Midwestern states are the second leading producers of crops and livestock behind California. But young farmers are leaving, put off by high land prices and startup costs
On a recent chilly afternoon, Natasha Hegmann, 28, and her husband, Pete Kerns, 27, tended the fire of a giant copper boiler holding some 250 gallons of maple sap. The sap had flowed into the boiler overnight through a series of pipes from nearby trees. Turning the gooey sap into syrup will take days.
A native Iowan, Hegmann worked at a number of local community farms before her and Kerns set up their own, Turkey River Farms, in 2015 to grow vegetables in warmer months and harvest maple sap during the winter. The couple thought about farming in other states but ultimately decided to stay in Iowa because of the support given by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a 32-year-old nonprofit that aims to attract new and young farmers to the field and teach them to grow food organically. The group offers workshops and a program that gives funds to match the money saved by new farmers over a period of time.
“PFI has been huge for us,” Hegmann says. “It’s actually part of the reason that we chose to settle and start our farm in Iowa.”
For decades, the midwest has boasted the highest concentration of farms in the US, and is also a crucial agricultural region, both for local food production and food that is exported. Today, midwestern states, particularly Iowa, are the second leading producers of crops and livestock behind California, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) census. This says a lot about the midwest’s potential for being the next sustainable food production hub in the US.
But here’s the trouble: statistically, young people just aren’t that into farming. In the most recent USDA agricultural census, new farmer numbers dropped by around 20% between 2007-2012, with the majority of farmers falling somewhere between the ages of 55-64, consistent with a 30-year trend. The culprits of this trend: a diminishing ability to subsist on farming income, an increase in debt needed to farm and general rural poverty.
Young people are leaving the midwest faster than anywhere else. “Farming is also not on the typical list of ‘hot’ careers for twenty-somethings, and the barriers to entry can seem daunting,” says Gary Adamkiewicz, assistant professor of Environmental Health and Exposure Disparities at Harvard University.
One of the biggest roadblocks for beginning farmers is land access. Land costs continue to climb and, despite the enormous land transference to come as older farmers retire – 70% of the nation’s farmland over the next two decades – most of it may not end up in the hands of willing young farmers but in the hands of property developers.
For farmers just cutting into the market, starting small, and wanting to grow sustainably, the odds are not great. Large farms have the scale, money and freedom to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to maximize yields. Organic farming, on the other hand, can be more profitable but takes more land to grow the same amount of food as conventional farming. Farmers are limited in the types of chemicals they can use to get rid of pests and nurture crops, and organic certification is long and expensive. The USDA requires farmers to demonstrate organic practices for three years before they can be certified – but farmers are not allowed to increase the prices of their products during this time to be on par with other organic produce.
Hannah Breckbill has faced these challenges. The 29-year-old owner of Humble Hands Harvest near Decorah, Iowa, runs a two-woman operation growing organic vegetable produce. “Access to capital is a lot harder with unconventional agriculture, but the capital needs are not a lot less,” she says. Her biggest challenge? Land. “I’ve been able to manage that through creative means, renting and borrowing from landowners who had a few acres to spare. Now I’m finally buying my own land, and that had to happen by creative means too: lots of people in my community gifting me with substantial amounts of money and capital.”
Breckbill says that she’s spent almost $100,000 on Humble Hands Harvest since starting the operation in 2013. Her first year required around $12,000 to run the farm on land she didn’t have to buy at the time. Later, the eight acres she is on now cost $40,000 – some was gifted, some was through a $20,000 loan from her uncle. Electricity cost a further $10,000 and the greenhouse a little over $8,000. Operating costs are roughly around $10,000 per year, not counting labor costs.
Fortunately for Breckbill and other young farmers in the midwest, organizations like PFI help relieve the burden. The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (Moses) is a nonprofit formed in 1999 that aims to help out farmers in the upper midwest with resources, workshops, and education on all sorts of farming-related subjects, from fieldwork to financial.
The nonprofit’s biggest contribution: an annual educational farming conference, held in Wisconsin. This year’s event, held in February, drew 3,100 attendants hailing from 49 different states and six foreign countries; 44% of them designated themselves as new or beginning farmers (in other words, farming less than ten years) – a rise from the 42% since 2016. Moses designates specific workshops for new farmers as part of its New Organic Stewards program, including education on topics from practical sustainable farming skills to financial tools.
There’s also the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), a Minnesota nonprofit that provides training workshops and courses throughout the state for new farmers, designed to help equip new farmers with business planning skills so they can then run their own profitable agricultural businesses.
According to LSP, farm startup costs tend to average around $60,000 (whether for livestock, a diversified crop of vegetables, or fruits) and may include greenhouses, electricity, coolers for food storage, tractors, equipment, fencing and more. Planting orchards or a mix of vegetables tends to have much higher startup costs, even when on smaller acreage; livestock is relatively lower, even on land close to 50 acres. However, this number does not include the price of land, which varies widely depending on location.
More than 600 farmers completed a beginner’s farming course in the first 16 years of the nonprofit’s initiative, according to LSP. There’s also a two-year mentorship program that pairs new farmers with established and profitable farms in the area. Breckbill happened to benefit from LSP’s programs. “I did my first business planning through LSP, and I continue to work with them,” she says.
The beginner’s farming course has even formed its own nationwide collaborative, spawning its own website and splinter programs that model the original program piece-for-piece in South Dakota, North Carolina, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.
To address the problem of land, an Iowa organization called Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, or Silt, was established 2014. Modeled closely after other land trusts around the country, the nonprofit protects land purchased or donated to the trust with conservation easements, which are legal agreements that prohibit the land from being developed for business use other than farming.
As a result of placing the land in conservation easement, its value is depreciated – due to it no longer being on the market for development – making it an affordable lease option for new farmers. Silt also helps with organic certification and doesn’t allow farmers to grow high cash conventional crops, such as corn for ethanol – just food. “We set a higher bar in our easements than almost any land trust,” says Suzan Erem, president of Silt.
Erem feels a sense of urgency about carrying out Silt’s mission. “We have a window of opportunity, but if young people don’t keep stepping up to do this labor intensive, somewhat risky form of farming, none of us will have any choices left.”
Adamkiewicz at Harvard agrees. “Last year, the USDA announced a series of initiatives aimed at cultivating the next generation of farmers, including mentoring and loan programs. We need more investments like these.
“We need to train this next generation who are trying to make a difference while dealing with some of the stresses already put on farmland by conventional agriculture.”
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