At a recent benefit dinner inside Maude, a pint-size Beverly Hills eatery that is one of Los Angeles’s hottest tickets, celebrity chef Curtis Stone was extolling the virtues of a nonprofit. The National Young Farmer’s Coalition, which was raising funds from well-heeled guests, is an organization with an unlikely cause: debt relief for young farmers. When he was explaining why he supported it, the Top Chef Masters host explained that working with smaller farms meant being able to plan for specific seasonal items, build dishes around specific microclimates, and establish personal relationships with the farm owners—things that won't necessarily happen if it's too economically prohibitive to own a small farm.
"It’s a serious issue we’re faced with," Stone added. "If there are no younger farmers coming through, it’s pretty obvious what happens in the future."
By many metrics, the United States is running low on farmers. America’s farmer population skews considerably older than the general population, with an average age of 58—17 years older than the typical worker. In many farming families, children leave the traditional family vocation.
This mean many new farmers are what the Young Farmer’s Coalition calls "Farmers By Choice," who are the first in their family to farm. They face two major challenges: a sharp increase in land prices, and rapidly increasing student loan debt.
"Young farmers are facing barriers that weren’t faced by previous generations," Chelsey Simpson, the NYFC’s communications director, told Fast Company. "Farming used to be an inherited profession; even 50 years ago, you were a farmer because your parents and grandparents were farmers. Land was passed down from one generation to next, but the huge urbanization of America meant people left the farm. Now we see people taking up farming as a first-generation pursuit, who are not in a position to inherit land or have a lifetime behind them in running a farm. That's the challenge."
The Coalition's main project, which was discussed extensively at the Los Angeles event, is student-loan forgiveness for farmers. The organization is putting its weight behind legislation called the Young Farmer Success Act, which was introduced in 2015 by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT). If passed, the act would add farming to the list of professions currently eligible for student loan forgiveness, which include teaching, nursing, and student workers.
Currently, the federal government has a set of professions covered under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. People working in job categories on the list pay back their student loans for a decade at an income-based level; after 10 years working in the profession, their remaining debt is forgiven.
Additionally, the group is working on what they call "working to reduce the barriers" to FDA programs including farm loans, and promoting conservation easements that make it more affordable for farmers to find land to work on.
According to Simpson, one of the major issues facing younger farmers who don’t have family land is obtaining real estate to work on. A confluence of factors, ranging from rising residential demand for exurban property traditionally used for farming, to farmland being purchased for investment purposes, makes it more difficult to obtain land.
"Land access is a problem that’s an undercurrent to most other problems," she added. "Land prices are rising faster than in the past and getting much more expensive."
Another problem facing the NYFC’s constituency is the fact that their businesses are closely tied to cities. The rise of industrial agribusiness in the United States means it’s not financially viable for most younger farmers to raise mass-market cash crops. Instead, most younger farmers focus on selling their crops to restaurants, through direct marketing methods such as community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) programs, or in farmer’s markets to well-heeled urban and suburban buyers.
A farmer who attended the benefit dinner, Sarah Nolan of The Abundant Table outside Los Angeles, told Fast Company that one major issue her farm faces is a lack of affordable land. The Abundant Table is based in Ventura County, a traditionally rural region with a robust agricultural sector that’s seen a surge of residential development. Due to competition from real estate developers and other factors, Nolan says, it’s become harder and harder for farmers to purchase land.
In our conversation, Nolan, whose farm also qualifies as a 501c3 nonprofit due to its relationship with the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, noted that many young farmers are essentially small businesspeople with the added challenge of working the land to provide essential crops.
"I used to sell at several farmer’s markets in Los Angeles—big ones like Hollywood." Nolan said. "And it became so competitive that unless you sold at a couple of the major ones, there was no benefit to the trip to sell at farmers markets because there was so little money in it. So we started selling to school districts, through the farm-to-school program. We also run one of the largest CSAs in Ventura County."
She added that for small farmers, much of their job is on the business side where higher education is a plus. In order to thrive, small farms need to develop marketing methods like CSAs, build relationships with local restaurants, distributors, and retailers, and to establish market niches where they can thrive.
This means, for many farmers, being based close to the city. Land might be cheaper in out-of-the-way areas, but the customers who want to buy their products are closer to the city.
The NYFC hopes that their effort to have agricultural jobs reclassified will go through Congress, and that debt relief for farmers will be a reality. They argue that farmers are critical to the well-being of the United States—and that college debt programs should reflect that.