The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

New Farmers Face Unique Challenges, Part I

New Farmers Face Unique Challenges, Part I

In the News

April 24, 2011

New farmers account for about 10 percent of the value of domestic production, according to a report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. While their share of production varies significantly by agricultural commodity, principal operators that are beginning farmers make up a fifth of all farms in the U.S. But beginning farmers often face obstacles that can make it difficult for them to stick with farming for the long haul.

Since 1992, USDA has provided special assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers, due to congressional concern about the increasing age of U.S. farmers and ranchers. The average age of principal farm operators in 2007 was 57, compared with an average of 50 years in 1978. Farmers over 55 own more than half of the country’s farmland, and approximately a third of beginning farmers are also 55 and older.

However, young farmers are starting to make their mark as well. In 2002, there were 106,097 farmers in the 25 to 34-age range; in 2007 that figure rose to 106,735. Though a small increase, at half a percent, it demonstrates that government-sponsored programs, like the one at Oregon State University (OSU), are helping new and young farmers stake their claim. The 2008 Farm Bill distributed $18 million to educate young growers across the country last year.

Dr. Garry Stephenson is Coordinator for the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University (OSU). He says that, for small farms, starting up is like starting any small business. Capital is a hard to come by. Also, since many new farmers do not have direct connections to a family farm, access to training may also be a challenge. Additionally, it is important to remember that much of the transfer of farmland will occur in multi-generation farms. This is another pathway into the business as a young farmer.

“The transfer of farmland in the coming decades will be a subtle but important process. It is an opportunity to expand and strengthen small and medium size family farms and reverse a long-standing trend toward fewer and larger farms. Also, in some regions farmland could be converted for development. There is an old saying that you can only sell the farm once. Having farmers ready to take over farmland will keep it producing crops instead of condos. Of course, having a system where farmers can make a good living is a fundamental part of this,” says Stephenson.

OSU’s successful beginning farmer education program is called Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management. Like their program, most programs across the country that are receiving government funds have a focus on the business aspects of farming to better prepare young farmers for managing stronger farm businesses. It is not just about growing a crop – though of course the crop matters too.

New farmers and ranchers face two primary obstacles – high startup costs and a lack of available land for purchase or rent. Since farmland is a fixed and critical input into agriculture, land costs can be high. In fact, the national average value of an acre of farm real estate is now in excess of $2,300. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the old conventional wisdom that “you have to marry it or inherit it” doesn’t necessarily apply to farming anymore. Many young farmers are willing to start small and bootstrap their way into farming.

Challenges for new farmers vary with geography. Access to land can be very difficult and expensive in some regions. New farmers in these regions depend on rented land until they can afford to purchase. There is a similar issue with mentors. In communities with a critical mass of farmers and farm business infrastructure (implement sales, farm suppliers, and so on) there are more opportunities for engaging more experienced individuals. On the other hand, in communities where competition between farms is high this may be harder.

On average, beginning farmers work on farms that are smaller than established farms – 174 acres compared with 461 acres. The most common way beginning farmers acquire land is to purchase it from a non-relative, rather than inherit it or receive it as a gift. Interestingly, new farmers are less likely than established farmers to rent farmland, and they are just as likely as established farmers to own all of the land they operate. The USDA considers a “beginning farmer” as one operated by a farmer who has operated a farm or ranch for 10 years or less.

Stephenson says that we will see continued growth in the numbers of young farmers and he expects to see more women and minority farmers among them. For many young farmers, having access to the tools to build their farm businesses will help with the growth in numbers. To this end, the OSU program facilitates networking between groups of beginning farmers and with more experienced farmers.

“The greatest challenges are the riskiness of starting a new enterprise and the incredibly long hours needed to make it successful. The big reward is creating something that is yours. To many, that is worth a lot more than a big paycheck working for someone else. Also, one of the good things about the time we live in is that most farmers and ranchers are held in high regard,” says Stephenson. “That may help make the long hours more satisfying.”

The May 2011 issue of Food, Nutrition & Science from The Lempert Report will feature Part II of our story, including interviews with two dynamic, young farmers that are making important strides in agriculture.