Having grown up a country kid in the “corn belt,” I have a pretty solid idea of what a traditional farming conference looks like, and trust me, my fellow millennials aren’t exactly lining up to attend. The usual farming crowd in Kansas includes older men and a few women gathered around wildly expensive farming equipment, discussing the application of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides (components of farming I’d rather avoid). Chances are, the event will be partially sponsored by Monsanto or Cargill, and if I ask about organic practices I’ll feel frowned upon as an “idealist who doesn’t care about feeding the world.” Put simply, it’s not my kind of party.
The fact that the traditional farming community isn’t enticing to new farmers with alternative ideas is unfortunate, especially when one considers that the median age for farmers and ranchers in the U.S. is 58 years old, and getting older by the year. We desperately need a new generation of farmers, and as climate change brings drought and other complications, we need those farmers to be intelligent and flexible. New farmers, however, need resources and trusted mentors to succeed, and those can be hard to find. Luckily, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) has stepped up to the challenge, and their motivated crew is actively working to provide young farmers with fertile ground and seeds of change.
Similar to organizations like The Sierra Club, the NYFC is a national organization with chapters in each state. “Our chapters are local organizing hubs, completely run by young farmer-leaders,” explains the organization’s national field director, Sophie Ackoff. “So far, the organization has boots on the ground in 26 states and growing.” (To see if your state is on the list – and to start a local chapter if not – check out the Young Farmers website.)
In addition to forming local chapters that support farmer collaboration, the NYFC tackles agricultural issues on a national level. Their action for student loan debt forgiveness for new farmers seems particularly impactful. The coalition believes that farmers — like nurses, teachers, government employees and non-profit workers — should qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. When college graduates are stuck paying off debt, it’s nearly impossible to scrape together the necessary funds to start a small farm or business.
“Because our coalition is run by young farmers, for young farmers, our campaigns truly resonate with our constituency,” explains Ackoff. “From fighting for funding for farmer-training programs in the Farm Bill, to working with the Farm Service Agency to establish the micro-loan program, to taking on the major barrier of student loan debt forgiveness for beginning farmers, the NYFC is focused on the needs of first-career farmers.”
While the National Young Farmers Coalition is composed of many young, beginning farmers, there are also a number of established farmer mentors, food advocates and conscious consumers in the field. The coalition uses the word “young” to grab the attention of policy makers, but the resources they provide can benefit all beginning farmers, from the first-year apprentice to the mid-life career change. The coalition has done a fantastic job of providing time-tested knowledge in a format that resonates with a tech-savvy crowd, including YouTube videos, an easy-to-use and well-organized website, an active social media presence, and more.
Farmers that are particularly in need of these resources and knowledgeable mentors are those located in regions dominated by industrial agriculture, including much of the Midwest. One of the NYFC’s many success stories includes the formation of its Missouri Chapter. Four years ago, a group of young farmers outside of Columbia, Mo., decided they wanted to foster collaboration instead of competition among small farmers. Now, they have a thriving community that meets monthly for potlucks and “crop mobs,” events that bring together a number of farmers to tackle a large project.
I wanted to see the Missouri success story for myself, so when I heard that the Missouri chapter would be hosting a full-day workshop led by Canadian market gardener and author Jean-Martin Fortier, I jumped in the car and drove the three hours to Columbia.
The NYFC event in Columbia was wildly different from the traditional farming conferences seen in the Midwest. From the second I walked through the doors of the event, I felt like I’d “found my tribe.” The median age of the crowd was about 30, roughly the same age as the presenter and the chapter leaders. The crowd was buzzing with anticipation and people were hugging each other and introducing new friends. I sat next to a man who was in the process of converting an old industrial slaughterhouse into an organic mushroom farm, and I had the privilege of getting to know MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogger Crystal Stevens, who became a fast friend. I was charmed by the grandfather/grandson duo who sat in front of me; a symbol of the next farming generation learning from the current one, all while enjoying an environment that was comfortable to both.
When Jean-Martin’s presentation began, the hushed crowd became focused with an intensity that’s only found with genuine interest and respect. Jean-Martin’s book, The Market Gardener, is quickly becoming the go-to manual for beginning small farmers who want to make a living (and a good one, at that) off their property. His overall message is that instead of planting monocrops on a huge swath of land, grow a variety of intensively-planted crops on about 2 acres. By saving money on huge up-front investments, such as land and four-wheeled tractors, farming becomes a realistic career choice for those who are rich in passion, but not as blessed in start-up capital.
Jean-Martin showed pictures of his successful market farm, and in his endearing French-Canadian accent he explained how to pick the most efficient hand tools and two-wheeled tractor implements, plan a crop calendar, market produce, and have fun in the process. The event felt less like a somber conference and more like the rumbling of a movement. Jean-Martin summed it all up when he said, “A lot of us want to farm small because we understand the economics of bigger farms. That’s the revolution we’re in. Farming is positive and hands-on. Rather than talking about something, you’re doing it – and the people involved are humble.” For the attendees of Jean-Martin’s workshop, farming is clearly more than a career choice; it’s a lifestyle that they’re proud of.
Between the political and organizing power of the NYFC, and mentors like Jean-Martin Fortier, I feel hopeful that our next generation of farmers will find success, despite the struggles that a changing climate and growing population present. Sophie Ackoff and members of the NYFC also feel confident that things are going well, “It's incredible what happens when young farmers come together. What starts off as a social network quickly turns into a business network capable of tackling the challenges young farmers face starting out. It may seem like a lot of work, but if you assemble a solid team, it can happen quite organically.”
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