Shute outlines obstacles for young farmers

AFP Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Jan. 27, 2015) — Speaking to a room brimming with mostly young and beginning farmers, Lindsey Lusher Shute said she agrees with an opinion piece that ran in The New York Times last year that said “the dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living.”
That’s why Shute, who runs with her husband a 900-member CSA farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, cofounded the National Young Farmers Coalition in the first place.
The article, she said at a conference hosted by Future Harvest, a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, at the University of Maryland campus this month, “struck a nerve, because (the author’s) description characterizes us. We are struggling to make a living.”
For her farm, the struggle was finding a piece of affordable land close enough to the New York City market where her customers live.
She and her husband, Ben, started out growing produce on one acre rented from dairy farmers in their 80s whose children “had gone on to other things.”
She was glad to see the farmers, who became mentors to them, come around to support their brand of small-scale agriculture and preserve the land for agricultural uses.
But, when they put the land up for sale, Shute could not afford to buy it.
Afterward, the small farm moved on to rent 25 acres of “prime soil” from another farmer, continuing to look for long-term leases or opportunities to purchase farmland of their own.
But, “nothing in our town was under $1 million,” she said.
After attending a local agriculture conference in 2009 where many of the farmers shared their struggles, the Shutes cofounded the coalition to better voice their concerns on a national level.
Since then, the NYFC has grown to represent the interests of 50,000 supporters and 24 chapters in almost as many states.
The group has helped lobby for a USDA micro-lending program that supports small farmers and for conservation funding for farms to be included in the federal budget.
“As a coalition, we are finding success, but the challenges that the farmers are facing are real and they’re growing,” Shute said.
Shute said she is often asked why the coalition uses the term “young,” which could be taken as oversimplifying the demographics that comprise small-scale farmers.
She said the group uses a broad definition of youth: farmers who are under 35 or are farming as their “first career.”
That helps keep the group’s focus, she says, on ensuring that agriculture is a viable career path for someone just out of school.
Farming fresh out of school presents another obstacle that the national coalition is focused on tacking next: student debt.
The coalition is working to get farming considered not only as a viable career but also as a public service — one that might eventually merit student loan forgiveness from the federal government.
Shute said students who graduated in 2008 carried an average of $11,000 in debt.
For half of the students her organization surveyed, that number was closer to $25,000.
“The response I’ve gotten is, ‘I paid back my loans; why can’t you?’” Shute said. “I understand. But if we let (debt) get in the way, we will have very few farmers.”
The USDA estimates that 100,000 new farmers are needed for the current amount of farmland to smoothly transition into new hands.
And making that farmland affordable remains on the radar of the NYFC, too, Shute said.
Prices for farmland have been rising steadily since the 1980s and have nearly doubled over the last 15 years, especially near major cities, Shute said.
Programs that allow farmers to sell their development rights and preserve it for agricultural uses are great.
However, Shute says her group is working with land trusts across the country to make sure they don’t make that land unaffordable for the next generation.
“Affordable farmland, like farmers, is at the foundation of our food system,” she said.