By Gary Brock, Rural Life Today, 3/4/16
GRANVILLE – Lindsey Lusher Shute remembers fondly her time spent as a child on her grandparents’ farm near Gallipolis on the Ohio River.
It was a farm of more than 150 acres passed down for generations.
“I have so many happy memories. It is where I grew my love for agriculture,” she told an audience of more than a thousand at the Feb. 13 Ohio Environmental Food and Farm Association annual conference in Granville. She was the organization’s keynote speaker.
“This farm is what brought our family together,” she said.
But that farm isn’t the same today, and is now less than 10 acres.
Co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group with 30 chapters in 29 states, she told the audience that the most endangered group of workers in America today is the young farmer.
Why endangered? She said young farmers face huge obstacles of personal debt, high cost of farmland and lack of resources to grow their farms. But she hopes spreading the word through her organization can reverse the decline in young people going into farming.
“Our mission is to create a viable career path for young people in agriculture. This means people getting into farming as their first career. It is important for young people in their 20s and younger to know that there is a career path for them,” she said.
“If your call is to farm at an early age, you shouldn’t have to have another career in order to farm. That is not sustainable.”
Shute said beginning farmers are the future of Ohio agriculture, but they face many hurdles. “Beginning farmers are a rare bread,” she pointed out.
She said farmers make up 1 to 2 percent of the American population. “But only one tenth of one percent of the American population is made up of farmers making a living on the farm earning, say, more than $50,000 income on the farm.”
Shute added that if you are looking for a young farmer, say in the under 35 age category, you are down to 36,000 Americans. “We are 319 million Americans looking at 36,000 young American farmers to steward the future of the food system of the United States. Let me tell you — that’s a problem.”
In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack challenged America to bring 100,000 new farmers to the land. “We’re going to fall short of that goal,” she said. “Even the smartest, most experienced young farmers are running into obstacles too big to carry on.” In the last two census of agriculture, 2007 and 2012, the farming population fell by about 90,000 farm operators, she pointed out.
She said the need for American farmers has never been greater. “We as farmers steward about 1 billion acres of land – about half the land area of America. and about 63 percent of that land is farmed by farmers age 55 and older. So you can say that at least that much land in the next 30 years is going to need to be transitioned to another farmer,” she said.
“What we will see in the future is more consolidation of farms, more development of farmland, fallow land and farm insecurity,” Shute warned.
Getting new farmers to join in this career is no small task. Some are hanging on, she said, but many are going into other careers, especially those who are getting into the age when they would like to have kids, or save for retirement.
“The average small scale farmer is barely surviving. If we as a farm community want to succeed and bring new farmers into our fold, we have to find ways to deal with these issues,” she cautioned.
One of the biggest obstacles involves student loan debt. What does she believe can be done to solve this problem?
Her group’s proposal is to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This is an existing program designed to help those wanting in careers such as teaching and nursing by having their debt forgiven. “We would like to have farmers added to that list of public servants that quality for this list of loan forgiveness,” she said, to a round of load and enthusiastic applause from those in attendance.
She said her group has a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to add the “farming” category to the list of public service jobs. “It is a bipartisan supported bill,” she said. She urged people to call Sen. Rob Portman and members of Congress to support this proposal.
“My philosophy of farming is that farming is a public service. That is why all of you are here today. You are here because you believe that what you are doing on your farm is contributing positively to the community, you are feeding people, you are helping the soil, protecting the air and clean water,” she said.
Shute said in a recent survey, 78 percent of young farmers said they struggle getting capital. Student indebtedness is a major part of this. Students who graduated in 2008 from college and went into agriculture had an average of $11,000 in college debt four years later. “It is difficult to farm and pay back this debt at the same time. Student loans are holding back all young Americans across the board, not just young farmers. It becomes even more difficult for young farmers because we are trying to leverage capital to buy land. If we let student debt stand in the way of young people getting into farming careers, we will have very few farmers. We cannot ignore this problem.”
Another obstacle for young farmers, she said, is land access. “The reason our group was founded was over the issue of land access. The National Young Farmers Coalition came out of this need for young farmers to advocate for ourselves on such core issues as access to land.
Farm prices have been rising since the 1980s. The amount of farm land has been decreasing. Growing up here I have seen this development. This has put a tremendous amount of pressure on farmers to sell their land. Expanding conservation land trusts – working farm easements – for farms, would help make them more affordable, she said. The amount for that was cut in half in the last farm bill. “I want to remind you that it comes up for renewal in 2018.
“We need to say that in the next Farm Bill, this land conservation funding is important to us. The land needs to be affordable to farmers. We will have quite a lot of work to do.”
Shute said one of her favorite sayings is: We don’t need mass production; we need production by the masses. “To me, that is exactly right. The nation desperately needs more young farmers. New farmers to step into the shoes of our family farmers, we need family farmers who will love the land, bring fresh food to the market, build local food securities and strengthen the local economy. It is up to all of us to pass on this desire for farming.”
Shute said that she is very hopeful for the future of farming in what “I see in the young farmers in this audience and those in Ohio. There is great potential in this room.”
Shute and her partner now operate an upstate New York organic vegetable farm. They provide food to a 900-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
The second speaker at the conference was John Ikerd, one of the nation’s leading agriculture economists. He grew up on a Missouri dairy farm.
In his speech before the OEFFA audience, Ikerd discussed how the growing demand by consumers and concerns about the nation’s food system are creating opportunities for organic farmers to create “lasting and fundamental change.”He discussed the growing “good food revolution” in America and emphasized how this will impact young American farmers in the future.
More than 70 workshops
Over the weekend of the 37th annual conference, themed “Growing Right by Nature,” there were more than 70 workshops and training sessions held at the Granville High School complex. They included session on pesticide drift concerns, aquaponding in Ohio, agritourism, vegetable gardening, creating income from an urban homestead, advocacy and sustainable farming and cover crops.
Rural Life Today will focus on some of these training session in our next edition.
In addition to the training sessions, there was a trade show for guests with more than 100 vendors and organizations in the exhibit hall.
OEFFA works for sustainable farming and also is licensed to certify organic farms. OEFFA has more than 3,800 members across all 88 Ohio counties.