When it comes to farming in a way that improves the land instead of degrading it, my sense is that a new crossroads is appearing. A minor one rather, that pits capital and/or land-rich would-be farmers against those who have-not. Access to land and capital are not the only things that stand in the way of starting a new farm. Time is a third element that always seems to be forgotten.
With the average age of farmers pushing 60 it’s not as though we have unlimited time to train a new generation to replace them – a generation that is generally not even solvent enough to purchase bare land at more than $5000 per acre (if they’re lucky enough to find it), not including everything else required to farm. Then add to these challenges the fact that it takes a minimum of 3-5 years experience to begin to farm moderately well.
In the quest to develop Good Food markets that can offer an alternative to industrial food markets it’s essential to incubate new farm start-ups. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation defines Good Food as food that is healthy, sustainable, fair and affordable. However, we should be careful to be realistic in how we measure the success of our efforts to recreate a local food system with an emphasis on the production of Good Food.
Are we consistently giving a younger generation the tools and capital to start farming sooner, or are most of our perceived “new farms” made up of old ones switching over to more natural methods of farming? Are the most successful farms actually rebranded multi-generational farms originally started by forward-thinking relatives? While there is no doubt they are essential, they are not new farms, and they tend to be managed by already aging farmers – not 20-and 30-somethings. Although this segment of farms has tremendous value in their training capacity, no amount of training will overcome a lack of access to the other half of farming – good land, capital and the time to transform it.
Is it reasonable to expect a younger generation who wants to farm to go into massive debt, or to spend the first 10-20 years of their careers earning corporate wages so they might have the option retire on a farm? While we subsidize the creation of new troops to overcome more immediate threats, we’re still reluctant to provide resources to that same generation willing to improve our soil base and feed us later in life. Putting our money where our mouths are means that both creative finance and philanthropy will be needed to start new farms. Without both we risk the continued degradation of true farming success which depends on an unbroken multi-generational transfer of the farming baton.
One fledgling organization trying to change this paradigm while facilitating the education of new farmers is the Farmer EducationResource Network (FERN).