The National Agricultural Statistics Service analyzed data on beginning farmers from the 1982 through 2007 Census of Agriculture and issued a report called "New Farms, New Farm Operators"
The analysis includes a stark bar chart showing that the percentage of beginning farmers - those in their current farming operation for less than 10 years - has declined steadily and by more than 10 percent since 1982. We think of ourselves in the Northeast as leading the curve in farm start-ups, but in 2007 just 26 percent of all principal operators in the Northeast were considered beginners, which is lower than the South and the West and almost as dismal as the Midwest. The 2012 Agriculture Census may well uncover a brighter picture, but with more than half of all principal farm operators in the Northeast nearing (or exceeding) retirement age, we can and must do a better job of launching the next generation of farmers.
Even the most ardently cynical among us can't help but be inspired by this new generation of farmers who are determined to overcome enormous obstacles to call themselves a "farmer." They come from farm and nonfarm families, rural and urban backgrounds, directly from military service, university, or from second and even third careers. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the New England landscape, but they all remind us how a connection to farming has shaped or transformed our lives. Tess Brown-Lavoie, who grows food on vacant lots in Providence, R.I., had this to say at the 2011 New England Farmers Union (NEFU) annual convention in December:
"I learned to love this country on the farm. I learned to love this country as I dug my shovel into its dark earth. I sowed seeds into my country and harvested the abundances that grew from it. My stewardship of land is my greatest act of patriotism."
Brown-Lavoie described how her Sidewalk Ends Farm has benefitted from the technical assistance available through the National Farmers Union's Beginning Farmer Institute: "The Beginning Farmer Institute presented me with the opportunity to learn about the logistics of running a farm: management and leadership skills, and financial planning. It has made me interrogate the role of the farmer as an advocate and educator in my urban community, and more broadly as a resource for my political representatives. I have met a number of wonderful and hardworking people through the institute, and I share with them many struggles and aspirations, even with those outside of New England - those with nth generation wheat farms in Colorado or cattle ranches in Montana. Meeting them encourages me to clarify my place within the landscape of American agriculture, as an urban farmer with access to urban markets and populations. It also compels me to articulate and advocate for urban production interests in national and New England agriculture policy. We too are rebuilding local economies. We too are working towards greater food safety, food security and the health of our communities."
The Census data also provides some strong clues about the kinds of programs and policies that can best serve the next generation. Since 2002, new farms have been much less likely to specialize in commodity grain and oilseed production, and much more likely to engage in specialty crop (fruits, nuts and vegetables) and specialized animal production, mostly cattle. Thirty-six percent are women. These new farms accounted for 18 percent of farm sales, just 14 percent of government payments, 27 percent of organic sales and 24 percent of direct-to-consumer sales. Commodity title payments and crop insurance subsidies, which together account for about $147 billion of the 10-year farm bill budget, will do little to grow new farmers. Programs that support organic transition, organic practices, specialty crops, direct farm-to-consumer markets and livestock processing facilities, however, could pay big dividends.
Two bills now in Congress would bring policies and resources to bear in support of beginning farmers and the development of local and regional food systems. The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act (S. 1773, H.R. 3286), introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, would support local and regional food producers, help us build a local and regional food system infrastructure and expand access to healthy local food for consumers - all at a cost of one-sixth of 1 percent of the total USDA budget.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (S. 1850, H.R. 3236), introduced by Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, provides the agricultural research, land ownership and operating credit, land and soil conservation and technical assistance necessary to get the next generation off to a good start.
You can help to ensure that both these bills are included in the 2012 Farm Bill by calling your senators and representatives and asking them to co-sponsor both bills.
For contact information, go to and type in your zip code, or call the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your senator's or representative's office. Together we must shift federal policy to benefit beginning farmers in New England so our diverse agriculture will have new generations of farmers like Brown-Lavoie and her sister Laura, true patriots and stewards of our New England lands.
Annette Higby, policy director for the New England Farmers Union, is collecting names of organizations and individuals who will support these two bills. Contact her at www.NewEnglandFarmersUnion.org.