By Debbi Snook
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/1/16
Lindsey Lusher Shute returns to Ohio next weekend to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Granville. She farms with her husband, who is a self-taught grower, and she now leads the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group that hopes to make the career of farming more possible for more people. She answered a few questions and a follow-up by email this week.
This year’s OEFFA conference will include a free session (with registration by Feb. 7) that hopes to match young farmers with landowners seeking their skills.
Tell us about your ties to Ohio and Ohio farming.
My earliest and most joyful childhood memories are of our Ohio farm in the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio. My grandfather Charles Lusher was a minister, but always considered himself a farmer. He grew the sweetest melon, and my grandmother served halves of it with vanilla ice cream in the middle and salt on top. My grandmother’s father, Henry Clerkus Sheets, was the last farmer in our family. Henry produced dairy, pork and tobacco, but all of his children moved on to other careers.
I grew up near Columbus, where my dad was a public school teacher and my mother a nurse. Other than visits to my grandfather’s farm, the state fair and an overly shaded vegetable plot, I had little exposure to farm life.
Why did you become a farmer?
I became a farmer because I fell in love with one. My husband Ben and I met in New York City, where we built a community garden in Brooklyn. He had just returned from a farming apprenticeship in Oregon and eventually decided to start his own farm upstate. I was so inspired by Ben and the innovative and entrepreneurial farmers in the region that I eventually moved up. But in all honesty, outside of occasional chores, I do very little farming these days. With the National Young Farmers Coalition and our girls at home, the farming is left to Ben and our incredible crew.
What is your farming philosophy?
Farming is public service. That means nurturing our land; protecting our water; respecting our workers; and growing the best food for our communities.
Why is there a shortage of farmers?
For several generations, we have been losing young people in agriculture. With farm incomes declining and better prospects elsewhere, many farm families encouraged their kids to look to other careers.
The good food movement has reversed this trend somewhat, by bringing kids back to the farm as well as inspiring thousands of newcomers, but structural obstacles get in the way. With land prices on the rise, student debt and market challenges, it’s extremely difficult for many young people to get started and succeed in agriculture.
Who should be a farmer?
Everyone. If we are going to save our farmer population, every kid should contemplate a farm career. Even growing up here in Ohio, no one ever talked to me about the possibility of becoming a farmer. That’s no good. Farming is the opportunity to make a decent income, serve a community, be your own boss and get outside. Kids should put ‘farmer’ right up there on their lists with doctor, teacher and President of the United States.
What do you mean by “decent” income? What about those declining farm wages?
With affordable land, access to capital, appropriate scale and strong demand, a farmer can make a good living. The National Young Farmers Coalition believes that farmers should be in the position to support themselves and their families while farming full-time.
What’s the best thing government can do to create more farms?
Protect the affordability of farmland. One of the most difficult obstacles for young farmers is finding affordable farmland, and the problem is only growing worse. Governments can take action by conserving farmland with working farm easements and creating new tax incentives to help transition land.
What’s the best thing consumers can do to help create more farms?
We’ve all heard it a million times, but buy local. Where I live here in New York, it’s estimated that we only purchase 2 percent of our food from local sources. If demand increases, there will be more farms. Consumers can create demand by making the trip to their local farmers market, selecting locally grown at the grocery store, joining a CSA, and demanding that schools and institutions buy from farmers. Consumers are already driving change, but they can do much more.