The young and the landless

The trials of farming

April 6, 2009

They’re not wearing overalls or brandishing pitchforks, but the young farmers who appear in the trailer for the documentary film “The Greenhorns” are the real thing. Their faces are sun-worn, the dirt under their fingernails is visible on camera, and they look like they’ve stopped between sweat-inducing tasks to share agricultural secrets with the audience.

The film’s director, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, 27, appears in the trailer several times, pushing open a farm gate, leading the camera into a greenhouse, and waxing poetic in a field of protected land.

Von Tscharner Fleming farms a small plot of land herself and believes that America’s young farmers, the subject of the documentary, can “feed us safe food, conserve valuable land, and reconstitute communities split apart by strip malls.”

severine von tscharner fleming
Severine von Tscharner Fleming

She speaks in sweeping, lyrical terms, but her visions of the future of American farming are firmly based in reality. “We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm,” she says.

Von Tscharner Fleming is also the principal voice behind much of the work of the Hudson Valley nonprofit, also named The Greenhorns, whose aim, she says, is to help amplify “the promising beginnings of an agricultural revival.”

Why an agricultural revival among young farmers? Well, our country’s farmers are getting older; nationwide, the percentage of principal farm operators younger than 35 has dropped from 15.9 percent in 1982 to 2.3 percent in 2007. And the average age of the American farmer has also risen; in 2007, it was a not-very-youthful 57.

According to the ecologist Richard Heinberg, the percentage of Americans who farm for a living has dropped from nearly 40 percent in 1900 to just about 1 percent in 2006. Which means that, as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, less than 1 million Americans are responsible for growing all the farm crops in the country.

In his essay "Fifty Million Farmers," Heinberg asks, “Who will be growing our food 20 years from now? With less oil and gas available, we will need far more knowledge and muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more people on the farm, than we have currently.”

Feeding our current population without fossil fuel, Heinberg calculates, could require as many as 50 million (or roughly one in 6) Americans to be somehow engaged in food production. That’s 25 times the current estimated number.

Michael Pollan is only slightly less prescriptive. Last October, in “Farmer in Chief,” his open letter to the country’s next president, Pollan wrote, “As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for ‘better’ jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories.

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“To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past, but as a matter of national security.”

Money and land — the two stumbling blocks

“Young farmers can be seen by land trusts, smart-growth advocates, and civic-enlivenment agencies as really positive players in maintaining livable cities, livable suburbs, and of course providing for sustainable food access to inner-city areas,” says von Tscharner Fleming. “And in the long term, we’re talking about reducing the energy costs of food.”

If you’re a young person eager to get into farming in the U.S. these days, you can choose between 68 different colleges and universities offering classes and degree programs in sustainable agriculture. Most established farms also offer on-the-job training. But even the hardest workers — those who manage to land positions as farm managers — rarely get paid enough to save the kind of capital it takes to get their own farms growing.

“It’s not impossible; the toughest nuts do succeed,” says von Tscharner Fleming. “There are certainly some farms that can pay a good salary, and private land stewards who can front the cost of land equipment. But it’s not by any means a predictable trajectory, like from high school to college to grad school to, say, medical school to internship to professional salary.”

Apart from low wages, the problems facing young farmers include the availability and the price of land. Good farmland is expensive on its own, but worth even more when it’s developed, meaning that what farmland does exist is disappearing. According to the American Farmland Trust, every year the U.S. loses roughly 1.2 million acres of agricultural land to development. That’s roughly 3,300 acres a day.

Land swaps — sometimes

When veteran farmers stop farming and want their land to remain farmland, there are a variety of federally and privately funded programs available to help them find new farmers interested in leasing or buying their land. For example, most states have FarmLink programs that serve as neutral third parties, facilitating the farming transition.

A hand-drawn invitiation by von Tscharner Fleming to a benefit barbecue for the film ‘The Greenhorns.’

In Ohio, a FarmLink program sets up “speed-dating” events where farmers looking to retire can meet multiple aspiring farmers. In many other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, FarmLink websites offer online listings for land and leasing opportunities.

Kendra Johnson is the Central Valley regional coordinator for California FarmLink. She ran a garden farm herself for several years, but was frustrated by the combination of long hours and minimal pay. So these days, Johnson spends her time pairing up retiring and new farmers. She says successful matches are less common than she’d like.

“I’ve watched a lot of people come and say they want to start a farm and maybe be introduced to a farm or a few, and then start to have the conversation and face a whole bunch of realities that maybe they knew about before but didn’t address,” says Johnson. Often, she says, affordable land is just too far away from urban markets, or a young farmer will do the math and realize she can’t make the income she wants from farming.

Johnson regularly encounters 20- and 30-somethings who’ve worked on multiple farms and graduated from programs like UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. “They’re educated, middle-class young people who are totally psyched about the sustainable-agriculture movement, but they’re not in a position to buy land yet,” says Johnson. “It’s really hard — and I learned this myself — to work your butt off farming without building equity.”

And the face of the American farmer is also changing. In his 50-million-farmers essay, Heinberg wrote, “The stereotypical American farmer is a middle-aged, Euro-American male, but the millions of new farmers in our future will have to include a broad mix of people, reflecting America’s increasing diversity. Already the fastest growth in farm operators in America is among female full-time farmers, as well as Hispanic, Asian, and Native American farm operators.”

In California’s Central Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, Johnson says these trends hold true as well. Instead of “Euro-Americans,” it’s often refugee immigrant farmers who are willing to farm on leased land, according to Johnson. These demographic changes have been aided, in part, by organizations like the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, which help migrant and low-wage farmworkers to become landowners. Between 1997 and 2002, for example, the nation saw a 51 percent increase in the number of principal farm operators of Hispanic heritage. By 2007, that number had grown another 10 percent.

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1. by lyndaellen on Apr 7, 2009 at 8:28 PM PDT

Great article, Twy. Now I’m pondering the relationship between more widespread home/landownership in 2009 versus 1900 (foreclosures notwithstanding) and the statistics about 40% of Americans in 1900 who farmed for a living. How many of them owned their own land or farm, and how do our expectations of ownership now influence how we think about farming?

2. by Walter Jeffries on Apr 9, 2009 at 11:41 AM PDT

Land is expensive. Especially where the good markets are for selling the products from the farm. Our solution was to draw circles on the map, 20 years ago, around our markets. Where the circles intersected out in a rural area we looked for land and found it off the beaten path. Trying to farm closer to our markets would have vastly increased our initial land purchase price and our annual real estate taxes as well as having to deal with more zoning. The negative is that we are off the beaten path so we do have to make weekly deliveries to those markets. Over all though it has been a lot cheaper being where we are than in a more populous area. The savings on our land taxes alone justify the cost of the delivery route driving. Being where we are we were able to afford to buy much more land than we could have gotten closer in. It’s all about trade offs.

3. by Fasenfest on Apr 11, 2009 at 7:55 AM PDT

Comprehensive article. Certainly solutions are difficult to imagine but good to know there is a generation and a movement out there imagining them.

I have often wondered about the model of farming as a way of self reliance vs. farming as a market opportunity. Even on a small scale (or particularly so), considering the marketing opportunities and requirements of farming seems so darn confounding. I’m wondering how many models of multi-family and inter- generational family farming operations there are out there; particularly those who attempt to produce most of what they themselves consume.

It’s a different model to be sure and not one that may be feasible anymore (particularly due to land costs) but yet I wonder whether the Mormons have something to show us. Odd, I know, but I’m thinking they are a pretty effective at creating small scale, closed-looped systems. Hell, ever take a look at their pantries? Blows my mind how much they grow, preserve and produce themselves. Seems like what they need is what they produce. And goodness knows, they got the numbers.

I’m assuming we would align that model to the cooperative system which, as your article suggests, is challenging. But I’m still thinking there is a model there to consider.

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