2012 Young Farmers Conference
To be a young farmer is to be part of a movement with shared values about sustainable agriculture rather than being defined by an age bracket.
A few facts lend insight into the surging interest in farming among young Americans and what is helping animate this movement.
- While the average age of U.S. farmers today is 57, the average age of organic farmers is 34.
- America loses 2 acres of farmland per minute.
- Corporate control over food and agricultural production has intensified: today, 75% of our food is produced by only 192,000 farmers, out of a total of 2.2 million farmers.
- The planet’s ecological capital has eroded severely: 25% of land has been degraded.
Young farmers are beginning farmers, new to the field—some quite literally. They seek experience and hunger for knowledge. They are in need of capital and land and other tangible resources to make their journey practical and successful. They are idealistic, motivated by the desire to create a more equitable, regional, diverse and sustainable food system that fosters community and human and environmental health. They are ambitious and innovative. They are both back-to-the-land and high-tech. Feet on the ground, head in the sky, they live simply but want to change the world.
They are the future of farming.
The 2012 Young Farmers Conference, to be held December 12 – 14 at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, is convening some 250 young and beginning farmers from 28 states and two countries for intensive workshops, demonstrations, business courses, conversations and dancing. Part of the Center’s Growing Farmers Initiative, the conference is unique in scope and reach, bringing together thought leaders, creative practitioners and business experts in the sustainable agriculture movement with farmers eager for ideas, information and connection.
Young and beginning farmers attend to talk about improvements they want to make to their farms and, for most, dream about the type of farm they hope to have one day. They gather to share ideas, business models, tools and experiences that can help them meet the challenges of small-scale farming.
A study conducted in 2011 by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition not only quantifies those challenges but gives voice to the frustrations and fears of the farmers dealing with them. Lindsey Lusher Shute started the coalition in 2011 to help define the issues confronting this generation of young farmers and bring about the policy changes needed to give them a leg up. In a nationwide survey of 1,000 farmers, Lindsey found that some of the top barriers impeding them are lack of capital, credit and land.
The annual Young Farmers Conference, together with Stone Barns Center’s Growing Farmers Initiative, is designed to give beginning farmers the resources and information they need to overcome these hurdles, as well as be a vital forum for education and training.
Problem: Lack of Capital and Access to Credit. Finding the money to start a farming operation can be daunting. Inputs are expensive and the margins are slim. Of the farmers surveyed by the National Young Farmers Coalition, 78% ranked “lack of capital” as their top challenge. Yes, there are loans available from the USDA Farm Service Agency, but current rules are too restrictive, small loans are hard to secure and loans can take a long time to process. Financial straits frequently force beginning farmers to work second jobs: 73% report they rely on off-farm income to make ends meet. This year, the Young Farmers Conference is offering a Business Planning Track—a five-workshop series focused on establishing systems to promote efficiency and help farmers find their market niche.
Problem: Access to Land. According to the survey, approximately 78% of beginning farmers did not grow up on a farm. Without inheriting farmland, the prospect of buying land, and at affordable prices, can be unattainable for many, especially for those in areas with high real estate prices. Several conference workshops will explore the access to land issue from different angles, from urban farming to farm ownership.
Problem: the Need for Education and Training. All beginning farmers need hands-on training—both technical and practical. They need to learn techniques and ideas from experienced farmers and have an opportunity to put them to work. The survey cited farm apprenticeships as one of the things that currently is working—and arguably one of the things that Stone Barns Center does best for young farmers, with its dozens of apprenticeships offered annually. As the only national annual conference of its size and scope, Stone Barns Center’s Young Farmers Conference is leading the way in educating and convening young farmers. And it offered up education and practical courses in spades: backyard beekeeping, the basics of soil science, pasture-raised laying hens, greenhouse management, sheep-handling skills, poultry-processing, crop rotation, whole-animal butchering—just to name a few.
More for farmers at virtualgrange.org!