Congress passed a final six-month continuing resolution (CR) that will fund the government through the end of the fiscal year. The CR cut $3 billion — 14 percent — of discretionary agriculture spending relative to the 2010 fiscal year levels. The bill reduces funding for the Farm Service Agency credit program by $433 million — a 27 percent cut in direct farm ownership loans that would have targeted beginning farmers.
Other cuts included $118 million for the Natural Resource Conservation Service funding, $64 million for Agricultural Research Service funding, $126 million for the National Institute for Food and Agriculture funding, and $504 million for the Women, Infants and Children feeding program — a cut that effectively eliminates reserves held for times of economic decline and high food prices. Finally, the CR entirely eliminated funding for ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service that provides information and other technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, extension agents, and educators.8
For urban farmers and rooftop gardeners, these cuts may not have much of an impact: they don’t affect seed prices, and demand in local urban markets will likely remain steady if not increase. But for farmers in rural areas, farmers who need a loan to buy land or who need technical assistance to help rid their crops of the season’s pests, these cuts matter. Matt Starline and farmers like him across the country will once again have to return to their business plans, shave off expenses and dig deeper to make farming a viable career choice.
Although these cuts are only stopgap measures, we aren’t likely to see much more pushback from the broader community because at this point it’s the 2012 Farm Bill that really matters.
Most people’s eyes glaze over when the Farm Bill is mentioned, so I’ll be brief. Here’s what you need to know: the Farm Bill (officially known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act) is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the U.S. government. It is an omnibus bill passed every four years, and it has enormous scope. The 2008 Farm Bill has 15 titles that cover a broad swath of agricultural and forestry issues, from commodities (income support for program crops) to rural development (funding for strategic planning, feasibility studies, and coordination activities across many government departments) to forestry (the U.S. Forest Service is housed in the USDA) and energy (funding for bio-refineries and bio-based products). The next Farm Bill cycle is in 2012, and the fight is already heating up.
The 2008 Farm Bill included a number of programs that were intended to benefit beginning farmers and ranchers, but it appears the USDA has fallen short on many of its promises:
First, there is a statutory Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, the sole purpose of which is to advise the Secretary on how the USDA can better serve beginning farmers through programs and policies. This committee’s actions, after never missing a year during the Clinton and Bush Administrations, have entirely stopped since President Obama took office.9
Second, the Office of Advocacy and Outreach for department-wide policy coordination for beginning farmer and minority issues, funded by the 2008 Farm Bill, has made very little progress in the past three years and is still in the process of hiring staff.10
Third, the pilot program for linking retiring and new farmers through federal guarantees of private land contracts was converted to a federal program, but the USDA has yet to implement the program.11
Fourth, the USDA recently funded the Conservation Reserve Program Transition-Incentive Program (CRP-TIP), which provides incentives for CRP contract holders who do not plan to return to farming to sell or lease their land to beginning or minority farmers. This program necessitates an action plan for promotion and outreach.12
Making good on these pledges would be a good place for Secretary Vilsack to start laying the groundwork for his 100,000 new farmers. What could the 2012 Farm Bill do for beginning farmers? Here are a few ideas championed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and many beginning farmers across the country:
• Eliminate the $5 billion in direct agricultural payments. The elimination of direct payment subsidies would not only help level the playing field for beginning farmers but could also free up money to go toward other useful programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
• Eliminate farm payment cuts to wealthy farmers and landowners. If the USDA lowered the bar for payment cuts from $750,000 to $500,000 for people generating on-farm income, and from $500,000 to $250,000 for off-farm income, an estimated $2.5 billion would be saved over 10 years. This would directly benefit beginning farmers by freeing up farmland: with big payments, many wealthy people use farmland as an investment strategy. This drives up the price of land, making the land nearly inaccessible to most beginning farmers. An even better option is the proposal by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who calls for a hard cap on payments to an individual with a maximum at $250,000 (this has failed to pass the Senate).
• Dedicate $15 million mandatory annual funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). This is a competitive-grants program that supports partnerships and collaborations led by or including community-based organizations and NGOs with expertise in beginning farmer training and outreach.
• Establish and provide annual mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts Pilot Program (BFRIDA). This program supports financial training and matched savings accounts to help beginning farmers and ranchers with limited means finance their agricultural operations. BFRIDA was funded in the 2008 Farm Bill but requires Congress-designated funds in the annual appropriations bill.
• Provide a conservation funding ‘set aside’ for beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers. This provision would mandate 10 percent of all conservation program funds be set aside for the first four months of a year to be accessed by beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers. After the four-month period, the money would become accessible to all producers. When encouraged up-front, this type of investment can foster long-term environmental stewardship.
Unfortunately, none of the above ideas has managed to gain a toehold in the Senate. The agribusiness lobby is one of the strongest in the country, and Corn Belt constituents make sure their voices are heard loud and clear for every committee vote.
Given the previous failures to alter America’s agricultural policy in favor of beginning farmers, a more important question might be: is federal policy the best tool for supporting beginning farmers? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, but it is clear that the rationale for market intervention exists.
An undersupply of farmers means an undersupply of food. This, in the context of high consumer demand (everybody eats, after all), is as clear a market failure as any. It is the role of the public sector to provide the infrastructure and information for the free market to function properly. At the very base level, this means taking the appropriate policy steps to ensure that beginning farmers across America have access to the tools necessary to plant their seeds.
Perhaps the lack of government support for beginning farmers to date can be chalked up to a lack of innovation. Could it be that the government hasn’t decided on the best way to recruit 100,000 farmers? If so, they need to look no further than their own backyards for help.
Linking Local Innovation to National Policy
In communities everywhere, non-governmental organizations are stepping up to provide invaluable services, partnerships, education and community to beginning farmers. Here is a short list of inspiring programs, services and change-makers:
• Land link services. Linking beginning farmers to landowners is an excellent way to get beginning farmers on the land. Organizations across the country provide these services at little to no cost. Examples: the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska; Landlink Vermont in Vermont.
• Technical assistance. Knowing where to look for help is often a challenge for beginning farmers. Examples: many Land Grant Universities provide extension services to small and medium sized farms; The Northeast Organic Farm Association (NOFA) state offices.
• Business planning and farm viability assessments. Creating a business plan can be daunting. Many agriculture-based organizations now offer support in the form of financial planning assistance. Examples: Vermont Farm Viability Program; Intervale Foundation in Vermont.
• Education and outreach. Farm schools and other beginning-farmer trainings are cropping up across the nation. From one-day seminars to semester-long courses to year-long apprenticeships, these opportunities impart important skills and help to create community among new farmers. Examples: Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Course in California; the Groundswell Center for Food and Farming in New York.
• Farm incubators. Opportunities to pilot a farm business can mean the difference between success and failure for beginning farmers. Often, incubators offer the opportunity to share equipment, knowledge, and labor. In urban spaces, community gardens can provide beginning farmers with helpful hands-on experience. Examples: Intervale Center in Vermont; ALBA in California; GrowNYC in New York.
• Mobilizing the next generation. Organizations like FoodCorps and the Greenhorns have been working hard at establishing the infrastructure to recruit, train, and support aspiring farmers. There is an increasing variety of media dedicated to the food movement. Example: www.CivilEats.com.
• Expanding markets for regional food. Farmers only make money if someone wants to eat their food. Farmers markets and CSAs are an excellent start, but if we want to get serious about supporting beginning farmers, we need to do a better job of ensuring market channels and physical infrastructure for small and medium-sized farms. This will require addressing planning and zoning challenges for food processing, transportation, distribution and storage at the regional level and educating wholesale distributors and buyers on how to buy and receive foods from their local food shed.
Surely it is this type of support that has farmers like Tyler and Alicia Jones leaving the comfort of a biweekly salary and benefits for the uncharted territory of windrows and laying hens. The government would do well to take a cue from the hard work and determination of its citizenry, a small percentage of whom seem to be saying, in the face of all odds, “Come hell or high water, we are going to grow our country food.”
Although it makes me nostalgic to see young, robust farmers full of aspiration in major U.S. newspapers, what I really want to see is the commitment from our government to these heroes. While I fully support the “do-it-yourself” attitude embraced by America’s new generation of farmers and producers, I’m afraid they won’t succeed without some very powerful policy backing. What these young farmers need is their government to pick up a shovel and stand by their sides.
1 (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2010)
2 (USDA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, 2011)
3 (Sumner, 2008)
4 (USDA, Farm Service Agency, 2011)
5 (Starline, 2011)
6 (Starline, 2011)
7 (Starline, 2011)
8 (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2011)
9 (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2010)
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. (2010, July 1). Vilsack: Farm Bill Should Emphasize Beginning Farmers . Washington, D.C, USA.
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. (2011, April 15). National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Retrieved May 8, 2011, from Congress Passes FY 2011 Budget, Cuts Billions from Agriculture: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/congress-passes-final-fy11-cr/
Starline, M. (2011, April 14). Testimony of Matt Starline Farmer, Starline Organics and Member, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association to the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, and Credit Committee on Agriculture U.S. House of Representatives at the credit oversight. Washington, DC, Virginia, USA.
Sumner, D. A. (2008). Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved May 8, 2011, from The Concise Encycolpedia of Economics: Agricultural Subsidy Programs: http://www.econlib.org/library/ Enc/AgriculturalSubsidyPrograms.html
USDA. (2009). 2007 Census of Agriculture UNITED STATES Summary and State Data. United States Department of Agriculture.
USDA. (2011, March 9). Farm Service Agency. Retrieved May 8, 2011, from Farm Loan Programs: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/webapp?area=home&subject=fmlp&topic=landing
USDA. (2011, April 26). National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Retrieved April 15, 2011, from Grants: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/fo/beginningfarmerandrancher.cfm