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 II

New Farmers Face Unique Challenges, Part II

In the News

May 29, 2011

Beginning farmers face unique challenges, including high start up costs and a lack of land availability, that make breaking into agriculture extremely hard. However, many dynamic young farmers are facing these obstacles with fortitude and an inspired approach to the business. A new generation of farmers is emerging with innovative ideas and a love for one of America’s oldest pastimes.

Ben LaCross, 31, is one such farmer. He grows tart cherries, sweet cherries and apples on his 750-acre farm in Cedar, Michigan. As a second-generation cherry farmer, LaCross had the benefit of being able to begin farming full time because his family had been growing fruit for 30 years. There was a chance for him to come back and join the family farm after college, and he welcomed opportunity.

“It can be challenging for young farmers to break into farming for a variety of reasons. Farming, by nature, is a capital-intensive business. The upfront costs of land, equipment, seed, livestock, feed and fertilizer, can be daunting. The payout schedules for harvested crops can be spread out over the course of the following 12 months after harvest. That cash flow bottleneck makes it hard for anyone just to jump into farming,” says LaCross.

Inheriting the business is one common way that young farmers move into agriculture. LaCross points out that other young farmers have looked for creative ways to get a start in farming, like working for farms and gradually deferring salary for equity. They’ve also leased operation from returning farmers, and deferred the land costs for several years down the road.

“As older farmers retire, many young farmers see opportunity. They may be able to rent or lease that retiring farmer’s land and equipment, often times getting terms that are more compatible with the farm’s finances than traditional banks offer. Young farmers understand that consumer demand is increasing for many agricultural commodities, and they see opportunity in growing their farms. They can utilize economies of scale to become more efficient farmers, and with that scale, they may be able to grow local jobs, either within their families, or by hiring employees,” says LaCross.

Bob Comis, 38, is another young farmer making strides in agriculture. Comis did not grow up on a farm, and instead came to farming after doing a lot of research on the care of feed-lot animals and the importance of humane treatment and care. He then bought a farm and began to raise animals in this manner. Together with his wife, Jen, Comis raises pigs and sheep on his Stony Brook Farm near Schoharie, New York.

One of the real dangers young farmers face, says Comis, is the continued consolidation and concentration of farming, especially in commodity country. Commodity farms, in order to be profitable on razor thin margins, or via subsidies, says Comis, continue to get bigger and bigger, and because they are well-established and usually have good cash flow, they are able to secure capital for expansion, which means that already large farms are gobbling up newly available farmland. This presents a tremendous barrier to both the acquisition of new land and the expansion of the current land base of young farmers.

“One way to circumvent this pattern,” says Comis, “is to make an effort to enter into relationships with farmers on the brink of retirement before they retire. In this ‘land link’ model, young farmers hook up with these older farmers and make arrangements for the transfer of land ownership upon retirement of the older farmer at a fair price. This takes a proactive attitude on the part of the young farmer and older farmers that are willing to forgo the convenience, and often higher price, of selling out to the ever-expanding larger farms.”

Assuming a young farmer has gotten access to land and capital enough to get the farm started, Comis says that breaking into the business is not as hard as it seems, especially in the non-commodity, niche markets. There seems to be a bias in the niche markets towards young farmers, he says.

“Also, a lot of the niche, non-commodity buyers are themselves young – young butchers, young chefs, young artisan producers, young farmers’ market goers, CSA shareholders, and so on. There is of course the ‘old guard’ that was doing this many decades before it became a media darling, in whose footsteps we are all gratefully traveling,” says Comis.

Comis says that for new farmers, finding mentors is key. For his part, Comis proactively reached out to farmers in his community that were doing things that he thought were interesting. He made cold calls, introduced himself, explained his plans and tried to get himself invited out for a visit – usually successfully. At any given time over the past six years, Comis has had two to four mentors that he could call on, and that has been invaluable to his business.

Indeed, networking is a vital part of farming today, and social networking in particular is one area where young farmers excel. According to the American Farm Bureau’s 2010 Young Farmers and Ranchers Survey, nearly 99% of farmers and ranchers aged 18 to 35 have access to and use the Internet, and nearly three quarters of those surveyed have a Facebook page. The goal of all this increased social media traffic is to reach out to the public about agriculture.

“Farmers understand that they must communicate with the consumers who buy the crops they grow. Social media is a new, effective tool we can use to tell the story of our farms to our customers,” says LaCross.

Comis agrees. “Leveraging social media is central to the business models of many young farmers. These media serve as marketing, community-building, and mentorship tools.”

LaCross serves on the American Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee. Recently, they partnered with the USDA to put on the first ever “Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Conference.” By all accounts, this conference was a success, says LaCross, bringing together new and beginning farmers and ranchers. These new farmers were able to network with over 880 young farmers and ranchers from around the nation and exchange ideas.

Ultimately, the goal of these kinds of interactions is to connect new farmers and help prepare them for the trials that lie ahead – and there will be many. But even with the expected challenges, LaCross and Comis agree that the job is worth it, and they are both extremely optimistic about their future prospects – and those of up and coming farmers.

“The greatest challenge as a farmer is taking the leap of faith and planting a seed in the spring, with hopes that Mother Nature will provide the perfect amount of sun and rain to grow a beautiful crop. The greatest reward is to be able to have my kids come out to the farm and work alongside me. If farming is something they would like to make a career out of, I hope that they will have the opportunity to do so,” says LaCross.

Comis adds, “It is extremely rewarding when you encounter people who are just absolutely thrilled by what you are doing. I cannot tell you how many times I have talked to people who are brimming full, gushing over, with praise for me for doing what I am doing and excited about the quality of the meat that comes from the animals that I raise. It is deeply affirmative, and thinking about those people has gotten me through the mud and the muck – and the daily grind – more than once.”

The April 2011 issue of Food, Nutrition & Science from The Lempert Report featured Part I of our story, which discussed the growing young and new farmer movement.Read it here.